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.
Serious is overrated.
There’s a tendency in critical discussion of modern entertainment to elevate shows that tackle “dark” and “mature” subject matter (drugs, violence, grief) above shows with sillier, funnier, brighter ideas (family, community, professional and personal success). And it’s not just television. The Oscars rarely, if ever, make room for comedies and lighter movies amid the annual barrage of solemn dramas about historical events and “important issues.” Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and getting recognition for making great comedy is the hardest of all.
To be fair, many of the critically acclaimed dark shows earn their praise – in 2013, for instance, Breaking Bad, Rectify, Mad Men and Hannibal tackled unpleasant subject matter with nuance and artistry aplenty. But too often, good or even great comedies fall by the wayside in our hurry to anoint a new drama as a worthy heir to those titans of TV drama’s alleged Golden Age. But it’s just as important to recognize achievements in comedy, a genre that requires as much talent and passion as drama but in service of a different set of goals and emotions.
While wide swaths of television fans have been obsessing over True Detective and biding their time until Game of Thrones and Mad Men return, two network comedies have quietly shoved their way to the head of the TV class. Enlisted and Trophy Wife both have trappings that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a network comedy before (slapstick, “heartwarming” moments, wacky dancing), but they’re also exploring relatively untapped thematic territory, the casts are deep and diverse, and both shows are (most important for a comedy) really, really funny. But they’re languishing in their timeslots and hurting for viewers as they approach the end of their respective first seasons. Even as critics like Maureen Ryan and Alan Sepinwall have begun to sound the gong in favor of “save this show” campaigns and last-minute timeslot switcheroos, these shows may have been doomed from their first episodes.