Frankie Shaw ended 2017 on a high note. The first season finale of her auteur comedy “SMILF” aired on New Year’s Eve, and Shaw already has the date to return to the writers room for Season 2 booked (Feb. 5).
Last year marked quite a professional turnaround for a woman who never felt entirely comfortable in her pursuit of work as an actress, even as she began to grow her profile with roles in such series as USA’s “Mr. Robot,” Amazon’s “Good Girls Revolt” and ABC’s short-lived “Mixology.” But about three years ago, when she turned her focus to writing and directing, “it all came together,” Shaw told Variety.
“I love filmmaking,” Shaw says. “It’s where I am most at home. I wouldn’t necessarily say that about acting. Filmmaking is this instinctual feeling for me where all of a sudden everything is in Technicolor.”
“SMILF” landed slots on many a year-end top TV shows list. Shaw has drawn praise for her unflinching portrayal of a struggling single mother in a roughneck Boston neighborhood, and her ability to mix drama with laugh-out-loud moments. The finale is perhaps the darkest of the season as Shaw’s character, Bridgette Bird, confronts a man she thinks is her father for sexually abusing her as a child.
Bridgette’s story of how she wound up broke and desperate with toddler Larry (yes, the character is a big basketball fan, hence her son’s name) in tow unfolds in a circuitous route over the first eight episodes. Viewers slowly come to realize that Bridgette has battled a binge-eating disorder, that Larry’s father is battling his own demons in a sober-living home, and that Bridgette was molested as a child.
Rosie O’Donnell has drawn rave reviews for her performance as Bridgette’s emotionally volatile mother, Colleen. Connie Britton plays a wealthy woman who hires Bridgette to tutor her spoiled children (a job Shaw herself did) and handle other unusual chores for the family.
“That’s what I love most about the experience of watching television and movies — where you are inserted into a world and you feel you are watching the characters in a deeper way,” Shaw says. “It’s hard because television has been so successful for so long in a (format) where you understand how someone gets from A to B to C. We had to think about how do you have a fulfilling story but not share everything all at once. We wanted [Bridgette’s world] to be as mysterious as the people that we know and love are.”
“SMILF” is loosely based on Shaw’s background (she grew up in Brookline, Mass.) but not every trauma that Bridgette faces is drawn from her own life. The biggest inspiration was her experiences as a “broke single mom” a decade ago while dealing with the heartbreak of audition after audition in Los Angeles.
“SMILF” began as Shaw’s effort to write a pilot script. A section of that pilot became a short film that gathered attention at Sundance in 2015. That set Shaw on a path to setting it up as a half-hour series at Showtime. She marvels in the trust that Showtime placed in her as a writer and director, given her then-limited experience. She counts “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail and “Ghostbusters” helmer Paul Feig among those who guided her through the maze of learning to be a showrunner while doing the job.
The “SMILF” short wasn’t nearly as dark or emotional as Shaw would take the series. But Showtime never balked at her efforts to look at challenging issues such as gender discrimination, race, class, and sexual abuse.
“They’ve been so accepting,” she said. “They’ve encouraged me to go for it — make it deeper, darker and more raw.”
One thing Shaw didn’t want to do was make “SMILF” revolve entirely around a struggling actress. “I’m bored already with that,” she said. “I don’t want to see any more auditions.”
Shaw’s high-school love of basketball inspired the storyline of Bridgette taking a flier on trying (unsuccessfully) to join the WNBA — years after her triumphs on the court as a teenager. As Bridgette ultimately explains to her mother, she “just wants to find a purpose” in life, beyond motherhood.
Shaw’s vision for Season 2 involves further adventures for Bridgette in trying to find “her path” or, at minimum, a steady job. As Larry gets older she’ll have to deal with “the politics of day care,” Shaw says. The backstories of supporting characters including O’Donnell’s Colleen will be fleshed out more, Shaw promises.
Season 1 of “SMILF” was shot mostly in Los Angeles but for a few exteriors in Boston’s Southie district. Season 2 is likely to be shot on location in Boston, which should add more Beantown grit to the look and feel of the show.
Shaw is looking forward to getting back to work and going into production with more confidence and better skills than she had during “SMILF’s” maiden voyage.
“I’m always battling the inner critic in my head,” Shaw admits. “I have learned to face that pit in my stomach. Being a showrunner means you have to stand by your creative instincts and what you believe in. Sometimes that’s not easy.”