Showrunner is an esteemed if unofficial title in the television business. It's the person who serves as a show's executive producer, wielding creative control of the writing and production processes. The casual designation of the position shouldn't detract from its power or, as Frankie Shaw has discovered on her series SMILF, its many demands.
"The job of showrunning is that of having to do a million things and answering a million questions, especially if you're doing two phases of the job at once," Shaw says. "I'm deep in post-production on this season, and at the same time I'm meeting writers to start up the room for the next season in January."
Being pulled one way and then another – Shaw is speaking as she drives to the editing suite where the second season of SMILF is being completed – is a recurring idea on her show. Set in South Boston, where the accents match the area's many gangster films but the everyday realities don't, it's the story of a working class single mother, Shaw's Bridgette Bird, trying to raise her baby son, find financial security, deal with her combustible mother (Rosie O'Donnell's Tutu), and figure out if she's ever going to have sex again.
Created by Shaw, who as well as writing and starring in the show directed several episodes, SMILF was a critical success when it made its debut late in 2017. The humour was telling not for its directness, but the attitudes and situations it revealed, and at any moment bittersweet realisations could rear up out of anarchic diversions or hopeful fantasies. Like Louis or Atlanta it stretched the half hour comedy into an unexpected form, but was viewed through a distinctly female lens.
For Shaw, who was born in South Boston and spent years as a struggling actress and budding filmmaker trying to nurture her career while raising her now 10-year-old son, SMILF was vindication. Having made short films, including a prototype for SMILF in 2014, and been part of the supporting cast in series such as Mr. Robot, she had a foothold in the television industry she valued deeply.
"It's a year-round job and I'm the one that has to be there every step of the way," Shaw says. "But I love it, there's really nothing I'd rather be doing."
That enthusiasm should have rolled smoothly into the debut of the second season of SMILF, which begins in Australia on January 21 on Stan, but last month (10 days after this interview) trade journal The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Shaw and the show faced allegations of professional misconduct and inappropriate production practices.
The Australian actress Samara Weaving, who played Nelson Rose, the new girlfriend of Rafi (Miguel Gomez), the father of Bridgette's child, was reported to be quitting the show due to her unhappiness with how sex scenes were prepared and the breaking of closed set rules via the use of video monitors. There were also claims that the writing staff has been divided up for assignments by race.
"I work daily to create an environment in which everyone should feel safe, and in which I can continue to grow as a leader and manager," Shaw replied via an initial statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "I am now and always have been open to hearing and addressing all concerns and issues that fall within my control."
While the allegations are now under investigation, they hit harshly because Shaw had previously been celebrated for joining the still under-represented ranks of female showrunners. At a point where the Time's Up movement had brought to light sexual misconduct that reached to the very peak of the television business with the resignation of CBS Corporation chairman and CEO Les Moonves, it was a reminder that anyone in a position of power could potentially err.
Shaw has also been vocal about how she wants to help women and people of colour progress behind the camera. All the directors on the first season of SMILF were female, while Shaw instructed her departments to make sure their staff were evenly divided by gender and racially diverse.
On screen the second season of SMILF reveals the growing creative fluidity that Shaw wields. There's a stronger visual aesthetic to Bridgette's travails, while the writing continues to capture a tone that Shaw has made her signature: incisive and elastic.
"I don't think initially I was self-aware of what I was doing tonally, but riding that line emotionally – the surreal, the emotional, and the sarcasm – is what I'm drawn to," Shaw says. "It starts from a place of honesty with the characters, then you find the funny. With this show you can't start with the jokes – the comedy has to come from the truth of the situation."
Whatever does or doesn't happen to Shaw, whose career is burgeoning with possible new shows and acting roles, Bridgette Bird remains one of the most fascinating characters on television: a woman dealing with casual inequality and her own history of sexual trauma in a way that is frank and insightful.
"She's a truly optimistic character, so that had to remain," Shaw says. "I asked the writers' room the question: if we have something that feels essential to our identity and it's taken away, how do you negotiate with that? The themes were identity and the masks we wear. When things are ripped apart or taken away to reveal a deeper layer, what do you find?"
WHEN Streaming on Stan from Monday, January 21
Craig Mathieson has been the film critic for The Sunday Age since March 2012, having previously held the same position for Rolling Stone and The Bulletin. The former magazine editor writes widely on film, music and television, and is still able to quote sizeable chunks of the dialogue from Michael Mann's Heat.