With November sweeps fast approaching, the broadcast networks have been culling the ranks of the fall’s new shows: Happy trails, Ironside; nice (not) knowing you, Welcome to the Family. That means it’s also time for critics to dig in their heels and stump for their on-the-bubble favorites. If you follow the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum, Time‘s James Poniewozik or ThinkProgress/Women and Hollywood’s Alyssa Rosenberg, it’s no surprise they’re fans of ABC’s Trophy Wife, which notwithstanding its title is an ensemble comedy about a newly married couple (Malin Akerman and Bradley Whitford), his two ex-wives (Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watson) and the three children of his previous marriages. But as the show sank to a series-low rating with last night’s episode, all three offered long-form praise and not-so-veiled pleas to save it from cancellation.
First, however, there’s that name. “Please ignore its terrible title,” Nussbaum implored. “Cougar Town and The Good Wife have the same problem, and they’re great shows, too.” Perhaps Slate’s Willa Paskin was right when she wrote, “There’s no such thing as too bland a sitcom title,” but Poniewozik argues that it sets the tone for a show that starts with stock characters — the humorless, high-powered ex-wife; the hot young new one — and then undermines them:
Stereotypes are the beginning points of many a sitcom, the universal soil medium from which characters and situations grow. The question is where the show goes from there. What Trophy Wife does, brilliantly, is to steer into those assumptions and shows you that these people, like most people, are more than they first seem, and that it knows them better than you might think it does.
It’s a delicate balance, and one the show’s still tweaking: Last night’s ’80s-themed episode erred on the broad side, with Watkins’ New Age flake incredulously raiding Whitford and Akerman’s fridge: “Hello! Where’s the llama milk?” But it also opened with a great scene where Whitford and Akerman walk into their kitchen and start badmouthing Harden’s hard-nosed ex-, unaware that she’s virtually eavesdropping via an in-progress Skype session with her and Whitford’s kids. The action is neatly staged with Harden’s MacBook-framed face in the foreground and the couple behind the kitchen island, literally and figuratively presenting two perspectives at once. You see how Whitford’s younger wife gives him the freedom to act like a kid, and how Harden is forced into being the scold. (As NPR’s Linda Holmes has said on Twitter, Trophy Wife manages to show both how Whitford could have been married to his previous wives and why he no longer is.) The scene ends with Whitford and Akerman hiding on the floor like naughty schoolchildren, cuddling close as she playfully taunts him: “You used to kiss that.” The previous episode, in which Akerman is torn between her stepmotherly duties and her allegiance to still-single friend Natalie Morales, plays off those tensions at greater and more successful length. If you only have time to sample one episode, “The Breakup” is it.
Inevitably, Trophy Wife gets measured against Modern Family, and even if it comes out ahead, the comparison seems to foster a sense that it’s redundant and makes it seem less progressive. Modern Family has gay parents and interracial spouses; Trophy Wife is largely about the problems of successful suburban whites. (Watkins’ character has an adopted Chinese son and is too ditzy to hold a job for long, but she has Whitford’s alimony to fall back on.) But Rosenberg points out that Trophy Wife is radical in its own way.
[I]t also goes a step further in offering genuinely contrasting approaches to parenting on every issue from bedtime to children’s social media use. And most radically, in an era when every parent’s eager to present their way of doing things as better than anyone else’s, Trophy Wife suggests that everyone might have something valuable to offer. Now that’s a really modern approach to family.
Trophy Wife‘s sure-footedness varies week to week, but it’s the exceedingly rare new sitcom that feels like it’s known from the pilot what it wants to accomplish: Right from the beginning, it felt like a show. Harden, who you’d never expect could be this funny, and the chronically underused Watkins, burst onto the scene with fully formed comic personae, sharply written and deftly performed. Though the ratings don’t suggest it, this isn’t the kind of critics’ darling that’s a lost cause: Trophy Wife is smart and incisive but also cute and charming and commendably unafraid of a dumb joke. It’s a hit show; it’s just not a hit yet.
Watch Trophy Wife‘s “The Breakup” on Hulu.