If Trophy Wife were an online article rather than a TV show, you could call its title “click-bait.” It sounds like the title of an unscripted series that might air on Bravo, probably during an off night. But the title is mostly ironic: It tells us how the heroine, Kate Harrison (Malin Akerman), is perceived by others, and how, during her weaker moments, she perceives herself. Kate once was single and — well, not carefree, exactly, but un-entangled. She enjoyed going out with guys, and with her girlfriends, whenever she felt like it, and didn’t see herself settling down anytime soon. Then she met a considerably older man, Bradley Whitford’s Pete Harrison, who has kids by two previous wives — Diane Buckley (Marcia Gay Harden), a hard-charging doctor and former Olympic medalist, and Jackie Fisher (Michaela Watkins), a super-sensitive and sometimes unnervingly kooky New Age ditz. Suddenly Kate was plunged into a completely different world and found herself struggling to reconcile her old self with her new life, without feeling as if she’d compromised any principles or abandoned any dreams.
This is mundane yet serious stuff, rooted in real-life conundrums, though the tone of the pilot strains to convince us otherwise. The major characters — including the Harrisons’ biological and adopted kids — are introduced in an emergency room, where Pete’s being treated for a broken nose. (It’s Kate’s fault; she fell off the stage during post-breakup karaoke and snapped it.) The show overdoes both the harried slapstick (including Jackie trying to fix Pete’s nose with an “ancient healing technique” only to have Diane step in and snap it back into place) and the score (wacky rom-com “you are having a wonderful time” music, with faux-funky organ). They’re pouring maple syrup on a soufflé.
Fortunately, the rest of the pilot doesn’t try so hard. Trophy Wife is adept at sending up a certain segment of upper-middle-class America: its politically correct gestures and rituals, its overscheduled near chaos, its mix of technological dependence and back-to-nature sentiment. “I joined this organic food co-op, it’s so great, I mean, I got 30 zucchinis for six bucks,” Jackie reports.
The scene in which Diane and Kate attend a conference for Diane and Peter’s son Warren (Ryan Lee) is a gem of passive-aggressive one-upmanship and parental discomfort at teen sexuality. The son turned in an erotic short story in place of a mythology paper. The teacher reveals that Peter, an environmental lawyer, couldn’t be there owing to a work conflict. Diane announces that she had to reschedule an operation, “but you don’t see me making a federal case out of it.” “Oh, well, actually, it is a federal case,” Kate begins, then sees Diane’s face and trails off, realizing this is really not the hill she wants to die on.
When the teacher reads a section of Ryan’s story, you realize you’re watching a show that looks beneath comic discomfort and senses human potential. We assume the kid is working through conflicted feelings toward his new (second) stepmom, and of course a lot of the humor comes from the teacher’s deadpan reading and Kate and Diane’s divergent reactions. (“‘Age ain’t nothin’ but a number,’ said Poseidon, and with his agile tongue, he licked her ankle tattoo until it glistened.”) But like many of the bits in Trophy Wife, this one doesn’t pay off quite as you expect — and for the most part, the show isn’t about bits in the first place. Buried beneath the frenzied, too-eager-to-please surface is a comedy that, at its best, evokes the colorful bustle of Malcolm in the Middle and the worn-down wisdom of Men of a Certain Age. There’s life in it.