Everybody’s a critic, right? This past week, City Councilor Ed Flynn — whose district includes South Boston — made noise on Facebook about the Showtime comedy-drama “SMILF.” In short, he doesn’t like the Southie-set show one bit. Like any good critic, he hasn’t seen it, but he has been told by his constituents that it is “unwatchable,” “degrading,” and “crude,” and therefore it must be so.
When I first caught wind of Flynn’s decision to give “SMILF” a rating of negative-five stars, along with his request that the City of Boston remove ads for it from local bus shelters, I assumed he was objecting to the title. “SMILF” derives from MILF, an acronym that includes an expletive; Google it. The phrase MILF went mainstream in the 1990s, largely thanks to its use in the movie “American Pie”; here, the “S” stands for single.
But Flynn was not taking a stance against the name. If he had been, I’d have been inclined to agree with him. “SMILF” is a really awful title that smacks of gimmickry and attention getting. It carries porn connotations and it implies that the show is some kind of broad, sexed-up satire, which it definitely is not. It’s a title that a rebellious teen dying to get in trouble would select, in an effort to put mom and dad in a rage. I felt the same way about the network title “Cougar Town,” which distracted from an otherwise decent sitcom. No, it actually was not about older women preying on young men who look like boy band singers.
But Flynn took on the content of “SMILF,” which was created, written, and directed by Frankie Shaw, who grew up in the Boston area. Censor much? If I don’t like a show (one that I’ve in fact watched), can I just call it “unwatchable” or “degrading” or, say, “fake,” and fairly demand that it stop its advertising campaign?
From my point of view, “SMILF” is actually pretty good. The first season got off to a shaky, tonally inconsistent start, a common problem on TV series in their first episodes. And, as the depressive mother of Shaw’s character, Rosie O’Donnell and her Long Island accent never quite fit in. But otherwise, the eight episodes of the first season of the show are promising, as it pursues single motherhood in a way I’ve never seen before on TV. Some call it “crude,” I call it frank. Shaw is making an extremely personal, intimate series, in the manner of recent comedy-dramas such as Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things,” and Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” which some probably consider crude, too.
I suppose it’s uncomfortable to think that there are women like Shaw’s Bridgette Bird right here in South Boston, women who are struggling to make ends meet. She lives in a tiny apartment with her 2-year-old son, Larry, and she works as a part-time nanny and tutor. At one point, she agrees to meet a strange man from Craigslist, who says he will pay her $300 just to look at her face; her desperation is not pretty. The two meet in a powerful scene at a brightly lit grocery store that reminds us of the depth of Bridgette’s despair.
“Better Things” — about a well-to-do mother and her three challenging daughters — also goes deep on single motherhood, and the toll it takes on everyone in the family, but not with this kind of brutal realism. Bridgette can be funny and sly, but she can’t escape the fact that she is barely able to pay the rent, fending off the landlord’s son with weed. She is a member of the working poor, wondering how she’ll find the time to get her son to the free health clinic. Her ex and Larry’s father, Rafi, is helpful, but it’s not enough.
A victim of early sexual assault who has an eating disorder that brings her to Overeaters Anonymous meetings, Bridgette is also seriously lonely, and that’s hard to watch sometimes, too. At one point, she hooks up with her boss’s son, a thoroughly inappropriate liaison. Could that be what Flynn’s constituents — or, should I say, his more vocal constituents — find “degrading”? Or is it the fact that she masturbates, sometimes to men, sometimes to women? Hard to know. The bluntness of the series is its greatest strength — “SMILF” isn’t coy or indirect as it delivers its difficult portrait. Bluntness is also a quality that Bridgette has in spades.
Ultimately, Bridgette is remarkably resilient. She rolls with the punches, no matter how weary she may be. The show is a celebration of her ability to survive, in spite of all the crudeness and degradation in her life. In his Facebook post, Flynn complains about Hollywood profiting from “shows that in no way capture the real lives, character and contributions of the people of South Boston.” It’s the kind of denial and disapproval that would probably make Bridgette roll her eyes.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.