SMILF: A small, in­ti­mate show and typ­i­cal of top TV right now

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE LIFE & ARTS - JOHN DOYLE jdoyle@globe­and­mail.com

There is just so much tele­vi­sion con­tent. The ma­te­rial that breaks through the clut­ter is, some­times, the big-bud­get, high-con­cept, star-driven se­ries and some­times it is the small, al­most hand-crafted se­ries that, with an au­then­tic, idio­syn­cratic take on life and the world as it is – not the world as seen on for­mu­laic TV – res­onates softly but mem­o­rably. The FX se­ries At­lanta be­longs in the lat­ter cat­e­gory. Sub­tle, non­glossy and un­pre­ten­tious, a slice of or­di­nary life in At­lanta, it emerged fully formed and uni­tary, care­fully hatched. SMILF (The Movie Net­work, Sun­days 10 p.m. ET, Wed­nes­days 9 p.m. ET and stream­ing on Crave TV) aims for the same niche. It feels distinctly ar­ti­sanal, an­chored in lived ex­pe­ri­ence. It is about life seen through the lens of some­one with a keen eye for magic in the mun­dane and a deep em­pa­thy for the un­lucky. It’s still try­ing to find its feet, this lit­tle show (made for Show­time in the United States), but even in its baby steps it is play­ful, in­ven­tive and as heart­break­ing as it is funny. SMILF is a com­edy in the re­al­is­tic tra­di­tion, cre­ated, writ­ten and di­rected by Frankie Shaw, an ac­tress and writer who has had sup­port­ing roles in Mr. Robot and Mixol­ogy and in in­de­pen­dent films. Here she plays a ver­sion of her­self as Brid­gette Bird, a be­lea­guered sin­gle mom and plug­ging-away ac­tress in South Bos­ton. She has a young, bira­cial child named Larry, and the dad, Rafi (Miguel Gomez from The Strain), stops by for a few min­utes daily when he can. But, mostly, Brid­gette is alone with the kid, lonely and broke. The other two main fig­ures in her life are her distinctly odd mother (Rosie O’Don­nell), who might be on the brink of men­tal ill­ness and a well-off woman (Con­nie Brit­ton) for whose kids Brid­gette acts as oc­ca­sional nanny and tu­tor. Brid­gette is im­mensely smart and well-read, not at all cut out for life as a broke, of­ten sad-sack sin­gle mom. She’s afraid she’s whin­ing too much about her lot in life. She’s worn down by life on the poverty line, hasn’t had a re­la­tion­ship since she was preg­nant and des­per­ately wants to have sex again.

This lat­ter prob­lem leads to some very fool­ish, in­ap­pro­pri­ate ad­vances to­ward un­suit­able men. In such scenes her lan­guage is salty and her des­per­a­tion smart­ing like a sore wound. She has an eat­ing dis­or­der too, but finds the meet­ings to dis­cuss the is­sue formidably bor­ing. What makes SMILF truly stand-out is its ca­sual de­pic­tion of the bar­bar­ity of life for the work­ing poor in the United States. The end­less wor­ries about health in­surance, the end­less lineup waits at walk-in clin­ics, the dizzy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of look­ing at food prices in a su­per­mar­ket and try­ing to fig­ure out what you can af­ford. The show is a mi­cro­cosm of what hap­pens to women of a work­ing- class back­ground as they age, try not to be­come in­vis­i­ble or unattrac­tive and use their wits to sur­vive men­tally. If there’s an is­sue with the se­ries, it’s that the first episodes sug­gest Brid­gette is sim­ply a vic­tim, ter­ri­bly trapped, and there is a bleak­ness to it un­der the of­ten rude hu­mour. Over sev­eral episodes, how­ever, it de­vel­ops dra­mat­i­cally and tonally. Brid­gette be­comes far more than the vic­tim and even Rafi’s girl­friend, a seem­ingly ab­surd, shal­low so­cial­me­dia star (she’s named Nel, af­ter Nel­son Man­dela), emerges as a com­pli­cated, mul­ti­di­men­sional fig­ure. Not long ago SMILF would have been highly un­usual, per­haps cat­a­stroph­i­cally so. It’s in­ti­mate, melan­choly and rude. The in­ter­ests of its char­ac­ters are al­most out­landish – Brid­gette’s mom likes watch­ing, over and over again, the open­ing of An­gela’s Ashes, that bit about no child­hood be­ing more mis­er­able than a wet Irish child­hood. Peo­ple clip coupons to save money on gro­ceries; not as fig­ures of fun or strange­ness, but as peo­ple liv­ing life as or­di­nary peo­ple live it. There’s in­dig­nity in it all, but it’s up to the viewer to see that. No theme or stand is pushed abra­sively at you. Am­bi­tious but not al­ways reach­ing the tar­get, cool, la­conic, dryly funny and about the for­ti­tude of women, SMILF will not be to ev­ery­one’s taste. Nor is it meant to be. It’s too small scale and lack­ing in ob­vi­ous laughs for that. But it sure is il­lus­tra­tive of the best kind of tele­vi­sion be­ing made right now.

Frankie Shaw is the cre­ator, writer, di­rec­tor and star of SMILF, a TV show on The Movie Net­work about a sin­gle mother in Bos­ton.

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