It’s an auspicious moment to be a young writer-director-producer-
actor with a vision. Hyphenates such as Donald Glover, Pamela Adlon, Louie C.K., and Aziz Ansari have pushed scripted TV forward a step or two in recent years with their intimate, indie-styled comedy-dramas — respectively, “Atlanta,” “Better Things,” “Louie,” and “Master of None.” Each one of these shows, along with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi,” and Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” offers a lovely glimpse of specific characters, the rigors large and small of their daily lives, and their very human natures.
So hyphenate Frankie Shaw, originally from Boston, enters the genre in its heyday with her new Showtime series, “SMILF.” The regrettable title — the “S” is for single, or perhaps Southie — suggests a broad comedy on the order of, say, “Cougar Town.” But the show, which premieres Sunday at 10, aims to be a frank look at the struggles of single motherhood in South Boston, as Shaw’s Bridgette Bird raises her young son, Larry (of course), with only occasional help from the boy’s father, her ex, Rafi (Miguel Gomez). It also takes on Bridgette’s sex life or lack thereof, her role as the daughter of the depressive Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell), her job as a tutor to the entitled kids of the wealthy Ally (Connie Britton), and her serious money woes.
Bridgette is living out a very different kind of single motherhood than the financially secure Sam in “Better Things.” She has an apartment in Southie, but she can barely pay her rent, leading her to keep the adult son of her landlord at bay with a weed bribe. She’s impulsive, making bad decisions at every desperate turn, and yet she’s smart enough to want to help herself. We learn that she was sexually abused by her father, who isn’t around — more on that later in the series, I hope — and she has binge-eating problems that lead her to Overeaters Anonymous meetings on occasion. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s a potentially engaging and emotionally raw picture — “potentially” being the important word here.
Showtime made three episodes of “SMILF” available for review, and the show improved with each one. The premiere is tonally all over the place — it’s hard to know which of Bridgette’s mistakes are meant to be funny, and which speak of tragedy. Also, it too self-consciously tries to bring us into Bridgette’s tumbledown world, almost in the way network pilots come on too strongly. She binges on junk food, she masturbates, she tries to have sex with a man while her son is in the same bed — it’s all too much, as are O’Donnell’s intermittent efforts to cover her Long Island accent. I was not convinced that Bridgette is interestingly complex enough to draw me into her world, to get me to care enough to invest. Clearly she’s a fierce risk-taker, but what else is in there? Britton is funny and depressing at the same time as a miserable socialite, and Gomez is appealing as the newly sober ex who gets along well with Bridgette, but they are side characters. Bridgette needs to be the hook.
But then, in episode three, Shaw seems to find her footing, and I found myself thinking that “SMILF” could develop a “Shameless”-like charm. There are a few gems in the half-hour, including a little moment when Bridgette kills a roach with a vision board and a brief fantasy in which she imagines becoming a prostitute. We learn that Bridgette dreams of being a professional basketball player, but we see that reality drives her to meet up with a man offering $300 on Craigslist just to look at her face. Their encounter is powerfully written and acted, and it ends in a place that tells us more about Bridgette than anything we’ve seen to that point. That’s the character I want to follow, the one who isn’t just a scrappy survivor, but the one who is sitting on a tinder box of vulnerability and desire.
Starring: Frankie Shaw, Rosie O’Donnell, Miguel Gomez, Samara Weaving, Connie Britton
On: Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.