The concept for the show sounded so awful, that earlier this summer, when the screeners for ABC's new comedy Trophy Wife were made available to critics, I admit that I put off watching it. How could a network show about a party girl named Kate (Malin Ackerman), who impulsively marries a man she meets at a club Pete, (Bradley Whitford) and sets about finding her place in his extended family, which includes two ex-wives, the perfectionist Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) and the flighty Jackie (Michaela Watkins) be anything other than toxic? Visions of horrible half-hours with "the Slut", "the Bitch", "the Flake" and the put-upon guy who married them all danced in my head.
But because television is a part of the entertainment industry designed to break your heart as, fall after fall, promising shows are cancelled and lowest-common-denominator trash thrives, there are few things happier for a critic than being proved wrong. And while, unlike a lot of my fellow critics, I wasn't charmed by Trophy Wife's first episode, it's an enormous pleasure to report that the show, which comes to us from comedian Sarah Haskins and Private Practice veteran Emily Halpern, has become one of the best new sitcoms of the fall. And proof that Haskins' pushback against gender stereotyping, which was the backbone of her breakout "Target Women" web segments, can survive in the network television environment.
Trophy Wife is one of a new brand of comedies that mines its humor not from negative emotions, but from the inevitable conflicts that arise when a group of very different people commits to the same project, in this case, raising an extended family together. To pull this off, all the adults on Trophy Wife have to be likable, and while the show is working with some difficult tropes, the actresses and writers have zoomed past what might have been easy pitfalls.
For while Kate is the trophy wife of the title, she's not a gold digger or an idiot. She and Pete have an easy, sexy rapport. And her problems with Pete's children don't come from the fact that she regards them as some sort of obstacle in her pursuit of their father, but rather that there's a mismatch between her experience and her capabilities. Kate actively wants to be involved in her step-children's lives--"I could be assistant Crap-Master!" she tells Pete enthusiastically when he warns her that the tasks she's stepping up for aren't all easy or fun. But she runs into trouble because she isn't used to the way kids' minds work, as when her attempts to explain what thongs are and why one might wear them turn a simple breakfast conversation into a minefield.
When Kate is trying to relate to Pete's oldest daughter, she falls into the pitfall of assuming that the comparatively small gap in their ages gives her insights into teenage trends, forgetting how fast fashions and norms change.
And Kate's relationship with her best friend Meg (Natalie Morales), who is still dating and partying, is realistically strained by how fast Kate's life has changed. One of the best moments of the show is a fight between the two when Kate chooses her new kids over her old friend, and Meg accuses her of being boring. Rather than mocking Kate for her troubles, Trophy Wife respects her choices (which are based on Haskins' own experiences) and acknowledges that it's genuinely difficult to become a mother with essentially no notice or preparation time.
Fortunately, it helps that Kate has two intriguing mother models to try to learn from, and Trophy Wife wisely, and to very funny effect, illustrates the advantages of both Jackie and Diane's approaches.
As Diane, Marcia Gay Harden is regal even in the most inopportune circumstances, including meeting her ex-husband's potential new girlfriend in the emergency room of the hospital where she works as a doctor. She's the kind of woman who creates a fake social media account to monitor her children's online activity, and not content with merely setting up the shell profile, turns her pseudonym into the most popular girl in town, all through online posturing. When her children, in violation of house rules, get into a tussle over a snack on the couch and spill salsa all over an expensive white couch cushion, ruining it, Diane tortures them for days, making quesadillas and forcing them to request salsa as condiment, dancing the salsa all over her house, and buying tickets to La Bamba. Her kids are obedient, but not crushed--they're still in possession of their wonderfully particular personalities. But Diane's relationship to them isn't especially warm, either.
By contrast, Jackie is exceptionally close to Bert (wholesale scene thief Albert Tsai), her adopted son with Pete, who she treats more like an equal than a child. She can be nosy: at one point, Pete puts fake rocks all over the front lawn of the house he and Kate share so Jackie will actually have to hunt for their hidden key, rather than simply marching into the house. And Jackie can be precious, warning Kate, who has taken over snack duty at soccer practice, that "There's one kid who can't have oranges. His parents have issues with Florida." But she and Albert have a lovely and open line of communication, and it's a delight to see a parent-child relationship on television where the parents don't seem irritated or distantly bemused by their kids.
These women couldn't be more different in their personal styles or their approaches to parenting, whether they're nascent or long-established. But Trophy Wife achieves a difficult balance in many of its storylines, which often involve each mother figure being wrong in a small way, while still being confirmed in her larger view of parenting.
Trophy Wife is able to do this in part because it's got an exceptionally strong cast of child actors, who can be genuine partners in their scenes with Harden, Watkins, and Ackerman. Bert is anxious and precocious. "Kate, could a doctor steal my uterus?" he asks his step-mother mournfully after he catches a frightening crime show on television, and he dragoons his step-brother Warren (Ryan Lee) into helping him make jewelry his mother dreams of selling at a local boutique so she can make a deadline. Warren is a genial weirdo who's generally unconcerned about his weirdness, whether he's walking around pretending to be a science fictional creature, asking out a popular girl on Facebook, or building Star Wars ships out of legos with Bert. And Hillary (Bailee Madison) is an over-achiever who sneaks out to hook up with a boy named Ace McBrady (Finn Kobler) who got his nickname from his academic record, rather than from whatever kids do instead of hot-rodding these days, and holds her latest step-mother's hard-partying past in contempt.
That the kids on Trophy Wife seem like real people heightens the stakes of the storytelling and the conflict between parenting styles. In one storyline, for example, Kate gets fed up with the way Jackie and Pete humor Bert's bedtime rituals-- "Your water is here. Mr. Bear's water is here. Your clothes are laid out for the entire week, no judgment," Pete tells his youngest son. She's probably right that they've overdone it, but after Bert wears her down, Kate ends up giving in even further, letting the little boy stay up, watch truly terrifying television, and the next day, scarfing down her coffee before a soccer game. A little ritual, as it turns out, tends to go an extremely long way towards forging a manageable compromise that lets Bert fall asleep and the adults sneak out to watch Magic Mike. Kate learns that investing a little bit of quality time with her most demanding step-child turns out to be a way to earn more quiet with her husband. Jackie might seem like a flake and a pushover, but the approach she designed with Pete had a method in its indulgence of Bert's flights of fancies. And because Bert is a genuinely engaging little boy, you can see why Kate feels so badly for having mismanaged his bedtime. It's not just that she wants to show Jackie she can be responsible. Kate feels bad for having scared, underslept, and overcaffeinated her son.
Similarly, Kate learns the limits of being the cool parent when Diane discovers that Hillary's been sneaking out to see a boy. Diane's approach to tracking Hillary's life might seem maniacal--and when does she have so much time to pretend to be a teenage girl in between her high-powered career as a doctor? But she does prove more on it than her co-parents in knowing what Hillary is up to. Kate insists that Hillary should be trusted, not grounded, and takes her to meet her friends at the movies, only to discover her headed to a party, albeit with a friend who drives the speed limit and pulls over to text, hardly the stuff of teenaged shenanigans. In the end, all the adults turn up at the party, which turns out to be rather chaste board games and pizza. Diane, it seemed, was right to want to know what Hillary was up to, and Kate was correct that they had a fundamentally good kid on their hands.
In this sense, Trophy Wife is a terrific heir to Modern Family, a once-sharp comedy that's begun to show its age. When it debuted, Modern Family was modern in the sense of the actual shape of the extended family at its center, which consisted of a gay couple with an adopted child, a straight couple and their three biological children, and a recently-remarried patriarch with a much younger wife and son. Trophy Wife throws single mothers into the mix, because Jackie and Diane have not remarried. But it 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.