If you’ve heard about the Showtime series SMILF in recent weeks, it probably hasn’t been for good reasons.
In December, SMILF creator, star, and showrunner Frankie Shaw was accused of workplace misconduct, including inappropriate handling of sex scenes between two of her co-stars, Samara Weaving and Miguel Gomez. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Shaw insisted that video monitors be turned on during a sex scene between the actors, even though filming was supposed to take place on a closed set. Weaving asked to be released from her contract and has since left the series. ABC Studios, the production company behind the series, has said it is investigating the matter.
Consequently, the lead-up to the dramedy’s second, even more wry and observant season, which begins Sunday, has been dominated by discussion of the controversy, a rare #MeToo-related incident in which a woman has been accused of creating an uncomfortable work environment. In appearances earlier this week on the Today show and Late Night With Seth Meyers, Shaw didn’t address the specifics of the allegations nor directly apologize, but did say she appreciated the opportunity to learn lessons from her first showrunning job and do better moving forward.
I mention all of this because it will inevitably occupy some mental space while you watch the first five episodes of season two, which Showtime provided to critics ahead of Sunday’s premiere. In any context, it would be tough not to consider Shaw’s personal sexual attitudes when, in an episode she co-wrote and directed, her character, Bridgette, imagines a conversation with her father that morphs into a sexual encounter with a guy in a Harvey Weinstein mask. It’s even harder not to think about it in light of her alleged treatment of a female co-star. (Side note: A horror movie about a predator who wears a Harvey Weinstein mask would terrify every woman in America, and at least 90 percent of the men. I’m just sayin’, Jordan Peele.)
Within the context of the series, Bridgette is a damaged adult grappling with the demands of single motherhood, a limited income, a hot-and-cold relationship with her mom (played by Rosie O’Donnell), and her estrangement from the father who abused her as a child. Part of SMILF’s approach, in its first season as well as the second, is to highlight all these truths in ways that veer from authentic to fantastical to provocative. More often than not, that approach works: Season two has moments that are moving, raw, and imaginatively conceived. But sometimes, Shaw tries too aggressively to be edgy or darkly clever. The Weinstein evocations are one example of that. So is the decision to name every episode so that each spells out a different definition of the acronym SMILF: “Shit, Man, I’ve Literally Failed,” “Surrogate Mothers Inspire Loving Families,” etc.
Like Atlanta Robbin’ Season, SMILF season two doesn’t follow ongoing story lines so much as present a series of lightly linked episodes that share connective thematic tissue. One of those themes: the idea that every woman splits her time between existing in a not necessarily heartening reality, and figuring out a way to escape from it. The third episode, which revisits the events depicted in episode two from the perspective of three women who work for Bridgette’s boss, Ally (Connie Britton), captures that duality beautifully, showing us a nanny (Sisa Grey), a housekeeper (Numa Perrier), and a store clerk (Nhadya Salomon) who must put their personal lives on hold to cater to someone (Ally, primarily) whose life is nothing but leisure.
This should come as no surprise, but Britton is brilliant as Ally, the kind of woman who considers her life high-stress because she has to tell her staff what to do before she dashes off for a horseback ride. She’s both petulant and charming, nonchalant about her conspicuous consumption and desperate for genuine connection. She is every white lady who has ever cut in front of you at Whole Foods, offered a hasty but semi-sincere apology, then proceeded to gush about how it’s been a crazy day because the contractors remodeling the kitchen were late and she missed the first 15 minutes of power yoga. But underneath all that, Ally’s also sad and Britton makes you sense her loneliness, always, sitting like a heavy burden beneath her flitty surface. Britton is not in every episode, but I wish she were; she brings tremendous depth to a character that could easily have been a one-dimensional joke.
Episode four — a DryBar dream sequence that morphs into a fantasy involving a bachelorette party, a polo match, an homage to Pretty Woman, and sexy time with Kevin Bacon — is just as astute in its depiction of the power that stereotypical beauty ideals hold, even over women like Bridgette, who don’t generally obsess over such things. Shaw and her fellow writers have an attuned ear for the moments that spark connection in female relationships, and as a director of four of the initial five episodes, Shaw has developed a keener instinct about how to flow from the actual world to the imagined scenarios Bridgette conjures in her head.
While SMILF may be defined as a comedy, there are more genuinely dramatic moments in this season. Loss is another running theme, and it immediately rears its head in the first episode, affecting O’Donnell’s Tutu most of all. That’s another special performance: Tutu is a fretting, overbearing mother to Bridgette and grandmother to Bridgette’s son, Larry (Anna and Alexandra Reimer). When she experiences guilt for, in her mind, shirking her maternal duties, her anguish is appropriately uncomfortable and emotional to watch.
So much care has been taken to develop these other characters that Bridgette feels like more of a blank slate this season. That’s partly because she has lost her sense of purpose and has distanced herself from others, but also because the season takes some of the weightier material away from Shaw, as an actress, at least for the time being. In a way, especially because of episodes like that third one, SMILF feels a little more like an ensemble piece than a series strictly focused on one woman.
The episodes I’ve seen in season two are all good, and they get better as they go along, with the episode-five flashback to Bridgette giving birth, with help from a doula played by Ally Sheedy, serving as a real stand-out. (Also making a cameo appearance in that episode: Stormy Daniels.) It’s ironic that Shaw has been accused of not respecting another woman’s boundaries when, more than anything else, SMILF excels at capturing the intimate exchanges between women, including the moment when Tutu and Bridgette sit side by side, finally at a détente in their battle over how to bring the baby into the world, because he’s here now and they both know that’s all that matters.
SMILF lets us see the private, sometimes dark sides of Bridgette and its other female characters, and honors their experiences simply by putting their desires and disappointments on display. As a viewer, I appreciate that. But for now, because of what may have happened behind the scenes, there’s an asterisk attached to that appreciation.