At the start of its run, Trophy Wife got a warm critical reception in part by winning the expectations game. That isn’t to denigrate the earlier episodes; Trophy Wife has gelled with admirable speed. But it didn’t look promising from afar. Despite its crackerjack cast, the show’s title is a pretty funky albatross, and unless I wasn’t paying enough attention to buses and billboards, ABC didn’t trouble itself to promote the show. (Unlike The Goldbergs, which I saw everywhere.) I initially wrote Trophy Wife off as schedule filler, and I only tuned in because there are only a few performers whose relative obscurity frustrates me, and Malin Akerman is one of them.
I’ve never been so delighted to be wrong. Trophy Wife is firing on all cylinders. “Russ Bradley Morrison” is the funniest episode yet, one that satisfies while still hinting at the show’s untapped potential. This bodes well.
Much of the credit for “Russ Bradley Morrison” undoubtedly goes to Dennis Haysbert, who killed it as the titular character carrying on a passionate—but y’know, antiseptically so—affair with Diane. I had heard Haysbert would appear, and having only seen him projecting presidential gravitas in 24 and mellifluously peddling Allstate’s accident forgiveness policy, I expected him to play the straight man. Instead, Russ Bradley Morrison (a name that cannot, will not be truncated) is some kind of suave weirdo, like John Shaft’s younger brother Harold, who is the cat who won’t cop out when there’s E. coli all about. Can you dig it?
As much as I loved Haysbert’s performance, I loved his and Diane’s story even more, as it demonstrated Trophy Wife’s knack for subverting expectations. I’ve been impressed since the pilot by how the writers avoided framing Diane as an unlikeable shrew, even as she effortlessly menaces Kate with her authority and steely confidence. They doubled-down in “Russ Bradley Morrison,” cementing Diane as a woman whose meticulous exterior obscures the beer-pong brawling good-time girl underneath.
It’s only natural that Kate would assume Diane isn’t getting some (which is not the all-purpose phrase poor Warren thought it was) because that’s the rap so many career women, as if they can only succeed by suppressing their libidos. But after conspiring with Warren to get Diane and Russ Bradley Morrison alone together in a moist, dark place, Kate learns that Diane’s been getting some for two years. When Diane tries to disown the relationship, Russ Bradley Morrison cuts it off with one of the episode’s many winning lines: “I am not a cheap, museum booty call.”
The relationship between Kate and Diane is central to Trophy Wife. The characters freely admit Pete’s marriage to Jackie was a fluke, and Jackie’s wackiness can make the younger Kate the adult in the room. But for Kate’s marriage to work, she has to win Diane’s approval, and for the show to work, Kate has to occasionally win the day with her moxie. Given the dynamic between Kate and Diane, those moments could easily come off forced or contrived, but it’s handled beautifully here with a conflict that strays from parenting, where Diane excels, to romantic relationships, where she doesn’t. Kate’s speech to Warren within earshot of Diane is an awfully sweet moment that pushes their relationship forward without betraying the characters.
The secondary plots aren’t quite as impressive, but this is such a great time in Trophy Wife’s hopefully long run because the characters are still fresh enough to mine gold simply by finding stories that group them in new ways. Given the blended-family set-up and the network association, it’s nearly impossible to avoid comparing Trophy Wife to Modern Family. The former is succeeding for the same reason the latter did early in its run, by using the framework of a blended family to pair characters that would likely never be associated under any other set of circumstances. That dynamic makes the interactions succeed even if the story is slight or light on laughs. Diane and Bert are going to accidentally get locked inside a toy store one of these days, and it’s going to be epic. (I’d prefer Joshua N. Alston for my story credit, if it’s not too much trouble.)
I sincerely hope Trophy Wife finds a bigger audience soon. It deserves one, and if it continues its upward trend, season 2 could approach must-watch-live levels of quality.
I don’t want to give the B- and C-plots less credit than they deserve; both were quite funny.
Between “Bertwheels” and “I’m her brother from another mother. And father,” Bert is working hard to become my favorite character.
Jackie’s support group is G.O.A.L.S.: Goal Oriented Adult Lady entrepreneurS. Hilarious. If I have one quibble about this episode, it’s that I wish Pete hadn’t actually name-checked Misery. The implication was enough for me.
I also want to recognize Marcia Gay Harden, whose performance is really, really excellent. How she manages to make Diane exude sexuality is anybody’s guess.
Diane’s refusal to accept that Kate was never a barista is becoming quite the reliable callback. I just hope the show doesn’t deploy it too often.
“There’s a fight in the Pleistocene Room!” No shock there. It’s easily the most contentious epoch.
Thanks to Brandon Nowalk for letting me drop in this week. He’ll be back for next week’s Christmas episode.