Showrunners from ‘Roseanne,’ ‘The Americans’ and more on the challenges of standing out in the Peak TV era
In an era of too much TV, creating must-see TV is no easy task. The Envelope gathered six TV masters — Whitney Cummings (“Roseanne”), Joel Fields (“The Americans”), Laeta Kalogridis (“Altered Carbon”), Prentice Penny (“Insecure”), Michael Schur (“The Good Place”) and Frankie Shaw (“SMILF“) — to discuss the creative process. The conversation touched on the responsibility a show has to its audience, being unafraid to push boundaries and knowing when it’s time to bring a show to a close.
You guys have explored sexism, classism, morality, sexual assault, mental illness. Talk about being topical.
Michael Schur: “The Good Place” was explicitly about ethics and morality and it was designed before the current administration. But it has been interesting to be discussing this stuff at a time when the front page of every newspaper, including yours, very frequently has the word “ethics” in it. So that’s been interesting, but it’s coincidental.
Whitney Cummings: I am a stand-up [comic] first, so I think that my brain is very attracted to the things that make people uncomfortable, that make people laugh, that piss people off. Anything that I’m conflicted about is usually something I want to write about. When the idea of “Roseanne” came across my plate, I was attracted to how controversial the show always was and how controversial the star tends to be. I disagreed with a lot of the things that the show was going to maybe explore. And after the election, I just had a compulsion to be in a room with someone that I disagree with and see if we could find common ground.
Frankie, at a screening of the pilot, there was a woman there who took real issue with the fact that Bridget, your character, makes a quick run to the corner store while her son is sleeping.
Frankie Shaw: She was demanding to know if I had done it myself. I’m not claiming to represent every single mother who has ever lived. This is a show that takes place in blue-collar Boston. There’s a Latino baby daddy. And, then, it’s very female-centered. A lot of the stories are based on stories that have happened to me or my writers. And so it’s not necessarily, ‘Oh, we’re going to be this issue show.’ We’re just sort of reflecting the world in which the show takes place — and the generational differences when you are in a place where you’re struggling financially.
Joel Fields: On “The Americans,” the whole show [about Cold War-era Russian spies infiltrating America] was designed to not be topical. It was designed to take a look at an enemy that was no longer an enemy and to examine that time.
Schur: You should have just been like, ‘Yeah we knew.’ You should have just claimed you knew it was all going to unfold this way.
Fields: Yeah, I’m getting a lot of pitches that the next show we do should be about world peace because now that’ll happen.
Schur: Like “The Secret.” Just put it out there.
Fields: But it’s actually been irritating to have all this stuff happen. My partner Joe [Weisberg] says it’s bad for the show. I like to say it’s bad for the world too. But it sucks because you’re trying to do something that isn’t about that, that’s about getting people to look at identity and look at conflict and look at enemies and look at marriage in a different way, and suddenly it’s now through the prism of what’s happening in the world today, and it’s no longer universal. But look, none of us can control how the audience is going to experience what we do. And the good news is now the shows we do are around for a long time. So audiences later will experience them in different ways.
Prentice Penny: Yeah, our show went through a weird thing where we started breaking stories during the first season with Obama still in office. And our show is talking about things that people of color talk about privately and then putting those things out publicly. Conversations that we have in our living rooms and with our friends that most of the audiences, you know, certainly mainstream white audiences don’t ever get to be a part of. And then the election happened so the beginning [of the season] is a lot of people of color wanting to talk about things that don’t get heard, and then the election happened and this sort of veil was off. And a lot of white people were like, ‘This is crazy.’[laughter]
Cummings: You guys didn’t know there’s racism out there?
Schur: Welcome white people. Come in.[laughter]
Cummings: In comedies, it used to be ‘How far can we push the envelope, how can we sort of test people, how can we challenge people, how can we make people laugh?’ But then the election happened and it was like there’s this new social responsibility involved where you want to be edgy and you want to explore and you want to push the envelope, but you also don’t want to set a bad example or reinforce stereotypes. There’s this whole new floor of like broken glass that you kind of have to walk around.
Penny: But it has to have meaning behind it, sometimes networks want to have you push stuff as opposed to what is it actually saying? Not just throwing something out there for shock value.
Frankie, this is your first time writing. You took a training course?
Shaw: I did the WGA training program for six weeks. But also you can’t know until you’re doing it. I think maybe the most surprising part was being faced with your worst qualities and your best qualities. I feel like, ‘Oh, this part of my being uber controlling really works here, but it also maybe doesn’t work with this personality.’ So you’re just sort of constantly having to be a little bit self-aware and figure out the best way to manage up here and down there. That’s been a huge thing for me.
Laeta Kalogridis: It is certainly the most intensity to something that doesn’t involve curing cancer. There’s a lot of like real deep panicked intensity.
Fields: I learned a lot from working over many years with Steven Bochco, who today I miss a lot. And it was the opposite with Steven. There was never panic. There was always a sure hand. There was always incredible respect. He always had the writer’s back and the writer’s room was a sacred place. And then we tell personal stories, and he was always efficient and calm. And he knew that he could be a leader and that it was also a team sport. So he found this incredible way of running shows.
Penny: One of the things that I always try to take from it is, how do you get the best? We’re all trying to get to this goal, right? So how do you just try to get the best out of this person’s gifts, that person’s gifts and kind of still shape that into an actual story. And I think that if you hire good people, then you’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting because you can trust them now to do those things. One of the things I learned working on “Happy Endings” under a showrunner named Josh Bycel — he always told me, ‘Your life is your life. The show is not your life. Have a life.’ I don’t always follow it great, but I always go back to it as a benchmark of just being a well-rounded healthy individual because you’re managing so many people, so many circumstances.
Shaw: Right, it’s hard, but it’s definitely also the most fun. If it’s working well, I’ve never laughed harder in my entire life.
Fields: Yeah, I’m with you. It’s fun. It’s joyous. I mean, we all work hard, but we’re not curing cancer. We’re telling stories. It’s great.
Cummings: I feel like we all probably say, ‘We’re not curing cancer, everybody calm down.’ But I remember Michelle Obama did a call to some producers or something. It was a couple of years ago, and she was talking about how the metrics were in for how “Will and Grace” actually affected the outcome of the marriage equality vote because it was putting gay people in the rooms of people that maybe never met a gay couple before, maybe had prejudices around it. And she was basically like, ‘Please put diverse people on your shows.’ We’re not curing cancer, but we kind of are subconsciously helping heal people.
Laeta, you’re in a male-dominated field with this R-rated, sci-fi epic drama on Netflix. Talk about the importance of showing that women can do this.
Kalogridis: For me, the fun is when you get to create these female characters who have all this agency and have all this power in a very dark and chaotic world. The idea that our nightmares — of women and more marginalized people — are just as well explored. We did this sequence that’s probably the most intense sequence in the entire show. It’s two women, and it is an all-out knock-down, drag-out fight. One of them is Latina and one of them is Asian, and they fill the whole screen. They are everything and that is very much what the show is about for me, that representational element. I don’t have control over how people take it, but I do have control over what we were saying, which is ‘Watch the … out because it’s coming.’ I think anything that’s trying to do something different is always going to be hard.
Cummings: Yeah, there’s already what we go through when you make something, ‘God, that wasn’t good enough’ and ‘Oh, this could be better, and we should reshoot that.’ And now you get the added feedback from Twitter and stuff.
Penny: I had an experience last year with it, and I need to figure out how to be better. We had an episode where the character doesn’t use a condom. For the most part, we try to always be responsible. I remember people were like, ‘You’re saying black people get this rate of AIDS, and you’re being irresponsible. You’re showing this.” And I was like, ‘Well, it’s a TV show. We don’t have time to show them go get the condom, cut it open, put it on.’ I got into a big debate with people and I was like, ‘I’m doing so much for black people behind the curtain you guys don’t even know.’ Like I’m tearing down the black community and I want AIDS to get black people. It was just crazy.
Cummings: Still, you guys talk about how fun it is. I have been working on a show where the main character voted for Donald Trump. So our room was very tense and stressful and not a safe space. Very triggering, so it was intense but kind of cathartic at the same time. But there was a really big argument in the room about Dan Connor [talking about] undocumented workers taking his jobs because he’s in freelance construction, whether he would say “illegals.” And I was like, ‘We can’t say that. This is wrong. It’s racist.’ I was so angry. But that’s what he would say. He’s not PC. There’s a kid on the show in a dress. He would not say gender-nonconforming. He’s like, ‘He’s gay.’
Were you shocked by the numbers that the show receives? And the aftermath of things that have come to light?
Cummings: I don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes.
Kalogridis: I think there’s something really valuable about triggering conversation, in getting people to talk about something. Even, dear God, help us all, if it’s uncomfortable. One of the things that worries me the most is the idea that censorship is in some way virtuous. Censorship is never virtuous. Censorship is just censorship.
Shaw: If you are normalizing certain behavior that might lead to the devaluing of human life, then that’s the question that we all have to answer when we are creating and if we can justify it. Everyone should feel represented, but we’re also dealing with a bigger thing here where a lot of people are losing their lives.
Schur: To me, that’s where the discussion about the art and the artist kind of breaks down, because you want to believe as a society that certain things are settled. Like for example, you are not allowed to stand up and say that only white people should be allowed to vote or own property. We ought to consider that a settled issue. The problem is that in the last couple of years guess who’s back? The people who say that. I thought that as a reasonable society we had sliced off the extreme fringe of violent racist, reductive, absurd attitudes. And now sadly it feels like, ‘Oh, look the Nazis are back. That’s fun. Let’s get the Nazis back in.’
Kalogridis: If I present a show in which a man who’s lived for hundreds of years gets off on killing women. Yes, it’s horrible and I’m showing violence towards women. I’m also showing what I think will happen if someone gets into a position of power whose idea of a good time is hurting people and then can’t die and becomes so rich.
Penny: It’s to what you were saying earlier, it’s what is the driving force behind the art? If I’m showing something that’s sort of a cautionary tale about this because that’s my intent versus my intent is to hurt or to be mean or to dismiss.
Cummings: That’s super interesting because my intent in terms of working with Roseanne is I would like a liberal, progressive person to be in that room. And I guess I’m going to have to do it. When you make a show, can you tell the difference between the show’s star and the show they make? I think we’re at a point where you kind of can’t.
Schur: It’s just asking so much of audiences because the show in this case is named after her and it’s based, it was originally based on her stand up, which was based on her real life. And then she goes on Twitter and says all the stuff she says — I just want to say, I believe the question that started this conversation was, ‘What’s the worst network note you’ve ever gotten?’[laughter]
Cummings: The network does say no Nazis a lot to me, I hear that. No Nazis.
Let’s talk about the responsibility to the audience in another way. [To Schur] You pulled off the greatest TV twist when you revealed that “The Good Place” wasn’t in fact in the good place. And how did you move forward from that?
Schur: So the twist at the end of Season 1 was baked into the show from the beginning. It was part of what got Ted Danson to sign on. And because we knew about it so early we had a chance with the writers to look forward. So we’ve been a sort of a season ahead in terms of being able to anticipate what we’re going to do and we decided pretty early that because the twist at the end was so world upending that we didn’t want to try to outdo ourselves.[To Fields] How about knowing when it’s time to wrap things up?
Fields: Joe and I talked from early days about what the end was. And I think we were towards the end of Season 2, beginning of Season 3, when [FX chief] John Landgraf came to us and said, ‘How many seasons do you think you need to tell the story?’ And Joe and I took a long walk and sort of pitched out two versions. It was pretty clear to us that it was going to be six seasons. We tried a version that was five for a day, and it just wasn’t enough room. So we were able to write to that from early on and that was really liberating.
Cummings: In network TV, you just write the finale for every season.
Variety and PBS SoCal KOCE have announced the lineup for the eighth season of “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.”
The Emmy Award-winning series will air in two episodes on PBS SoCal KOCE, the first on Tuesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. and the second on Thursday, June 21 at 7 p.m. Both episodes will stream on pbssocal.org following their premieres.
Frankie Shaw (“SMILF”) with Sara Gilbert (“Roseanne”) is listed.
“There’s no better way to celebrate another groundbreaking season of television than with our ‘Actors on Actors’ franchise,” said Debra Birnbaum, Variety’s executive TV editor. “We’re proud to shine a light on this year’s most remarkable performances with this series of revealing, one-on-one conversations. And we’re thrilled as always to partner with PBS SoCal to share this content with their audience.”
Variety’s “Actors on Actors” issue will hit newsstands June 5 with clips appearing on Variety.com starting at the beginning of June. On Variety and Variety.com, this year’s Actors on Actors will be presented by Shutterstock.
“Southern California’s creative industry inspires and excites our PBS audiences like few others. And this season of ‘Actors on Actors’ is sure to please, with compelling conversations between some of today’s most popular protagonists,” said Andrew Russell, president and CEO of PBS SoCal. “It’s terrific to team with Variety to produce and share ‘Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.’”
“I feel that it is so similar – the process of being a single mom with a young child and creating and running a TV show – there is almost no difference,” SMILF creator, showrunner and star Frankie Shaw says in the first installment of Deadline’s second season of Next Generation TV. “You are thinking about the show and the stories at every moment of the day, even when you are not thinking about it,” adds the Golden Globe nominee.
Based on Shaw’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival short film jury-award winner, SMILF debuted in November with some of the best comedy numbers Showtime has seen in years. Co-starring a top-notch Rosie O’Donnell and Connie Britton, the Boston-based series shines an honest spotlight on the struggles, successes, sexual abuse and sensibilities of Bridgette, the twentysomething single mom portrayed by Shaw.
It is a spotlight you can’t look away from, even when it goes to some dark places. That is why SMILF was one of my Top 10 New Shows of 2017. On November 29 last year, Showtime renewed SMILF for a well-deserved second season, which is expected to premiere later this year or in early 2019.
“So this season is let’s take all the risks and let’s be as ambitious as we can,” Shaw says about the aim of Season 2, now in the writing phase. “We’re just going deeper in the areas that we started with in Season 1, but now you guys know the characters, you know the world, so we’re experimenting a little bit more, taking more risks.”
Not that Season 1 wasn’t full of risks – and I don’t just mean that title that made more than a few people uncomfortable. In her focus on Bridgette, O’Donnell’s mother character and others, Shaw turned to some harsh economic, social, racial and psychological realities – including the sexual abuse of children.
“It is one of the hardest things for people to talk about openly because of the history of shame and stigma, and …the self-blame and the fact that women forever and men were not believed,” the Mr. Robot alum says of the topic and her approach to it. “One of the things I was talking about with the network and with the writers is that it’s showing the darkest parts of humanity, especially childhood abuse, childhood sexual abuse. So, it was important that we made it OK for the audience to laugh with us and to feel with us.”
– Source / Watch Video Interview
Third up on ABC Studios’ Contenders Emmys panel was SMILF creator-star Frankie Shaw, who cultivated the Showtime series out of a short film she directed.
Speaking to moderator Michael Ausiello of TVLine, Shaw teased what’s to come in the 10-episode second season of the often-surreal, lyrical series, following the dating escapades of a single mother. “This season gets weirder and darker,” she said. “We’re dealing with identity and the masks we wear to present ourselves to the world. And who are we when we take the mask off? We’re two months into the writers room, and we start shooting this summer in Boston.”
During the panel, Shaw discussed the hoops she had to jump through to gain the network’s trust and maintain authorship over her own series, as well as the exciting level of opportunity available for creators in today’s entertainment climate. “It was like baby steps, and I feel like I kept having to prove myself. It wasn’t carte blanche from the beginning,” Shaw said of her relationship with Showtime. “[But] they’re very collaborative at Showtime—they’re incredible for trusting me and giving me this opportunity.”
“I feel like at no other time in history would I have been given a show like this on a premium cable network,” the actress continued, touching also on her love of directing, and Rosie O’Donnell’s standout work on the series. “It’s an amazing time we’re all in.”
ATX Television Festival announced Thursday another wave of programming for its seventh year of the festival.
Joining the festival’s line-up a screening of the second season finale of IFC’s “Brockmire.” In addition, executive producer and star Hank Azaria will be in attendance for a panel discussion alongside writer-executive producer Joel Church-Cooper and cast member Tyrel Jackson Williams.
Robert and Michelle King will take part in an “in-depth conversation” panel, discussing their creative partnership and collaboration on the three series they created for CBS and CBS All Access (“The Good Wife,” “BrainDead” and “The Good Fight”). The Kings will also join other panel conversations, which will be announced at a later date.
And Showtime will present “Storytelling with Tenacity,” a panel featuring the powerhouse women in front of and behind the camera on a handful of their series. Frankie Shaw, the creator, director, executive producer and star of “SMILF” will attend, as will Sarah Treem, who created and executive produces “The Affair” and Emmy Rossum, star and sometime director of “Shameless.” The women on this panel will discuss their various roles on their respective shows and the ways in which they are working to move the industry forward.
This wave of programming joins the previously announced opening night premiere of HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” as well as screenings and panels for shows that include “Take My Wife,” “The Bold Type,” “Queen Sugar,” “Love Is___” and Blown Deadline.
“Queen Sugar’s” panel will include executive producer Kat Candler and cast members Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Kofi Siriboe. The panel for “Love Is___” will include creators and executive producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil and stars Will Catlett and Michele Weaver.
This year’s ATX Television Festival will take place June 7-10 in Austin, Texas.
Time’s up. A new era. The great reckoning. Whatever you call it, or whichever hashtags you put on it, it’s today, it’s today. The time right now is about women. Some men won’t like it. Well, tough titties. (Sorry, not sorry.) It’s being mandated, get it? Man-dated. And it’s about time. I think Lewis Black said it best, when he said that his generation should have solved this with equal rights and women’s liberation. But women, again, were put on the backburner. And the stove exploded.
When I was asked by Interview magazine to moderate a conversation with four other ladies—like myself, all TV series creators and two of them, stars of those shows—I jumped at the chance. And when I ended up getting on the phone with all of them—Michaela Coel (the BAFTA Award–winning creator and star of the British sitcom Chewing Gum), Lisa Joy (the executive producer, co-creator, and co-showrunner of HBO’s Emmy- and Golden Globe–nominated sci-fi thriller Westworld), Frankie Shaw (the Golden Globe–nominated star and creator of Showtime’s dark comedy SMILF), and Lena Waithe (an Emmy winner for her writing work on Netflix’s Master of None and the creator of Showtime’s Chicago-set drama The Chi)—it felt safe. It felt like a community. We could have carried on all day.
I am gripped with excitement for the future of our industry, for the possibilities of new, female-led stories and truths. Stories that are guided by women, shepherded by women, and created by women. Stories to be consumed by people. All people. I have often felt that women sharing their truths with each other, no matter how painful and scary, is a gift like no other. When you lay yourself bare and expect nothing in return, everybody wins. Speaking your truth gives you perspective, and receiving someone’s truth gives you a guidepost for your life—it helps inform and shape your own story, your own trajectory. It elevates your life. We buoy each other. We are daughters and nieces and aunties and granddaughters and mothers. We are boy-ish and girl-y and hard and soft and funny and nerdy and weird. We are not anti-heroes, because there’s no such thing. We are just people. We are all people. And we have some flax-golden tales to spin. P.S. I still love men. But they need to learn how to be a person. —PAMELA ADLON, the co-creator, executive producer, writer, director, and star of the Peabody Award–winning FX comedy Better Things
PAMELA ADLON: I wish we could have done this in person.
LENA WAITHE: But we all know that if we did that, we’d be in a room for, like, the entire day.
ADLON: I’m the matriarch here. I’m the old guard. My life literally began at 50. Coming up, I didn’t have a lot of female role models. I could count on one hand the number of lady directors I’ve worked with, and that was only much, much later in my life. I think that this is so cool, this new era we’re in. Lena, I’ve seen you in Master of None, and you cracked my head open, and then I watched the premiere of The Chi, and it was incredible. Frankie, SMILF is incredible. Michaela, Chewing Gum is incredible. And Lisa, fuck you, because I’m now living in Westworld. [Joy laughs] I’m four episodes in. I feel like it’s making me smarter.
LISA JOY: If you figure it out, tell me what it all means.
ADLON: Let’s start with you, Lena. Were you always writing? Who were your influences?
WAITHE: I was always writing as a kid. I was really blessed that my teachers picked up on my writing voice, even in, like, the fifth grade. I’ll never forget when my fifth-grade teacher said to me, “I look forward to reading your papers, because you write the way that you speak.” And I’ve always loved watching television. I grew up in a two-parent household: my mom and the television. I watched A Different World and The Cosby Show. I was really blessed to be able to see images of black people like me, even though The Cosby Show was very aspirational and we were not living like that. Or on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, seeing them living in a mansion—I didn’t even know what Bel-Air was, but I knew it was something I wanted. I think my confidence came from looking at my mom and my aunt and my grandmother and my older sister. I was surrounded by a bunch of sassy black women, so I couldn’t help but grow up to be a sassy black woman myself.
ADLON: I relate to you in that I always felt female but never feminine. I’m seeing you kind of cobble together a career for yourself as an actor straddling the gender line, just as I did. It feels so good to be able to present yourself in a way that makes you feel comfortable and powerful, instead of people telling you how to be. Frankie, what about you? Did you ever aspire to be an actress with your own show?
FRANKIE SHAW: I grew up playing basketball every day after school. It was just me and my mom, really, so I would disappear into books—that’s how I dealt with the loneliness of my childhood. I wasn’t exposed to the arts until I got to New York for college. I’d assumed I had to become an actress because I was female. I didn’t know that I could be a creator and a director until I got on set and was like, “Oh shit, I want to be the one in control.” That took ten years of being in these terrible experiences as an actor, wearing a push-up bra and heels and not feeling like myself.
MICHAELA COEL: I didn’t have a particularly creative upbringing either. We learned art and percussion in school, but my family wasn’t really creative. My mom makes me dresses, so I guess that would be the closest thing to the arts in my house, but it didn’t lead me to be a writer. For me, learning how to write creatively started with poetry. That was around 2006. I didn’t start writing for TV until the end of 2014, which was Chewing Gum.
ADLON: What about you, Lisa?
JOY: I was actually born a robot, so Westworld is just autobiographical. [all laugh] It’s so amazing listening to you guys talk, because all I can think is how I want a time machine to go back to some version of the past where we could have all hung out. You all would have been a really nice posse.
WAITHE: I agree!
JOY: Like you guys, I’ve always loved writing. I also started with poetry, but in my world poetry was never going to be a career path, nor was any writing in the arts. It was just this pestering thing that wouldn’t leave me alone, so I’d do it in secret. And I was kind of shy so I always liked reading. Reading makes you feel like someone’s reaching out across time, giving you a hand to squeeze and saying, “I felt this thing that you’re feeling now.” Even though I grew up in America, at home we spoke mostly Chinese, because my mom is from Taiwan. My thoughts weren’t fully in Chinese, but they also weren’t fully in English—it was this weird mix. I was so afraid I would say the wrong thing or people wouldn’t understand me. I think that’s why I respond to mythology a lot—you see the journey of an outsider and realize that everybody’s an outsider. It’s the most universal thing about us. But in these quests you saw them be okay. I gathered a lot of inspiration from that, but it took me a while to venture into writing. I tried to be safe in terms of financial security: I did business, I did law, and only kind of boomeranged back in when I felt like I wasn’t going to be letting myself or anyone down in terms of making a living.
ADLON: That’s a huge thing, security. I started working as an actor when I was about 12, and I started helping my parents out financially because my dad wasn’t getting jobs as a TV writer. It was a time in Hollywood when there was a lot of ageism, which weirdly doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. I’m 50, like my dad was then, and my life is blowing up in every direction. This is the era of female characters. The concept of an “antihero” is just a fucking anachronism at this point.
SHAW: That shit drives me crazy.
SHAW: It’s like, “Maybe I don’t fit into whatever fantasy idea you have of what a mom should be, but this is just real life and this is my perspective and it’s human.” My character is not an antihero, she’s a three-dimensional character. She’s fully encompassing everything a human is, but to whatever male critic or male viewer or brainwashed woman who is watching, she’s an antihero.
COEL: I completely agree. When you think of, like, Thor, or people who are traditionally thought of as “heroes,” they’re really strong and they win a fight: so fucking what? There’s nothing to overcome. A real hero is the person who overcomes the thing that nobody thought they’d overcome. [Shaw’s character on SMILF] Bridgette is the hero, because look at how heroically she’s managing. When I think about Wonder Woman, no one calls her an antihero, because there are men who get sexual pleasure from her. But a character like Bridgette—and I’m thinking of my character, Tracey, too—yeah, maybe those characters make men uncomfortable, because they’re clearly not existing for you at all. We haven’t thought about you.
JOY: I worked in the DA’s office for a while in law school, and I chose to work in the family violence group. There is nothing worse or more gruesome than the family violence group. For me, writing became a way of processing not just my own experiences, but the experiences of other people, and their pain. So our show deals with sexual violence, especially in the pilot, where there is an implied rape offscreen. Before—and even after—it came out, there were a couple of headlines that were like, “Graphic onscreen rape scene!” And I’d be like…“Didn’t you watch it? There’s nothing onscreen.” But they still felt traumatized by it, which is exactly what you should feel from watching something like that happen to someone. I didn’t want to glorify rape or use it as a theme, but it was something I had been thinking about because it happens.
ADLON: That’s what I try to do with my show. I don’t want to give all of this exposition.
WAITHE: I love your courage to tell the story in that way. You’re not telling me what to think. And, Pam, particularly as a person who grew up with an absentee father, there’s something really powerful about the way that you handle the father character in your show. My father, he would pop up sometimes and then would go away. My sister and I interpreted or internalized that differently. He passed away suddenly when I was 14. I didn’t even want to go to his funeral, but my sister did, so I was forced to go. There is something very visceral about the way you handle those kinds of conflicting emotions on the show.
ADLON: You guys all talked about books and reading. We all came up with books, but it’s so sad because I think about my kids and their inability to sit down and quiet their minds and read books anymore.
WAITHE: I used to steal my mom’s books when I was a kid. She had everything from Terry McMillan and Iyanla Vanzant to James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, so I was reading all of that stuff. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, because a lot of it was very adult, but it gave me the whole scope of what it meant to be black, from many different perspectives. I know now that reading those books and taking in those words really helped me to define what a voice is.
SHAW: My mom exposed me to a lot of different literature. There was this Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto, and then Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison. I had all of their books. Reading really helped put myself in the center of a story: as a woman and as someone growing up working class, I could be the hero. In SMILF, one of the big ideas is we see Bridgette going from object to subject of her story, because a lot of women see ourselves as objects, based on what we’re shown and taught and how we’re treated.
JOY: Growing up, I would take out books from the school library and hide them in the hamper. I’d wait until my parents fell asleep, and then I’d sneak into the bathroom, turn on the light, and dig out the books and read all night. I still don’t know if they knew I was doing that. Today, with two young kids, and between shows, it’s hard to get input—it’s all output. The other day I got on Amazon and ordered a good writing pen. It cost 15 dollars, but it was totally worth it. I got some nice paper and wrote letters to a couple of friends. There’s something about the solitude of putting pen to paper and writing for someone you care about.
COEL: I’m a huge reader now. I keep going on about this book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. As a kid, I did have a huge reading phase where I was obsessed with Goosebumps—I was marathoning those. I wanted to see how many of them I could read, because there are loads. And then I read a lot of black American love stories. They had loads of sex in them. That was my teenage reading.
ADLON: If I try to take my kids’ phones or computers away from them to get them to read, they always go, “But we need them for homework, mom!” Which is total fucking bullshit. Frankie, you have a young one, right?
SHAW: He’s 9.
ADLON: As a kid, I was allowed one hour of TV a week, two hours on the weekends. And my father was a television writer and producer! I have three daughters, and they’re going to school with boys who are watching porn on their phones. It’s a nightmare.
SHAW: I’m raising a son, so I’m constantly talking to him about the way in which media portrays women. When he’s drawing, let’s say, an army, I’m like, “Which one in the army is a woman? Where’s the woman?” I’m constantly in his ear because of what the narrative in our culture is telling him. We have to combat that. And I think we are all doing that with our shows, because we are female storytellers. We all have our stories. And it seems that, with the #MeToo movement, shame and secrecy are no longer the first things when it comes to women’s stories.
ADLON: I feel like there’s a universal man-shaming going on right now, and it’s massively important. I was very aware of certain young boys going to school with my daughters. I’d be like, “I don’t like this young man. I don’t want him to be the future for my daughters.”
COEL: I think of my mom, for example; she’s a single mom, she emigrated to the U.K. and raised two children, worked all the time—she still works all the time—and she has always been the loveliest, cuddliest, funniest, happiest mom ever. And I think it’s so incredible that she could do that—and that you guys can be working moms as well. I defend my mom at all times. If I’m around my dad, for example, and he’ll be like, “Oh, yes, Michaela got her TV chops from me,” I’ll be like, “Um, no, that’s not you. That comes from mom.”
WAITHE: Even though I did not have a father in my life to be an example of what a strong black man is supposed to be, I definitely found other father figures. As I got older and I saw the media attack black men, I made the conscious decision to make these black men the center of the story in The Chi and to humanize them. I don’t want people to look down on their lives or say that their lives are less valid than anyone else’s. I try to understand their path and their journey, rather than judge it.
JOY: Part of the problem is when you force women into a box and don’t give them full personhood, you’re also depriving men of full personhood. There’s also an archetype for men: this is what sex is, this is what conquest is, this is what being brave is. I don’t want my son to go through that. I want him to be able to be tender and vulnerable. I want him to be able to have some of the pleasures of what is stereotypically associated with being female. On my show we deal with certain tropes; these people are characters programmed to embody certain ideas. There’s the gunslinger character, and usually in Westerns he’s some stoic loner walking into the distance, fading into the horizon. But I was like, “If I’m letting [Evan Rachel Wood’s character] Dolores grow and do things, then shouldn’t he be allowed to break out of that archetype, too?” I’m hoping that this is a good period for women and men, ultimately.
SHAW: More women in the industry is so necessary. I hired all female directors, and half of my crew is female, because we want to give opportunities to those who have not had it. But we’re not just trying to get gender parity. There are huge discrepancies in this world about money and class, so it’s not like we can fight the system by buying our way in; we have to fight the system in order to lend a hand to those who don’t have access.
WAITHE: More often than not, when you walk into a room to pitch your show, whether it be your woman-ness, your blackness, your broke-ness, or your queerness, the person sitting in front of you can’t always relate to your experience. I have to hope and pray that the person can listen to me with an open heart and an open mind, because I’m asking them to empathize with these characters I created that are very much like myself.
ADLON: Okay, last question: When Oprah is elected president in 2020, who is your fantasy band or singer to play at her inauguration?
JOY: Dead or alive?
ADLON: A dead one and an alive one.
WAITHE: Okay, because Whitney Houston is my heart, I’ve got to say Whitney, in her prime. Alive: Solange.
SHAW: Oh my god. The person I listen to all the time is Chance the Rapper. And then I’ll say Bob Marley—don’t make fun of me.
JOY: Billie Holiday would be amazing. And then…I don’t know, I like Florence and the Machine.
COEL: Dead: Nina Simone. Living: I think I’m going to say Janelle Monáe. But it’s not my country!
SHAW: Wait, I’m changing mine. I want Nina Simone!
ADLON: I would say A Tribe Called Quest when Phife Dawg was alive. And then I would say Solange’s sister.
Read Frankie Shaw’s response to the Boston city councilor who criticized her show about Southie
The ‘SMILF’ creator and star penned a lengthy rebuttal on Facebook after City Councilor Ed Flynn called the Showtime show “degrading” to South Boston women.
Frankie Shaw, a Brookline native and the creator and star of the Showtime TV series “SMILF,” thinks Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn should reconsider his opinions of her show about South Boston.
In a lengthy Facebook post Saturday, Shaw defended “SMILF,” which is set and filmed in Southie, after Flynn criticized the show last week as “a degrading, crude, and inaccurate portrayal” of the neighborhood. The city councilor said he received complaints from constituents in South Boston and called for the removal of local advertisements for the acclaimed show, which depicts the hardships of a single mother and was recently renewed for a second season.
Shaw, whose mother grew up in the neighborhood, wrote Saturday that the show is based on her personal experiences and invited Flynn — who has said he hasn’t seen the show — to watch an episode, particularly one that touches on the hardships faced by some working-class women.
“I’m not claiming to represent every single woman in South Boston,” she wrote. “How could I? I’m writing about the people I know and the issues I care about.”
Shaw said she understood why Flynn dislikes the title, which she said was an attempt to reclaim a vulgar acronym. But the 31-year-old actress noted that, unlike other pop culture portrayals of South Boston, her show does not portray the neighborhood as “extremely violent, corrupt and notoriously racist.” She also questioned why Flynn didn’t extend the same creative latitude to her show as had been given to previous male-centric films set in the area.
“I have a feeling that the judgement comes from underlying gender-bias more than anything else,” she wrote. “And I get it, these deep-seated unconscious judgements are centuries old and very hard to recognize. But just like Ben Affleck and Seth MacFarlane, who came into town to make their very male art of chasing women, robbing banks, and getting high with teddy bears, I’d like the same consideration to tell the stories that are important to me.”
Read Shaw’s full response below:
Dear City Councilor @edforBoston,
I’m writing to address your recent complaints about SMILF (the TV show I created for SHOWTIME).
I’d like to invite you to sit down and watch a few episodes of the show as it is my understanding you have yet to watch it. If you don’t have much free time, start with episode eight, where the main character, Bridgette, confronts her father who sexually abused her when she was a child. Or you could check out episode six, which deals with the realities of working class women who are responsible for the caregiving of children and the aging, and raises the question: Does our society have room for mothers to dream? If you don’t have Showtime, look on any of my social media pages for a code for a free 30-day trial or message me back and I’ll hook you up.
I understand your job puts you under an immense amount of pressure. Since I’ll be moving to one of your neighborhoods for five months pretty soon, I wanted to tell you a little bit about me and my show. I was raised by a single mother who grew up in Southie. My Grandma Mary raised six kids by herself on East Fourth street. Growing up, I spent all my free time there hanging out with my aunts and cousin. I don’t know my father, so family to me was all women, all Southie, all the time.
I love Southie. We shot the pilot in the very house my mom grew up in. My uncle Peter, who has schizophrenia and is beloved by everyone in the neighborhood, got to make the most money he’d ever made in his life for his small speaking role as a customer in Joseph’s bakery. All that being said, I’m not claiming to represent every single woman in South Boston. How could I? I’m writing about the people I know and the issues I care about.
I’m not sure why our main character, Bridgette, elicits such a strong reaction. Is it her messiness? In most popular movies and television, South Boston is generally portrayed as extremely violent, corrupt and notoriously racist. We at SMILF are none of these things. SMILF’s Southie is about a woman striving for a better life for her kid. I have a feeling that the judgement comes from underlying gender-bias more than anything else. And I get it, these deep-seated unconscious judgements are centuries old and very hard to recognize. But just like Ben Affleck and Seth MacFarlane, who came into town to make their very male art of chasing women, robbing banks, and getting high with teddy bears, I’d like the same consideration to tell the stories that are important to me.
I’ll admit, I get why you don’t like the title. To me, it was an attempt to reclaim a terrible term, a term that men use to categorize women. I talk about it at length in the Forbes article linked below. And maybe I haven’t succeeded, but if you watch the show, you would understand that by no means am I calling the main character, or any women in South Boston “smilfs.” What’s clear is that I’m telling a personal story about a woman who loves her kid and is also burdened by her circumstances of being a single mom, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and living in a neighborhood she and her own mom can no longer afford. And if you don’t know what to tell the kids about the title’s meaning, you can say what my cousin Jess tells her kids: “It’s a word that is degrading to women and Frankie is trying to use it in a feminist way.” Her kids stare blankly and then walk away. Or you could tell them what I tell my son SMILF stands for: “Single Mom In Love Forever.”
You called my show disgusting. We all have our own opinions of what disgusts us. So many things keep me up at night too, one of them being that my own family can’t afford to live in Southie anymore another is that all the beautiful architecture is being torn down to be turned into condos when instead it should be preserved and turned into landmarks. And don’t even get me started on all the deep-seated systemic injustices faced by SO MANY PEOPLE in our country. Maybe together we can figure out how to really help the people in BOSTON. For now, I’ll keep bringing hundreds of jobs into the city and representing the people the best way I know how, with a whole lot of heart and a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Hope to see you around the neighborhood,