Another Journey to That Dark, Showtime Place
At some point in Showtime’s evolution as a network, it has changed from a home for original series that targeted a specific audience (Soul Food, Queer as Folk, The L Word) to dark series with an edge (Homeland, United States of Tara, The Big C) to specializing in series with a genuine sense of sketchiness to them, usually featuring in dark sex. It has moved a bit away from that direction, mainly with its dramas (Billions, The Affair) , but its comedies have a very dark edge to them. So it would be easy to look at SMILF, which centers around Bridget (Frankie Shaw) a twenty-ish mother in Southie (Boston) as just another series in the Californication/Weeds mold.
But this is different. For one thing, Shaw is the creator/writer of this series, which is based not only on a short film she designed, but also has an autobiographical flair. She is trying to raise her toddler son, co-parenting with her baby daddy Raffi (Miguel Gomez), who has also moved on to dating a local sportscaster named Nelson (Samara Weaving). The series also goes out of its way not to demonize the other woman, which is refreshing. She is trying to support herself and her son doing small acting jobs and tutoring richer kids (as she freely admits, this involves doing most of the work for them). It’s very clear that at some point Bridget saw so much more for herself — in addition to her education, she’s also an excellent pick-up basketball player. But now, she lives life on the fringes, spending time working for the family of a much more affluent student (Connie Britton does good work as the mother), and actually considering working in a similar field with her friend (Raven Goodwin) who is into a very specialized form of an internet porn. And there’s a certain tragic aspect to her life — almost in passing in the pilot, she mentioned that she was sexually abused by her father, and its clear that it affects her nearly as much as living in poverty does.
Now, because this is Showtime, there’s a level of skeeziness to this that seems obligatory She basically picks an old friend off the street to have sex with so she can see if she’s back to normal, she has sex with a former student of her, which leads to an interrupted ejaculation shot (ewww!!) and in the middle of looking for work at a temp agency, she has what amounts to a fantasy where she considers working in something ‘prostitution adjacent’. But there’s a certain level of humanity to this that has been severely lacking in so many similar Showtime series. At one point, desperate to earn money, she goes on Craigslist meets with a man who seems more desperate for companionship and conversation than deviant sex. They go into a convenience store and have a long conversation about the American Dream and dashed hopes that, frankly, wouldn’t have been out of place on a David Simon series. Of course, it climaxes with something much darker, and a more realized punch line, but there seemed more energy to it than I’m used to from a typical Showtime series.
SMILF is not a perfect series by any stretch of the imagination. I can definitely see ways that it could end up operating in the same wheelhouse where Shameless did for far too long. And it still hasn’t found a way to balance its cast very well. (Rosie O’Donnell plays Bridget’s mother, but still hasn’t been given enough to make a character yet.) But there’s enough good stuff there for the series to work a lot better than its title would suggest. Unfortunately, this is Showtime. A lot of series start with the perfect measure of darkness and comedy and flatten out very quickly. I hope for Frankie Shaw, and for Bridget, that this it not the case.
My score: 3.5 stars.