“SMILF” is two shows in one, and only half of them work. The first show is an experimental mishmash of short films exposing the world to a woman’s experience in 2019 — particularly, an abused woman’s experience. The other show is a more typical serialized narrative, tracking a single mother trying to get her life together.
In the show’s second season, the more classic half is damn near stagnant. Bridgette Bird (creator and star Frankie Shaw) faces added hardship, sure, but in the first five episodes she does little to address it. Meanwhile, Shaw’s creative side — the one that got her short film into Sundance and later landed a deal for her own Showtime series — should elicit strong reactions ranging from outright shock to deep contemplation. Not all of the basketball star’s big shots swish through the net, but even Shaw’s acrobatic airballs are far more interesting than watching her dribble in circles.
Take her conscious messages to the entertainment industry. Last season ended with an indictment of Woody Allen, and in “SMILF” Season 2, Bridgette takes a milk bath with Harvey Weinstein. No, it’s not the actual Harvey Weinstein; it’s an imaginary version of the accused rapist, played by a guy in a creepy, expressionless Weinstein mask and conjured to mind for Bridgette’s erotic satisfaction. Still, in Bridgette’s fantasy, the enrobed former producer goes down on her in a hotel room while promising to make her a star.
Bridgette knows this is sick, but she can’t escape him — or her desires. Her childhood abuse at the hands of her father has screwed with every element of her life, especially her relationships with men, and a big part of Bridgette’s Season 2 arc is trying to make healthy decisions and avoid predatory men. She spends one episode freaking out over a date with a “nice guy.” In another, she imagines what life might be like if she modeled her behavior after girly-girl role models. There’s even a flashback episode to the birth of her son, Larry Bird (played by twin sisters Alexandra and Anna Reimer), framing both her contested choice to have him and the very explicit pains she went through during labor.
It’s an honest episode — beautiful, even — and as more women share hidden truths about the physical ordeal a body goes through while giving birth, this stands as an honest, unblinking, yet deeply felt half-hour journey. Lest viewers think “SMILF” is only concerned about Bridgette, there’s also an episode dedicated to the unseen “surrogate mothers” walking among so many modern houses: The nannies, caregivers, maids, and more hired help are highlighted in stark contrast to the privileged dealings of Bridgette’s own employer, Ally (Connie Britton, playing a magnificently oblivious contrast to her “Friday Night Lights” role). Bridgette’s not let off the hook, either, but the filmmakers do set her aside for a wider focus.
All of this is far more compelling than what Bridgette actually does. Through half the season, she’s very much the same person practicing the same habits with the same friends in the same apartment. Even watching as she tries to grow is redundant because that’s exactly what we saw last year, and the finale gave the impression she had matured. In her mind, she’s waging a war for her future, but Shaw struggles to show real-world progress, even if the battlefront is vivid and rich in her imagination. Together, it creates a fitfully effective season; one that intrigues slightly more often than it tires, but there’s still too much of the latter.
Of course, it would be irresponsible not to mention the third series of events affecting “SMILF” this year: the real-world allegations that both feed and detract from the show’s challenging examination of trauma. Shaw faced misconduct allegations while shooting Season 2, as sources cited in a Hollywood Reporter investigation said co-star Samara Weaving felt pressured to shoot a sex scene in the nude. Various reports surfaced of an unprofessional set environment, but an investigation by ABC Studios (which produces “SMILF”) cleared Shaw of wrongdoing.
Even with that assurance, there are moments when watching the show can make you feel uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. What was built to be a safe space for women to vent, grieve, and process their pain has become slightly sullied by the concern that making this space may have made others feel unsafe. All those challenging, twisted scenes — like the Harvey bath — start to feel like they’re not worth the cost. Of course, everyone will react differently, and what matters is how “SMILF” feels to each viewer. Art’s personal value isn’t to be gauged here, merely its effectiveness. At the very least, Season 2 needs to refocus a few of its stories — or better yet, tie them all together.
“SMILF” Season 2 premieres Sunday, January 20 at 10:30 p.m. ET on Showtime.