In this, its debut season, Trophy Wife’s holiday episode was a whodunnit about how the adults woke up on Christmas morning to a trashed house, vicious hangovers, and a wolf-coyote scavenging in the living room. It worked.
But so did the storyline about eldest daughter Hillary’s first high school sleepover. And second wife Jackie struggling to introduce her new boyfriend to her son for the first time. And, against all odds, the classic “hiding the heinous couch stain from your mom” routine. It all looks good on Trophy Wife, from the domestic to the demented. Yet here we are, teetering on the bubble.
As with many shows, I started watching Trophy Wife for love.
And though I tend to mindlessly follow certain actors to the wrong end of the quality spectrum (Vanished starring Gale Harold, anybody?), my loyalty to Bradley Whitford usually pays off. But were it not for my unfailing Josh Lyman dependence, I would’ve missed out on this little treasure. Trophy Wife is a wretched title. It’s the TV equivalent of click-bait. (“You Won’t Believe What This Trophy Wife Does To Get Her Husband’s Exes To Like Her! You’ll Shit Your Pants When You Hear This Corgi’s ‘Let It Go’ Cover!”), attracting the wrong audience and keeping the right one away. The Harrisons deserve better than this.
Alas, it’s too late. Nothing can be done about the show’s misleading name, and so I’ll do what I can to spread the word that it is, as a matter of fact (fact being my opinion, which is infallible), the best family sitcom on TV right now. And it’s a big family: Kate fell in love with Pete Harrison and they got married, making her his third wife. Pete has children with both of his exes: teenagers Hillary and Warren with the formidable Diane, Ex #1, and Bert, the aggressively adorable kid he adopted with Ex #2, earth mother Jackie. Privacy is a foreign concept (“Jackie, how did you get in?” “Through the doggy door – I can collapse my collarbone.”) and Kate’s breezy life now plays host to a million complications.
Ah, but there’s Trophy Wife‘s charm. We never get the feeling that Kate has given anything up. At least anything she regrets losing. She’s perfectly content with family parties and Netflix nights in with Pete. And, because this is the true realness of your 30s, her drunken adventures with best friend Meg (Natalie Morales, now in everything, and rightly so) now happen solely in her Better Homes and Gardens living room. Why go out when there’s a perfectly good industrial strength blender right there in the cabinet? Kate seems to feel like I imagine I will when I find my Pete (plot twist: mine is also played by Bradley Whitford): relieved. Relieved to no longer feel guilty for any night not spent in a crowded bar in torturous shoes wading through losers in the hopes of finding one guy – just one – who will sit through Parenthood with me and then have long discussions about the future of Joel and Julia and how Sarah really needs to get her life together already.
The show may be one big, happy ensemble, but Kate – and Kate and Pete’s marriage – are the anchors. In these days where sitcoms are on the chopping block from the word “go,” fearless creators Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern took on the challenge of building a feel-good comedy around a May/December romance and a Maxim-veteran hottie, trusting that the cast and the writing would quickly establish the tone they were looking for. It’s a concept that certain audiences would find gross. And it could have been, so, so easily. Imagine what Trophy Wife would look like in the hands of another showrunner; I won’t name names. Okay, I will: Chuck Lorre.
There’s nothing crass about Pete and Kate’s union, though they’re still keeping it sexy. (Shower Police, yes. Pete’s “legal erotica,” not as much.) And there’s conflict among the wives without veering too hard into mean girl territory. No one’s fighting over Pete. They’re fighting over soccer games and mom cliques and seriously, who spiked the glögg? Malin Akerman plays Kate’s full capability spectrum, from somewhat hapless stepmom, adrift in being an instant parent to three kids, to the sane one in this tribe who’ve already driven each other crazy. (Kate playing mediator: “And Jackie, you got to be tooth fairy, which combines two of your passions of magic spells and old bones.”) This part is her reward for surviving an unreasonable amount of Cruise-iness in Rock of Ages. No one should be subjected to so much pelvis.
Marcia Gay Harden elevates everything she’s in, and she wears her gleeful love for this part like a badge. (“I didn’t fall. I never fall. I remember when I learned to walk. It was instant.”) Diane’s a hardass with a pleasantly twisted sense of fun. When Hillary and Warren spill salsa on Diane’s pristine couch and try to hide it (Pete’s response to their distress call: “Here’s my advice: run away.”), Diane’s response is to serve quesadillas for dinner and host an impromptu Latin dance class afterwards. She smokes them out. She prioritizes being her kids’ parent far above being their friend. When Pete and Kate hesitate to look through Hillary’s things for confirmation that she’s not attending any rainbow turtleneck sex parties, Diane does what must be done: “Amateur hour is over – I didn’t buy her all those journals so she could express herself.” But in “Tooth Fairy,” she makes herself scarce at Hillary’s first teen slumber party, when she realizes she’s embarrassing her. Hillary is Diane’s mini-me, and we get the feeling she doesn’t want her daughter to grow up to be quite as rigid and solitary as she is.
My Trophy Wife spirit animal is Jackie, wifey #2. Michaela Watkins is doing the best Phoebe Buffay since Phoebe Buffay, and – though it’s probably at least a three-way toss-up between Jackie, Diane, and Bert – there are episodes where I’m sure she gets all the best one-liners.
She’s perfect, and I can’t believe she’s been AWOL from the spotlight for so long. Your loss, SNL. Trophy Wife has a better costume budget anyway. Jackie’s Queen Elizabeth was on point. As was Warren’s Ellen.
I wonder what life was like for Jackie before Kate was in the picture and she was bearing the full brunt of Diane’s criticism. She seems to enjoy having a buffer, and delivering Diane’s barbs secondhand. “She said you were a hologram,” Jackie reports to Kate, “all color and light.” Most poetic burn ever or most poetic burn ever?
And then there’s the real make-or-break element of a family sitcom: the kids. Cute gets old. Cute comes and goes. Cute burns out. Weird? Weird lasts forever. And the Harrison children are on the right side of the cute-to-weird scale. Bailee Madison has more credits than actors twice her age, and she makes the most of Hillary’s Little Miss Perfect – what could potentially be a thankless part. (Pour one out for Pilot Hillary though.) She definitely has the best wardrobe of the cast, so that’s something.
Their relationship lives mostly in the background, but I appreciate how Hillary is always looking out for her brother. He needs it. Warren (Ryan Lee) is exactly the kind of uncool, sunny kid I would have been all about in junior high. (“What, are you serious? This party is off the chain. That girl is sitting on a coffee table. I’m eating pizza that’s not on a plate!”) Hillary’s softening to Kate, but still resisting extra mothering. Kate has a special fondness for Warren, who needs to discover his inner rule-breaker. She doesn’t understand why Pete is so attached to a box full of the kids’ baby teeth, until she plays fairy godmother to Warren and his first study date. She and Pete watch from the car as he gets his first kiss and she cries. The whole thing is lovely.
Kate: “Tell us everything.”
Warren: “Um, well, she thanked me for bringing back the hoodie, I kissed her, and then she came out to me pretty hard.”
Pete: “She came onto you pretty hard.”
Warren: “Oh, I-is that how they say it? Okay, well, anyway, she told me she was gay. But, *sigh*, we’re new best friends.”
I mean….three cheers for Warren or what? This kid, honestly. I want ten just like him.
That brings us to the greatest gift Trophy Wife has given us thus far: Bert.
Where did this kid learn how to do these line readings?? What is even happening? It might seem excessive to call a child actor in a comedy a revelation, but Albert Tsai is a comic prodigy. I want to squish him. I want him to follow me around and give running commentary on my life. I want him and Jackie for True Detective Season 2.
Bert is sunshine. He’s a round, little human happy pill. Pair him up with any other member of the cast – it doesn’t matter – he is always magic. I’ll take him hopped up on iced coffee, ecstatic that Kate is assistant coaching his soccer team (“She lives in our house!”); or slowly unraveling Jackie’s lie about her new boyfriend Steve being the “bagel delivery man” (“We’re eating stolen bagels – from bar mitzvahs!”); following the rules (“I’m allowed to open the door until 6.”) or cheerfully processing his mother’s democratic spirituality (“This week is about Jesus’s birthday, 8 days of oil, attaining Nirvana, and black people being awesome.”) As Kate’s mother (Megan Mullally, now crazy mom to us all) said when she met her step-grandkids, “Oop. I already have a favorite and it’s Bert.”
With a company this good, the writers can structure a story around any configuration of characters. Pete gives Bert and Warren a primer on civil disputes when they argue over who owns beloved childhood stuffed animal, Beary White. Warren regrets giving him up, even though the “changeover ceremony” included a “walkabout” and “rebirth.” They struggle to present persuasive evidence (“Fact: I’m hungry. Fact: I want a cookie. Fact: I am a cookie.”), Pete’s King Solomon routine fails, and then the boys finally decide on shared custody. Bert gets it: “Like I have clean underwear here and at mom’s house.” Jackie and Kate try to go into business together. Kate and Pete justify their marriage to the government to save Kate from deportation. (“Why are you dressed like the counselor at a fat camp?”) Diane and Meg are beer pong partners. (“Say cheese!” “Don’t tell me what to do.”) There isn’t a chemistry problem in sight, which gives the show so much freedom to stretch out and explore every single relationship.
And on special occasions, Trophy Wife can throw everyone together and set them loose. The perfectly orchestrated chaos is something that Modern Family, though Trophy Wife is fundamentally a better show, also does extremely well. But it wouldn’t be as much fun if the group scenes always felt like an intrusion. In the Christmas episode, it’s Kate who invites Jackie and Diane over for Christmas Eve. We find out when her mom Cricket visits that Kate’s childhood was unconventional – not a lot of family Christmases at the Walrus (pronounced “Val-roose”) house. As she settles into her new life, Kate keeps getting confirmation that her impulsive choice was the right one. She even finds herself longing for traditions she thought she had no use for. Yes, I’m sorry, it’s time to talk about the wedding.
Kate finds Pete’s old wedding videos and regrets that they don’t have one of their own. And it’s not because she feels like a real wedding would put her on equal footing with the exes. It’s because they were “terrible and beautiful” time-stamped memories of those moments that built their family. Despite a few obstacles, they manage to give her a terrible and beautiful memory of her own. The wedding was the first time we really saw everyone rally around Kate. And with as unflappable and generous as she’s been, a Muppets Take Manhattan inspired walk down the Economy Class aisle was the least she deserved.
More love for Trophy Wife and the Harrisons, because I cannot contain it:
- Jackie officiating the wedding: “To love and to cherish, as long as you both….as long as Pete shall live?”
- “What’s happening to this country?” “You sound like my bus driver.”
- “Diane, you’re like a gargoyle come to life – now, more than ever.”
- Jackie and Kate take Bert trick-or-treating, which prompts an old neighborhood lady to say, “Congratulations on the Supreme Court decision. I believe all love is sacred.” All the casual acceptance on this show makes me want to hug strangers.
- Meg’s boyfriend on Pete and Diane’s ceremony: “Look at all those ribbons: everyone at their wedding had AIDS.”
- Kate sat with Bert on the plane and I was just really affected by that, okay?
- Jackie stealing the neighbors’ light-up Virgin Marys: “It’s Kate, me, and the one with the dead eyes is Diane.”
- Pete tries to get Cricket off the roof with a pool skimmer.
- “Bert, why don’t you go see Warren in the garage?” “I’m afraid of the garage.”
- “Yeah! Team Diane. What are we talking about?”
- Bert responding to strippers exactly like I do: “But there’s a dance party!”
- “Let’s palp it down.”
- The Bert-Day dance.
- Kate calls Pete’s parents “Man Francis and Lady Frances.”
- Pete’s mom is FLORENCE HENDERSON, by the way.
- “I would trade both of those days for one normal day with you.” Hahahahhaha, GET OUT.
The entire first season of Trophy Wife is on Hulu, and new episodes air Tuesdays at 9:30pm on ABC. I’m not ready to give these characters up. Let’s save this show.
Are you in love with Trophy Wife too? Let us know in the comments!