WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Bridgette Bird (Frankie Shaw) is a young single mother living in South Boston whose ex, Rafi (Miguel Gomez), is a mostly absentee father because of another ongoing relationship with a TV sports reporter, Nelson Rose (Samara Weaving). Bridgette’s mother, Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell) has emotional problems, so she’s not much help. Tutu’s boyfriend Joe (Blake Clark) is useless. So Bridgette fends for herself, mostly by scratching out a living working as a tutor for the children of wealthy socialite Ally (Connie Britton). Shaw’s series is based mostly on her own life and is an expanded version of an award-winning Sundance short film.

MY SAY “SMILF” isn’t really a comedy or drama as much as a study. It’s a study of motherhood and daughterhood, of sexuality and sex, of sanity and borderline insanity. But mostly it’s a study of working-class single motherhood in South Boston circa right-about-now. Bridgette exists in a world where the dollar, or dollars, dangle just out of her reach. She hasn’t got a clue how to make a living, or a semi-decent one, and can’t quite figure out the young motherhood business either. She loves her baby son, Larry (played by identical twins Anna Chanel and Alexandra Mary Reimer), except he competes with her other needs, including food, sex and even fantasies. (She does indeed have a rich fantasy life, which she indulges — frequently.)

Viewers are dumped immediately into this life study without so much as a study guide. Bridgette unfolds in real time, and the patterns of her life are probably as baffling to her as they will be to them. In time you learn that she’s obviously smart, and (obviously) knows it. She’s a gifted athlete and knows that, too. She’s a talented actress, excellent writer and good tutor. She knows all this, too. So then why is her life such a mess?

As part of this study, you’ll learn her mother is a depressive wreck — and O’Donnell is quite good in a few short, sharply drawn scenes in the first few episodes. We never actually meet her father, but Bridgette also confides that she was sexually abused as a child by him. She makes that revelation as an offhand comment during an audition, but it’s explosive, and instantly turns her into a victim who’s spent a lifetime battling a profound evil done to her.

Except ... except that the show doesn’t want to go there. That would turn this into a flat-out drama or tragedy and the show certainly doesn’t want to go there. Instead, Bridgette exists in sort of a half-light, or — better analogy — half-focus. It’s this lack of light and focus that ultimately makes Bridgette — and by association her show — so frustrating in the early episodes. Who is Bridgette and what really is her show about? The study offers insufficient clues. Shaw’s good but her televised autobiography is a work in progress that can’t quite settle on tone, meaning or direction. Even the series title is frustrating, or especially frustrating — an expletive that either instantly demeans her or treats her as an object of ridicule. Confusion — hers and yours — is understandable.

BOTTOM LINE Frustrating series that has promise but no payoff. And that series title. Seriously?

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