4 out of 5
Created by: Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins
covers season 1
To my recollection, I first knew of Malin Åkerman from Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and since good ol’ Zack has a particularly overblown, sexed-up style, my impression of the actress was framed by that. …Which is why her presence in Children’s Hospital threw me for such a loop. Not that other Watchmen actors haven’t shown range in other projects before and after, but I don’t think I’ve seen one of its actors go in for the kind of no-shame silliness of Children’s Hospital, and the show was of the sort that required, like, actual funny people – you couldn’t just read a script with jokes and get away with it. I saw the actress in a new light, and was a Malin Åkerman fan from then on, enjoying what she brought to any role. (But when it’s a comedic one especially.)
My love for Natalie Morales was more immediate: Middleman was an early series for them, but it hit me right away, and my dedication was assured. Cast Morales, and I will watch. And then similar to Åkerman: cast Morales in a comedy, and I’ll be watching with that much more eagerness.
Having these two in sitcom Trophy Wife already assured my viewership, but the show went even further and stacked the cast with Bradley Whitford and Michaela Watkins, two actors who also excel at comedy, both able to play the straight-person or wild card type with equal aplomb, with Trophy Wife putting Whitford somewhat as the former and Watkins as the latter.
Of course, a great cast can’t rescue abominable scripting, but it does take us a certain distance. Thankfully, the show is far from that tier, often bucking expected sitcom conventions in fun ways and leaning into the full abilities of these actors – as well as the others not named, all also great additions – and the tons-of-options offered up by its premise.
Which is: Whitford playing multiply-divorced Pete, now on his third marriage with young wife Kate (Åkerman); one adopted kid with one ex-wife – Watkins – and two kids with the other ex-wife – played by Marcia Gay Harden – the children all rotating through the house as Pete and Kate navigate through parenting balances and testy friendships with either ex-wife. The typical path here would be to play the 20-year age difference between Pete and Kate as per the concept suggested by the show’s title – Åkerman as a ditz – and then go with easy female stereotypes of Hardin playing a shrew and Watkins playing a new age-y type. The DNA is (purposefully) there for all that, and many-a sitcom have been borne from such bits and pieces. But instead, while playing into this stuff, everyone also gets the chance to be, like, human. The balance is pretty tricky, but Trophy Wife’s writers (and its actors) help to give everyone a sense of personality and reality behind their stereotypes, which gives some of the typical sitcom hijinx more grounding, and thus a lot more room to play around with the humor.
Some episodes admittedly don’t take that route, and instead just play the hijinx and predictability. But we were still doing 22-episode seasons at this point, so there are plenty of eps that break from that, and earn some genuine laughs alongside the standard stuff; and then you have that standard stuff being already elevated by the great casting…
It’s perhaps worth noting, from a 2021 standpoint – the time of this review – that we’ve already clearly made some progress in our dealings with gender in mass media. While Trophy Wife never strays into “very special episode territory” at all – it is very, very harmless – and obviously very much female led in casting, with a very sex-positive attitude, there are those latent notes of stereotypical male and female roles that never go challenged (specifically with the children) that might cause some awareness-twinges from our current perspective.
Anyhow: Trophy Wife isn’t outright breaking any trends or hitting heretofore unseen comedic beats, but it’s a collection of above-average concepts and qualities brought to life by a very funny cast, making for a consistently memorable 30-minutes of sitcom time, with a good double handful of episodes that tweak standard sitcom setups for some inventive laughs.