‘SMILF’ Creator Frankie Shaw on Bridgette’s Hoop Dreams, Dealing With Trauma and Running Her First Series

Frankie Shaw as Bridgette Bird in SMILF (Season 1, Episode 3). - Photo Credit: Dana Starbard/SHOWTIME. - Photo ID: SMILF_103_0472.R.jpg
Dana Starbard

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Half a Sheet Cake and a Blue-Raspberry Slushie,” the Nov. 19 episode of “SMILF.”

As the creator, writer, producer, director and star of Showtime comedy “SMILF,” Frankie Shaw has a very specific story she wants to tell and a very specific vision for the character she has based on herself. But she isn’t single-minded. So when storylines about her character of Bridgette chasing acting dreams weren’t working out the way she’d hoped, she decided to forgo them, pivoting the story to a completely different industry — but not entirely different commentary.

“There are so many great shows out there about performers – and those are some of my favorite shows – but I was just feeling bored thinking about writing it,” Shaw admits to Variety. “So I thought, ‘What else would she want? She’d want to be in the WNBA.’ Because that was my dream. I have a tattoo of a basketball on my body. That was my solace growing up.”

In the third episode, Bridgette learns about a new team forming and gets excited about something for the first time in a long time. She promptly buys herself a new basketball, and the episode ends with her excitedly dribbling down a Boston street. But that does not mean her dream will be realized immediately.

Here, Shaw talks with Variety about the challenges still in store for Bridgette, the deeper issues for all of her female characters, and how it feels to run her first show.

There is a great saying about “what is most personal is most universal.” Do you find that to be true with “SMILF”?

I think it’s like if you tell something in an honest way, people will relate to it. I remember when I was editing the pilot, for example, we were long on time, and one of the producers wrote me an email, “What if you cut the scene where she’s masturbating to the girlfriend?” And my assistant editor started crying, “I did that. When my husband cheated, I did that, you can’t cut it!” And I was never going to because it’s those weird moments behind closed doors that I feel like when you reach somebody.

Bridgette going after a basketball dream is a great example of that. What kind of commentary on the sports world are you hoping to make with this story?

I spent every afternoon at the park playing full court streetball. That was a big part of my life, and the thing that came up as I was writing it was that I honestly thought, when I was maybe 12 or 13, that basketball was going to get me out of my circumstance, but that is not a reality really for most people and definitely not for little white girls. I would go and watch the Celtics practice, and I thought I was going to marry Dana Barros. But it’s not like being a Celtic was a reality for me, even just based solely on my gender. So it just struck me as being funny that I really thought that was going to get me out. It’s impossible. Even with the WNBA, the WNBA players make $100,000, let’s say, and the average NBA player makes $7 million.

Will the show comment on that kind of gender inequality, or is it still too early in Bridgette’s dream?

We do go there a little bit, and we will go there further. It’s also paired with the idea that she’s a 28-year-old single mom with a toddler. She has no money, so is it a place of privilege to have dreams? Can mothers pursue their dreams, or is it delusional? That’s the theme of ambition and opportunity within her circumstance.

That has come up as a theme for Ally (Connie Britton), too, when she revealed she used to be a lawyer. Are you diving deeper into her character in future episodes?

Yeah, I’m really interested in all of the ways in which motherhood oppresses you! But it’s really not motherhood, it’s the way our culture has set up motherhood, like class. She’s on the total opposite end of the spectrum because she has money and she’s taken care of. But what I didn’t want to do was do the typical Pilates housewife. She’s also dealing with her own experience of guilt and being in reaction to having trauma. There’s a moment in episode 102 where she stares at me in her bedroom, and she has this dissociative thing. I’m really interested in talking about why women have these – whether it’s the bipolar disorder of Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell) or why Bridgette binges, why Ally’s spacing out like that – how these women are dealing with their trauma. Also I have this idea about how Ally has these women who work for her who are closest friends, but I also want to explore how the help has given up possibly raising their own children to help raise someone else’s child. So it’s that love is a commodity for first world working women. But that’s later on.

Later on this season?

A little bit. Because the theme is how all of these women have relationships to money and motherhood.

Is it fair to say you’re drawing women like Ally and Tutu from your life, too?

Those are the women I know. That’s what’s been so fun – just getting deeper into women’s stories. There are so many women at my son’s school who I feel like had to sideline their own lives to be mothers, and some of them, you see sort of a preoccupation with a material world as a way of distraction, and all characters in this show are distracting themselves.

Why did you feel it was important to show Bridgette raising a son, as opposed to letting the little girls who play Larry just play versions of themselves?

Part of it is I have a son, part of it is raising a boy consciously and what the character’s going to do for him and what she’s going to learn by having a son. There’s such a social responsibility raising any child, but I think a woman, with this specific perspective, how she’s going to raise her son to look at the world and to view sexuality and women was also just important to me.

How does it feel to be running your own show for the first time?

It was never even brought up to me that they would pair me with a showrunner. I never had to have that conversation. Part of the reason is the team at Showtime – David Nevins and Gary Levine and Amy [Israel] – they just are supportive. It is a very specific tone [so] it would probably be impossible to have somebody else running it, and I think they recognized that. But I have a really great No.2 writer – his name is Scott King – who will go and deal with studio stuff while I’m writing. I did this showrunner training program through the WGA before we started. Their motto is “Delegate or die.” There’s just so much. It’s like you’re running a small business.

How do you compare running the show in the room to running the set as director?

Before I had even pitched it anywhere, Jill Soloway called me and said, “Don’t let them take directing away from you for the pilot. Have them put it in your contract.” So I did have them do that. I think that actually really helped because then when they picked up the pilot, and I directed it, I was able to initiate their trust. You’re sort of always being tested. If you can do it, you can do it. I’ve felt like I think I’ve proved myself as we went. Directing has really become my favorite part of the whole process.

“SMILF” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.