Trophy Wife: in memoriam

Feature Pete Dillon-Trenchard
15 May 2014 - 07:00

Pete mourns the passing of Trophy Wife, a well-cast, well-written sitcom whose title didn't do it any favours...

Sitcom fans are in mourning this week following the cancellation of one of the sharpest, funniest sitcoms on television. I am, of course, talking about Trophy Wife, one of the more tragic losses of the Great Television Massacre of 2014.

Trophy Wife followed in the footsteps of ABC stablemate Cougar Town in having a needlessly off-putting title. Certainly anyone seeing the title and looking at the show’s two leads - the young and beautiful Malin Akerman, and Bradley Whitford, fifteen years on from The West Wing’s debut - might be inclined to put two and two together and make a borderline-offensive premise.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however; despite the age gap, Akerman and Whitford play one of the happiest, most loving married couples on television - arguably trumping even the Dunphys from Modern Family. And, much like the set-up of what should have been paired up as their sister show, they are joined by an extended family typical of the 21st century - in this case, Whitford’s two ex-wives Jackie and Diane (played by Michaela Watkins and Marcia Gay Harden respectively) and his three children from those marriages.

It would have been very easy to villify the two ex-wives and mine that seam of conflict for comedy, but Trophy Wife is from the same school of comedy as the superlative Parks And Recreation in so much as the characters inhabit a broadly positive and optimistic world. Of course we see the former spouses causing problems for Pete and Kate, but we also see them working together not just for the good of the children, but to resolve issues in their own personal lives also.

At first glance Diane may be an ice queen and Jackie a flakey hippy chick, but over the course of the season the writers delve into their vulnerabilities and get a sense of them as fully-rounded, sympathetic characters. Add to this Akerman’s character Kate, who manages to be endearing from the outset as she tries to adapt to her new life as a wife and mother but doesn’t always get it right, and you realise that Trophy Wife is one of the strongest sitcoms in terms of its female characters in recent years.

And of course, let’s not take Bradley Whitford for granted; Josh Lyman was always one of the funniest characters in The West Wing, and Whitford was easily the best thing about the fantastic Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (Another brilliant show barely given a chance by its network), so it should come as little surprise how deftly he handles the material on offer here.

Like Modern Family, Trophy Wife recognises the importance of its child characters, and Bailee Madison and Ryan Lee are great as overachiever Hillary and dorky-but-sensitive Warren. But special mention must go to young Albert Tsai as Bert, Pete’s adopted Asian-American son from his marriage to Jackie. Bert’s boundless enthusiasm and imaginative view of the world are a gift to the writers, and even the few weaker episodes of the season are made better by his involvement.

Rounding off the cast is Natalie Morales as Meg, Kate’s best friend who, unlike Kate, hasn’t even begun to grow up. I’ve adored Morales ever since The Middleman (Another one season wonder - I don’t have the best luck when it comes to picking favourites), and she’s wonderful here, deployed with precision to deliver some snark (or just complete filth) whenever the show looks like it might be getting too saccharine. There’s also a lack of self-awareness that borders on the tragic, and it’s a shame we’ll never get to see the character develop.

But then, that’s true of all the characters on the show. One of the best things about Trophy Wife is that it is always willing to experiment with different character groupings/pairings, and as a result the show is never in danger of feeling stale. One week Kate might be facing trouble trying to discipline one of the twins, and the next she might be attending Jackie’s school reunion and being forced to pretend the two are married. The characters are such that any one of them can happily carry an A-plot for 22 minutes.

Though Trophy Wife doesn’t leave our screens with any explicit unfinished business (Although this week’s season finale may prove me wrong), there is so much left to explore, from Warren’s never-ending quest to find love to Jackie’s attempts to find a purpose in life. It feels cruel and unfair to give Trophy Wife the chop after just one season while shows like Two And A Half Men and Mike And Molly thrive, but in a world where TV is increasingly a numbers game, a series of poor titling and scheduling decisions by ABC meant its demise seemed painfully inevitable.

So whilst certain other recently-cancelled sitcoms have a fanbase rallying behind them, Trophy Wife is leaving this world with tragically few mourners. The show may have departed long before its time, but we can at least be sure the characters will find contentment, even if we’re not able to see it. As with most one-season comedies, it’s pretty unlikely that Trophy Wife will ever be shown in the UK. But if you do get the chance, give it a watch - you won’t regret it.

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