CREDIT: ABC/Michael Ansell
The name, Trophy Wife? It’s supposed to be ironic. I didn’t get that either, and I too was skeptical about the premise: Pretty young thing Kate (Malin Ackerman) marries an older man, Pete (Bradley Whitford of The West Wing fame) who already has two ex-wives, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) and Jackie (Michaela Watkins) and three children to his name. But the twist in Trophy Wife is that it’s really a show about all the wives — like a comedic take on Big Love — and the way they co-parent and make space for each other. This is a family that doesn’t have two do-overs so much as one constantly expanding unit, in which everyone, “ex” or no, stays in the picture.
Which is how Trophy Wife wound up being one of the most feminist shows on TV.
Slyly but surely, Trophy Wife is a comedy with the best ratio of great female characters to male characters on the air right now, a space where all the women are different, flawed and engaging, and where there’s just as much woman power behind the scenes as there is on camera. Trophy Wife co-creators Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern co-executive produce with two men, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, and helm a writers’ room that’s 50/50 male/female. (According to Haskins, the writers room was “initially predominately female, and as the season went on, we were able to add more writers,” winding up with a room that’s half and half.) “We’ve been told that we’ve hired more female directors than most,” added Halpern. “And of course there’s pride there.”
In related remarkable feats: Every episode passes the Bechdel Test (Does it have more than one woman? Do they talk to each other? Is it about something other than a man? Check, check, check). All the female characters bring something complicated, human and three-dimensional to the table. Diane is a high-achieving doctor, uptight but vulnerable, a physical incarnation of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update claim that “bitches get stuff done.” Jackie is a daffy free spirit, willfully oblivious of social boundaries, always popping into her ex-husband’s house at inopportune moments as if she can’t imagine why he wouldn’t want to see her. Kate, the titular trophy wife, wears shorts that are more like underwear but desperately wants to prove her maternal chops; she’s still trying to find her place in a family that already looks overstuffed, where all the kids already have mothers who are present and love them.
“We wanted to really avoid the trope of villainous ex-wives and noble, sweet new wife,” said Haskins. “We wanted these characters to have their own perspectives. We didn’t want an evil ex-wife always slinking around, or some thoughts of ‘maybe they’ll get back together.’ We wanted to be clear that this is just how a family has to work these days when divorce is involved. We knew that co-parenting was the focus.”
Haskins’s husband is twenty years her senior and she’s a step-mom to his two children. Still, “I was not planning on writing about this for a long time,” she said. “It came about in conversations with [co-producer] Emily. We’ve always been committed to writing comedy from a grounded, character-based place.” Though the scenario is a bit extreme — three kids, three wives, all living within, as it seems in the show, walking distance of each other — the issues are universal. “We’ve all dealt in different ways with this,” said Haskins. “We’ve had divorce, or step-families, or blended families.”
Trophy Wife has had a rough time finding an audience, though; The ratings are pretty abysmal. Part of the problem is a bad time slot — on Tuesday nights, against The Mindy Project and NCIS: Los Angeles and without a strong lead-in show like Modern Family — and maybe part of it is just the universe trying to distract the masses from new sitcoms that I personally think are delightful (see also: Enlisted). And, well, there is that title. It’s basically the Cougartown problem. “We definitely intended for the title to be tongue-in-cheek and ironic,” said Haskins. “If audiences have been put off by it, it’s because they aren’t getting the irony.”
Halpern cut in: “I think we thought the title would be paired with this crazy, huge marketing campaign [and there would be] a clear sense of the irony. But the irony was not immediately apparent.” Halpern said the two did pitch “a number of different titles where it sort of suggests more of a blended family, but there is that fear that your title can just get lost in a bunch of other titles. The one thing you can say about Trophy Wife is it sticks out and gets noticed, but it’s not inaccurate for our show.”
Maybe there’s a better title on the bench just waiting to be used. What were some of the runner-up ideas?
“We tried titles that America would hate more,” Haskins deadpanned. “We tried as many as possible. West Wing 2. Marvel Presents: Trophy Wife.”