The season finale of SMILF, Showtime’s sweet, thoughtful new show about single motherhood, opens with credits in the font from Manhattan and a Woody Allen quote: “The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things.” Before the quote can dissipate, a young girl’s voice wafts in. She says, “Hey grandma? My dad touched my vagina.”
The girl is meant to be a younger version of Bridgette, the show’s single-mom antihero played by SMILF creator Frankie Shaw, and the scene might sound heavier handed than it actually is. Young Bridgette is in a therapist’s office, accompanied by her handwringing mother Tutu (the brilliant Rosie O’Donnell), calling up everyone she’s ever known to tell them about her father’s molestation of her as a matter of working through her trauma. As Bridgette happily chats with her friend about her birthday party, only to punctuate the call with “my dad touched my vagina,” Tutu leans into the shrink: “Lizzie’s seven, are you sure this is a good idea?” The therapist: “Having abuse victims tell their stories is the best way for them to recover and lead a normal life.” Cut to credits, still in the Manhattan font, scored by George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” the clarinet jam that opens Allen’s best known movie.
The episode deals with adult Bridgette finding her father on Tinder and setting up a “date” to confront him about his sexual abuse, and embodies the sly commentary and twisted humor that has made this first season of SMILF so fantastic. What is ostensibly a look at the how a finding-her-way millennial navigates single motherhood unfurls into a meditation on mothering from multiple generations and class structures in rapidly gentrifying South Boston. Bridgette, successfully coparenting her adorable toddler Larry Bird (Anna and Alexandra Reimer) with his father Rafi (Miguel Gomez) is not the caricature one might expect in a contemporary depiction of a twenty-something fucking up. She is haphazard and clumsy in her interpersonal dealings, for sure, and makes extremely bad decisions, such as sleeping with the college freshman son she used to tutor while wearing his mother’s robe (a bougie closet lesbian portrayed wonderfully by Connie Britton). She also struggles with binge eating disorder (BED); she met her best friend Eliza (Raven Goodwin) in a BED support group, and accordingly she often copes with stressful situations by eating loads of garbage and then feeling shitty about it. But underpinning Bridgette’s every move is her fierce and abiding love for her son, and genuine desire to be the best mother in the world; what makes SMILF so humane is that it shows how impossible that is, so among its landscape flawed single moms are heroes—not pedestalized, but recognized for the immense amount of work that goes into it.
In the finale we learn that Tutu, whose behavior has been erratic as she cares for her disabled boyfriend, has suffered from manic depression since her ex-husband molested Bridgette; in her efforts to care for her daughter, she neglected to care for herself, a terribly common side effect of single motherhood and something Bridgette tries to avoid, throughout the series, for the betterment of both mother and child. In one episode Bridgette, a basketball fanatic, gets it in her head that she will try out for and land a spot on the WNBA, both fulfilling her dreams and enabling herself to support her son comfortably. She’s a scrappy park baller but it’s obvious she’ll never make the team—she’s pretty short, for one—but the gumption and belief with which she goes for it is so unjaded and earnest one can’t help but be charmed. In other words, Bridgette isn’t a self-obsessed cliché the way some millennial characters tend to be; she’s growing up as she goes, doing occasionally unlikeable things but redeemed by the amount of heart with which she operates.
Shaw wrote SMILF as part autobiography, based on her own experiences as a young single mother, but that fact doesn’t mire the show in its own self-reflection. If anything, it seems to have motivated her to make the characters more realistic. Rafi, for instance, is a rare Latinx character on television who comes to us fully formed; he is as devoted to Larry as Bridgette but is struggling with sobriety after an opioid addiction, and fits Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings and work into coming over to tuck their baby into bed every night. He also has a new girlfriend, a perky blonde Australian sportscaster whose outward perfection initially intimidates the somewhat sloppy Bridgette; eventually they come together and collude to get Larry vaccinated, despite Rafi’s wacky anti-vaccine views. As their relationship develops, the show models a way to cope with evolving relationships when there’s a child involved, and even as both women explore their envy for one another, it never rests on stereotypes.
It’s clear that, in part, this is because of sensitivity and due diligence. Shaw told EW that for the finale, she and the writing team centered the phone-call opening sequence on a real method therapists use to help children who’ve been sexually abused. “It’s a way for victims of abuse to release any sort of shame. Like, ‘This was not me, this was just something that someone else did.’ So by telling everyone, it takes the weight off their back. A little bit.” SMILF’s underlying philosophy is talking about it—letting the marred parts of womanhood and single motherhood into the open—and it’s great.