Sometimes, it seems that predicting the quality of a new TV series is easily done based on the pilot or even the previews alone. Most figured, for example, Showtime’s Masters of Sex would be just as great as Fox’s Dad’s is terrible. But some shows deserve more than one shot to really get a feel for them, and that’s if you’re giving them a shot at all. If you wrote off Fox’s Sleepy Hollow based on looks alone, you’re missing out on a fun little drama with excellent leads. Likewise, if you dismissed, like I did, ABC’s Trophy Wife based on its title and premise — Wife No. 3 of older husband must contend with predecessors and step-children — then you haven’t been watching what is easily the fall season’s cutest sitcom. Catching up on the series this weekend, I first thought Trophy Wife suffers from a poor title. That may still be true, but perhaps using the not-so-flattering term in the context of this series is a way to subvert the stereotype. The “trophy wife” in question, Kate (Malin Akerman), is far from a leggy status symbol for husband Pete (Bradley Whitford), and exes Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) and Jackie (Michaela Watkins) are given more to do than cause problems for her. What could have been an ugly or mean-spirited show has so far been a pleasant surprise in the realm of family sitcoms.
Here’s why you should add it to your Tuesday night lineup. (It will fit in nicely paired with Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl and The Mindy Project.)
5. The kids are all right.
In fact, they’re pretty cute. Warren (Ryan Lee), 15, and Hillary (middle name Rodham, played by Bailee Madison), 14, were born to Pete and first wife, Diane. Bert (Albert Tsai), 8, is Chinese and was adopted by Pete and second wife, Jackie. Sure, for the show to work they need to be interesting, but Trophy Wife has avoided the pitfall of too-mature kids and found the right balance of precociousness and believability. Warren is as goofy and Hillary is driven, and even though Bert can act a bit beyond his years, he’s still kid enough to not want to go to sleep at night and to end up scared after watching late-night real-crime TV programming.
4. And they act like kids.
The importance of not only relatable but enjoyable storylines cannot be overstated. In the pilot, Hillary was portrayed by a different actress (Gianna LePera) and with a different attitude. She was even more adverse to stepmom Kate than she is now, and right off the bat she was caught sneaking vodka in her water bottle at school, a trick Kate inadvertently taught her. Beginning with the second episode, however, Hillary was not only recast but almost self-corrected. She’s more Rory Gilmore than Regina George, although she has a tough of the latter’s attitude. Still, an episode examining her idea of “rebelling” provided a nice alternative to what we’ve come to expect of teen characters.
3. Bradley Whitford and Malin Akerman oddly work well together.
Whitford wouldn’t be my first choice for casting a husband with a “trophy wife,” but again, that title doesn’t really fit here. Pete and Kate are an actual couple with an entertaining meet-cute — they met at a bar when Kate drunkenly stumbled off a karaoke stage and broke his nose with her microphone. Neither would have guessed they’d end up together, but here they are, giving it a go. Jokes about Kate’s age are made, of course, but the overall lack of cynicism in the series is nice. Whitford’s return to TV also is welcome. His Josh Lyman days may be long gone, but he’s as charming as ever with excellent comedic timing. Plus, there’s a warmth to him that plays well in a husband and father role.
2. The wives, collectively, are great, too.
Kate may be written as the trying-to-reform party girl whose still-carefree best friend, Meg (Natalie Morales), represents the life she used to have, but more often than not, Akerman plays the straight woman to the first two wives. Watkins is perfect and quirky as Jackie, who often changes career plans as easily as she can turn a bedspread into a poncho, while Harden’s Diane is hilarious and no-nonsense surgeon who pushes her kids to succeed. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that Kate (and Akerman) is overshadowed by these stronger characters (and actresses).
1. Marcia. Gay. Harden.
Seriously. She’s fabulous. Between this and her stint as attorney Rebecca Halliday on The Newsroom, the Oscar-winning Harden is owning this TV season. (Either of these characters could have an awesome-off with Patricia Arquette’s Sally Wheet on Boardwalk Empire.) Diane has an edge to her but isn’t cold. The way she handles Warren and Hillary when the two spill salsa on the couch is brilliant, all psychological warfare that is punishment enough. She’s crafty — she’ll have you thinking that her creating and cultivating a fake social networking profile as a teenager to learn what goes on with Hillary’s peers is a great idea — but she is no less loving than the others.
That’s what will keep you coming back to Trophy Wife — it is as genuinely sweet as it is funny, and these days, that can be hard to find.
‘Trophy Wife’ airs Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30C on ABC.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.