- Author: Jason ParhamJason Parham
TV's Challenge in 2018: Staying As Intimate As It Was in 2017
In the final moments of SMILF’s debut episode, its strapped-for-cash, do-anything heroine Bridgette auditions for a small role in a PSA about post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. Curious as to how she staged such a tear-inducing performance, she casually tells the director, “I was sexually abused by my dad, which also causes PTSD. So I guess I kinda have been to war.”
But the scene doesn’t linger, as her response is met with another, from one of the male crew members. “My sister was raped in college; it really messed her up,” he says, his tone somber, allowing for a moment of serious reflection. The camera then volleys back to Bridgette and remains locked on her face, but the close-up gives way to a conflicting performance: an enormous candy-coated smile. “Right. See, there you go,” she says. “I’m so excited.”
I found myself attempting to describe the absurd charm of this scene just days ago to a trio of friends. Showtime’s SMILF, like the best shows this year, or at least the ones I found myself gravitating towards the most, is a story of one—intimate, precise, and unburdened by the pressure of audience.
Frankie Shaw wears the character of Bridgette Bird with a tragicomic impulse comparable to Shameless’ Fiona Gallagher and 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon; in her case, though, she’s a single mother with dreams of playing in the WNBA whose moneyless existence in Boston forces her into a rotating theater of uncomfortable situations. Sexual predation was a significant and recurring plot point in the final quarter of 2017, in the lives of real women and men not confined to TV caricatures, but Shaw’s agile treatment of the issue—she’s the creator and writer behind the series—doesn’t feel like it’s trying to pile on to the growing and vital chorus of testimonies. It’s her story, and she’ll brandish it how she sees fit.
SMILF’s frequencies found amplification in other shows this year as well. There was Big Little Lies, HBO’s meditation on trauma and domestic abuse masked as a feminist murder whodunit; Atypical, the underrated Netflix show that followed an autistic high schooler attempting to experience love; and Big Mouth, the animated tween series that was all the more surprising for its coarse, expletive-rife observations on adolescent sex and desire. These shows didn’t necessarily go against the mechanics of typical TV so much as they allowed characters to burrow into their identities—the portraits were sometimes narrow but always expertly defined, if imperfectly so.
It’s that kind of carefully slender storytelling that also made the second seasons of Insecure and Queen Sugar small successes this year. Their approach teases out intimacy in more technical terms—to the characters and to the viewers—and allows for complexity, depth, and the occasional absurd moment. The authenticity of such shows lies in that levity; they’re never so serious that the commentary feels overcooked. Though they vary in genre and tenor, they are the kind of shows that slickly re-engineer empathy and vulnerability as a kind of power, shows that are truth-hungry and let characters embrace destruction as much as they do daring. They function as an ideal blueprint for how TV should work in the coming year.
The promise of 2018 is expansion and surplus. Netflix has said it will spend upwards of $7 billion on content, and has already secured deals with Shonda Rhimes, David Letterman, and Steven Soderbergh. There’s also the triumph of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is helping turn Hulu into a platform that can compete against more established and brazen enterprises like HBO, FX, and Amazon. But as the mediums expand, my hope is that the shows will shrink in scope, that they’ll get even more dangerously and deliciously particular, unequivocal, and peculiar in the narratives they tell.
One of television’s original sins was deciding that programming, be it a crime thriller or a Thursday night sitcom, should embody universal themes, so that we all might relate to a show, character, or plot line in some form or another. But in an era of excess, when it’s humanly impossible to digest every show, the opposite may prove more beneficial: the more deeply detailed the series, the more niche its thematic arcs, the more it looks to itself and loses the please-everybody attitude, the bigger its success.
It’s now a rarity for a show to be nationally beloved and still feel like a private treat (though This Is Us seems to be just that, worshiped by just about everyone I know; I’ve yet to watch it). The only meaningful metric for viewership these days is what micro-audiences are able to grab, and even draw bridges between—small pockets of people who share, and sometimes don’t, similar preferences or backgrounds, but are fascinated by a show for their own reasons. On its surface, I shouldn’t like SMILF—I’ve never stepped foot in Boston, proudly hate the Celtics, and aside from being raised by a single mother, I don’t share any common ground with the intimacies of Frankie Shaw’s ecosystem—yet here I am, zeroed in week after week.But that’s just it: Shaw is making a meticulous, alienating show about the world she knows. I found a home in it anyway.