Of all the forms of screen-based entertainment, TV is my favorite. I think that’s because I enjoy following characters over the course of several seasons, and sometimes more. Of course, this can lead to an unhealthy attachment to particular outcomes for said characters, which can lead to full-scale depression when said outcomes do not occur.
Anyway, because I love TV, I also love the start of the new TV season every fall. I’m usually willing to give most new shows a few episodes to win me over, even shows whose premises sound stupid. And that’s just how I felt about the way Trophy Wife was presented prior to its debut on September 24th. First, there’s that awful title. It’s almost as bad as Cougar Town. Why would I want to watch a show in which a woman my own age is married to a man 20 years older than she is because he’s looking for a “trophy”? And blended family sitcoms tend to be hit or miss. It’s difficult not to create caricatures rather than characters when you’re trying to manufacture laughs out of those kinds of relationships. So I was not very hopeful about Trophy Wife.
The pilot didn’t start out great. The titular wife, Kate (Malin Akerman), is pressed up against the back window of a car, sloppy drunk, and said car is being driven by Kate’s husband Pete’s (Bradley Whitford) first ex-wife, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden). Yes, that’s first ex-wife. He has another. We’ll get to her. Flash back to one year earlier, and Kate is singing karaoke with her best friend Meg (Natalie Morales, a bit one-note in her depiction of an “extended adolescent”). Kate falls over the side of a booth and smacks Pete in the mouth with a microphone. Cut to them in the ER waiting room, comparing scars and meeting cute.
But as the episode went along, it began to win me over. It turns out Kate isn’t drunk because she’s a party girl who can’t change her ways. In fact, if you watch it (it’s available on Hulu Plus), you’ll see that the reason for her intoxication is actually pretty sweet. She may turn out to be a quality stepmom after all.
The best part of this show, and the thing that saves it from unfortunate cliches and dumb jokes, is the performances. Akerman is all sunshine and eagerness as Kate; she clearly loves Pete, for a lot more than just his money, and she genuinely desires to be a good mother to his three children. She puts her whole heart into doing things for them, and though she has some missteps, she also has some wins. The ex-wives balance Kate; Diane is an uptight, perfectionist doctor who constantly reminds Kate of how young and inexperienced she is, and Jackie (Michaela Watkins) is your classic New Age nut, constantly talking about herbal remedies and auras and such. She would be a lot less funny if she weren’t played by Watkins, who gives her an earnest sincerity. Both the ex-wives turn up in every episode for different reasons, and most of the time they all get along great. Of course, there are moments, but it’s nice to see a family that’s gone through multiple divorces and yet doesn’t ooze vitriol and hostility.
The kids are great too. Diane and Peter have 15-year-old twins, Hillary (Bailee Madison) and Warren (Ryan Lee). Madison does a fantastic job mimicking Harden’s no-nonsense demeanor, but livens it up with a teenager’s dramatic expressions. Warren is all buck teeth and not realizing the joke is on him. Lee makes us believe every minute of it. And then there’s Pete and Jackie’s adopted Chinese son, Bert, played adorably by Albert Tsai, who gets all the best lines. Tsai delivers each and every one with total conviction and gusto, and he’s hilarious.
Trophy Wife also features some great guest spots. Recently, Pete and Kate decided to hold an actual wedding ceremony since they had previously eloped. Bob Gunton and Florence Henderson played Pete’s parents, and Megan Mullally, whose career has taken on a second life with a series of kooky cameos, played Kate’s off-the-wall mother, Cricket. The great thing about this ensemble cast is that they easily absorb anyone else in the vicinity, creating a chaos of humor and joy.
You should try it. You’ll probably smile, and you might even laugh.