“Trophy Wife”: One-Season Wonder

Trophy Wife

Saddled with the unreasonable task of attracting an audience in a toxic timeslot (Tuesdays at 9:30pm) with little promotion, ABC’s Trophy Wife was doomed to fail from a commercial standpoint. As of two weeks ago, it did – the network announced that it had cancelled the show after its first season of 22 episodes.

From a creative standpoint, the show seemed doomed to fail based on title alone. The idea that in 2014, a physically fit young woman who marries an older man could be described with a phrase as derogatory as “trophy wife” gave no one optimism that Trophy Wife would be a show worth championing. Yet the show quickly established that the title is an ironic commentary on the assumptions that people would make about Malin Akerman’s title character based on her appearance. Irony doesn’t always translate well into casual conversation, and indeed, when I tell people I like a show called Trophy Wife, I frequently get looks that would be more appropriate if I had just said that I willingly stepped in dog waste.

But enough about the title. Let’s talk about the show. It was a good one, and I’m going to miss it. I can imagine an alternate reality in which this show became a timeslot complement to ABC’s relatively highly-rated Modern Family and survived for four or five seasons of gleeful hijinks before retreating to a lifetime of syndication on cable. That would have been a far more appropriate fate for a show that married traditional sitcom standards with a modern perspective on family life as well as Modern Family at its very best. Not everything worked – some of Kate’s ongoing struggles to prove that she’s a worthy parent grew repetitive, Jackie’s antics often strained credulity, and Natalie Morales’ Meg usually seemed like an enjoyable character who belonged on a different show. But when it worked, and it frequently did, Trophy Wife showed far more promise than any other new comedy on the networks this season, save Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Enlisted.

The premise, in two sentences: Kate (Akerman) is a college dropout with a wild streak who marries the much-older lawyer Pete (Bradley Whitford) on a whim and falls in love with him. In addition to spending time with Pete, though, Kate also has to introduce herself into the already-wacky Harrison family dynamic, which includes Pete’s ex-wife Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), her children Warren (Ryan Lee) and Hillary (Bailee Madison), Pete’s ex-wife Jackie (Michaela Watkins) and her adopted son Bert (Albert Tsai).

Below, I’ve come up with five reasons to check out this delightful show even though it won’t be continuing. Bottom line: you’ll enjoy it.

Kids

1. From the wildly precocious Bert to the perpetually doe-eyed Warren and the intellectually gifted Hillary, Trophy Wife regularly features the most enjoyable youthful characters on television. Even better, the show portrays all three as people, not just joke machines. Sure, Bert’s one-liners are second to none, but what makes him truly special is his genuine regard for others. Ryan lusting after Kate’s randy friend Meg (Natalie Morales) are never not funny, but his struggle to find friends outside of his family is surprisingly poignant. Hillary’s characterization is not only inherently amusing but clearly a product of being the daughter of Diane, a hard-nosed doctor who isn’t afraid to show off her smarts. Like Modern Family before it, Trophy Wife let kids be kids without sacrificing their potential as viable characters.

Wives

2. Though gender inequality continues to be a serious issue on television, shows with female leads, writers and showrunners have been on the rise in recent years, suggesting that progress is slow but steady. Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern led the writing staff on this comedy, and the female perspective allows the show to subvert the implications of its title, as well as the conventions of family sitcoms, in important ways. Kate never has to convince Pete that she can hold her own as an individual, a parent or a spouse – it’s her fellow women, Pete’s ex-wives, who need the education. The ex-wives, Diane and Jackie (Michaela Watkins) have their neuroses, but each one has a unique parenting style that can be effective in the right situations. By the end of the season, Kate is giving Pete career advice, not only fueled by her desire to spend more time with him, but by desire to see him satisfied with his own career path. In letting women be multifaceted characters who struggle with self-definition, Trophy Wife trumps hoary sitcom tropes and demonstrates that a show doesn’t have to be explicitly about issues of gender to address them effectively

RBM

3. With a cast as rich as this one, the potential for unexpected partner dynamics was nearly endless, and the show took full advantage of the actor combinations at its disposal. Three of my favorites: Kate and Warren on the field trip in “Russ Bradley Morrison”; Jackie and Diane struggling to keep their relationships private in “The Wedding: Part One”; and Pete and Bert learning about the value of money in “There’s No Guy in Team.”

Trophy Wife

4. Even during its excellent first season, Modern Family was frequently dinged for relying on gooey voiceovers that unnecessarily articulated the theme of an episode during its last thirty seconds. Though the show frequently undercut this technique with punchlines at the end of the monologues, the criticisms were valid. Sitcoms that feel obligated to resolve conflicts within the twenty-two minutes of an episode have some responsibility to make us feel like the sentimentality has been earned, that the characters have learned something because they discovered it themselves, not because the script said so. Trophy Wife was quietly adept at this difficult balancing act, rarely leaving conflicts unresolved and yet frequently earning its sentimentality with unexpected conclusions or genuinely sweet moments between characters. The shining example of this feat comes at the end of “The Wedding: Part Two.” It’s unrealistic and unapologetically manipulative, but it works because the actors sell it and the conflict until that point has been grounded in identifiable emotions.

Bert

5. As I’ve said in the past, there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable television. Trophy Wife doesn’t radically reinvent the sitcom, nor should it have to. It takes a well-worn formula, applies a few twists, tosses in a healthy smattering of gifted performers and yields a successful comedy that, in the right hands, might have been a long-running sitcom hit. Instead, it’s a one-season wonder. But one is better than none.

You can stream all of Trophy Wife on Hulu Plus now. My favorite episodes: “Halloween,” “Russ Bradley Morrison,” “Twas the Night Before Christmas…Or Twas It?,” “The Wedding: Part Two,” “There’s No Guy in Team.”

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