“You can stop trying so hard,” says the eldest daughter of lawyer Pete (Bradley Whitford) to her new stepmom Kate (Malin Akerman). I know how she feels. The worst part of Trophy Wife is the sweat pouring off of this thing as these talented performers work overtime to prove the show is funny. Believe me, we’re aware. Malin Akerman isn’t just the oblivious recipient of endless good fortune (read: the young and beautiful one) on The Comeback anymore. She’s the moodswingingest doctor in Brazil on Childrens Hospital. On the other hand, before Trophy Wife, I wouldn’t have immediately thought of her as such a physical, versatile performer. She’s so Scandinavian she eats popsicles by biting. But afterward, even with some rust on the gears, I wonder if she might not become this season’s Elisha Cuthbert.
Hectic is fine. The Middle is hectic, and the Heck family is just five people. It’s perfectly understandable to see Akerman’s youngest wife struggling with her new position in her new corporate relationship infrastructure. It’s working overtime that kills the comedy. Like when Bradley Whitford can’t manage the simplest tripod anyone has ever seen. Or when the minimum-wage after-school pet-shop employee denies the parents replacement hamsters like he’s never seen a sitcom before (or perhaps because he’s seen them too well). Even Akerman’s klutzy departure from the classroom is pushing it, although she sells the Michelle Simms style of being in way over her head well enough to earn a pass. (Also like Bunheads, Akerman’s one tie to her old life is her best friend Meg, played by Natalie Morales, although on Trophy Wife, the friend sometimes covers dance class for her.)
On the bright side, Modern Family settled down, Suburgatory chilled out, The Neighbors found a rhythm. Trophy Wife is just the new family sitcom on the block, trying to establish its Big Love premise quickly. Starting with Bradley Whitford’s kinda handsome, kinda charming patriarch and his three overlapping families: Marcia Gay Harden’s tight-lipped leader ex-wife Diane and her tween twins; Michaela Watkin’s spiritual ex Jackie (although in this case her piety serves New Age faith instead of Mormonism) and her adopted Chinese son Bert; and now Kate as the young and inexperienced one trying to provide continuity of service to her clients, uh, children. Add Natalie Morales as a sometime care-giver and you have all the seeds of a Modern Family sketch.
While Whitford is playing his relaxed Sorkin Man and Morales is playing her hip twentysomething, the casting of the wives is counterintuitive genius. Not only is icy Akerman stretching like never before. Dry Michaela Watkins is all touchy-feely, and Marcia Gay Harden, so emotional on film (Mystic River, Into The Wild), is a picture of WASPy composure. Maybe that’s why the wives’ archetypes are so fresh here. Gay Harden isn’t just some passive-aggression robot. Look at the way she interacts with the teacher or has a contained explosion all over Kate. Best of all, Watkins’ sarcasm brings the helicopter mommy down to earth. For a ball of maternal emotion, she’s still pretty matter-of-fact about most things.
The kids have their plots, too, although they’re more Sons And Daughters indirect objects than Big Love free agents. Daughter Hillary is Not Impressed, her twin brother Warren (the one with the braces from Super 8) is between play-acting Poseidon and writing odes to milky grapefruits, and Bert is the baby, loud and spoiled (Note: not an actual baby). In the premiere, Kate inadvertently—stupidly but inadvertently—gives Hillary the idea to sneak vodka into a concert in a water bottle, but Kate catches her and downs the bottle to spare her punishment from Diane. It’s the biggest stretch of the episode—Diane ordering Kate to give Warren her water just because he’s thirsty, the scene being set at a school with no water fountains, Kate deciding to drink it all instead of just saying it’s not water or pouring it out—which probably isn’t worth the few jokes like the burp-cut to title card and Kate’s Diane impression. (Also a winner: drunk Kate grabbing a girl’s ankle and responding to her protests with the perennial, “Shhh-shut up.”) At least it ultimately melts some ice between Kate and Hillary, a promising relationship. Warren gets the lighter touch, his dorkiness and hormones taken mostly in stride by his parents. One of Pete’s only dad moments comes when Warren heroically, Greek-god-ishly steps in to accompany his crush, Hillary’s friend, to the concert that Hillary is grounded from. In that father-knows-best Sorkin way, he exhales, “Hey, buddy, leave the trident.”
But the best stuff isn’t the parenting of every other show but the way this particular family gets along: the way everyone’s used to Meg filling in and the way she interacts with Bert; Jackie greeting Diane with a hug and a sturdy pat, saying, “You are an oak!”; Pete confounding Jackie with dozens of hide-a-keys. That’s what will separate Trophy Wife from all of ABC’s exes. That and bribing the audience with a new puppy.
- Yeah, the title is a baggy sweater, although I suppose there’s potential to really go full trophy wife in the future.
- As Todd notes in his review, this show is great at suggesting history: “Diane, you promised to be less litigious.”
- “I bought Bert a puppy today, because I killed Jose.” “The gardener?” I laughed, but maybe reminding the audience that yet another family sitcom is nearly all-white isn’t the best approach.