Frankie Shaw's SMILF is Smart, Messy, Intelligent, Life-affirming and Funny
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Frankie Shaw's SMILF is Smart, Messy, Intelligent, Life-affirming and Funny

Both because of what happens on screen and what allegedly happened off, it is impossible to watch Frankie Shaw's inventive, challenging and frequently brilliant dramedy SMILF (Stan, new episodes Mondays) without reference to the buzzword "intersectionality".

SMILF is the story of Bridgette Bird (Shaw), a single mother from a working-class Irish Catholic background in hardscrabble (but rapidly gentrifying) South Boston. At the show's outset, she hasn't had sex since the birth of her two-year-old. She also has an eating disorder, her PTSD response, she blithely self-diagnoses, to being sexually abused by her father when she was seven.

Bridgette's life is as messy as the one-room apartment she shares with her infant son Larry (played, in fact, by twin sisters Anna and Alexandra Reimer), and her efforts to tidy it up usually fail due to flagrant acts of self-sabotage.

As a character, she is terrific and relatable; as a role-model, maybe not so much.

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Season one had a dramatic through-line that culminated in Bridgette attempting to track down her father-abuser, ending in a Tinder "date" and a teary j’accuse; it opened with title cards, quote, and music echoing Woody Allen's Manhattan. Join the dots, people.

Frankie Shaw, the creator, star and showrunner of SMILF.

Frankie Shaw, the creator, star and showrunner of SMILF.Credit:Tony Luong/New York Times

Season two plays with the titular acronym (Single Mom I'd Like to F---) with variations that serve as episode titles (here's one they don't use, but I will: Smart, Messy, Inventive, Life-affirming and Funny). It's less overtly comedic than season one, but more thematically ambitious. There's a whole episode devoted, Roma-style, to the staff of Ally (Connie Britton), a spoiled, lonely, depressed and secretly lesbian housewife whose kids Bridgette tutors. Another is an extended dream sequence modelled on Pretty Woman; a third (which I haven't yet seen, because it's still in the editing suite) is structured as a feminist Western.

Though Shaw is the undisputed focus of the series – which is based on a 2015 short film of the same name that she wrote, directed and starred in – she has able support in Rosie O'Donnell, magnificent as Bridgette's mother Colleen (aka Tutu), who is bipolar. Raven Goodwin is also terrific as Eliza, the best friend Bridgette met in an eating-disorders support group. Confounding easy stereotypes, the black Eliza is supported by a wealthy father, and more or less at ease with her obesity.

Samara Weaving plays Nelson Rose and Raven Goodwin is Eliza.

Samara Weaving plays Nelson Rose and Raven Goodwin is Eliza.Credit:Stan

As Nelson Rose, the girlfriend of Larry's father Rafi (Miguel Gomez), Australian actor Samara Weaving is, I suspect, channelling her compatriot Teresa Palmer; Palmer is in real life married to actor-director Mark Webber, the father of Shaw's real life 11-year-old son. It's not an altogether flattering portrait, but it's not entirely cruel either – not cruel enough, anyway, to prevent Webber appearing in the recurring role of a priest (he and Palmer also scored thank-yous in the credits to the 2015 short film, so things are presumably not too prickly between them).

But all this overlapping of real life and fiction turned a little less cosy in December when Shaw was accused of "unprofessional" behaviour in the handling of sex scenes involving Weaving and Gomez. As a result, Weaving has reportedly been released from her contract – which included a no-nudity clause – and will not appear in the event a third season of the show is ordered by ABC Studios in America.

Miguel Gomez as Rafi, Alexandra and Anna Reimer as Larry, Rosie O'Donnell as Tutu.

Miguel Gomez as Rafi, Alexandra and Anna Reimer as Larry, Rosie O'Donnell as Tutu.Credit:Stan

In those reports, Shaw was also accused of segregating writers on the basis of race. No formal complaints were filed, but ABC is reportedly still investigating.

Whatever the eventual findings, it would be a great shame if Shaw's alleged failings as a manager were to overshadow her undeniable achievements as a creator.

She claims the set of SMILF was a genuinely "intersectional workplace in which more than a third of writers were women of colour". She also claims almost half the people employed on the show were women.

None of which is in itself reason to watch SMILF. But the fact it is  an unusually inventive, empathetic and funny show about some of the more marginalised people in society just might be.

Follow the author on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlquinn.

Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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