Motherhood is messy. Single motherhood in your 20s is messier. Add to that poverty, co-parenting with an unemployed ex and dreams of making it as an actress – in South Boston – and you have the basic ingredients of “SMILF.”
Showtime’s half-hour comedy drama, created, written by and starring Frankie Shaw, goes where most series television doesn’t care to venture: the lower end of the U.S. economic strata. It’s a place that used to be called the working class, but now, a lot of that class is out of work.
The show, which premieres Sunday, is a candid, funny and raw take on how socio-economics and gender affect opportunity, and boy does life at the bottom look different from a female perspective.
The system may be broken, but it was never designed for a single mother like Bridgette Bird (Shaw) in the first place. She’s a smart, Catholic-school-educated Boston native raising her toddler son Larry alone, in a shabby one room apartment, with sporadic help from her unemployed baby daddy, Rafi (Miguel Gomez).
Motherhood came before achieving much else in life, such as honing employable skills or conquering her other vague dream of playing in the WNBA. Now there’s no time for anything other than survival, and maybe trying to find another man. Sweatpants, hairbands and snack foods are Bridgette’s version of clothed, groomed and fed.
If you’re already demoralized, don’t watch “SMILF” when it premieres right after “Shameless” – another show you’re probably not watching if dysfunctional-blue-collar-family entertainment is not your bag. But if you’re predisposed to finding humor and humanity in the depths of desperation, “SMILF” delivers with crass wit, sharp insight and empathy.
Each episode starts with a thematic quote: “That’s why they call it the American dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it” – George Carlin, or “There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse” – Old Irish proverb.
The situations that follow live up to those black pearls of wisdom. At her part-time job as a tutor for the children of a wealthy, self-centered, stay-at-home mom (Connie Britton), Bridgette writes the essays that get the kids into Harvard, but she’s the one who ends up walking home because her bus pass is out of funds.
And when she does land an acting gig for a PSA on PTSD, the young male director orders her to stand under a shower and look traumatized but sexy. It’s OK to let your shirt slip off, he says, as the male crew ogle in anticipation. Total payment for the job: $26.
Objectification is a theme in “SMILF” that’s explored through most every character in the show’s mainly female cast, a construct that echoes some of the aspects that made the candid and brilliant “Insecure” such a successful anomaly.
But it’s Bridgette’s mom, played by Rosie O’Donnell, who anchors the show. It needs the gravitas of her character because “SMILF” can often be as flippant and snarky as its title suggests.
O’Donnell’s performance as the gruff-but-loving parent who struggles with what appears to be deep depression (it’s not clear in the first three episodes available for review) is phenomenal. She is the embodiment of a mom who sees how she could have done things better, as she makes some of the very same mistakes with her grandson. She exudes dashed expectations and a life not thoroughly lived, through little more than the way she pushes her shopping cart down the aisle, or how she absent-mindedly chops mushrooms for her spaghetti sauce.
The casual conversation she has at the big-box store with Bridgette, or at the kitchen table over a box of Dunkies, adds an authenticity and heart here that is absent in some of the other bitingly funny but shallow scenarios between other characters.
The downside of “SMILF” is that a lot is inferred here rather than explained. Like its main character, the show buries the heavy stuff under sardonic humor, moving quickly from bad situation to bad situation, avoiding deeper exploration of what got her there.
For instance, Bridgette alludes to being abused by her father, and attends a support group for binge-eating, but we get more running jokes than background on how and why these things happened.
The series, based on Shaw’s 2015 Sundance Film Fest Short Film Jury Award winner, does offer one indisputable truth about Bridgette: she loves her baby, even though she sometimes resents the rigors of motherhood. The moments with them in the bathtub, in bed, and even at casting calls together are the sweetness and light that makes “SMILF” — and motherhood — a bittersweet affair.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)