Make no mistake: You should be watching ABC’s Trophy Wife. Created by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, this witty show — which was picked up last week for a full season of 22 episodes — might just be the best new comedy of the 2013-14 season. It’s a perfectly sweet-tart confection that focuses on a sprawling Los Angeles family connected by marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
Meet Pete (Bradley Whitford), a lawyer who’s lousy at picking spouses, a concept quickly summed up in the opening title sequence. His first ex-wife is prickly doctor Diane (Marcia Gay Harden); his second ex-wife is spacey oddball Jackie (Michaela Watkins); and his current wife, the titular character, is Kate (Malin Akerman), a former party girl who has found herself the step-mother to three kids, a detour to her life route that she has taken in her stride.
Trophy Wife could be a predictable, comedy-by-the-numbers affair; instead, it’s anything but. It’s a refreshingly charming and mercilessly funny look at modern families that are far more complicated than one might expect. The result is a wickedly funny comedy that ought to be at the top of your DVR season pass.
1. The ensemble cast is fantastic. Seriously.
Trophy Wife gives us a family that is full of rivalries, vendettas, and a lot of love. It might not look like your family or mine, but what the show explores — with humor and heart — is how families support and take care of each other, even when they’re out for blood. It helps that the entire ensemble, led by Akerman, Harden, Watkins, andWhitford and including their sprawling brood of offspring, is at the top of their game, whether it’s Albert Tsai’s scene-stealer Bert, Ryan Scott Lee’s perpetually sunny Warren (witness his Ellen DeGeneres costume in last week’s “Halloween” episode), or Bailee Madison’s twitchy Hillary. Not to mention Natalie Morales’ Meg, Kate’s best friend, who carts a tornado in her wake.
This is an ensemble that seems to have been together for a while, acutely aware of one another’s rhythms and beats, rather than a cast that has filmed only a handful of episodes. The point is that it’s impossible not to fall in love with them.
Akerman is a fantastic anchor for the show, providing the audience with a point of view character who is learning about her new family at the same rate as the viewers; she’s the ultimate outsider within the family, a new step-mother at odds with Pete’s ex-wives, who all know more than she does. Akerman also excels at the sort of deft wordplay that Trophy Wife embraces, whether it’s poking fun at Kate’s lack of book smarts (“Some of us don’t want to live in an Orson Wellian future”) or positioning her against Marcia Gay Harden’s icy know-it-all Diane, and playing up her obvious physical assets in the name of comedy. Kate isn’t the sharpest, and that’s OK; she’s meant to be a work in progress and Akerman’s gift is to make popular Kate awkwardly out of place, even though she means well. The result is as if Cher from Clueless grew up and found herself some step-kids. And it’s just as compelling to watch.
Harden is pitch-perfect as Pete’s severe and overachieving first ex-wife Diane, a gifted surgeon with the unerring ability to anticipate her family’s every move and counteract them. The fact that she has created an entire fictional online persona named Courtney Winters — so she could spy on her children — is but one of the terrifying weapons in her vast arsenal. (See also: the obsession with salsa after Warren spilled the condiment on her couch.) Terrifying.
4. Michaela Watkins brings a delicious oddness to the role of highly eccentric second ex-wife Jackie.
In the hands of a lesser actor, Jackie could be a caricature, the type of self-absorbed jewelry maker who is ultimately shallow and devoid of emotion. But even within the Halloween episode, Watkins’ Jackie showed psychological depth as she confronted her fear of losing the close dynamic she shares with her adopted son Bert, who has gotten closer with Kate. Their unique mother-son rapport — while fortunately veering sharply away from the co-dependent territory of Lucille and Buster in Arrested Development — is strangely charming, a sort of us-against-the-world mentality that embraces both characters’ quirky strengths.
The Iron Man/iron man exchange from “Halloween” had Jackie making Bert a costume of a guy with an iron on his shirt. But the show went one step further by not only having her be unaware of the proliferation of Iron Man this past summer, but also the existence of Robert Downey Jr. himself. Her bizarre and unexpected retort to Kate — “Wait, hold up — Robert Downey had a son?!?” — is what makes the show such a pleasure to watch.
In fact, Trophy Wife occupies a increasingly rare space in between the snarky and the saccharine. It manages to be incredibly funny without resorting to cheap or obvious humor, nor does it strive for a teachable moment in each episode. Which is something to applaud, really, especially when much of the show is about Kate’s own efforts to grow up and accept adult responsibility, in light of the instant family she inherited when she married Pete. Instead, the show revels in its own uniquely quirky sense of humor, exploring the odd inner lives of its characters.
Kate and Meg’s rapport — based on a longstanding friendship and many single girls’ nights out — is so entirely different than that between, say, BFFs Leslie and Ann on Parks and Recreation, but it’s incredibly refreshing to see the dynamics of female friendships — the highs, the lows, and the tried-and-true hangover cures — dissected here. It serves Kate’s growth to have a link to her past before Pete and it also helps that Morales’ Meg isn’t the typical wise-cracking television best friend, but rather a more sharply drawn and oblivious screw-up… who may have once eaten an entire model of the solar system made out of candy and styrofoam.
There’s something of a generation game going on here, in which various members of the family — separated in some cases by many decades — only get some of these references. (To say nothing of Jackie, who understands none of them.) A 1980s-themed fundraiser for the kids’ school means that Diane dresses up as Pat “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” Benatar, a reference that twentysomething Kate doesn’t get at all. There’s something both timely and timeless about the lack of pop culture landmarks for each of them.
Albert Tsai’s hyperactive and precocious Bert might just be the breakout character of this television season. He is just an incredible character, a highly advanced kid without the awkwardness of Modern Family’s self-affected Manny. His pairing with Watkins as his new-agey mother yields dividends on a weekly basis, but watch his scenes with Akerman or Lee and you see the beginnings of a talented comedic actor gifted with astute timing and delivery (who is only 9 years old). He steals just about every scene he’s in, which is saying something given the ensemble here.
Trophy Wife airs Tuesday nights at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.