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6:05 pm
Tue September 24, 2013

'Trophy Wife' Is More Than Just A Pretty Face On ABC

One of the strongest new sitcoms on TV this season has the worst name, but its title, Trophy Wife, was intended to be ironic. The show's creators, Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern, are self-professed feminists who wanted to take on a type generally scorned in popular culture.

The show's eponymous character, Kate, is a reformed party girl trying to find her place in a family that includes a much older husband, Pete, his two ex-wives and three kids. When Kate inadvertently breaks Pete's nose, the situation is expertly handled by ex No. 1, an intimidating surgeon.

"Kids, look away," she barks before snapping his nose into place.

As for ex No. 2, she's incredibly well-intentioned — but her boundaries are awful.

"I didn't break into your home," she insists to Pete when she's caught in his house. "I used the hide-a-key."

"We don't have a hide-a-key," he replies, confused. It's with just a trace of satisfaction that she responds with "I do."

This is what happens when you enter a family that's more frappéd than it is blended, says co-creator Sarah Haskins. She's two decades younger than her husband and had to learn how to stepparent his two children, ages 9 and 19.

"I didn't realize when I married Jeff, you sort of by default marry everybody," she explains from the Disney office she shares with Halpern in Burbank, Calif. "And you're sort of married to them forever."

Haskins comes across as more of a sensible best girlfriend than a flashy trophy wife. She went to Harvard, then studied improv comedy at Second City in Chicago, her hometown. She first made her mark on television a few years ago with a series of videos for Current TV called "Target Women" that skewered how women — and men — are reduced to tiresome stereotypes in popular culture. Her own targets included TV ads for chocolate, yogurt and cleaning products.

When it came time to do Trophy Wife, Haskins and Halpern received support from actress Malin Akerman, who also signed on as a producer. Akerman is a winsome dead ringer for Cameron Diaz who's appeared in 27 Dresses and The Proposal, and she says she was horrified when she was sent the script.

"I am not going to play a trophy wife. Are you kidding me?" she recalls, laughing. "It sounds so boring because, to me, trophy wife is: Shut up and look pretty."

But Akerman loved the writing as well as the character's pivot from feckless singleton to committed mom. And as a new mom herself, she appreciated how the show revels in the inadvertent comedy that comes with stumbling into parenting.

Those qualities also captured the love of TV critics like Matt Mitovich of TVLine.com. He says it's one of his favorite comedies of the season, but he worries for the show's future partly because just the name Trophy Wife may turn off audiences. He calls it the Cougar Town effect, after another show far worthier than its title suggests.

Mitovich adds that not only did Trophy Wife get stuck in a new lineup of untested shows on Tuesday night, but it's also got to compete with The Mindy Project on Fox and one of the most popular shows in America, NCIS: Los Angeles on CBS. He'd advise ABC to put such a strong show on Wednesday, along with The Middle and Modern Family, because Trophy Wife shares their sensibilities — and could use the boost in audience.

But Sara Haskins says the show is all about defying expectations: first, of what a trophy wife should be, and then in terms of the dynamics between three strong, female personalities trying to do what's best for the kids

"It's not a woman-versus-woman show so much as it's about parents," she muses. "And it's about how you balance being a stepmom with being a mom, and balancing your strengths and weaknesses as human in that context."

Trophy wives on television have mostly been limited to reality shows and soaps. Haskins and Halpern want to subvert a toxic category of femininity. In the process, they're also subverting one of the most prominent types of characters on television right now — the anti-hero. And by doing so, Haskins is making yet another very funny feminist statement.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

"Trophy Wife" is the name of one of this TV season's new sitcoms. It starts tonight on ABC and was created by Sarah Haskins. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that Haskins aims to use her feminist perspective to take on a particular stereotype.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This sitcom's trophy wife is a reformed party girl trying to figure out her place in the family with a much older husband, his two ex-wives and three kids. One of those exes happens to be a surgeon so intimidating she can reset the husband's broken nose with her bare hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TROPHY WIFE")

MARCIA GAY HARDEN: (as Dr. Diane Buckley) All right, sit up, please.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: (as Pete) Sit up?

HARDEN: (as Dr. Diane Buckley) Kids, look away.

WHITFORD: (as Pete) Do you know what you're, ow.

MALIN AKERMAN: (as Kate) Ow.

HARDEN: (as Dr. Diane Buckley) All right. Got plastered(ph). Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) All right.

ULABY: And the other ex-wife is incredibly well-intentioned, but her boundaries are awful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TROPHY WIFE")

MICHAELA WATKINS: (as Jackie) And I didn't break into your home. Relax. I used the hide-a-key.

WHITFORD: (as Pete) We don't have a hide-a-key.

WATKINS: (as Jackie) I do.

ULABY: This is what happens when you enter a family already blended to the point of frapped, says "Trophy Wife" creator Sarah Haskins. She's two decades younger than her husband Jeff and had to learn how to stepparent his children.

SARAH HASKINS: You don't realize when - or I didn't realize when I married Jeff that you sort of by default marry everybody. And so - and then you're just - you're married to them forever.

ULABY: Haskins comes across as more sensible best pal than flashy trophy wife. She went to Harvard and then studied improv comedy at Second City in her hometown, Chicago. Haskins first made her mark on television a few years ago with a series of short videos for Current TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TARGET WOMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: "Target Women."

ULABY: [VO] "Target Women" mocked how women and men are reduced to tiresome stereotypes in popular culture, like in this one dedicated to ads for cleaning products.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TARGET WOMEN")

HASKINS: If your husband doesn't know how to use a blender, you can comfort yourself by knowing that cleaning products will always be your special friend, like Javier Purple Sponge Bardem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You know what part of a woman I admire most? Her hands. These sponges...

ULABY: Haskins' bone-dry sensibilities extend to her title. "Trophy Wife's" intended to be ironic. But critics are calling it the "Cougar Town" problem - good show, terrible name. It was off-putting to actress Malin Akerman who plays the main character.

AKERMAN: To be honest with you, when I first saw the title, I was like, oh, I am not going to play a trophy wife. Are you kidding me? It sounds so boring, you know, because, to me, a trophy wife is shut up and look pretty.

ULABY: But especially as a new mom herself, Akerman loved how the show plums the comedy that comes with stumbling into parenting.

AKERMAN: She wants to be a good mom to the kids. She's not great at it at all.

ULABY: Like in a scene where the trophy wife goes to her stepson's parent-teacher conference. She wears tiny, little shorts to meet with his gracious but quite venerable teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TROPHY WIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as Character) Oh, my goodness. You're so young. You can be a student here.

AKERMAN: (as Kate) So could you. Student of life, you know? We're all aging. Great pen.

ULABY: "Trophy Wife" was a favorite show among critics this year, including TVLine editor Matt Mitovich. But he's a little stupefied by how ABC fit it into its programming.

MATT MITOVICH: If I'm ABC, I'd take "Trophy Wife," which shares, like, a perfect blend of sensibilities up "The Middle" and "Modern Family," and I'd put it on at 8:30.

ULABY: Or after "Modern Family," he says, on Wednesday nights, where it could pick up a huge audience. But "Trophy Wife's" creator, Sarah Haskins, says the show is all about defying expectations, firstly, of what a trophy wife should be.

HASKINS: Like going to Pilates and getting your nails done and asking that the kids be sent to boarding school and, like, removing the life support.

ULABY: That's pretty much what other characters on the show expect at first. Take the teenage daughter who rebuffs the trophy wife's every attempt to build a relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TROPHY WIFE")

AKERMAN: (as Kate) Had fun at Model U.N., huh?

BAILEE MADISON: (as Hillary) You could stop trying so hard. No one expects you to be a mom. Just think of yourself more as my dad's third wife. Bye.

ULABY: And that's a welcoming attitude compared to the teenager's mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TROPHY WIFE")

HARDEN: (as Dr. Diane Buckley) When my children are at your house, what do you wear?

AKERMAN: (as Kate) Nothing.

HARDEN: (as Dr. Diane Buckley) Mm-hmm? Mm.

AKERMAN: (as Kate) No. I...

ULABY: But Haskins says her show is dedicated to exploring the dynamics between three strong female personalities all trying to do what's best for the kids.

HASKINS: It's not a woman versus woman show as much as, like - it's about parents, and it's about how you balance being a stepmom, what's being a mom and balance your strengths and weaknesses as a human, like in that context.

ULABY: Trophy wives on television have mostly been limited to reality shows and soaps. Haskins wants to subvert a toxic category of femininity. In the process, she's also subverting one of the most prominent types of characters on television right now, the anti-hero. And Sarah Haskins is making yet another very funny feminist statement. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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