Once they’re past the window in which they can play The Girl, actresses often get lost in the mainstream Hollywood system — roles for adult women remain thin on the ground, especially as studios move away from making mid-budget movies toward turning out fewer, bigger blockbusters that invariably skew toward dudes. The indie film world is in better shape, but television has also proven a more welcoming place for female leads — shows like “The Good Wife,” “Scandal” and “Nashville” all offer more complex protagonists whose lives don’t solely revolve around finding romance, and that’s before we even look to cable.
Anna Faris and Malin Akerman are both actresses who’ve been largely underserved by their film roles, and who both have slightly wobbly TV projects with solid potential kicking off this week. Faris, a brilliant comedienne whose best platform was the Gregg Araki’s stoner comedy “Smiley Face,” seems to have confounded casting directors — she’s too ebullient and sharp a personality to just be assigned an interchangeable place as love interest, unless it’s as a warped version in something like Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report.” Akerman has been stuck in a fair amount of pretty blonde girl roles that don’t utilize her comedic timing, but found a place to shine on “Children’s Hospital.”
Faris’ series “Mom,” which airs tonight, September 23 at 9:30pm on CBS, is actually the stronger of the two, though its old school laugh track style (one of its creators is Chuck Lorre, of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men”) doesn’t jive perfectly with material that’s more earnestly complicated than the average sitcom. Faris plays Christy, a recovering alcoholic single mother whose own disastrous parent Bonnie, played by Allison Janney, comes crashing back into her life, having cleaned up herself. It’s darker than the lighthearted initial air suggests, which is why the multi-camera format seems discordant, but Faris and Janney are both gifted, and underneath the set-up/punchline dialogue lie some genuine emotional tangles. Christy has a lot of banked up rage with regard to Bonnie and how she was raised, but is forced to deal with the fact that despite her valid resentments she doesn’t have a great record with her own teenage daughter, who’s growing up angry about the ways in which she’s been neglected. Christy has to deal with whether or not to forgive her mother in order to prove to her own daughter she deserves such treatment herself.
In addition to her two kids, Christy has a genial deadbeat ex, Baxter (Matt Jones, Badger on “Breaking Bad”), who’s more likely to try to borrow money off of her than pay child support, she works as a waitress and is having an ill-advised affair with her boss. Despite the broadness of the delivery of the jokes, at its heart, “Mom” has some interesting ideas to explore about cycles of poverty, addiction and single motherhood that are pretty hefty for a network comedy, and Faris is able to play Christy as someone who’s got good reasons to feel sorry for herself but who doesn’t generally give into them, and whose prickliness toward her mother isn’t entirely righteous, given her own recent history. CBS is not the most progressive or adventurous network, but the show isn’t all jokes about cocaine use, and Faris and Janney have enough talent to make the combo of studio laughter and single parent misery work.
“Trophy Wife,” which premieres on ABC tomorrow at 9:30pm, is a little more modern — a single-camera comedy created by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins that has a bright, sunny look reminiscent of “Suburgatory” without the surreal touches. Akerman plays Kate, a party girl who meets and marries Pete (Bradley Whitford), a slightly older guy who has two ex-wives and three children. The first ex is a doctor played by Marcia Gay Harden at full intimidation levels and the second is a space case played by Michaela Watkins, but the dynamic between the three isn’t the competitive cattiness that one would expect to be the go-to conflict for this set-up. Instead, Harden’s character Diane doesn’t trust the young, childless Kate to know how to deal with her kids, and not without reason — Kate instinctively talks to the two more like a slightly scurrilous friend than an authority figure, which gets her into trouble in the pilot.
“Trophy Wife” has kind of a terrible title, though the point it makes is clear — we’re seeing the story from Kate’s perspective, which is one in which she’s just fallen in love with a good man and is trying to set up a life with him. It makes Diane’s designation of her as a callow “child bride” seem more unfair than it might from the outside — Kate’s no idiot, she’s just new to having a family and raising children, and has jumped into a very complicated one with little preparation. And the series gets a surprising amount of juice out of physical comedy, from a scene in which Akerman, filling in at a parent-teacher conference, regresses into student form, to another in which she downs a bottle of vodka she has to pretend is water in a gesture to protect her teenage stepdaughter. The role’s a good fit for Akerman, one that finds comedy in the way she looks like a Swedish bombshell and can act like an ungainly goofball, and the intelligence with which it treats the tension between the three grown women in the family is promising.
“Mom” and “Trophy Wife” are both network series, which means they aren’t in a place to try some “Girls”-style gender provocations, but they do offer smarter-than-expected takes on non-nuclear families and the dynamics inherent in households in which roles are still being navigated and sorted out. And both have accomplished lead actresses who’ve proven they deserve roles in which they can show off their comedic and dramatic sides — here’s hoping these will be the right ones.