“SMILF” certainly has no shortage of ideas. The new comedy delves into a whole host of topics: the ways in which women are objectified, what it’s like to struggle with issues relating to food, how challenging the life of a single mom can be, how demoralizing it can be to try to make it as an actress, and how difficult it can be to scrabble for a living in South Boston.
What the show doesn’t consistently have in its first three episodes, however, is a sense of how to hone those stories, and make them both structurally sound and specific.
Of course, there aren’t many other shows out there about a young single mother in Boston trying to move past a history of trauma and lean into her dreams. But “SMILF,” which was created by and stars Frankie Shaw, often can’t decide if it wants to rely on broad stereotypes, or tell nuanced stories about scarred, disaffected people at various income levels.
There is certainly no shortage of half-hours about men and women trying to make it in the entertainment industry, and that is where “SMILF” spends a good deal of its time. But much of that territory — i.e., scenes of Bridgette (Shaw) auditioning or doing PSAs as she navigates the lower rungs of an often demeaning business — has frequently been mined with more rigor and insight.
As a young mother who loves her toddler yet also resents the way he has limited her options, Bridgette bounces erratically between energetic hustling and scalding self-criticism. Similarly, “SMILF” rarely slows down often enough to focus on just one idea or promising story thread. We get hints that Bridgette’s mom (Rosie O’Donnell) struggles with her mental health, and that Bridgette herself has a past loaded with psychological land mines. But her dilemmas and aspirations are often presented in a scattershot fashion, and the lack of discipline can make the show’s plotless stretches sag.
Bridgette meditates a lot on sex, her perceived attractiveness and whether or not her body lives up to some impossible ideal, all of which are fruitful arenas for exploration. But “SMILF” keeps lobbing half-formed ideas at these topics, without necessarily having a lot of coherent meditations to share about them. And it regularly trots out dynamics or characters that are gratingly one-dimensional and predictable.
Shaw emanates a flinty, tentative and often effective vulnerability as she negotiates a series of challenging and sometimes darkly comic relationships. O’Donnell, as well as guest star Connie Britton, who plays a rich woman whose children Bridgette tutors, are particularly good and inhabit their roles with verve and presence. But Britton’s role too often veers into caricature, as is the case with some other supporting characters.
“SMILF” does have its moments, and one of them occurs in a long dialogue scene in the show’s third episode, which depicts Frankie’s money-motivated conversation with a middle-class man. Their emotional and philsophical exchanges contain depth, and the scene contains twists and turns as well, some of them tinged with surreal sadness. Overall, that sequence has a focus and discipline that other aspects of the show don’t consistently demonstrate.
Like Bridgette, “SMILF” displays flashes of potential, but it also sabotages itself regularly. It’s unclear, at least in the early going, which impulse will ultimately win out.
Comedy; 8 episodes (3 reviewed); Showtime, Sun. Nov. 5, 10 p.m. 30 min.
Executive producers, Frankie Shaw, Michael London, Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky, Scott King, Janice Williams.
Cast, Frankie Shaw, Rosie O’Donnell, Miguel Gomez, Anna Reimer, Alexandra Reimer, Samara Weaving, Raven Goodwin, Connie Britton.