“I do feel like we accomplished like a big feat in SMILF, you know?” Frankie Shaw says of her Showtime series that ended tonight after two acclaimed seasons. “I went from making some short films, paying for them out of pocket, to this giant responsibility and this huge job,” the Golden Globe-nominated creator, showrunner, sometimes director and star of the Boston-set series added.
Certainly coming off a season full of emotional whirlwinds and some filmmaking that could even be considered experimental in this Peak TV era, tonight’s “Single Mom is Looking (for) Family” episode went for broke with relapses, revelations and realizations striking close to the bone for Shaw’s Bridgette Bird and her mother Tutu played by Rosie O’Donnell.
With plans underway for a Season 3 and perhaps beyond, the Season 2 ender was never intended to be SMILF’s series finale. However, after allegations of misconduct on the part of Shaw late last year, the David Nevins-run premium cabler canceled the series on March 8, just six weeks after the second-season debut. Low ratings were cited unofficially as the impetus for the plug being pulled. At the same time, Shaw saw her overall deal with ABC Studios, which had completed a probe into the earlier claims, suspended as “options” were reviewed.
I sat down with the very forthright Mr. Robot alum in her newly minted Our Lady Productions office to discuss the SMILF finale that went from a season- to series-ender and the education she received doing almost everything on the show based on her 2014 short film.
Additionally, the UTA-repped Shaw pulled back the curtain on where she had hoped SMILF would have gone in future seasons, how it all could have ended differently, and galloping past the wound of cancellation.
DEADLINE: So, are you satisfied with this Season 2 finale being the series finale?
SHAW: I love the final image with Bridgette and Tutu, the feeling of hope and possibility. If we had been planning on ending the show in two seasons, this would have been a great way to do it.
DEADLINE: How so?
SHAW: It was an opportunity to take a risk and [for Bridgette] to bet on herself. So, that’s what that scene is really about — it’s saying like, this isn’t actually how I wanted my life to be. That most of us can get to that place in our lives, and what’s the scary, risky thing I have to do to make a change.
DEADLINE: Was that change going to be in Season 3 and beyond?
SHAW: Well, Tutu does drop the bomb in the finale that they have this family member, a sister, in Ireland. So the idea was, they’re going to go find their long-lost family member, which in a sense, this entire season was Bridgette searching for family. So, she’s asking are you my family?
— SMILF on Showtime (@SHO_SMILF) April 1, 2019
DEADLINE: How far developed was Season 3? Were you writing scripts?
SHAW: No, not yet. We went to Ireland to scout. I was with my line producer and three writers, and we had a bunch of broad-stroke ideas. One of them bring the remake of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which I had been wanting to do forever, and the other was an exploration into the Mary Magdalene homes, the Magdalene Laundry Homes in Ireland where young mothers gave up their babies for adoption. And getting into Tutu’s past, but like I said, it was broad-stroke ideas, nothing had been written yet.
What happened in that last scene in the Season 2 finale was my big plan for Season 3, which was a single mom is living fearlessly.
DEADLINE: An acronym with potential…
SHAW: Exactly. It was setting us up for Bridgette to finally be able to bet on herself. She’s so excited to have this unknown sister, and then the idea would be that then she would go and find her or find a place either in New York or in Los Angeles and sort of follow her dreams and see what happens then. But then the ultimate plan for the end of the show in a few seasons was for them to end up back in Boston. Be like, Hollywood’s not for me. I’m going home.
DEADLINE: You said that much of SMILF this season was about family. But from the exploration of cycles of abuse and the toxic relationship with the Harvey Weinstein character who is never actually called Harvey Weinstein directly, to Brigette’s father turning out to be dead, to Tutu, to Nelson being pregnant and Rafi relapsing, it was so often elusive…
SHAW: She’s a total ghost chaser, and even in the first episode of the second season, she’s looking for her dad. She’s got to find her dad, and he’s dead. So, there wasn’t ever a dad to find. So, then who are you when the thing that you thought defined you is not there? So, the Harvey Weinstein element was an attempt to explore when you internalize the abuser, right? And so, you are…that thing’s always there, and unless there’s integration. So, there was this whole idea of the Dark Horse, the shadow self, it all came from Jungian philosophy and so…
DEADLINE: A little bit of Carl Jung can go a long way.
SHAW: A little bit of Carl Jung can go a long way, It’s true. He was very, very instrumental in how I thought about story as well. His work with Joseph Campbell is a lot about what I look for when I look for guidance about storytelling. So, the idea of the shadow, the Dark Horse, the thing that you like, don’t want to deal with, right, pops up.
DEADLINE: And sometimes, it’s the lack of recovery by just reiterating the abuse in another cycle.
SHAW: I think, until you have recovery, you will repeat, and you will seek out abuse. Oftentimes too when there’s abuse in childhood, you have to make it your fault because you have to live with the adults, right? Bridgette is somebody who hadn’t really dealt with her abuse yet, you know, and so it did pop up in various ways.
It was important that when I was conceiving of this show, it was about somebody who had one shade of her but and she’s has all these other things are going on. Especially the relationship with her child, and the idea as a new parent wanting so bad to give your kid a different experience than what you had, right, but you can’t help but be who you are and incorporate your past into your current actions.
DEADLINE: With that, SMILF is over before we’ll get there, so do you really feel this was an OK place to end things?
SHAW: Well, like I said, I wanted to do a remake of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in SMILF because Anna and Lexie, the twins who play Brigette’s son, Larry, would be the right age for that. I’ve really found my love of physical comedy through making this show, but, to your question, I do feel like it’s an OK place to have ended it.
I think there’s so much hope for this character who we saw make messes. You know, what I love about her is the optimism. Bridgette doesn’t have that girl-in-her-20s, dark-nihilistic, everything’s-hopeless kind of approach. She’s always like, going to make the best of it, you know? It’s so fun to play and so fun to write and I relate to that outlook.
DEADLINE: With everything that has gone down and now that SMILF has run its course, what would you have done differently?
SHAW: Let me just say two things. Boundaries. And delegation. As one showrunner recently told me, I should have had “the Carlton Cuse to my Damon Lindelof” — which I don’t know those guys or exactly what that means, but I think, what he was saying, it’s impossible to be the main creative force, star of the show, director of the show, and be the sole manager my first time out of the gate. But I will say, the management lessons learned from this are burned into me now.
DEADLINE: And those lessons are?
SHAW: Well, SMILF allowed this incredible, creative playground for me. I feel like I gained so much and found my voice as a director with these mini-movies it felt like we were making. So, now, it’s almost like I’m so excited to bring all of that, I guess you’d call it confidence, out. But I also learned there’s the creativity and then there’s actual management, and there’s a difference between being a manager and a leader.
DEADLINE: What’s the difference, for you?
SHAW: I think people really appreciate authenticity as a leader and it took me a little while to fully understand that. I’ve also learned that it’s really important to have a strong support system and to share in the responsibility. There’s also the idea that when you are at the center, people look to you and for you for certain things and to just have an awareness of what that is, and to respect where everyone’s coming from, and a natural hierarchy.
I do feel like we accomplished like a big feat in SMILF, you know? I went from making some short films, paying for them out of pocket, to this giant responsibility and this huge job. I learned on the go and I have learned things that I’ll take with me for the next job and forever. Some of them are things about leadership and about power and some of them are like small lessons that, you know, that I’ll just keep in my heart.
DEADLINE: You mentioned lessons learned from making SMILF. I wondered, would you ever put yourself in the position of being showrunner, the creator, the director a lot of time, the main writer and the star again?
SHAW: (Laughs) Hell no. For my next show, I’m not going to star in it or base it on my life directly.
DEADLINE: What has the reaction you’ve received been like the past few weeks?
SHAW: The single moms and the dads, the people writing me DM’s about their struggles, their abuse, their poverty, their addiction, depression and feeling marginalized, the people in Boston, the women ballers, the girls with food issues, etc., etc. — I’m reading all your messages. I see you and I appreciate you.
To the crew and everyone who worked on the show. I’m sorry you were counting on this job and I’m going to hustle my ass to get us all on a set again, this time with a little more experience and wisdom under my belt. Thank you for everything.
DEADLINE: I get that, but also cancellation is never easy. But you seem to be in stride with new projects in the mix. That perseverance that was so much of SMILF, both on and off the screen, certainly hasn’t gone away, has it?
SHAW: I hope not. You know, and in the Western episode just last week, Bridgette makes this speech about the Cowboy Code. She says, you dust off, when you fall down, you dust off your boots and you get back on the horse.
That’s sort of been our motto in this office. It’s been so wonderful. We have this tight group of us here to come in every day, and there is a bunch of stuff going on. I’m definitely licking my wounds of the pain of this, of course. It was not what I thought was going to happen. But here we are and so, it’s OK. It is. It’s dusting off the boots, getting back on the horse, and then there’s like this wide-open world of opportunity.