Full disclosure: I have never been divorced (or married), or had kids, so I can’t attest to the veracity of the events in Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce on a personal level. As a viewer well-versed in girlfriendy television, though, I feel more than adequately qualified to pass judgment. And my gut feeling is that this is a promising female-centric show that has been Bravo-ified into being more generic than its origins suggest.
Consider its creator: Marti Noxon, a former Buffy scribe/producer and writer of the sharp-fanged 2011 Fright Night remake, in addition to scripts for Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, and Glee. The show is adapted, loosely, from the Girlfriends’ Guide series of self-help books by Vicki Iovine, but it was the Noxon name that promised wit, some cultural commentary, and a way of existing within a genre without succumbing to its clichés.
Originally created as a half-hour comedy for Showtime, Girlfriends’ Guide was expanded to an hour-long dramedy when it moved to Bravo, and Noxon spoke of the move as “changing its DNA,” allowing it to include more characters and flesh out storylines. She also revealed that “the series will explore the balance of power when women earn more than men or have greater success in their careers, as well as the impact of divorce on men.” All good, so far.
I also thought it spoke well of Bravo to be branching out from their phalanx of reality shows about rich, entitled women who willingly let themselves be billed as “Housewives” and draw in viewers with their weekly Chardonnay-fueled fights.
On its face, Girlfriends’ Guide is definitely a step forward for the network. It concerns three middle-aged LA women dealing with various stages of marriage breakup. Lisa Edelstein (House) is Abby, the author of the series of Girlfriends’ Guide books, whose marriage is falling apart, ironically, at exactly the same moment that her guide to “Getting Your Groove Back” is being released. Janeane Garofalo — another person whose very presence always gives me confidence in the quality of a show or movie — is Lyla, also getting divorced and highly vindictive toward her ex and furious over their battle regarding custody of the kids. And then there’s Beau Garrett as Phoebe, a model, who seems to breeze through life in a haze of plastic surgery, herbal cigarettes, and great sex. If there’s a Samantha Jones equivalent on this show, it’s her.
There are a number of things about Girlfriends’ Guide that bear an unavoidable resemblance to Sex and the City — not that there’s anything wrong with that. (I know there are lots of SATC haters out there, but the show got a lot right, especially in its early years, and you try turning on the television and NOT sitting through a syndicated episode if you happen to catch one).
But the show has a trickier balance to manage than a sitcom about a sex column; Girlfriends’ Guide seems to be half-girlfriend comedy and half-pretty serious forays into the divorce battle zone, as seen during one fight between Abby and her husband that escalates into pushing, with their kids walking in on it. Another scene sees Lyla getting her ex-husband drunk, having sex with him, then calling to report him as a drunk driver when he leaves. Playing dirty, it seems, is a chapter in her guide.
But I don’t have a problem with the fighting; the writing in these areas is when the show seems at its most real, especially when compared to the aforementioned, stagey tantrums thrown for the benefit of the cameras on reality shows. The show also takes a slyly progressive stance in the form of Abby’s brother (Patrick Heusinger), who’s initially described as being too “traditional” for her to confide in about the breakup of her marriage — despite the fact that he happens to be married to a guy.
What I do have a problem with are the larger trappings of the Girlfriends’ Guide universe, in which everyone is gorgeous in the same way. Garofalo, in particular, seems so out of her comfort zone in her character’s tight, patterned outfits and taut forehead. She’s one of the best at comedy routines about the impossible beauty standards put on women, so this transformation bums me out a little. Still, I know everyone needs to pay the bills.
Also, the friends’ main hobby seems to be shopping in high-end boutiques; getting surgical improvements to your body is considered A-OK (at one point, Phoebe shows off her new boobs while IN a boutique); and nightclub hookups and threeways are the answer to any existential quandaries about splitting up or aging.
It’s not that I’m against any of these things, per se, but man, have we seen them in women-centric fare ad nauseam. It’d be nice to think there might be other, more nuanced ways for fortysomething women to explore the confusion that ensues after you blow up the life you thought you’d be living for the long haul. Or that being older and wiser doesn’t have to mean feeling like you need to look younger and more brainless in order to get over your ex.
Also, there’s just a lot of general wealth porn — par for the course for Bravo. Everyone lives in a mansion, drives a gorgeous car, and never seems to have to worry about money beyond making sure they don’t get bilked out of their enormous share in the split. Real-life financial worries don’t seem a part of this world, and I know that’s hardly a rarity on shows, especially on this lifestyle-aspirational channel, but still, personally, the complete ignorance of the subject leaves me a little cold.
I know shows take a while to find their footing, so I’m not ruling out Girlfriends’ Guide entirely. I want to believe in the power of the Noxon! I want to know that Carrie Fisher’s hilarious if brief presence as Abby’s agent is not wasted here. (I did read that Garofalo is leaving the show after the sixth episode, which slightly lessens my interest.)
However, Noxon is also, reportedly, working on adapting the Gillian Flynn novel Sharp Objects for TV. So maybe if the Girlfriend thing doesn’t work out, the Gone Girl thing will.