Bravo, a network formerly known for high-brow programming, is better-known in recent years for the Real Housewives franchise, in which rich supposed friends spend their time back-stabbing and throwing wine in each other’s faces. So it’s almost ironic that Bravo’s first scripted series, focuses on (still rich) ex-wives, but actual friends. The Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce’s first 12 episodes offered a fantastic female-focused drama featuring fabulous women over 40. It almost resembles a next-chapter Sex And The City, but its players are a lot more real and down-to-earth than Carrie Bradshaw and company, despite their plush surroundings.
Bravo smartly chose some excellent source material. Vicki Iovine is a former lawyer (and one-time Playboy centerfold), who wrote a series of books called the Girlfriends’ Guides, starting with a guide to pregnancy, working on up to toddlerhood, even kids’ birthday parties. (Any pregnant people or moms of small children out there, I recommend these guides with my entire heart.) Just like the lead in the series, Vicki got divorced from her husband, music producer Jimmy Iovine, after four kids and many years of marriage. Her franchise at an end, she started a Huffington Post column on divorce (again, just like Abby in the series), and now has completed the cycle by creating a series from this despair in her own life. Her writing has always been vastly approachable and conversational, even for her readers who didn’t happen to live in the glamorous section of Los Angeles, offering realistic life advice for everything from breast-feeding to playdates. Iovine’s relatable voice has easily translated to this series, helped along by Buffy The Vampire Slayer writer and producer Marti Noxon.
Besides Iovine, Girlfriends’ Guide snagged another major asset: Lisa Edelstein (House) as the series lead. Her Abby is simultaneously strong, vulnerable, nice, funny, everything we want to root for in our heroine as she carves out a new life for herself, charting new paths in her relationships and career. She is able to transform an earthquake into a living-room camping party, or a public meltdown into a new book idea. The girlfriends surrounding her are also well-rounded, dominant female characters, like a former supermodel trying to find out what she’s actually good at, a take-no-prisoners divorce lawyer unsurprisingly down on marriage, and an outspoken friend from college. The series offers a gay marriage as well with Abby’s landscaper brother and his high-powered husband. I’m not sure why Janeane Garafalo departed after six episodes, but she added some needed bite to the show at its start. But it remains fascinating to watch how these formidable women deal as the main relationship in their life dissolves: how they grapple with whole new territories in their 40s, while still having to stay strong for their kids. They bond at the coffeeshop over lattes instead of SATC’s Cosmopolitans, but this female support becomes a necessity and a stability their now-unstable lives depend on.
The most fascinating relationship on the show, though, is the one between Abby and her estranged husband (Paul Adelstein). When we meet him, he’s sliding into bed after openly sleeping with someone else, so we immediately want to classify him as the villain. As it turns out, he only started up with Becca, the 20something star of a Buffy-type TV show, after Abby’s emotional affair with another dad at their kids’ school (C. Thomas Howell). Throughout the season, the couple has gone back and forth as Jake gets his own apartment that’s a far cry from the family home he shared with Abby, and he and Abby both start dating other people. But the two still share an emotional connection from all those years together; they still get each other’s jokes; they still have to present a united front to the kids. This has left the fate of their entire relationship as a kind of question mark hanging over the season, even as Abby gets closer to her young, hot new boyfriend Will (Warren Christie).
The season finale wraps up all the Girlfriends’ storylines while offering some intriguing possibilities for the already confirmed season two. As Phoebe the supermodel, Beau Garrett does her best work yet as she describes how she was violated by a photographer when she was only 14 years old. Spitfire Jo (Alanna Ubach) continues to wrestle with how her horrific marital collapse is affecting her studious daughter. Delia (Necar Zadegan) awesomely stands up for herself in a partners’ meeting when she knows she is not being offered the same deal that a male colleague did. Abby’s brother Max (Patrick Heusinger) and his husband Ford (J. August Richards) find that an open marriage may turn out to be more complicated than fun. I’m less on board with the wrinkle between Jake and Becca that shows up at the end of the episode, but I have enough faith in Girlfriends’ to hope that it won’t just let this slide into soapiness.
Abby and Jake have their final papers drawn up for their divorce, and being the couple they are, they decide to make a date of signing the papers, leading to a lot of reminisces about their first date. When Jake suggests they try again, Abby, who has just started to move on, lashes out and heads to the divorce party her friends are throwing her, featuring paintball shots at her white wedding dress. This leads to an unexpected revelation from Abby at the party: the dress actually looks better paintball-splattered than it ever did before. The wedding dress, in fact, is a stupid emblem of what a life together will be like, with its purity and innocence and absolute cleanliness. Marriage is messy, because love is messy, because people are messy. Jake is absolutely right when he yells, “There is no handbook, “ even though Abby has made her career on actually writing life handbooks. Over the course of the show, Abby finds that she becomes even more successful (and truer to herself) when she drops the perfect façade, and Abby and Jake both realize that their relationship is better now that it has been torn apart and they’re starting to rebuild it.
Abby and Jake are the high point of this finale, but they are emblematic of what sets Girlfriends’ Guide apart: funny and warm, emotionally smart and honest. This show rarely hits a false note. It’s a welcome progression from former shows that wrapped up all problems by the end of the hour, with perfect TV husbands and wives and children. Relationships will continue to be as complex as the people within them are, and Girlfriends’ Guide explores them at the high level that was Bravo’s former hallmark. Season two can‘t come soon enough.
Season-one finale grade: A-
Season-one overall grade: A-