In episode three of SMILF, Bridgette Bird has run out of money on her bus pass and pleads with the driver, “I’m a single mom!”, only to receive the deadpan response, “I am too. Bye.”
Sitting somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram made up of Girls, Catastrophe, Fleabag, Motherhood and Insecure, SMILF is a half-hour US comedy that premiered on Showtime back in November. But it has one major distinction: unlike those shows, which exist under a light gloss of comfortable wealth, the world of SMILF is resolutely broke. Bridgette lives in one room in run-down south Boston, shares a bed with her two-year-old son, Larry, and is terrified that her vagina has been ruined by childbirth. But if that sounds grim, creator and star Frankie Shaw is absolutely dedicated to finding humour and empathy in her characters; it’s almost as if SMILF is propelled by the mantra “you have to laugh, or you’ll cry”.
And it is slightly annoying for a couple of reasons. Firstly... that name. It stands for Single Mother I’d Like To Fuck. Ugh. But if we learnt anything from the delightful British comedy Lovesick becoming a Netflix success after starting life called Scrotal Recall, it’s not to judge a show by its misjudged title. And of that name, Shaw has said, “There's no real room for a woman's existence in the word MILF. By getting inside her life experience, we are in a sense changing the meaning, reclaiming it.”
The other annoyance was that it has taken a while to make its way (legally) across the Atlantic, meaning the buzz it deserves hasn’t materialised over here yet, but it’s a word-of-mouth gem that has already been granted a second series, so it’s time to get with the programme.
Shaw was a vaguely familiar face on US television, having had acting roles in Mr Robot and Good Girls Revolt, but SMILF is her own creation in which she writes, directs and stars. It is also partly autobiographical: Shaw also grew up in Boston and experienced single motherhood at a young age, with next to nothing in her bank account.
Although Shaw and her work will get compared to the likes of Lena Dunham, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Issa Rae, SMILF has more in common with Donald Glover’s Atlanta – snippets of semi-autobiography, genuine poverty and an entirely authentic self-contained world that occasionally spirals into surrealism.
It’s almost as if SMILF is propelled by the mantra 'you have to laugh, or you’ll cry'
SMILF is smart because it doesn’t do what you expect. This isn’t a demographic we see often in television, especially in such a high-concept show that serves as a valid socio-economic commentary as well as being artistically ambitious, straddling gritty reality and some truly bizarre surrealism.
At a time when Roseanne has returned to the small screen, supporting Trump and showcasing an America that liberals forgot, Shaw has a more nuanced take on the US working class. For example, Rafi, the father of Bridgette’s son, isn’t a thorn in her side. He’s a sweet guy, recovering from addiction, who stops by every bedtime to kiss Larry goodnight. The two aren’t together romantically anymore, but they genuinely love each other and get along, through the smooth sailing and choppy waters of parenting alike.
In all TV shows, characters are struggling in one way or another, but usually there is one clear, main conflict. In SMILF, every character is fighting multiple battles. Bridgette’s single motherhood is at the forefront, but not so very far behind is her constant scrabbling to make her rent and afford food, her childhood sexual abuse, an ongoing recovery from bulimia and the shadow of failing to achieve her high-school potential. But Bridgette’s acceptance that motherhood has stunted her personhood nevers boils into resentment and her relationship with her (impossibly cute) toddler son is completely charming.
This is television that solidly maintains a female gaze, almost entirely written and directed by women, who are also at the heart of the show’s narrative. Bridgette’s difficult but loveable mother Colleen is played heartbreakingly by Rosie O’Donnell, while Connie Britton, of Friday Night Lights, Nashville and majestic hair fame, turns in a delightfully unhinged performance as Ally, the impossibly wealthy and deeply unhappy woman whose kids Bridgette tutors.
Most of all, SMILF is whip-smart. The show includes a hilarious surreal fantasy of people queuing up to worship Bridgette’s vagina and also delivers a season finale that opens with, and then deliciously dismantles, a Woody Allen quote over the course of a single, thunderous episode.
SMILF doesn’t answer all of your questions as a viewer and it doesn’t need to. We don’t find out exactly what was going on for Bridgette when she got pregnant, what her pregnancy was like or how she coped taking the first steps into motherhood. What we do see is that, although her life has stagnated in more ways than one, she is not giving up.
Bridgette Bird is just about hanging on to things, and you have no choice but to hang on in there with her.
SMILF is available to stream on Sky and NOW TV