Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pilot Review: Trophy Wife

Trophy Wife (Tuesdays at 9:30 on ABC; Premieres September 24)

Who would have thought a show with a title like Trophy Wife, which immediately conjurs images of trashy bottle blondes in short skirts on the arms of unattractive but wealthy senior men, would be the show with the most heart and warmth in the entire lot of new fall offerings?

Kate (Malin Akerman, of the brilliant short-lived series The Comeback and best known from the film Watchmen) is a gorgeous, young party girl who literally bumps into Pete (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) one night at a karaoke bar. Their first meeting results in a trip to the emergency room for Kate, and soon after they're married. But Kate hasn't just married Pete, she's also inherited his three kids and two ex-wives, resulting in a crazy, blended, nontraditional family Kate could imagine.

Overall, Trophy Wife is probably the most successful new comedy of the season, rivaled only by Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It does have a bit of a "been-there, done-that" feeling in that Kate, who should be the odd one in the equation, all things considered, is actually the most well-adjusted character on screen. But it doesn't really matter, because everything falls into place so well and plays out so charmingly. Akerman shines as the titular character. She gets a really wonderful scene involving a water bottle full of vodka to show off her physical comedy skills, but we also get to witness her sweeter side when we see her really trying to be a mother to her husband's kids, despite how reluctant they are for a third mom. Akerman is definitely more than just good looks, which is exactly what the concept of the show set out to prove. Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (also an Emmy nominee for Law & Order: SVU) and Michaela Watkins (New Girl, Enlightened) provide a healthy dose of humor themselves as Pete's other ex-wives; Harden is a no-nonsense doctor with a steely resolve, and Watkins is a free-loving hippie type. This wife trifecta is the show's most entertaining aspect, particularly because they are each so different from the other, and is a breath of fresh air in the male-dominated comedy landscape of broadcast television. In fact, Whitford, the only adult male regular, is probably the pilot's weakest element. We don't really get a feel for who Pete is as a husband, just as a father (a clueless one, at that), and he's just not as funny or commanding as the three lead women.

Most of creators Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins' script is full of an underlying feeling of warmth. This isn't women behaving badly. It's a smart commentary on how we have preconceived notions of people (well, women) based on appearance, as well as what it takes to be a mother in this complicated contemporary society. That's not to say that the script isn't funny, because it is. There's a nice smattering of chuckle-worthy one-liners, most reserved for Albert Tsai, the littlest cast member who plays the adopted son of Pete and his second wife, Bert. My favorite is one from the previews, where Bert tells Kate's friend Meg, "You're not even a real grown-up. Your car is full of garbage and shoes." There's a pleasant mix of physical comedy, smart dialogue, and romantic-comedy tropes in Trophy Wife to satisfy almost anyone's taste. But the thing that makes it soar higher than almost every other new comedy is its big heart. Kate is a character that's actually worth rooting for, especially because the title and concept immediately causes us to judge her before the show even starts. Seeing her try to be a caring wife and stepmother makes us care for her. She's a good foil for the clueless parenting of her husband, the overbearing parenting of his first wife, and the hands-off parenting of his second. Halpern and Haskins have fun turning our preconceptions on their heads; in turn, it's fun to watch.

I just hope that Trophy Wife can find an audience. It didn't get a great timeslot (following the much-inferior The Goldbergs, even though it would have fit perfectly with Modern Family on Wednesdays); it's hardly been advertised (and how boring is that art up there?); and its title and set-up may turn off some viewers. Despite these factors, it's better than one would expect, and it stands as my favorite new sitcom this fall.

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