Judge Brett Cullum thinks Australia's Gold Coast makes a super-coney, kind-of-phony Hollywood.
Our review of The Starter Wife: Season One, published April 2nd, 2009, is also available.
Molly Kagan: Of course I'm cranky. I haven't eaten in 12 years!
USA Network premiered The Starter Wife, a broad adaptation of the novel by Gigi Levangie, "the ex-Mrs. Brian Grazer," as a summer series, with a two-hour movie followed by four one-hour episodes. It didn't seem to get a lot of press when it aired, and now the DVD release seems just as quiet.
The miniseries stars Debra Messing of Will & Grace fame as a discarded trophy wife in Hollywood. The whole thing is breezy entertainment without much depth, and the main thing to appreciate is the chance to see brave actresses playing age-appropriate roles. It's got some funny sequences, but it's all painfully predictable. In a strange way, the show mixes Desperate Housewives with Entourage for a light, frothy spoof of Hollywood A-listers and the kooky life they have created.
Molly Kagan (Messing) has it all—a big-time Hollywood A-list producer husband, a precious daughter, and a close-knit group of friends to support her. Then one day her world comes crashing down as her husband (Peter Jacobson, Transformers) announces with little fanfare he wants a divorce. Instantly her power player status wanes, and she is treated like a leper by her glittering circle. Molly has lived her whole life to serve her spouse, and is now forced to find out what her new path will be without her "wife of…" status. She runs away to stay in the fabulous Malibu beach mansion of her alcoholic friend Joan (Judy Davis, The Ref) to lick her wounds.
The adrift, desperate divorcee quickly becomes torn between a hunky surfer (Stephen Moyer, Quills) and her husband's studio-head boss (Joe Mantegna, The Simpsons Movie), but the two men have secrets that are going to put an ironic twist on Molly's struggle to move forward.
Debra Messing was just shy of 40 during filming, and it's amazing to see the red-headed beauty play someone near her own age. It's something most actresses in Hollywood avoid at all costs. The role of Molly allows Messing to couple familiar comedic skills with a dramatic turn that proves she has more depth than the industry has given her credit for. Messing instinctively knows how to play complicated, and it's a joy to see her in The Starter Wife, stretching to reinvent her career.
Ample support is provided by Judy Davis who similarly allows the camera to see her true age and comedic prowess. Along for the ride are Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls), and Chris Diamantopoulos (The Pleasure of Your Company). The performances are the best thing about The Starter Wife, and it's moments like getting to see Judy Davis scheming her way out of rehab that make it a fun light diversion. Although the material is equivalent to a summer beach novel, the actors make the most of it keeping the comedy and drama spry throughout.
There are two things which bring the series down a good deal—the script and the filming location. The six-hour screenplay adaptation plays fast and loose with what Gigi Levangie Grazer originally wrote, changing the flow of events into an almost unrecognizable narrative that only shares the book's title and basic concept. The Starter Wife is riddled with cliches, grabbing for the obvious when it could have been so much smarter. Another puzzling choice was to film in Australia rather than in Los Angeles, where the story takes place. None of the locales truly look like trendy Hollywood or Malibu, and the series suffers from not having the flavor of California for authenticity. With a flawed script and production design, the show is sunk from the start, no matter how wonderful the individual performances are. The five episodes seem stretched out when we know where all of this is going and keep looking at unfamiliar terrain trying to pass itself off as California.
Universal provides a bare-bones presentation for The Starter Wife, without any supplemental material. The widescreen anamorphic transfer allows colors to pop, and there are no digital artifacts to get in the way. The sound mix is a serviceable stereo which provides clear dialogue. Menus are static with only basic episode selection options and the inevitable "play all" choice. Nothing is provided in the way of background on the production, and no behind-the-scenes extras are provided at all.
The Starter Wife is entertaining, thanks to a strong ensemble led by Debra Messing. The script doesn't support the cast, and neither does having Australia's Gold Coast substitute for Malibu. The basic DVD only offers the series complete in one package without any supplements.
Fans of the actors should find The Starter Wife enjoyable enough one time through, but it's not the kind of series you'll want to watch again and again to mine its depths. In truth it revels in predictable plots about women trying to find their inner strength and overcome a shallow social scene. You've seen it all before, but it is nice to see actresses not afraid to play their age. Of course that may explain why they had to film on location in Australia. I believe it is illegal to reveal your true age in Hollywood, and the result would be the kind of derision saved for first "starter" wives once they are divorced.
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