The canceled show handled divorce and complicated family dynamics better than any other comedy on TV
After one season that was lauded by critics but couldn’t muster the fan support it needed to stay on the air, the ABC comedy Trophy Wife starring Malin Akerman as Kate and Bradley Whitford as Pete—a May December couple who must contend with Pete’s ex-wives—will air its final episode tonight. It was the smartest comedy on TV when it came to issues of the modern family. Trophy Wife is leaving the air much too soon.
Trophy Wife took after Modern Family in a lot of ways. It had a strong ensemble adult cast and a brood of weird, fun children. It had the strange, modern dynamics of a loving family that extended beyond its traditional nuclear core. There were two children with wife #1 and one adopted son with wife #2 before the “trophy wife” (Kate) came around. The show split its time among the family members, pairing off various characters in each episode, and always concluded with a warmhearted moral. It forewent mean spiritedness and sarcasm in favor of warmth. With so many similarities, it’s a mystery why ABC didn’t use Modern Family as a lead-in to Trophy Wife (instead of placing the horribly misogynistic and incredibly un-funny Mixology there).
But the show also eclipsed Modern Family in the delicate and empathetic way it dealt with the politics of a complex family. In Modern Family, ex-wives and husbands aren’t treated with animosity, per se, but they certainly come off as the worse parents. Gloria’s ex-husband, Javier (Benjamin Bratt), always lets his son Manny down, leaving step-dad Jay to pick up the pieces. Jay’s ex, DeDe (Shelley Long), is manipulative, bitter and has some marbles loose. Both characters make rare appearances on the show and are an afterthought to the real story.
To its credit, Trophy Wife directly confronted the complications of divorce that Modern Family often ignores—and did so without vilifying the exes. Pete’s exes—the over-achieving and bossy Diane and the flighty and sweetly incompetent Jackie—interacted with Pete and Kate doing all the things exes do in real life: they dropped the kids off, planned birthday parties, spent holidays together, acted as chaperones on field trips, helped with homework and attended soccer games. One of the running jokes in the show was how Diane and Jackie always turned up at Pete’s house uninvited, but they were never shunned. There were no good guys and bad guys: if Diane and Jackie were too harsh and too loopy, Kate and Pete were too ditzy and too insecure. All the characters learned to get along despite their quirks.
And though the adults often came into conflict over parenting philosophies, there was no doubt that they all loved each other. They always found a way to resolve their problems and bond by the end of the episode. And when other parents or teachers threatened anyone in the family, everyone fiercely defended each other in spite of their private qualms. All the members of the family were one team. I cannot think of a better way to demonstrate that divorced families can be happy families, too.
It was easily one of the most sensitive and hilarious treatments of divorce on television. It also happened to be the best freshman network comedy this year. Even more than the most lauded new comedy of the fall, Brooklyn Nine-Nine—whose unexpected Golden Globe saved the hilarious show from Trophy Wife‘s fate—Trophy Wife took full advantage of every actor in its cast. The kids were excellent, and Akerman and Whitford flourished in the ensemble format playing off the severity of Marcia Gay Harden’s Diane and the quirkiness of Michaela Watkins’ Jackie. Akerman’s comedy prowess and beauty will allow her to land on her feet. I worry more for Whitford who hasn’t been offered such a good role since the Bartlet administration.
We can blame ABC for its demise: the show, like Cougar Town, didn’t have the best name. The title was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. There was nothing sexist or icky about Kate and Pete’s relationship or about her relationship with his ex-wives. I expect that the writers thought the name would set up expectations for the characters: each one seemed to fit into a stereotype, and the writers delighted in breaking those molds. But you wouldn’t know that without watching it, so the name was a turnoff.
There were also the aforementioned programming problems. (ABC in general is crashing and burning despite Shonda Rhimes’ valiant efforts to keep it afloat by continuously churning out dramas.) It’s a show that—if it had had a few more seasons—would have been well worth continuing at least on a digital platform like Amazon or another network like TBS, where Cougar Town landed.
The first season will surely be on Netflix soon. You should watch it. In the meantime, R.I.P. Trophy Wife.