I Like to Watch

Ex-wives on the verge of a nervous breakdown, from USA's "The Starter Wife" to Bravo's "Real Housewives of Atlanta" to NBC's "Kath & Kim."

By Heather Havrilesky

Published October 5, 2008 2:01PM (EDT)

Why does the word "wife" still have negative undertones after all these years? Even if a woman has a career but splits household tasks with her husband, tackling the finances and mowing the lawn while he changes diapers and cooks dinner, there's still something about being referred to as a "wife" that conjures up a vision of a blank slate of a woman, looming around the house like a ghost, dusting off the windowsills and folding the clothes while she waits for her children and her man to come home from their busy and important lives.

When you have your own life, your own talents, your own thoughts, your own desires, but your nature keeps you close to your brood despite your ambitions, the word "wife" fits like a scratchy, ill-fitting sweater on a hot day. Mother? Sure. Partner? Maybe. Girlfriend, fiancée, bride? All exciting and full of hope. But wife? It's a term that lacks honor and prestige, hints at a supporting role and reeks of impending disaster.

On TV, wives are invisible or frivolous or desperate or worse. But even in the real world, it's hard to find strong-willed role models who'll happily answer to the name "wife." There are just women behind closed doors, stubbornly drawing lines in the sand, trying to be good wives without being referred to as good wives, trying to help without making those around them helpless, trying to stay connected without caving in to the centuries of compromise that came before them.

Breaking out in wives
If that sounds a little paranoid, familiarize yourself with the daily lives of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" (premieres 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7, on Bravo), women who brag about their vast armies of household employees, shop for overpriced designer clothes, get their hair done and then gush endlessly about what a huge entrance they're going to make at an upcoming party. If there were a show called "The Real Husbands of Atlanta," and they spent their time nattering about such trivia, they'd be the laughingstock of the Southeast.

At least this version of the "Real Housewives" franchise introduces us to a new and mostly unfamiliar microcosm: upper-class African-American women in the suburbs of Atlanta, which the ladies refer to as "the land of opportunity for African-Americans" and the "black Hollywood." Compared with the tacky, fake-breasted, Mega-rita-swilling blondes of Orange County or even the snooty, wealth-obsessed, social-climbing harpies of New York City, these women are far more intriguing.

Apparently most Americans were largely unaware that their country was home to plenty of educated, upper- and upper-middle-class African-Americans until Barack Obama burst onto their TV screens. Against a backdrop of angry baby mamas on "Montel Williams" or fake-nail-pointing, booty-shaking hoochies on "Flavor of Love," then, there's some small taste of justice in seeing beautiful black women getting their hair done in their own private salon chairs, or laughing and teasing each other while shopping for expensive handbags at pricey boutiques. Forcing black power and wealth into the public consciousness must at least have some redeeming value.

"I'm in the process of interviewing key staff members," says DeShawn, who's married to Cleveland Cavaliers guard Eric Snow. "An estate manager, an executive housekeeper, a maid crew, a chef, a governess and a nanny." Excessive? Maybe, but there's still something refreshing about seeing a black woman -- other than Oprah -- commanding a household staff of six on mainstream TV.

Of course, it's the men who are bringing home the bacon in this picture. DeShawn is an NBA wife, Lisa is married to NFL player Ed Hartwell, Sheree is going through a rough divorce and hopes to get a "seven-figure" settlement, Kim is bankrolled by her off-screen "multimillionaire celebrity" boyfriend (whom she affectionately refers to as "Big Papa"), and NeNe, a voluptuous beauty, proclaims that the secret to her rich, older husband's heart is not through his stomach. These women all appear strong and independent, buoyed by a great sense of humor (NeNe and Kim) or a strong entrepreneurial spirit (Sheree and Lisa), but the fact remains that their continued freedom to flit about town shopping for luxury cars depends to some extent on keeping their husbands (or at least their divorce lawyers) satisfied.

As with the rest of the "Housewives" franchise, the aim here is to show how frivolous and wealth obsessed these women are, and most of them are more than happy to oblige. "I'm around a lot of women who are very wealthy," says NeNe, proudly. Later, Kim, the one white woman in the group, who describes herself as "a black woman trapped inside a white woman's body," says to the camera, "I could die tomorrow, I want to die in Dior."

It's nice that these women are a little less predictable and more fun than their Orange County or New York City counterparts. But while they may be expanding the typical American's mind about race and class, these ladies aren't exactly improving the concept of what it means to be a wife, outside of making it look easy for those who have the money to outsource the job.

An old wives' tale
Don't think for a second that a quick divorce will save you from an uncertain fate, though. Once a wife, always a wife -- or at least, that appears to be the logic behind the title of USA's new series "The Starter Wife" (premieres at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10). Based on the miniseries of the same name (which was, in turn, based on the book by Gigi Levangie Grazer) about a woman who finds herself on unfamiliar ground in the wake of being dumped by her rich and powerful studio exec husband, "The Starter Wife" should really be called "The Divorcée" or "The Single Mom." But then, those titles don't have the same demeaning ring to them, and fail to conjure up the same image of a woman who sees her struggling husband through the hard times, only to be unceremoniously dumped once his stock has risen to new heights.

Molly (Debra Messing) is the same frantic wreck she was in the miniseries, but her ex-husband, Kenny Kagan (David Alan Basche), is struggling after single-handedly financing a violent thriller, "Blood Canal," on his credit cards. Although she's furious that his financial recklessness has put their young daughter's private education in jeopardy, Molly finds herself giving her depressed ex a pep talk about his enormous knack for pandering to the lowest common denominator: "You were the one who knew that zombies were funny, that you couldn't go wrong with a talking pig, that men would watch love stories if there was frontal nudity!"

"The Starter Wife" is fun and clever, but it's witty dialogue and a great cast, not thoughtful storytelling, that keep this rich-divorcée gaffe-fest rolling along. When Molly channels her frustrations into a journal, then the journal is stolen and published without her permission as an anonymous Hollywood gossip column online, the twists and turns that ensue aren't nearly as compelling as the snappy chatter along the way.

Take the scene in which Molly, Joan and Rodney venture out to the suburbs to attend a screening, and end up marveling at the sights.

Molly: This is the rest of America. This is where Kenny has his finger on the pulse. I used to live in the rest of America.

Joan: Shoe Pavilion! I've heard of that.

Rodney: Oh my God, guys. An intact family!

Molly: I feel incredibly thin.

Joan: That pretzel is the size of her head!

Good stuff, but somehow that lively tone is lost in the scenes where Joan (played brilliantly by Judy Davis) is volunteering at an exclusive rehab center and ends up chauffeuring a high-profile drunk from the airport. There's not much interest and no laughs at all in the scenes where interior decorator Rodney (Chris Diamantopoulos) falls for his hot, seemingly straight male movie-star client. The B-stories on this drama don't hold much interest, somehow, and even Molly, with her unfortunate leaked journal, doesn't have as much anxious flair as she did in the miniseries. Will she ever write something worthwhile? Will she find another man? Who cares? We just want her to go out to lunch and get insulted by her snippy friends again.

Dumb and dumber
If divorcée Kath and her soon-to-be-divorced daughter, Kim, aren't a cautionary tale for what becomes of the ex-wives of the world, I don't know who is. Of course, this pair, from NBC's new sitcom "Kath & Kim" (premieres 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9), were probably just as tacky before they got married: Kath (Molly Shannon) listens to Cher full blast while working out in '80s aerobics outfits straight out of an Olivia Newton-John "Let's Get Physical" video, and Kim (Selma Blair) keeps leaving her husband for saying things that imply that she should do more every now and then than lie around the house watching TV. After one particularly dramatic fight, Kim's husband, Craig, tells her, "Kim, all I said was that maybe you can microwave dinner every once in a while. We can't go to Applebee's every night -- we are not billionaires."

While I have to applaud the cheap shot at Applebee's, the laughs on this show are few and far between. Having loved the Australian version of "Kath & Kim," I just can't get too excited about an American version of the show. Not only were the charms of the original distinctly Australian in every way, but the American characters aren't as charmingly clueless or as outrageously nasty as their Australian counterparts.

Yes, we understand how absurd it is that Kim gets her mom a mug that says, "Spoiled and Worth It" and they both marvel over the cleverness of whoever wrote those words. We get that only tacky, bad people drink vodka with Red Bull or proclaim, when asked what they do for a living, "I'm a trophy wife!" (as Kim does). Yes, we can see that it's sad that Phil, Kath's boyfriend, owns a sandwich place at the mall and was once grossly overweight. But these winks and nudges about tacky Americans only go so far -- they don't make the entire show funny, and somehow the constant onslaught of pop-cultural references doesn't make up for offering us little or no understanding of who these characters actually are and why we should care.

When pop references or cheesy slang is actually used to tell part of the story, on the other hand, it works. When Kim has her friend Angel (Justina Machado, most memorable for her role as Vanessa on "Six Feet Under") stalk Kim's husband, Craig, to see if he's cheating, she discovers Angel sitting in a car outside Craig's apartment, waving to him as he comes and goes, and eating out of a bag of candy. "Candy diet," Angel explains. "I read that's how the Olsen twins stay anorexic but don't die."

Suddenly, Angel's eyes light up.

Angel: Who is that?

Kim: That's Todd. He lives next door. He's a douche.

Angel: He's gonna be my douche!

Scenes like this might seem to indicate that "Kath & Kim" does have some potential to be funny. Unfortunately, Blair's bratty take on Kim is repetitive and not even mildly amusing, Shannon is wonderful at her role (as always) but doesn't have much of a character to work with, and the stories are neither real enough to be relatable nor outrageous enough to flesh out a true farce.

But maybe "Desperate Housewives" single-handedly killed the hapless housewife golden goose long ago. And why tune in for another comedy about wives who are fixated on trivia, clueless, jittery and confused, when the funniest wife of them all is running for vice president? Who needs comedy when our entire country is embroiled in the darkest, most absurd farce imaginable?

Next week: Thrills and spills await, from the spooky science of CBS's "Eleventh Hour" to the supreme dorkiness of NBC's "Knight Rider." Plus: Do the ambivalent superfriends of NBC's "Heroes" need a pet monkey to liven things up?

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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