Universal // 2008 // 430 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Katie Herrell (Retired) // April 2nd, 2009
"Wife Begins Again."
Season One of The Starter Wife is really Season Two. Season One was the miniseries of the same name. Season One addressed the conceit behind the series' name, namely that Debra Messing was dismissed by her ladder-climbing Hollywood husband as they climbed into middle age.
By Season Two, Messing's character, Molly Kagen, has grappled with the realization that she was an accessory to a man's career, and is now ready to be (or forced to be) her own woman. As Molly is the starter wife no longer, the television series might benefit from a more fitting name: Sort of Like Sex and the City if the Ladies of Sex and the City Were Divorced and Living in L.A. and Volunteered for the P.T.A. and Started Their Day With Weird Movie Fantasy Sequences.
As indicated above, The Starter Wife is about the travails of a Hollywood director's ex-wife who is forced to continue living her day-to-day life (parenting, volunteering, socializing) post-divorce without the status, glamour, or money associated with being a director's wife. While Molly enjoys many of the trappings of the Hollywood A-list (namely wearing dress-up clothes ALL the time), she is also now privy to its vagaries from her lower perch. This series is about beating the Hollywood machine while still living within the system.
The series begins with a montage of what was missed in the miniseries. I can't say I really understand the difference between a miniseries and a short television series (sort of like I can't really pin down the difference between a condo and an apartment), but judging from the spliced miniseries clips introducing the television series of The Starter Wife I'd say the television series received a bigger budget.
One intro scene was too red (literally); one was too green. And it wasn't my T.V. This was the equivalent of a film clip needing to be PhotoShopped. But thankfully, after the intro, the color rendering problem never reappeared. In fact the first episode opens with a buck (or thousand), with Messing channeling Cate Blanchett channeling Queen Elizabeth is a fantasy sequence stripped from the movie Elizabeth. The Starter Wife pays frequent homage (sometimes back slapping homage and sometimes finger pointing homage) to its Hollywood location. Besides reenacting various Hollywood blockbuster scenes, there is also the frequent presence of Hollywood jingles and theme songs playing in the background. (Besides the jingles there's no soundtrack to speak of and this series, and like so many L.A.-based series that portray glittering wealth, it could have lent itself to a flashy soundtrack.) There's also a lot of name dropping; sometimes it is names of actual actresses and actors and sometimes the names are one-off sounding. The mix of the two is a little confusing.
The fantasy sequences are certainly the most unique tool in The Starter Wife's belt. The actors and producers' commentary on the sequences (consisting of "I loved this one; " "I loved this one too;" "This one was fun.") make up the majority of the special DVD features. The fantasy sequences allow both the actors and the set to break the day-in-day-out of Hollywood excess and sparkle. I learned from the special features commentary that the Castaway sequence was shot in a parking lot and that Messing was required, against her will, to use a body double for a Mission: Impossible harness scene (I would not have guessed either fact based on the shots alone). Another sequence allowed the team to use effective special effects that made the characters look like they were blurring. In some sequences, for example the Mission: Impossible fantasy or the Blair Witch fantasy, Debra Messing's acting chops really shine through. She was great in Will & Grace and her The Starter Wife character has elements of Grace, so it was nice to see her break out of her comfort zone.
Besides the fantasy sequences, the staging of The Starter Wife is pretty insular: one big house to the next, and an inordinate amount of time spent in an elementary school parking lot. There are no "on location" shots and nary a sweeping panorama of the Hollywood excess the characters exist in. Actually, the most intriguing camerawork came in the opening episode, when Molly's ex-husband is introduced in a jittering sequence of shots reminiscent of a DJ working his/her vinyl. In comparison, later shots of Debra writing in her journal show pages after her poised pen's location that have already been scribbled on.
But to return to my initial Sex and the City reference, this show -- while leaning heavily on the idea of a lifestyle and a location -- is really about the relationships between friends. In Sex and the City the women's lovers were really the show's accessories and the same is, more or less, true here. The trifecta of Molly, her gay friend Rodney (Chris Diamantopoulos, State of Mind), and her dry, dire lifelong friend Joan (Judy Davis) -- with the vibrant later season addition of Liz (Danielle Nicolet, The Bernie Mac Show) -- is a funny mess. They are all train wrecks in their own way, just like the S&TC girls, but their mutual affection and support helps them get through the day. And despite their differences their camaraderie is palatable and they are able to carry the series. Toss in supporting men that also shine [Kenny, the ex played by David Alan Basche (Lipstick Jungle); Molly's love interest Zach played by Hart Bochner (Urban Legends: Final Cut), and Joan's lover David played by Daniel Gerroll (The Namesake)] and it's a raucous full house.
Yes, there are cliched moments and elements of triteness. I frequently rolled my eyes and thought only Molly and Kenny's daughter (Brielle Barbusca, Hope and Faith) could really act. When the producers kept talking about a great segue during the special features' commentary, I was literally looking for a segway (that weird upright personal transporter thing), because I didn't see a segue of note (although that's probably the sign of a good one). But I never felt suffering when sitting through a single episode. And now that I've watched the entire season, I miss the show and am ready for season two (uh, three).
The Starter Wife is certainly no Sex and the City, but those are really big (and expensive) shoes to fill. If Sex and the City is Saks Fifth Avenue, then The Starter Wife is Macy's -- and that's more than enough for most women.
Guilty, but likely going to figure a way out of going to jail. That's Hollywood!
Review content copyright © 2009 Katie Herrell; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 430 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Fantasy Sequences