Showtime's "SMILF," an intriguing yet contextually challenged new dramedy premiering Sunday, is entirely a product of the era we live and make television in: Snapped up at Sundance, where it garnered a few rave responses and a jury award as a short film, this semi-autobiographcial series is created, written and directed by 31-year-old Frankie Shaw, who also stars as Bridgette Bird, a South Boston single mother of a toddler son ("You named your kid Larry Bird?" asks an incredulous acquaintance). Bridgette struggles to make ends meet and yearns for a sexually satisfying relationship — even a decent one-night stand will do.
Much about this sounds sort of right, right? A fresh, frank and rather realistic tale of a self-assertive young mom, told from a working-class perspective, starring a woman who also runs the show. Why, it's the very thing we keep telling ourselves that TV needs more of — stories by women about women. Lena Dunham can't have all the fun.
But despite some sharp moves here and there, "SMILF" (if you must ask what the title means, then have I got a Google search for you!) is unfortunately all over the place in terms of voice, story and motivation.
Based on the first three episodes made available for review (there are eight this season), "SMILF" is a portrait of a millennial who would never have traveled in the same circles as the girls of "Girls," even though Hannah Horvath, in the end, had a baby and may well be living somewhere as a SMILF.
It takes too long for a viewer to figure out how to invest in Bridgette's story or get a sense of who she is — particularly what her dreams might have been before motherhood (we get vague hints that she wanted to play professional basketball) and why she and Larry are stuck living in a one-room studio apartment down the street from her moody and emotionally difficult mother, Tutu (Rosie O'Donnell).
Details emerge but fail to cohere. Bridgette's best source of income comes from hiring herself out as a combination tutor/nanny, helping the spoiled children of a rich couple (Connie Britton makes a fine cameo here) write their college essays and finish their homework. It's Bridgette's writing skill that's earns the A's and Ivy League acceptances, but it's up to the audience to infer whether her academic gifts are a funny fluke (is she a "Good Will Hunting"-style genius from Southie?) or relevant to some plot twist ahead.
It's clear that Shaw has a magnetic and often endearing screen presence, especially in scenes where Bridgette acts against her own best interests. She also proves capable of writing and directing the sort of slice-of-life, small-world stuff that forms the structure of most cable dramedies, along with the standard uses of awkwardness, embarrassment and anecdotal personal failures that go with it.
But we've seen a lot of that before, and there's little about "SMILF" that distinguishes it from a raft of similar shows that have come and gone — and will keep coming and going. Everyone's mastered the techniques of portraiture fused with dark comedy, so if "SMILF" has something to say, it needs to hurry up and say it. Otherwise it's just another show about someone hanging out and waiting for life to happen.
SMILF (30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.