Tuned In

America’s Best New Family Sitcom: Trophy Wife Takes the Prize

Like many sitcoms, ABC's multi-parent comedy is about stereotypes. But it's also about discovering the real people behind them.

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The 2013 fall TV season, for whatever reason, became a competition to create America’s Next Top Sitcom Family. The new season was lousy with them: blended families, multigenerational families, racist families, single-mom families, single-dad families, ’80s families, ’90s families, families dealing with disability together, families in the advertising business together, families delivering fart jokes together.

We now have a winner, ladies and gentlemen, and that winner is: Trophy Wife.

Yes, there’s that stupid name. The sitcom, starring Malin Akerman as the young third wife of middle-aged Pete (Bradley Whitford), credited the TV audience with maybe too much of an appreciation for irony. Akerman’s Kate is not, in fact, a shallow idiot who Pete married as a decorative bauble. If it helps you get past it, make up your own name for Trophy Wife in your mind. Call it Modern Modern Family. Third Time’s the Charm. Hello, Malin!

Or actually, don’t—because really the dumb name is also essential to the spirit and charm of the show. “Trophy Wife” suggests that “former party girl” Kate is a stereotype. And you know what? She is, as are many of Trophy Wife’s characters–on paper, anyway: patient, beleaguered Pete; high-powered first wife Diane (Marcia Gay Harden); crunchy second wife Jackie (Michaela Watkins); and the kids, overachieving Hillary (Bailee Madison), underachieving Warren (Ryan Lee), and hyperactive Bert (Albert Tsai).

And that’s OK. Stereotypes are the beginning points of many a sitcom, the universal soil medium from which characters and situations grow. The question is where the show goes from there. What Trophy Wife does, brilliantly, is to steer into those assumptions and shows you that these people, like most people, are more than they first seem, and that it knows them better than you might think it does.

So yes, these people, like many people in life, are types, but that’s not all they are. Diane is tough and achievement-oriented, but also empathetic. Kate is challenged by stepmom-hood, but she’s smart about using her own personality to solve parenting problems. In each of Pete’s three wives, you can see a person who appealed to a different aspect of his personality, and rather than focusing on how their differences set them at odds, Trophy Wife shows how the hydra-heads of its four-part parenting unit complement each other. (In a way, it’s like the complex dynamic that HBO’s Big Love worked out, as if ABC cleverly figured out how to make a polygamy sitcom that’s not about polygamy.)

Meanwhile, the hilariously written kid characters help define the adult characters, because you can see how each of them is the expression of the parenting combo that created them. Warren and Hillary are Pete’s children with Diane; Warren’s a bit of a nervous pleaser like Pete, Hillary a bit of a type-A student like her mom, and yet you can see influence of both parents in each of them. Bert’s boundless enthusiasm is an offshoot of Jackie’s restless energy and his relentless planning maybe a reaction against it.

I don’t want to oversell the show after it’s been on five episodes; I was impressed like this with Modern Family once, and now it’s gotten loud, sour, and repetitive. But compared with a new sitcom like The Michael J. Fox Show–which is also really well cast but aggressively generic–Trophy Wife feels like it has a specific sense of every person in it and the dynamics between them. So it can write convincing scenes between, say, Warren and his first stepmom Jackie, talking about Diane in a way that’s hilarious yet doesn’t feel mean. (“So what’s your mom like when she’s mad?” “She’s a little bit happier than she is when she’s not mad, because, um, she loves being mad.”)

That, and it’s just very, very funny right now. Last week’s episode, “The Breakup,” featured a subplot about building a massive Lego Millennium Falcon set, and I loved Jackie’s frustrated response, “What kind of maniac makes two grays!” It’s a great line, because it both speaks to a universal parental frustration (seriously, prospective parents, work on your fine motor skills) and her specific personality (which probably doesn’t take well to exacting Lego sets and their rules, man). It’s a fine machine Trophy Wife is building, and I like how the pieces are coming together.