Someone should coin a specific term for the unusual mélange of magical realism, biting social-commentary and the surreal existential absurdism of “Atlanta,” if only so I can reapply said term to Showtime‘s fierce and funny “SMILF,” a series that came to similar ideas on its own, but filtered through an unapologetically raw feminist lens of struggle, heartbreak and hilarity. Season one already featured these disparate, idiosyncratic elements, brilliantly fusing them with painfully sharp observations and deep wells of empathy. But in its stupendous follow-up season, which features tragedies and an even greater mix of weirdness and soulfulness, “SMILF” really leans into the bleak void of hilarious existential hopelessness. If Donald Glover was trying to make “‘Twin Peaks’ for rappers,” perhaps “SMILF” creator and star Frankie Shaw is aiming to fuse Buñuel and the notion of the unending challenges facing a trainwreck of a single mom.
Season two picks up right where the grossly underappreciated opening season left off and blossoms quickly, the struggling, destitute Bridgette Bird (Shaw) still grappling with the mess that is her life–her self-destructive tendencies coupled with the genuine challenges she faces as a single mom in South Boston. Rafi (Miguel Gomez), her f*ck-up, recovering-addict ex, is still an irresponsible dumbass who does a serviceable job as occasional dad to their son Larry (Anna and Alexandra Reimer). But he’s found love with Nelson (Samara Weaving), and Bridgette, always putting herself last and trying to make the best of a shit situation, is trying to remain positive and happy for him.
Meanwhile, Tutu, her working class, Irish Catholic “Southie” mom (a terrific Rosie O’Donnell, doing her best work in years), is still the same: a loving and harassing nag that’s there for Bridgette as a free babysitter, but is often exasperated by her neediness, irresponsibility and the way she exploits and takes her mother’s support for granted.
Season two features many delights, some that are cinematic, and musical (it features a superbly curated soundtrack of vintage and modern cuts), and others that are just the joys of watching a talented, diverse cast of actors, writers and filmmakers do their unique thing. Connie Britton as Bridgette’s grotesquely narcissistic boss Ally is fantastic, Raven Goodwin as her stoner best friend is a riot and Sherie Rene Scott as Tutu’s co-dependent, somewhat dimwitted, but well-meaning younger sister Aunt Jackie is aces, and that’s just three of many outstanding supporting players.
Visually and narratively, there’s an “In The Mood For Love” homage, disturbingly f*cked up Harvey Weinstein fantasies, a thoughtful and funny episode following Ally’s housekeeping staff for a day— Ida (Sisa Grey) and Elsie (Numa Perrier) and a brilliantly hysterical daydreaming day-in-the-life-of-a-one-percenter vignette that’s part “Pretty Woman” meets Lynch featuring guest stars Kevin Bacon and Ari Graynor, that’s one of the funniest, most absurd and sharply written things I’ve seen on television in months. Oh yeah, Stormy Daniels gets her moment too, and it speaks to the show’s philosophies of compassion; every struggling sister gets a loving shout out.
Trying to plan a future from her uncertain, socio-economically-challenged life, “SMILF” plays with the theme of Single Mom Is Losing Faith in season two, continually challenging the impulsive Bridgette’s ideas of self-improvement and betterment with one heartrending obstacle or tragedy after the next. Bridgette tries to exorcize old ghosts while atoning for past sins; loss is a constant theme and all the female characters that orbit her story suffer and grapple with an emotional ache that’s richly mined for both great laughs and pathos.
“Where is the line between all this joy and all this sorrow?” Rafi warbles, poorly, one night, after picking up a penniless and stranded Bridgette, singing along to Inara George’s wistful and thematically aptly titled song “Young Adult.” The sad and charming tune acts as a kind of unofficial theme song for a show that likewise shimmers vibrantly with scenarios of life, love and frustrating, oh-my-god-is-the-universe-conspiring-against-me? adversity and hardship.
“SMILF”’s Bridgette isn’t agonizing her way through the worst f*cking day, but perhaps the worst f*cking life, some of it her own making, some of it fate and some of it circumstances of misfortune she may never transcend.
The brilliant multi-hyphenate Frankie Shaw—who also showruns, writes, and directs the bulk of season two— has made some mistakes along the way behind the scenes, lord knows—but the hiring of the whip-smart writers (Rachel Leavitt, Emily Goldwyn, Jessica Lamour, Heather V. Regnier) and directors on the show are not one of them. Cate Shortland (“Somersault,” “Berlin Syndrome”) directs the tremendous “Single Mom in Love Forever” episode and Kerry Washington turns up as a director later in the season, focusing on race and female friendship.
Like season one, “SMILF” is crisp, sharp and at 30 minutes an episode, eminently watchable and bingeable. And it packs so much in, dexterously weaving playfully uproarious, humanist and sad stories of motherhood, co-parenting, female sexuality, unconventional families, class, race, socio-economics and more.
From the jump, (its 2015 short film which spawned the show), the scrappy, full-of-heart “SMILF” centered on the idea of the pathetic, self-deprecatingly amusing idea of the unfiltered, hot mess single mom that couldn’t get laid because of the many obligations of child rearing on one’s own. “SMILF,” for all its growth and continued evolution of stories around female identity, hasn’t lost sight of its core idea: motherhood is all-consuming, a thankless job like no other, and the struggle to keep the tiny human alive at the center of this wonderful, awful, painfully human experience is never-ending. You must laugh at your lot in life, “SMILF” suggests, and it does so frequently with the concept of reclaiming a piece of something, if even just a moment of time, just for yourself. From repossessing the demeaning SMILF label to reclaiming and transforming Third Eye Blind’s normally-corny “How’s It Going To Be” tune into a solidaric anthem for perseverance in the face of existential ache, “SMILF” is an exceptionally funny-sad howl into the cruel black hole of life. [A]
“SMILF” air Sunday, January 20 at 10:30pm ET/PT on SHOWTIME.