Photo: Mark Schafer/Showtime

Not since Cougar Town has there been such a repellant title doing a disservice to the show contained within. But whereas Cougar Town at least let you know you were watching absurd comedy, the name SMILF conjures visions of an outrageous sex farce miles away from the dark and incisive dramedy on display here. MASLA—Make America Slightly Less Awful—would be a better fit.

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Based on her short film of the same name, actor Frankie Shaw (Mr. Robot, Good Girls Revolt) gets a long-deserved star turn in this new Showtime series, loosely drawn from her own earlier life as a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Shaw created and produces the show (along with The Office’s Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky), and also wrote and directed the first episode, a compelling if sometimes tonally jarring blend of cringe comedy and Mike Leigh-style semi-miserabilism, all set in South Boston. Much of the darkness stems from the cultural and economic quicksand in which Bridgette Bird (Shaw) finds herself: As a would-be hookup says to her late in the first episode, “You’re living in a small room with a 2-year-old.” Working as a part-time nanny while going on acting auditions—all while trying to raise her young child, Larry—the show follows her efforts to simply keep her little family afloat, even as she makes bad decisions, acts impulsively, and tries to renew some semblance of a sex life.

While the episodes are distinctly carved up according to various misadventures (Bridgette is stuck at work while her child needs a clinic visit, Bridgette scrambles for cash to pay overdue rent), much of the ongoing narrative unfolds like an earnest indie film, inserting abrupt character backstories and plot complications at a sporadic pace. We gradually learn that Bridgette struggles with an eating disorder, that she has nannied for the same cluelessly bourgeois family (led by a reliably great Connie Britton) for years, that she has talent as an actor. But a big part of her identity is bound up with the feeling that she’s stuck, too. After being encouraged to start a vision board by a wealthier acquaintance who assures her it will help “actualize” her dreams into reality, she asks to borrow magazines, tape, scissors—then quietly adds, “I’m gonna need a dream, too.” By the end of the third episode, the strange admixture of lacerating humor and downbeat drama has gelled into something more potent and politically savvy than the sex-centric first episode might suggest.

Photo: Lacey Terrell/Showtime

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Helping Bridgette keep her head above water are amiable ex and Larry’s father, Rafi (The Strain’s Miguel Gomez), who comes over regularly to help with bedtime and who is holding steady in his sobriety, albeit with a strict AA meeting regimen that doesn’t seem to allow time for much in the way of a job. (His new girlfriend, played by Samara Weaving, helps him get by.) And Larry’s other major caretaker is Bridgette’s mom, Tutu (Rosie O’Donnell), a gruff Boston retiree who’s beginning to have real problems with her memory. A few friends drift in and out of Bridgette’s life, but her main relationship is with her son: All other failings aside, she is dead-set on being a good mother, and the show ensures that we see her strengths in that department.

SMILF often goes for discomforting Curb Your Enthusiasm-type laughs, such as in Bridgette’s repeated efforts to strike up conversations with various people attempting to find out whether her vagina has been “blown out” thanks to childbirth, or when an extended afternoon stuck at work results in some poor choices with the family’s kids. And while these moments are fitfully amusing, the series really starts to soar when it stops worrying about being periodically outrageous and instead bears down on being an honest and insightful depiction of life as a member of the working poor in urban America. In her gig as a nanny, Bridgette’s daily reminders of the profound class gap are glaring, and SMILF is unafraid to talk bluntly about the economics of a system that seems intent on keeping everyone in their place. Taking your child to the free community health clinic is an all-day affair that a working parent can ill afford; trying to buy a toy for Larry often depends on whether she can catch Tutu at the right moment to make her pony up a few extra dollars. It’s probably a harder sell to reel in casual viewers, but the hardscrabble poetry of these affecting scenes is the show’s strongest element.

Photo: Lacey Terrell/Showtime

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Shaw’s performance as Bridgette is superb, and never feels less than deeply authentic. Brash and swaggering one moment, achingly vulnerable and sad the next, she doesn’t star in the show so much as she compels it to revolve around her through sheer force of charisma. And with that personality comes an avowedly feminist bent and exploration of gender that is less openly political than atmospheric. An early fantasy sequence finds her having sex with a handsome guy with whom she had played basketball, and minutes later she’s masturbating to pictures of Rafi’s new girlfriend. Subsequent interactions reveal the ways men around her will sexualize Bridgette in the most inappropriate of times and situations. And in little moments, Bridgette’s understated embrace of woman power shines through like a tiny beacon of hope amid the gloom—when an OA meeting ends with a hearty “Amen,” Bridgette rebels to herself with an endearing, “A-women.”

SMILF can sometimes be all over the map, narratively, but in ways that feel true to life, a messiness of necessity for a woman who resists the daily indignities with a fierce determination and blunt openness. “Isn’t every childhood miserable?” she asks Tutu at one point, then softly answers her own question: “Except for Larry’s.” That resolute rejection of her own understanding in the name of making things better for her kid could double as an ethos for the show: Here’s a series portraying a life that could easily feel unsustainable, and making it a tiny bit better, one small step at a time.