Frankie Shaw and the sad end to a good show
There is room for ambiguity in the story of The Affair. There is far less room for doubt in the story of Frankie Shaw and SMILF, which happened roughly the same time on the same network.
From the moment it debuted it debuted in the fall of 2017, SMILF actually seemed the rare high value property that would live up to its name. Based on short film written and directed by series creator Frankie Shaw, the series dealt with Bridgette Bird (Shaw) an early twenty-ish single mother, living on the poverty line trying to raise her toddler son in a very complicated relationship. She worked several jobs, including as an au pair for a very wealthy woman (Connie Britton), tried to balance her life with her baby’s father, a recovering drug addict who was in the middle of a relationship of his own with the upper class Nelson (Samara Weaving). She had a complicated relationship with her very depressed mother (Rosie O’Donnell did some of her best work in a very long time) and was dealing with the issue of having been molested as a child.
The series was extremely messy but occasionally brilliant in its first season and Showtime renewed it for a second. In my opinion, it actually got better that year, dealing with some very ambitious experimental production that at times was nearly as good as some of the more ambitious comedies — I compared it in a review to Atlanta, Donald Glover’s masterwork, and while it never reached that level, I thought it could’ve. Then halfway through the second season, Showtime announced it was cancelling the series.
At the time, I was appalled at their actions; I was unable to comprehend why the network would burn their bridges with a project this highly favored. Then a few months later, I got the whole story. Shaw served as the writer and director of nearly every episode, and while filming, several cast members including Weaving, accused Shaw of openly body shaming them before the cast and crew. Considering the nature of the violations (and probably the fact that the network was dealing with the fallout of what was happening on The Affair) I believe Showtime made the correct call.
Can women showrunners be as toxic as men? Admittedly to date, the sample size is still too small to make a clear assessment. Network bigwigs like Tina Fey and Shonda Rhimes have, as far as I’m aware, never had problems like this after decades of multiple series. And to their credit, other female showrunners when forced to deal with a cast member whose behavior has been offensive — I’m thinking of Jill Soloway on Transparent and Lena Waithe on The Chi — have removed the actors from the series, though it could be vitally damaging to the stories they had been telling. (Soloway had to abruptly end Transparent and Waithe had to have a character who was ostensibly the most important killed off last season.) It’s hard to imagine some male showrunners or executives making the decision that quickly. On the other hand, we do know that some personalities are unpleasant to everybody — Roseanne was a nightmare to work with throughout her original run in the 1990s and she crossed so many lines when her series were revived, that ABC to their credit was willing to have her removed, damn the cost.
As the entertainment industry continues to make the long march to equality, there are bound to be flawed and toxic female writers and directors as much as there are male ones. God knows, every day we seem to learn about just horrible another icon is. But it is important that we can’t expect a woman to be perfect at her job just because she is a woman. If there are male showrunners who can be horrible to work for, there have to be some female ones as well. That is one of the ways we know what equality looks like.