Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in this, our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, the TV Reviews section doesn't replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The best comedy relies on point-of-view. There’s nothing funnier than when one character has a funny perspective on a situation, then another character has a different funny perspective, then still another has a perspective that’s even crazier, and on and on down the line. Yet this sort of thing is monstrously hard to do in a TV comedy pilot, where a world and characters must be sketched skillfully enough to make viewers want to watch week after week, all in 22 minutes or so. The best comedy pilots usually center on one core character or relationship, then build outward as the series progresses. The new ABC series Trophy Wife takes the opposite approach, going all out in its pilot, hoping that the center will hold. That it mostly does makes this one of the more enjoyable pilots of the fall.
Malin Akerman stars as a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly falling for Bradley Whitford, who’s several years her senior and comes with three kids and two ex-wives, both of whom are still active parts of his life. Akerman’s only real connection is her best friend Natalie Morales, who provides a tie to her single days—but in the space of about five minutes, Akerman goes from mourning a bad break-up via karaoke to breaking Whitford’s nose to falling for him to cooking breakfast for his kids one morning as their new stepmom. It’s dizzying, and it should feel disorienting. That it doesn’t provides a big clue to why the pilot works: The script by co-creators Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins is well-organized when it comes to doling out information.
Look, for instance, at how the two let viewers know Whitford is a high-powered lawyer, which is how he can afford this lavish lifestyle. Instead of having him come out and say this, he shows Akerman a scar he got when he slipped on the icy steps at law school, then elaborates that he paid for law school by suing the school in the wake of the incident. It’s not showy or ostentatious; it’s just good exposition. These nuggets of information are sprinkled throughout Trophy Wife, and the show has a supreme confidence in its ability to reveal character through conflict, something many comedy pilots avoid.
Similarly smart is how the series uses Akerman. She’s a broad, broad actress, who’s never met a joke she couldn’t underline with some graceful flailing. A series where everyone was trying to meet her pitch would be horrifying. Instead, Trophy Wife surrounds Akerman with smart, sarcastic folks and loopy weirdoes. There are a whole bunch of different kinds of comic energy orbiting the show’s center, and that’s a good sign at this stage of a comedy’s development.
In particular, the series is smart about letting viewers know the point of view of everyone in the show, from Akerman to Whitford to all of the kids, right down to the 7-year-old adopted son from China. These points of view are inherently in conflict most of the time, which makes for funnier gags, particularly when any character reacts incredulously to something Akerman has done. This all sounds like basic storytelling, but it’s a surprise how few pilots this fall season even have that. The characters on Trophy Wife all like each other, but they also want very different things, and the humor and stories arise from that.
This is most evident when it comes to Whitford’s two ex-wives, Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins. Both actresses are here to do what they do well—Harden a kind of deadpan irritation and Watkins a spacey strangeness—but the show makes smart use of “the Marcia Gay Harden part” and “the Michaela Watkins part.” The also smartly pairs off the characters in interesting dynamics, even at this early stage, rather than have everything center on Akerman. It’s as likely to send Whitford and Watkins off on a hamster-buying spree as it is to have Morales shepherd around pint-sized Albert Tsai. Building unlikely relationships is another important thing for young sitcoms to do in the early going, and it’s fun to watch Trophy Wife figuring this out in its pilot.
To anyone who’s followed the work of Trophy Wife co-creator Haskins, none of this will be a surprise. Her work for Current TV’s InfoMania—specifically the “Target Women” segment she created and wrote—frequently presented some of the sharpest satire on gender roles on the Internet, and many of the more personal moments in Trophy Wife feel particularly lived-in because Haskins lived out some of the situations from the show. (She married a man with a pre-existing family.) Though the title suggests a vapid dumbbell, the script works to undercut that at all times. This is a woman who’s struggling to be both independent and a rock for her new stepkids. It’s handled with humor, but it’s all present in the core of the show.
The show is far from perfect. Akerman could stand to rein it in, and the use of voiceover seems too often a crutch, particularly in the pilot’s early going. The storylines are the basic ABC family sitcom stories about parents dealing with kids and swapping out dead hamsters for live ones and the like. There’s also the discomfiting sense here that all of the characters’ problems are easily solved because they’re upper-class white people, an unfortunate trait of many ABC sitcoms that tends to stop both conflict and comedy in their tracks. But no matter to all of that. It’s easily fixable over the course of a first season. In its pilot form, at least, Trophy Wife is surprisingly self-assured and confident, the sort of show that seems ready to hit its stride in just a week or two.
Created by: Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins
Starring: Malin Akerman, Bradley Whitford, Marcia Gay Harden, Michaela Watkins
Debuting: Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Single-camera half-hour sitcom
Pilot watched for review