Being a single woman is certainly nothing new on TV, unless you’re so old you’ve forgotten about “That Girl” or you’re consciously blocking out the idiocy that was “2 Broke Girls” and the adorability outbreak that was “New Girl.”
But a few recent shows, the best of which are “Insecure,” “Fleabag,” “Better Things,” and, returning on Sunday at 10:30 p.m., Showtime’s “SMILF,” have succeeded in pushing the old single-and-dating-as-a-woman concept to a deeper level of intimacy. Two of them — “Better Things” and “SMILF” — up the ante further by making those single women mothers. We follow all these women from the barroom to the bedroom to the bathroom, and we’re privy to their identity quests, their takes on culturally bred gender games, and their feelings before, during, and after sex. The shows aren’t coy in the least; Honesty is their virtue.
“SMILF” premiered in 2017, and it added a new element: poverty. Created and sometimes written by Frankie Shaw, who is originally from the Boston area, “SMILF” gives us a heroine — Shaw’s Bridgette Bird — who can barely afford the grimy studio apartment in Southie that she rents for herself and her son (who is, naturally, named Larry). She’s lonely, impulsive, bulimic, and always screwing up, and she is only just beginning to deal with the emotional fallout of being sexually abused as a child. Her baby daddy, Rafi (Miguel Gomez), helps out with Larry, but he’s in love with someone else, Nelson (Samara Weaving). Her mother, Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell), the other person in her support system, helps out, too, but Tutu suffers from bouts of mental illness. Throughout, Bridgette wants to fall in love or at least have sex, but she has a habit of getting in her own way.
The first season of “SMILF” was promising; it offered richly drawn characters — not least of all the chaotic, defiant Bridgette — drifting in a too-loose narrative, and the tonal shifts were jarring. The second season, however, is a great improvement, with some of the warmth and cohesion that were missing. Shaw and her team seem to be more aware of the themes in play, more deliberate in building the episodes toward emotional peaks instead of letting them float in place as raw, envelope-pushing non sequiturs. They open up the world of the show, by going backward for flashbacks and by adding new side characters. In a sign of confidence, Shaw includes at least one episode in which she doesn’t appear at all, as we see how Bridgette’s boss, Ally (Connie Britton), manipulates other women who work for her. Changes in Tutu’s life also better the show, particularly the inclusion of her sister, Jackie, played by Sherie Rene Scott. By making Tutu more than a depression cliché this season, Shaw makes her easier to watch.
Shaw has also found a way to make Ally — with Britton shining as a materialistic brat — into an integral part of the show, rather than a random bright spot. In one scene, Ally self-pityingly refers to herself as a single mother since her husband is MIA, and you can’t help but compare her life to Bridgette’s. She can afford tons of domestic help and, in the same episode, a $23,000 Birkin handbag, while Bridgette is barely scraping by. Britton is occasionally ha-ha funny, and so is Bridgette’s friend Eliza (Raven Goodwin), who pops some pot edibles before a funeral in the season premiere. In one scene, Bridgette desperately has to pee, but the path to the bathroom turns into an amusing obstacle course. But most of the humor in “SMILF” is ironic, and bitingly so.
In December, The Hollywood Reporter disclosed that Shaw had been hit with allegations of abusive behavior on the set of season two. After an investigation, the production company, ABC Studios, concluded there was no wrongdoing on Shaw’s part, and Shaw is promising to learn from the complaints. Let’s hope that’s the case; “SMILF” is becoming one of the most distinctive, specific, and authentic portraits of a single mother on TV.
Starring: Frankie Shaw, Rosie O’Donnell, Miguel Gomez, Samara Weaving, Connie Britton, Sherie Rene Scott, Raven Goodwin
On: Showtime, Sunday at 10:30 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.