Taking the trophy wife back off the shelf

Modern masculinity in crisis was all the rage with network’s last season (“Work It” followed men who dressed as women to get jobs, “Guys with Kids” featured guys with kids), and this year studios didn’t buck the trend, implementing another round of ensemble comedies about the struggles of being a middle class man in America (“We Are Men” centers on a group of divorced men, “Dads” on racist and unemployed fathers moving in with their younger sons).

Having seen some of those shows, and having read much of their scathing press coverage, I was not optimistic about ABC’s new show “Trophy Wife.” I knew nothing about the show, but the title was more than enough to turn me off. “Trophy Wife” sounded like it would be yet another show about a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The show might be called “Trophy Wife,” but instinct told me it would follow the lead of past sitcoms and focus on the husband as his new wife clashed with his catty and bitter exes in the background.

You can imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch “Trophy Wife” and discovered that the show is almost as good as its title is terrible. It has a winning cast, with romantic comedy staple Malin Akerman (“The Proposal”, “27 Dresses”) bringing some genuine charm as the titular trophy wife, and Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”, “Cabin in the Woods”) conquering the Herculean task of making husband Pete seem like he’s not a total slime ball.

The show made the smart choice to make Pete a well-adjusted and charming man who happens to have some ex-wives and children, rather than a man in a crisis that can only be solved by a young blonde. It also swiftly introduces those wives and children to Kate rather than drawing out the reveal: she meets Pete when she breaks his nose at a karaoke bar and is greeted by the entire family when she escorts him to the hospital.

The show also challenges typical portrayals of young women maturing into adults. The first two episodes center on Kate’s attempts to become an active part of the family, and she succeeds and fails in ways you wouldn’t expect. While trying to bond with teenage stepdaughter Hillary, she unwittingly provides a tip on how to smuggle vodka past adults, and disastrously attempts to hide her mistake from Pete’s first wife while still playing the parent. Kate’s continuing struggle to act like a parent instead of a beloved babysitter is the center of the show, and it’s delightful to watch this bubbly and smart woman try to adjust, at the drop of a hat, to her newfound responsibility for a husband and his three children.

So, yes, I enjoyed a television show called “Trophy Wife” and plan to continue watching it. I expected to have exactly the opposite reaction, since my main criticisms of popular media are often centered on didactic and damaging portrayals of women. I fully expected “Trophy Wife” to be yet another show which used an attractive young woman as a prop in order to tell the story of an older man’s struggles. But like the similarly unfortunately titled “Cougar Town” before it, “Trophy Wife” seems determined to undermine audience expectations, and chooses to focus on the relationships between its three female leads rather than on the man they have in common.

If I had done my research before watching, I would have known that “Trophy Wife” was going to defy expectations. It was co-created by Sarah Haskins, a self-described feminist who drew from her own experience of marrying a man two decades older than herself. Haskins and co-creator Emily Halpern have repeatedly said that they want “Trophy Wife” to challenge expectations and ideas of what a show with that title — and of what trophy wives themselves — can be.  And if the first episodes are any indication, they’re succeeding.

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).

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