Garofalo, Garrett and Edelstein in the first episode of Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce.
Carole Segal/Bravo
By James Poniewozik
December 1, 2014

Bravo has been promoting Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET) as the channel’s “first original scripted series.” It is and it isn’t. In 2004 Bravo aired the short-lived relationship comedy Significant Others, though you could argue it doesn’t count as “scripted” because the dialogue was improvised. And in 2002 it had the cable-news drama Breaking News, though maybe because the series was developed for TNT, which never aired the show, it wasn’t considered “original.”

But I get what Bravo means. Girlfriends’ Guide is the first scripted series from the Bravo network as we know it: that is, the onetime arts channel that remade itself over the past decade as the home of conspicuous-consumption reality. Judged by that measure, the tart, stylized Girlfriends’ Guide, from former Buffy the Vampire Slayer producer Marti Noxon, is–as they say in the biz–thoroughly “on-brand.” It’s the Bravo reality ethos distilled into the format of an upscale breakup dramedy.

Like The Millionaire Matchmaker or Vanderpump Rules, it’s about a successful woman: Abby McCarthy (Lisa Edelstein), the author of a series of love-and-parenting self-help books. Like Million-Dollar Listing or Shahs of Sunset, it’s aspirational, letting the viewer lookie-loo a gilded L.A. of plastic surgery, publicity and parties involving Gwyneth Paltrow. Above all, like the Real Housewives empire, it’s about the lengths people go to to put up a perfect facade, to stage their lives like high-end lofts for sale–and the dirt you see when you look behind the window dressing and strategically placed furniture.

As we meet Abby, she’s doing promotions for her latest book (she hits the Kathie Lee and Hoda portion of NBC’s Today show, which seems now to exist mainly to appear in other NBC Universal properties), but concealing a secret. She and her husband Jake (Paul Adelstein)–an aspiring director in theory, unemployed househusband in practice–have been all but separated for some time now. They keep up appearances, partly for the kids and partly for her image, until their act falls apart in an excruciatingly public way, threatening to take her career with it.

As dramatic as the material sounds, in many ways Girlfriends’ Guide is as escapist as any of Bravo’s reality shows. Abby has her own girlfriends to guide her: Lyla (Janeane Garofalo), an attorney going through her own ugly split with a financially dependent husband who developed a thing for a dominatrix, and Phoebe (Beau Garrett), a former model and serial entrepreneur. The breakups can be wrenching but the practical consequences are not dire. If anyone is in free fall in Girlfriends’ Guide‘s binge-and-cleanse L.A. (played capably by Vancouver), there’s always a cushion of money at the bottom of that pit. If anything, Abby and Jake’s split is a kind of equal-opportunity midlife crisis, as he shacks up with a 25-year-old CW actress and she has “the younger man experience” with a hot bar manager.

Abby’s vocational irony is thundering–self-helper, help thyself!–but it nicely complicates the show as it moves into the weeds of Abby and Jake’s divorce process. Abby has made a living from helping build the myth of a perfect life and marriage. Now she finds there’s a whole other set of myths and pressures, crystallized by Gwyneth’s “conscious uncoupling,” to have the “good divorce.” (In the second episode, she meets a vulpine lawyer, played by Necar Zadegan, who argues there’s no such thing: “There’s one person who’s getting fleeced because they feel bad.”)

In Abby’s divorce, at least, there is no good and bad guy–she, we learn, had an emotional affair before he had his physical one–and Edelstein’s sympathetic performance grounds a show that often otherwise plays like young-adult fiction for actual adults. For every raw, bitter moment, there are many Hollywood caricatures and swank party scenes to make the cocktail go down easier. And for a show with an empowerment spirit, there’s a retro gender note to the divorce stories, in which wives who earn more are “not natural” (in the divorce lawyer’s words) and husbands who earn less are not really men. (There are more references to balls and ball-lessness in the first two episodes than on a typical NFL Sunday.)

In Girlfriends’ Guide, where every set looks like the lounge of a boutique hotel, there’s none of the scuffing that Jill Soloway brought to Transparent‘s affluent L.A.; if marital strife in Showtime’s The Affair is rife with guilt and criminal potential, here it’s a kind of rejuvenating, exfoliating spa-cum-rehab experience. The writing is often funny and richly observed, as when Abby and Jake, for instance, fall into an argument over the kids’ Jewish upbringing, even though neither has much cared about it before. (“Why don’t you read something from the Torah about fidelity?” “I’m not the one who’s shtupping an actress who thinks 27 Dresses is a classic!”) But there’s one lesson Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce has (over)learned from its Bravo peers: that there’s no reality so compelling that it can’t be sweetened with a little Photoshop.

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