Frankie Shaw Will Apologize For Some Things, But She's Not Sorry About SMILF
SMILF cut through the noise to show single motherhood in all its messy glory. As creator Frankie Shaw awaits the season 2 premiere, however, allegations of misconduct overshadow the series.
A show a about single mom who is down on her luck and also horny is about as taboo as TV gets, but the Showtime series SMILF is the rare gem that manages to disrupt with unapologetic verve. Set in Boston’s historically blue collar Southie neighborhood, the show centers on Bridgette Bird, a young, struggling mom of a toddler, who is totally lost, troubled by a traumatic past, but doing her best. In the iconic pilot episode, she’s seen at a bodega running into an old friend while buying cookies, chips, popcorn, and more cookies for a binge. Back at her one-room apartment, Bridgette demands he strip so they can get down to business. Only there's someone else in the bed — Bridgette’s 2-year-old son, Larry Bird. The dude spooks, and Bridgette is pissed — with him but also with herself. It’s a moment where Brigette realizes she’s being reckless, while viewers of SMILF get a window into a gritty reality that’s not often seen on TV. For Frankie Shaw, the creator, showrunner, and star of SMILF (as in "single mom I'd like to fuck”), the scenario isn’t as far-fetched as you'd think.
Yet, as Shaw and I stroll around Echo Park in Los Angeles, it’s clear that scene is far from her mind now. Partly that’s because the second season is set to make waves when it premieres on Showtime this Sunday, but also because what’s been really occupying her headspace for the past month is instead the rather dry task of perfecting her management skills.
“I’m deep in reading these management books,” she says, as we’re sitting on a bench overlooking the man-made lake, with couples in swan-shaped paddle boats floating by us. She shivers a bit on this chilly-for-L.A.-day, showing she may have grown up in Massachusetts, but after a decade in Hollywood, she’s a California girl now. “These management books” include a giant stack of “like 400” Harvard Business Review back issues, as well as Kim Scott’s beloved management manifesto, Radical Candor, a book that espouses the complicated art of being blunt and empathetic at the same time.
“How do we create an environment where people can feel seen and heard at all levels?” Shaw says. Though she specializes in writing working-class loudmouths, she herself speaks slowly and thoughtfully. “I truly believe conversation is the only corrective mechanism. It’s so important to create an environment where that can happen. I didn’t know that before. I started off as an actress and someone who had written and directed short films. And then I was in charge of a humongous production.”
Until recently, Shaw’s story was a blemish-free feminist triumph. I’d describe her as the next Diablo Cody, writing cuttingly honest women-centered comedies. Although she’s been a working actress for more than a decade, her star exploded when SMILF got picked up by Showtime in 2016. The show is loosely based on her own experience as a struggling single mom, and has been lauded by the Los Angeles Times as “a premium-cable version of Roseanne for the millennial generation.” In truth, even that falls short of describing its complexity. Bridgette Bird (played by Shaw) isn’t just a scrappy single mom; she’s a trauma survivor (she was molested by her father) with an intact sexual drive daring to dream of becoming an actress and a pro basketball player. She’s got a bipolar mom (Tutu, played by Rosie O’Donnell), a recovering alcoholic baby daddy (Rafi, played by Miguel Gomez), and a best friend from her eating disorder support group (Eliza, played by Raven Goodwin) as her only support. The narrative thrust of the entire first season is about what it’s like to move through life operating as a full, flawed human being, despite being violated and traumatized at every turn for daring to do so.
The second season promises to pick up where season 1 left off, with Bridgette searching for her abusive dad, and (spoiler) finding out he’s recently died. Like a lot of things in the show, this is somewhat similar to Shaw’s real life; her own father passed away during the filming of SMILF season 1, after having not spoken to his daughter since she was around 7.
“My dad had died. So if season 1 was about trauma, then season 2 was about what if something you used to identify yourself with goes away? Who are you then? That and the masks we all wear to present ourselves to others,” Shaw says. In that vein we can expect an episode focused solely on the housekeepers employed by Ally, Bridgette’s rich-lady boss (she’s the spoiled kids’ tutor) played by Connie Britton, and an episode in which Eliza and Bridgette talk frankly about their interracial friendship, and the divisions even their love for one another can’t erase.
The show is edgy, and relevant — Bridgette literally gets pussy-grabbed at one point during season 1, and lest you think it’s just a political statement, it really did happen (to Shaw! on the New York City subway.) It is also diverse and women-centered, both on-screen and behind the scenes. Nine out of season 2’s 10 episodes were directed by women, 50% of the 200-person crew was female, and a third of the writers were women of color. “I have been on a lot of sets that felt a little colder, and I wanted the set to feel warm and welcoming and like a family,” she says.
This is why it was such a shock last month when The Hollywood Reporter published allegations of mismanagement and misconduct on Shaw’s set. The allegations included complaints about writing credits and chaos on set, as well as more damning assertions that writers were split up by race and that Shaw pressured co-star Samara Weaving, who plays Nelson Rose, Rafi’s girlfriend, to perform nude despite that allegedly being a breach of her contract. (Weaving declined to comment to THR, nor has she spoken publicly elsewhere.)
In addition, during season 2’s shooting, on a rare day when Shaw was not on set, a monitor was flipped on during the filming of a sex scene when the set was supposed to be closed for the comfort of the actors. This incident was alleged to be a final straw for Weaving. “I just feel really bad that she felt uncomfortable,” Shaw says humbly. “As the showrunner, I totally take responsibility. I can say I’m truly sorry that the wrong monitor was turned on that day.” (Requests for comment sent to Weaving’s reps were not returned by press time; Shaw would not comment on whether Weaving will return for season 3). Since then, ABC Studios, which produces the show, has closed its investigation, clearing Shaw of any wrongdoing, and the second season is still set to premiere according to plan. And yet, Shaw is obviously a bit rattled.
In Echo Park, a month after the shit hit the fan, I don’t even have to ask her about the controversy. She brings it up when I mention how she lights up talking about minute production details. “I really love every moment of filmmaking. I truly do. When I’m in a scene and I’m directing, it’s just intuitive. You’re just there,” she says. “But what I wasn’t aware of about this job when I started was how much management is involved. I’m coming off this season totally surprised. We have such a family, but that anyone would not feel that… How do I do better next time? That is a real focus.” Hence, the management books.
This isn’t the first time SMILF has been criticized, but it is the first time Shaw has been at all contrite. In 2018, when the show was blasted by a Boston city councilor for being “degrading” and “crude” and portraying Southie in a bad light, Shaw hit back with a lengthy Facebook post that argued in part, “I have a feeling that the judgement comes from underlying gender-bias more than anything else.” She’s been criticized for the title, and for supposedly painting all single moms as irresponsible. She never guessed she’d also be called out for alleged misconduct, but it’s saying something about her that this is the only controversy she’s seems to have cared about in the slightest. “Anytime you stand up for something there is more of a spotlight on you,” she says. “What I’m learning through this whole thing is just that things require more work and more care.”
Another lesson: She can’t do everything herself. SMILF is incredibly personal to her, and hard-won. It is set in South Boston, the working class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood, where Shaw was born. Though she mostly grew up in nearby suburban Brookline (the birthplace of JFK), her mother’s family is “all Southie,” and she spent much of her childhood with her aunts and cousins in the neighborhood. When she was 4, her parents split. Like her character, Shaw was raised by a single mom before becoming one herself at 25. Just like Bridgette, Shaw played basketball growing up (and dreamed of joining the WNBA), and got a scholarship to a fancy Boston private school. When it comes to the Bridgette’s trauma, Shaw is vague but firm. “There are similarities,” she says.
Once she got to Barnard in New York City, she was exposed to art and literature and acting classes, and perhaps most crucially, Julia Stiles, who by that time (the early ‘00s) had already starred in Save The Last Dance and 10 Things I Hate About You. “I always wanted to write and be a filmmaker. But I was in school, taking acting classes, and the path to acting seemed like something I could do,” she says. “I didn’t know any filmmakers or writers, but I was in classes with Julia Stiles, and it became this thing like, oh maybe I could do this?” Shaw threw herself into acting. She got an agent, and landed some small roles.
In 2004, she walked in Barnard’s graduation, but she was actually one credit shy of getting her diploma. After taking some time off, she came back with a plan: She would earn her last credit by writing her first script, convincing writer-director and Columbia professor Katherine Dieckmann to mentor her through an independent study program. Dieckmann said no at first, but Shaw was persistent: She wrote her a letter and hand-delivered it along with bagels. With Dieckmann’s mentorship, Shaw went on to write her script about a lonely Boston girl who gets involved with a veteran suffering from PTSD, and with that she graduated from Columbia in 2007.
She was dating the actor Mark Webber (aka Father Eddy in SMILF), when she got pregnant later that year. "It was this crazy young love that is not sustainable,” Shaw says. She got an abortion. It wasn’t an easy decision for her, due to how lonely she felt at the time. So, when she got pregnant again 6 months later, she decided to keep the baby. At that point, “basically, I knew I wasn’t going to stay with the baby’s dad, and I decided to move to L.A. alone.” Webber and Shaw, in the meantime, remain close friends and co-parents.
The next few years of her life were spent moving apartments every few months with her infant son, Isaac, and struggling to survive. She tutored college-bound kids for money, and did small parts. What she really wanted to do was write. In 2012, she wrote a pilot about a single mom in an effort to get a staff writing job. She never got one, but she did randomly meet the director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Lords of Dogtown) on a plane soon after. This led to an audition, which led to some discussion, which led to Shaw sending Hardwicke her pilot, which Hardwicke loved.
Ultimately, she decided to make a short film version of her pilot. In February 2015, the short, also called SMILF, won the jury prize at Sundance, which got the industry’s attention. “I had just spent like nine years of getting rejected as an actress. I was a full-time auditioner,” she says. “It was so rewarding to see something that I made from scratch get that response.” By March she had a development deal with Showtime, and in August 2016 she got the greenlight to shoot SMILF’s pilot episode.
For the first two seasons, Shaw was doing the jobs of at least three people at any given time: She’s the showrunner on a set with a 215-person crew, the lead actress, and executive producer. She’s also a writer, and she directed the pilot. It’s a full load, which might help explain the alleged chaos.
“I don’t know what I am first. I’m as first a director as I am first a writer, so because of that I need to be on set, and then on top of that I’m mostly in the show,” Shaw says. “I’m trying to figure out a way to have more support this season, so I can focus on one or two of the jobs at a time. I could only learn that by going through it.”
In regards to the alleged separation of writers by race and the issues with credit, Shaw says there were times when writers were split into groups, but that race was never a factor. “Sometimes we would split up the room into small groups, which is normal in writers’ rooms,” she says. “It is so important to me to have inclusivity. If anyone felt left out it was never the intention.” She adds that all writers in the room have script credits on season 2.
As for Weaving, Shaw blames her interaction on a misguided ignorance of her own power. The Hollywood Reporter reported that during filming for season 1, Shaw pressured Weaving to perform nude. Shaw tells me that she recalls the incident, but she didn’t mean to pressure anyone. She and Weaving were both in the makeup trailer (along with hair and makeup stylists), and Shaw had lifted her shirt, in an effort to express her own experiences and discomfort with having done sex scenes herself. “This was part of the learning curve, where I didn’t know as a showrunner you’re not really supposed to talk about what the actor’s comfortable with. I was coming in as an actress,” she explains. “My intention was to connect and instead it made her uncomfortable. I didn’t find that out until the second season wrapped. And I get it. People don’t talk about things until they do. But I didn’t know, and I’m just sad that I wasn’t able to address it.”
“I will just say that this whole thing has made me a huge proponent of intimacy coordinators,” Shaw adds, referring to a new person hired to be present on film sets, which has become more popular in the past year or so. Essentially, the intimacy coordinator’s job is to be the point person for all nude or intimate scenes, making sure the actors are comfortable and safe.
All in all, Shaw says the fact that this has played out very publicly pains her, but ultimately, “I’m learning what I can from this.” Shaw is immensely proud of how season 2 is shaping up (she is still working on the last few episodes), and she can’t wait for everyone to see it. (Heads up: the first season is available in full on YouTube and the premiere is already online for Showtime subscribers.)
This year, fans of the show will get to go deeper into the stories of the supporting cast, learning more about Bridgette and Rafi’s deep love for one another. We'll get Bridgette’s birth story, with Ally Sheedy (of The Breakfast Club fame) playing Bridgette’s no nonsense midwife. Fans of the show’s surreal side will also have plenty to look forward to this season as well: From an extended “welfare queen” fantasy that asks the question, “What if we lived in a world where you were compensated for doing the most important job in the world, which is being a mother?,” Shaw says, to an episode about a Western fantasy in which the women are the gunslingers and the men stay home.
I ask her if she feels like she’s under extra pressure as a feminist creator who is also a feminist boss. “There’s an archetype that people are familiar with as leaders of a company for example, and if you’re not that, then I’m sure there is a different way of interpreting things,” she says. But as far as the show goes, “I don’t like to think about it like, ‘Oh what is my responsibility to the viewer?’ It’s more like how do we process the world right now?” she says, gesturing to nowhere. She stands up, ready to start walking again. “And how do we tell a good story?”
Update (1/17/19): This text was updated to clarify that Shaw was not on set the day of the monitor issue, and that Weaving has not commented on any allegations.