Years ago, Frankie Shaw nabbed a Breaking Bad audition. One problem: She couldn’t find childcare for her young son, so she had to tote little Isaac — whom she was breastfeeding at the time — to the tryout.
“I was in a panic,” Shaw recalls. “My friend came and met me there, and then held Isaac in the hallway when I went in and probably was, like, leaking breast milk on my shirt,” she continues, laughing.
Shaw didn’t end up getting the part (the role of Jane ultimately went to Krysten Ritter), but she’s done just fine without the AMC drama. After appearing in shows ranging from ABC sitcom Mixology to HBO dramedy Hello Ladies, Shaw nabbed a scene-stealing gig in Mr. Robot‘s first season as the gone-too-soon Shayla. And now, she’s writing, directing, executive-producing, and starring in her own series, Showtime’s SMILF.
SMILF — as in, single mother I’d like to f—k (“It’s a way of reclaiming the term,” Shaw explains) — began as a script Shaw wrote when she was, in her own words, “sick of being a broke, struggling actress with a 2-year-old son.” She was hoping it would get her a job writing for a TV show; instead, she turned it into a short film that went on to win an award at Sundance in 2015.
The show is adapted from and expands on the original short, exploring Shaw’s experiences with single motherhood — the good (a cute son!), the bad (dating is hard!), and the ugly (you’ll see). “There was a feeling I had when I got pregnant and decided to keep the baby and I knew I wasn’t going to be with the baby daddy, and I was really toying with what my identity would be,” Shaw says. “I moved out to L.A. and had my son and was walking around Gelson’s, and I was like, ‘Am I just one giant, lactating boob?” she laughs. “‘Is that what I’ve become?'”
The answer is, of course, no, but the Boston-set SMILF looks at why society causes mothers to think that way in the first place. “There’s this story line of, can moms dream? Is our society set up to support that?” Shaw continues, adding that she looked to Anne Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood for research. “There’s this idea that motherhood is as American as apple pie, but yet we don’t support it with any government assistance.”
Shaw’s character on SMILF, Bridgette, especially struggles with the financial challenges of supporting herself and another human. The first episode sees her running between her child and odd jobs, relying on her mother — played by Rosie O’Donnell — for babysitting duties. That character is slightly based on Shaw’s real-life mom, who was also a single mother. “She’s really supportive and really happy that I’m able to tell the story,” Shaw says, adding that her son, now 9, has a great relationship with Grandma. “When I had my son out here in L.A., she was supposed to come out for two weeks for the birth, and she stayed for two years.”
O’Donnell’s been supportive of her fictional daughter, too: Shaw recalls a FaceTime call with O’Donnell, a mother of five herself, where the comedian said, “I want to do this, whatever you need. I want to disappear in a role. I want to not be Rosie. This story is so important; I totally get it.” In a tweet posted Nov. 2, she called SMILF “the best job I ever had.”
Although SMILF shares a style with other comedy-dramas — Shaw cites Atlanta, Baskets, and Transparent as some of her favorites in the genre — it also goes above and beyond the messy, refreshing realism that defines these types of shows, ones that prioritize showing characters in their most vulnerable, unkempt states. In one scene, Bridgette’s gorging on chips and brownies and Oreos in her kitchen while her son sleeps on a bed nearby when she decides to text an old friend to come over and have sex — her first attempt since giving birth. When he says yes, she reacts by gagging herself in the sink until she throws up the snacks. It’s gross. It’s also an act of self-conscious desperation that anyone can imagine feeling if they let themselves. The same goes for when he comes over and she instructs her partner to tell her if her vagina is the same as it used to be or if it’s been stretched beyond recognition. These are the kind of uncomfortably funny, wonderfully unfiltered moments SMILF is defined by — and the very reason it succeeds as a singular portrait of young motherhood.
“Ultimately, on some level, it’s a love letter to my son, and so the heart of the story is that relationship, and I think that’s a universal one,” Shaw says. “Hopefully people will relate to just how complicated parenthood is — and how there’s no such thing as being a perfect parent, and that’s okay.”
SMILF debuts Sunday, Nov. 5 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. Watch the premiere early via Showtime’s YouTube channel here.