Pity the poor TV wife. She thought life post-altar would be a never-ending paradise of Sunday brunches with the newspaper and scones, and adorably clad children clambering onto laps to ask whom Daddy loves best. She’s spent hours in the mirror practicing the blush she’ll flash when she hears her husband’s reply: “Mommy, always and forever.”
Girl, wake up and smell the dirty laundry. You’ve got five minutes until your first catfight.
In The Starter Wife, USA’s five-week, six-part miniseries based on the best-selling novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer (Hollywood producer Brian Grazer’s ex-wife), a radiant Debra Messing plays Molly, wife to powerful studio head Kenny (Peter Jacobson). Tanned, toned, waxed and polished, Molly puts in 17-hour days making her husband look like the world’s most desirable catch. Unfortunately, she succeeds, and he leaves her for a pop starlet half his age. As a member of the First Wives Club might say, “I never saw that coming.”
Those who live by the status symbol die by the status symbol, so Molly’s fall from grace plays out along material lines. She’s kicked off of a charity committee. Her swank gym terminates her membership. She’s humiliated at an overblown kiddie birthday party. And horror of horrors, she has to crash at a friend’s home in Malibu. Divorce is hard!
Messing’s Molly is a disheveled dish whose split ends up being a dream come true—as it could be, for someone who clearly doesn’t need to worry about putting food in her child’s mouth. Her regimen can accommodate juicy sleepovers with the local beach bum when her daughter’s off learning dance routines with Dad’s new girlfriend.
The show is escapist fare that would make the heroines of Army Wives chuck baby wipes at the screen. Lifetime’s new series centers on Fort Marshall, home to U.S. Army soldiers and their families. The wives pride themselves on their strength during deployment; as an experienced wife tells newlywed Roxy (Sally Pressman), if your man is worried about you, the distraction could kill him.
Yet, like Molly, these women define themselves by their husbands and are just as much in danger of being left alone—though not because of a midlife crisis. The possibility of death is ever-present. On the eve of his deployment to Iraq, Roxy’s husband presses her to allow him to adopt her sons; it’s the opposite of the pre-nup that began Molly’s marriage.
The Army wives throw themselves into raising children. There isn’t a career woman to be found anywhere at Fort Marshall, unless you count the show’s fifth “wife,” psychiatrist Roland (Sterling K. Brown); he’s married to commanding officer Joan (Wendy Davis), currently suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Afghanistan. Roxy breaks the mold by taking a bartending job off-post, but her initiative is frowned upon because Army wives don’t need jobs when they have the Army. Roxy’s decision is a genuinely subversive act that makes Molly’s meek stabs at rebellion look like something her personal shopper picked up at Barneys.
The show’s touchstone is Claudia Joy (Kim Delaney), wife of a respected colonel and power player in the post’s complicated social hierarchy. Her polished veneer hides emotional battle scars suffered at luncheons and charity events. When outcast wife Pamela (Brigid Brannagh) goes into labor at one of Claudia Joy’s famous tea parties and reveals, “I’m a paid surrogate,” the post’s fragile equilibrium is shattered. Who wants to guess that’s not the last secret that these women are hiding? I see hands—Denise? Your son is beating you? Tell us more!
Unlike the heroine of The Starter Wife, the denizens of Fort Marshall worry about more than self-improvement, and the show boasts some well-scripted scenes that dissect universal marital tensions. Despite its soapy tendencies, the series aims to prove that service on the home front requires just as much bravery as combat deployment. The Starter Wife’s no keeper (quelle surprise!). The Army wives know how to make it last.