HOLLYWOOD — Frankie Shaw tugged at her nubby wool sweater as she dashed across the lot of Sunset Gower Studios. It was nearly 80 degrees in Los Angeles in mid-October, but she was dressed for a winter day in Boston — the setting of “SMILF,” Showtime’s new dark-humored series about a young single mother.
Not only does the 36-year-old Ms. Shaw star in “SMILF,” but she also serves as the showrunner, a writer and an occasional director and editor. These responsibilities require extreme multitasking. Grabbing lunch while conducting an interview, Ms. Shaw was handed a note informing her that the next scene was shooting in 20 minutes. But she had to get her hair and makeup done, a 40-minute process. She stared at the note dumbfounded, as if trying to figure out how to circumvent the laws of physics.
After five years of struggle to get “SMILF” made, Ms. Shaw doesn’t mind hustling a little more. Loosely based on her own life, the series follows Bridgette Bird, a working-class, 20-something actress raising a toddler in a cramped South Boston apartment. Bridgette is a ball of confusion and desire, craving sex and food and love and basketball with ravenous intensity — all while trying to pay the bills.
A fan of the abrasively realistic depiction of motherhood on “Roseanne,” Ms. Shaw was determined to create a vision of modern parenting that resembled her own ramshackle experience. In the first episode, Bridgette interrogates her gynecologist about the state of her vagina, leaves her toddler alone while she runs to the corner store for junk food and tries to have sex with an ex-boyfriend while her son silently snoozes beside them. The guy flees when he notices a tiny foot stirring under the blankets.
Television moms face daunting expectations. They’re supposed to be attractive, but not actively sexual; they’re allowed to have a life of their own as long as they always put their child first. “SMILF” rides roughshod over those unspoken rules. At a Television Critics Association news conference this summer, Ms. Shaw got a taste of the disapproval her character may incur when asked if she had ever left her own child alone. “‘Because I would never do that!’” Ms. Shaw recalled the critic scolding. “It really stirs up a strong reaction, because everyone has an opinion on mothers.”
“SMILF” revives the tradition of unruly antiheroines that was Showtime’s signature brand under the channel’s former president of entertainment, Robert Greenblatt. Series like “Weeds,” “Nurse Jackie,” “United States of Tara” and “The Big C” — all created by female showrunners — flaunted characters who kicked against the constraints of conventional domesticity.
“We moved away from the solo female-lead comedy for a while,” David Nevins, Showtime’s chief executive, acknowledged. The network shifted toward “bigger shows, more ensemble shows,” as he put it, many of them (“House of Lies,” “Ray Donovan,” “Billions,” “Roadies”) with a distinctly cocky, masculine kick. But as the cable and streaming TV landscape grows ever more competitive, Showtime is looking to restore some balance. “Female voices and a female point of view are still core to who we are,” Mr. Nevins said, noting that “SMILF” specifically appealed to him because of a cast of characters that comprises “women different in terms of age, class and, to a certain extent, race.”
Supporting characters include Bridgette’s stay-at-home-mom boss (Connie Britton), her best friend (Raven Goodwin) and her depressive mother (Rosie O’Donnell).
“One of the themes I want to talk about in the show is, Can moms dream?” Ms. Shaw said. “And can you follow your dreams when you are constricted by your socioeconomic class? There’s one episode where Bridgette tells her mom, ‘I would just kill myself if I were your age and didn’t make anything of my life!’”
Ms. Shaw is herself the product of a single-mother, working-class household: Her parents split when she was 4, and her mother raised her and her half brother in Brookline, Mass., though she spent weekends at her grandmother’s house in South Boston. In her junior year of high school, she got a scholarship to the private Milton Academy, which in turn encouraged her to apply to college; she ended up at Barnard, though she had never visited New York.
After graduation, Ms. Shaw embarked on an acting career, fell into a tempestuous relationship with a fellow actor, Mark Webber, and got pregnant with her son, Isaac. “When my son was small, he just came with me everywhere, whether was it was going to yoga class or auditions or sleeping over at friends’ houses,” she said. “We came as a pair.”
Although she’s had recurring roles in “Mr. Robot” and “Good Girls Revolt,” and recently co-starred in “Stronger,” a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing, she is still most often recognized for her role as a nubile cheerleader on the crude Spike college-football comedy “Blue Mountain State.” “I am always saying to people, ‘Sorry, I am not actually a spray-tanned woman with triple-D breasts!’” In reality, Ms. Shaw is pale and slim, exuding a chill enthusiasm that could easily be mistaken for shyness as she quietly consults with crew members on camera positions and feeds actors alternative lines.
She first tried to write in her early 20s but consigned her script to a drawer after becoming pregnant. Several years later, she tried again, with a story inspired by her travails as a broke actress and mother in Los Angeles. Worried that she was too much of an unknown for a network, Ms. Shaw made it into a nine-minute movie, which won the Sundance Film Festival’s United States short fiction jury award. She followed that with another short, “Too Legit,” a satirical movie about campus rape featuring Zoë Kravitz and Teresa Palmer. Befitting the vaguely soap-operatic narrative of Ms. Shaw’s life, Ms. Palmer happens to be Mr. Webber’s wife and the mother of Isaac’s half brothers.
This tangled extended family and the sometimes painful compromises of parenting all made their way into the final incarnation of “SMILF.” Ms. Shaw described Mr. Webber as “one of my closest friends, like siblings,” but learning to share Isaac in recent years has been complicated. “It is painful, but you work it out,” she said.
Mr. Nevins said he immediately recognized “SMILF” as “an auteur comedy” and agreed to let Ms. Shaw be the sole showrunner. “We knew we were buying her voice and tried hard to surround her with people who could help her,” like Scott King, an executive producer of “Difficult People.” “That indomitability in Bridgette’s character, you see it in Frankie the creative artist,” he said. “She is not thrown by anything.”
Ms. O’Donnell said she’s been impressed by Ms. Shaw’s tenacity and attention to detail. “Frankie is a virtuoso,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “She handles everything with such specificity — she cares so much about the little things, like how much gray is in a character’s hair or which scratchies they are picking up at the deli.”
In her production office beneath a collage of photos she has taped to the wall sits a vision board of powerful, idiosyncratic women that includes Gena Rowlands, Alia Shawkat and Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Ms. Shaw seems both astonished that Showtime gave her so much control and determined to make the most of it.
She enthused over developing an idea in which “white Bridgette meets herself as black Bridgette” and talked about how she wanted to avoid sexualizing her character’s first nude scene. Instead, we see her character sitting bare breasted in the tub as she playfully bathes her son.
One of Ms. Shaw’s mentors, Jill Soloway, the creator and showrunner of “Transparent,” likes to use the term “female gaze” to describe the fresh perspective you get when women call the shots in TV and film.
“It can’t help but be from my point of view,” Ms. Shaw said of “SMILF.” “This is what happens when you have a woman at the forefront of the story.”