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Trophy Wife: Turning the evil-stepmother myth on its head

People around the world lined up to buy the new iPhone. Some jumped in the air after the purchase, high-fived each other and squealed. I saw this on the news.

Are they freaks? Figures of fun? Not these days. Mind you, the scenario was described pithily in a Guardian soccer column as, "In an era when hundreds of half-wits bivouac in the high street in order to buy another telephone with which to communicate with hundreds of other half-wits …" Touché.

Mostly, they're treated as just handy examples of the avid consumer interested only in the new, new, new! No such extremist excitement exists about the new network TV season launching this week. Except perhaps for the nerdy crowd that's all OMG! about Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (see below). There should be some glee (Glee returns Sept. 26, by the way) about the new shows because even in a feeble new season, there are gems. And sometimes the best new shows are rooted in old stories, but given a twist.

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Trophy Wife (ABC, CTV, 9:30 p.m.) is one example. It attempts to turn the evil-stepmother myth on its head and has fun doing it. Malin Ackerman stars as Kate, a self-described "party-hopping single" who has ended up married to lawyer Pete (Bradley Whitford from The West Wing). Now, a year later, she is still figuring out the stepmom thing as she deals with Pete's four children from his previous two marriages, one to uptight surgeon Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) and one to flaky, positive-thinking Jackie (Michaela Watkins).

Blended families are a dime a dozen on TV comedies. This one's a bit different because it focuses on Kate, the struggling stepmother. "I have no idea what I'm doing," she says, while trying to recover from a bout of drunkenness (long story there). Kate's a sprite, an anarchist of love dropped into this convoluted and screwed-up family. Stepmothers in our culture are surrounded by myths – the evil stepmother and the myth of instant love.

There are, apparently, some 900 stories and folk tales about evil or wicked stepmothers. In our contemporary world, there is pressure on the incoming stepmother to feel instant love for children born to another woman, an impossibility because, in reality, sometimes that love never does happen.

Trophy Wife throws these ideas up in the air to see where they fall. Co-creator Sarah Haskins, a comedian and a Harvard graduate, says she based this sitcom on her own experiences after marrying a man 20 years older who has kids from a previous marriage. No matter the source material, the show ends up an interesting bit of whimsy – Kate's no evil stepmom or fool trying to force-love those kids. She's the one who is mature and likeable, surrounded by narcissistic adults and children.

The Goldbergs (ABC, CTV, 9 p.m.) tries very hard to be an interesting sitcom, but the pilot episode is a mess. It draws heavily on the childhood and loud home life of Adam Goldberg, who became an actor, director and producer. He grew up in a suburban Jewish family in the 1980s and possessed one of the wonders of that age – a VHS camcorder. He taped his family in all sorts of situations and made those old tapes the basis for this sitcom.

It seems the Goldbergs were always shouting at each other or throwing tantrums. It's a very high-decibel show. It's well-cast, with Jeff Garlin (from Curb Your Enthusiasm) as the loud dad and George Segal as the cranky granddad. But one gets this feeling this romp is going nowhere, except into sentimentality. This is the old story for sitcoms based on childhood.

Also airing tonight – Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, CTV, 8 p.m.) mystifies me. Not being a scholar of the Marvel comics genre and unfamiliar with the movie The Avengers, I'm at a loss in giving expert advice. It comes from Joss Whedon and it's about "the missions of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division." So there. Also, agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is alive and "assembling a team of humans to investigate supernatural happenings." From what I've seen (the pilot was only made available for a short time online in June while I was on vacation), it's witty and has cool gizmos. Enjoy.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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