As predicted—or confirmation biased—the most interesting thing about Trophy Wife is its unusual family structure. Get Jackie on the sidelines with Coach Kate and the comedy follows. “One wrong bite, half the team dies,” she advises Kate on the peanut allergies of the losingest team in league history. When Jackie leaves for a pub crawl with her tai chi class, she says to no one, “You know what they say about husband-wife coaching teams,” the set-up to snapping an imaginary something in half. Maybe it’s residual Michaela Watkins love, maybe it’s that her jokes are surrounded by clunkers like Coach Dwayne telling the kids his wife is having an affair, but Jackie’s “look” is the first time I laughed.
Conversely, put Kate in a Modern Family hand-me-down, and Trophy Wife needs a little something extra to stand out. There’s just one joke to Kate’s attempts to put Bert to sleep—reading a story, counting backward, This Little Piggy—which could work if there were any punch to it. Road Runner will always outwit Wile E. Coyote, but Coyote has some energy. His snowballing desperation and his elaborate schemes are half the fun. Kate just gets tired.
That leads to the main sitcom staple of the episode: the escalating series of secrets and lies. Kate lets Bert watch TV, then she falls asleep before him, so he catches one of those sensational late-night deals on a uterus-stealing doctor, then he’s too tired in the morning, so she lets him have some coffee, which forces Kate to cover in even more suspicious ways. Meanwhile, Warren with a new haircut and Hillary with a new body spill some salsa on Diane’s couch, which even Pete can’t help them with. They flip over the cushions—without cleaning up any standing liquid or chunks or doing anything about the smell, mind, because TV—and discover the wonders of game theory. Speaking of increasing desperation, that’s how the kids wring some comedy out of this, especially Warren “I always play it cool” Harrison immediately panicking. “Maybe she talks about salsa all the time, and we’re just noticing it now.”
Diane is also funny as she immediately discerns (smells) the salsa accident and sweats the kids. And it’s notable that her supervillain deeds are all relatively achievable as opposed to heightened sitcommery: She makes quesadillas and asks the kids what condiments they’d like to have it with, she teaches them the basics of salsa dancing, she rents La Bamba, she flips the cushion stain-side-up when they’re not looking. She doesn’t invest a lot of time and money into this. She just has a particular, telltale way of doing things. “Normal parents don’t get results.”
The trick is that Michaela Watkins and Marcia Gay Harden defy the great blandening of the second episode. Naturally, it’s hard to live up to such a crowded premiere full of antics with an overcaffeinated lead, but the best “Cold File” could do was to have all the kids ignoring Kate at breakfast and have her half-heartedly announce, “Look: There’s an eagle?” The harmless pleasantness of the family is a double-edged sword—better that that the machine-gun barbs of Modern Family—but, nice as it is to get a sense of Pete and Kate’s relationship, it could at least leave more of an impression. The only sign of Natalie Morales is her credit. The actual title credits go out of their way to be inoffensive, and there’s a race joke so shruggable it would put Clean Guys Of Comedy out of business: The mildest-mannered doctor in history mistakes an Asian family for Bert’s parents, politely apologizes, and then turns to the Harrisons. It’s good to find a baseline for Akerman in particular and the show’s plotting in general, but where’s the surprise, where’s the zag, where’s the life?
That said, not being very impressed with this episode doesn’t mean I’m at all concerned about the series. The house still has good bones. And “Cold File” shines a spotlight on parenting. There’s Diane, the Type A control freak who gets things done right. Ending her interrogation with “Do you love me the most?” and that wicked smile is a welcome swerve from all the pleasantness. It’s also a neat reversal from the opening bit where Kate tells Pete that Bert made him his bitch and Pete responding, “I’m pretty sure I did that to myself.” That makes even more sense in light of Jackie, who is all about being there for her son at the drop of a hat. Just as Bert wrangled power over Meg, he has power over his parents. In the tag he even cock-blocks Pete. Now we’re cooking. The great Oedipal rivalry of 2013 is just beginning.
- I wasn’t kidding about the puppy, ABC. Give us more puppy.
- Pete’s a very relaxed father, involved but not overly invested, more amused by the kids than anything. Get a load of the friendly diction in “Let’s make it a goal to not sit down as much during our scrimmage.”
- Love the gag that Bert lays out his wardrobe for the whole week.
- Best Akerman delivery is when she’s waking Bert up and he says he slept bad. She’s busily busying business, all the while cheerfully stuttering, “Shh, no you didn’t. Don’t say that… to your dad.”
- From the comments it seems like Jackie isn’t a favorite, but she’s easily mine: “I have said it once, and I will say it again. You know, aside from me, I do not understand your taste in women.”
- Bert: “Turns out I didn’t hurt my uterus at all.” Pete: “That’s because you don’t have a uterus, buddy. Girls have uteruses.” “So, what’s… in my butt?” “Butt stuff.”