From all outward appearances, Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce (inspired by Vicki Iovine’s book series) is simply another “I don’t know how she does it” show about a woman having to do the absurd act of juggling work and family. After all, shows like The Mysteries Of Laura are still being made in 2014 to teach audiences that it is possible to be a cop mom (mom cop), but not without the wackiest of scenarios. Plus, Girlfriends’ Guide’s home network being that of Real Housewives and Watch What Happens Live doesn’t exactly imply that it will be anything resembling quality television. The commercials for the series don’t do it any favors, and cancellation bets can exist for good reason based on the series’ title alone.
And yet, the show is actually good—and not just good for Bravo’s first scripted television show. It’s a very solid drama (which it is, first and foremost) on a cable network not known for its solid drama. In fact, watching Girlfriends’ Guide, once getting past the initial shock of it being a good show, raises a lingering question of why this show is on Bravo and not HBO or Showtime.
The show follows Abby McCarthy (Lisa Edelstein), the best-selling author responsible for the Girlfriends’ Guide self-help book series. To the outside world, Abby is an expert on parenting and marriage, but at home, she and her husband Jake (Paul Adelstein) are separated and doing a pretty poor job of hiding it from their children and friends. These days Abby is associating with the bad girls her brother Max (Patrick Heusinger) calls “the poster moms for divorce”: entertainment lawyer Lyla (Janeane Garofalo) and former model Phoebe (Beau Garrett), who bring their own particular take on life after divorce—full of BDSM and prostitution—to the table, and it’s all just as messy as Abby’s.
That’s the beauty of Girlfriends’ Guide—how messy it is. Visually, it’s almost flawless (there’s one obvious green-screen moment in the pilot, but it’s not Ringer level), but every character here is deeply flawed. What the show does well, besides Abby’s fish-out-of-water story, is refuse to flinch in the face of being heartbreaking and awkward. The show’s biggest strength is that it’s a brutally honest story about starting over and how life kind of sucks, whether you’re single or married. That’s why Lisa Edelstein—who deserves a worthy starring vehicle as reward for those later seasons of House—can say a line like “those poops put you through film school,” and it actually be one of the most intentionally frustrating parts of the episode. Watching the show is like looking through the glass of a deceptively glossy version of the real world, with every one falling deeper into despair. It’s sad, it’s funny, and it’s surprising.
Once the cat is let out of the bag about Abby’s broken marriage—in the most cringe-worthy way possible—she has to learn how to be single again and make her divorce “the only divorce that doesn’t turn your kids into serial killers,” while Jake dates a 25-year-old CW actress. That might make Jake sound like the bad guy in this scenario—and the casting of Paul Adelstein is perfect due to his ability to turn on both the smarm and the charm, depending on the situation—but the show zigs where you think it will zag. Because of that, it allows the characters to be just that: characters. All credit goes to showrunner Marti Noxon—graduating from the Mutant Enemy school of television with Buffy The Vampire Slayer clearly taught her a thing or two about writing fully realized characters from the very beginning.
The best way to describe the tone and style of Girlfriends’ Guide is as a more serious approach to early Cougar Town, mixed with a more personal life-focused version of The Good Wife, and a little bit of the look The Starter Wife did well. That might not be the most eloquent description, but watching the show will make this all the more understandable.
The weakest character in these first two episodes is Abby’s gay brother, Max—whose main saving grace is that he brings J. August Richards to the party as Max’s husband—who obsesses too much about the sanctity of marriage when it comes to Abby and Jake. There’s every chance that the character is simply projecting his own thoughts about the concept of marriage as someone who lives in a world where it’s not even legal everywhere for him to get married, but until that becomes a part of the narrative—as opposed to the argument that he just loves Abby and Jake together—he comes off as a broken record. At one point, he even suggests that Abby is overreacting, because it’s not as if there’s any physical abuse in the relationship. Also, it remains to be seen what Alanna Ubach’s character Jo will bring to the table when she replaces Janeane Garofalo’s Lyla later in the season, especially since Lyla is one of the show’s darker characters.
There’s a very glaring aspect of the show in which women can sometimes be painted as shrews by other characters simply for taking responsibility as the head of a household. The hypocrisy of it all is often on display, but when it’s played straight, it’s frustrating in the worst ways. Still, this isn’t a show that’s truly looking for these characters to be likable, so maybe that’s what it has in common with its Real Housewives network sisters. With most shows on winter break or gearing up for the mid-season, now is the perfect time for Girlfriends’ Guide to find an audience and for an audience to find it.