‘Trophy Wife,’ better than its title
The wives, new and old, and their chemistry carry the ABC sitcom
September 11, 2013
The character of the trophy wife — a younger woman married to a successful and usually divorced older man — is traditionally treated with ridicule or scorn on TV, maybe because women envy her youth and looks or maybe because men envy his luck. So when ABC decided to air a new fall sitcom with the title “Trophy Wife,” the network was asking for trouble.
ABC will probably escape unharmed: Thanks to appealing female leads and a clever script, “Trophy Wife” transcends its simplistic title. The show could, like ABC’s “Cougar Town,” get bigger than its premise and draw us into the relationships among the well-drawn characters.
Premiering on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 9:30 p.m., “Trophy Wife” spends little time on the potentially icky relationship between its title character, a formerly fancy-free woman named Kate (Malin Akerman), and her new husband, a lawyer named Pete (Bradley Whitford). It focuses more on each spouse’s relationship with Pete’s two ex-wives, the Type A physician Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), with whom he has two teenage children, Warren (Ryan Scott Lee) and Hillary (Bailee Madison), and the New Agey Jackie (Michaela Watkins), with whom he adopted Bert (Albert Tsai).
In the premiere, Kate clashes with Diane when the two women are called into school because Warren’s teacher thinks a short story he wrote is a disguised sex fantasy about Kate. Also, after Kate reminisces about using water bottles to smuggle vodka into concerts as a teenager, Hillary tries the same trick.
Jackie tries to sneak into Pete and Kate’s house to replace Bert’s dead hamster with its live twin. She and Pete have to visit several pet shops to find identical hamsters.
Bert, meanwhile, is being taken to music lessons by Kate’s irresponsible single friend Meg (Natalie Morales), who leaves him in the car while she goes to pick up her paycheck at the bar where she works.
The stories take several farcical turns: For example, when the surviving hamster escapes, Pete slams a door on it. Everyone eventually winds up in a large, chaotic crowd on Pete and Kate’s front lawn.
In an early flashback, Kate and Pete meet cute in a karaoke bar when she stumbles off the stage and breaks his nose with the microphone. Later, she sets off the smoke alarm while trying to make breakfast for Warren and Hillary. Clumsiness is frequently added as a character trait when beautiful actresses are playing someone with whom we’re supposed to identify.
In a similar vein, Kate is unintentionally drunk for most of the episode, having guzzled the vodka that Hillary was carrying in an attempt to keep both of them from getting into trouble with Diane.
The main source of comic energy in the episode is Kate’s contrast with the no-nonsense Diane and Pete’s contrast with the all-nonsense Jackie. Given the show’s title, one might expect more attention to be paid to the contrast between the new spouses.
But May-December marriages, while nearly always slightly ridiculous, are also slightly sad. An early warning is a brief reference to a melanoma scar on Pete’s arm. When Kate jokes that she hates melanoma, many viewers will still think, “Then you’re with the wrong guy.”
Since Malin Akerman and Bradley Whitford are talented performers, they might be able to find the humor in the marriage. But in the premiere, they reveal little chemistry in their brief scenes together.
Fortunately, the two ex-wives are fully realized characters who should grow on viewers. “Trophy Wife” should be able to continue to delve into the absurdities of Pete’s overextended family without dwelling too much on the awkwardness at the show’s heart.
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