Trophy Wife, a very promising new sitcom premiering tonight on ABC, is blessed with a strong cast and some sharp writing, but saddled with arguably the worst, most misleading title of the season (more about the latter below).
Malin Akerman (The Comeback) stars as Kate, a beautiful girl who loves nothing more than partying nightly with her best friend, Meg (Natalie Morales, The Middleman) – until one karaoke night when Kate literally falls into the arms of Pete (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing), a slightly older environmental lawyer.
Romance ensues, and Kate soon becomes Pete’s wife – more specifically, his third wife, a position that comes with more baggage than a cruise ship. Pete’s first ex-wife, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), is a brilliant medical doctor who regards the younger Kate with withering dismissal, an attitude immediately adopted by her teenage daughter, Hillary (Bailee Madison), although Hillary’s twin brother, Warren (Ryan Lee), is instantly smitten by his new stepmom. In fact, Warren’s school essays start to take on a disconcertingly erotic tone and feature a female figure who seems vaguely … familiar.
Pete’s second ex-wife, Jackie (Saturday Night Live alumna Michaela Watkins), is a neurotic, New Age-y mess and has a hyper-intelligent young adopted Asian son (scene-stealer Albert Tsai) who is completely unintimidated by the grown-ups around him.
Tonight’s pilot follows Kate as she tries to establish a meaningful place for herself in Pete’s crowded life, which means trying to make some connection with stepdaughter Hillary, who isn’t having any of it. The episode gives most of the cast members a chance to shine, none more brightly than Akerman, a starlet-pretty actress who also comes across as smart, funny, warm and accessible. Whitford, always a joy to watch, shows us how much Pete genuinely adores Kate, although his character seems to spend much of his screen time reacting to his extended family members (here’s hoping he becomes less passive in future episodes).
As the ex-wives, Harden, an Oscar winner who elevates any scene just by walking into it, makes Diane a formidable adversary for Kate while never crossing the line into stale bitchiness, but frankly I had a very hard time understanding why Peter ever would have married someone as scatterbrained as Watkins’ Jackie (the writers need to fix that, and soon).
In other words, from a creative standpoint, Trophy Wife is a likable enough show, but there’s a very real chance some viewers will never sample it because of its terrible title. Kate isn’t a trophy wife in any sense of the phrase. Pete cherishes everything about her, and she’s a strong, intelligent woman who actively engages with everyone else in his life, instead of just standing around looking decorative. Calling this show Trophy Wife sets up expectations of a sitcom that is far less appealing and engaging than this one is. And if you don’t think a misleading title can hobble a show’s chances, just talk to the creative team behind Cougar Town.
Trophy Wife already has something of an uphill struggle to find an audience in its insanely competitive Tuesday time period, opposite such established hits as The Voice, NCIS: LA, surging sophomore sitcom The Mindy Project and the long-running CW cult hit Supernatural. It doesn’t help that the lead-in to Trophy Wife is one of ABC’s feeblest new shows.
That would be The Goldbergs. Actually, I don’t want to be too hard on this doomed sitcom, because I suspect a lot of love went into it behind the scenes. Its creator, Adam F. Goldberg, based the show on his own upbringing back in the 1980s, when he grew up in a fractious but loving family headed by a blustering dad (Jeff Garlin, Curb Your Enthusiasm) who can’t articulate his love for his three kids and a doting mom (the glorious Wendi McLendon-Covey, Bridesmaids) whose love knows no bounds – or, unfortunately for her kids, boundaries.
The obvious template for this show is the Emmy-winning 1988-93 sitcom The Wonder Years. What Goldberg has overlooked, alas, is that we can’t all be the Arnolds from that cherished hit of yesteryear. There isn’t much that’s truly original or noteworthy about the Goldberg family except that most of them SCREAM A LOT FOR NO GOOD REASON. In fact, if the Nielsen ratings were measured in decibels, The Goldbergs probably would be the top-ranked show of the 2013-14 TV season.
Everything else, though, feels fairly generic, including George Segal’s dotty old grandpa character. How generic? The pilot revolves heavily around the father figure’s reluctance to teach his teenage son (Troy Gentile) how to drive. Coincidentally, Fox has a midseason comedy, Surviving Jack, waiting in the wings about an intimidating dad (Chris Meloni, in that case) who has a hard time expressing love to his kids. The pilot for that show has a pivotal scene in which Meloni’s character teaches his teenage son to drive. Did I mention that Surviving Jack is set in a recent past decade (the ‘90s) and based on the true-life teen experiences of its creator?
I suspect The Goldbergs tested through the roof with relatives of Adam F. Goldberg, but there’s not much here for the rest of us. There’s a good chance this show will be gone by Thanksgiving. I’m just hoping it doesn’t take Trophy Wife down with it.
From left, Jon Hamm and Larry David
The previews for Clear History, the Larry David movie comedy premiering Saturday on HBO, look promising, if only for the cast. In addition to David, who knows funny, supporting players include Jon Hamm, current Emmy nominee/Saturday Night Live veteran Bill Hader, Michael Keaton and Danny McBride.
Despite a promising set-up, however, this TV movie likely will please only hardcore fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, David’s cult sitcom hit for the same premium channel, because Clear History – which, like Curb, is improvised by the actors based on a story line devised by David and longtime writing colleagues Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer – plays like a feature-length episode of the sitcom.
Let me just say right up front, this is not a good thing in my book. I’ll give David his props for coming up with some of the most brilliant comedy in TV history with some of his scripts for Seinfeld, but I’ve never warmed to Curb Your Enthusiasm, which revolves around a central character (played by David) who is, quite frankly, a self-absorbed jerk who is barely tolerable in a half-hour dose.
In Clear History, we spend most of the 90-plus-minute running time with David’s alter-ego Nathan Flomm, a selfish, grating dolt who spends the entire movie seething over misfortune that is entirely of his own making.
I had high hopes during the opening scenes which flash back 10 years, introducing the hippie-ish Nathan as the marketing executive at Electron Motors, a start-up electric car company run by lifelong friend Will Haney (Hamm), who is preparing to launch a new electric car prototype called the Howard, after Will’s young son. OK, that’s pretty funny, because the Howard is a ridiculous name for a car, and Nathan tells Will it will be impossible to market a car with such an idiotic name (“It’s like naming a restaurant Hepatitis!” he screams). Unfortunately, as with many of David’s characters, Nathan takes his argument way past a civil debate with his boss, throwing a tantrum and walking away from his job, which includes a 10 percent share in the company.
Against all odds, however, the Howard is a phenomenal success, earning the company billions of dollars. Soon, news of Nathan’s ill-advised resignation becomes public knowledge, turning him into a pop culture laughing stock.
Zipping forward to the present, Nathan has given himself a style makeover and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where he is quietly living under the name Rolly DaVore. His contented life is disrupted, however, when Will and his wife (Kate Hudson) move to the Vineyard and begin building an ostentatious new home that only rubs salt in Nathan’s wounds. It’s not long before Nathan begins hatching a revenge scheme.
You’re probably ahead of me in spotting the basic flaw here. Nathan is seeking revenge for something that Nathan did to himself and, just as much to the point, he wants payback from someone who, we learn, is actually a very decent guy. How and why are we supposed to pull for Nathan?
An even bigger problem is the improvised nature of the film. Comedy is all about the timing, and while David, Hader and McBride are pros at improvisation, many other cast members are not, so we get a lot of exchanges that sound like this:
“I have no idea what to do.”
“You have no idea what to do?”
“Yeah, no, no idea at all.”
“You mean, like, absolutely no idea at all?”
As a result, instead of building up steady momentum that carries us to the climax, Clear History meanders, strolls, shuffles and, mostly, stumbles in its storytelling. It’s significant that one of the few moments that really made me laugh out loud, a visual joke involving a swing set, was something that was NOT improvised.
For what it’s worth, the cast seems to be having a good time, and if you’re wondering why Liev Schreiber, who has a fairly substantial supporting role, doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits, David recently told a gathering of TV critics in Los Angeles that it was because Schreiber currently stars in Ray Donovan on HBO’s rival, Showtime. That seems a little silly to me, but in any case, it works out well for Schreiber, because I can’t think many of these actors will want to include this limp, disappointing TV movie on their credits.
From left, Kate Hudson, Larry David, Jon Hamm