When USA’s miniseries The Starter Wife ended last summer, Molly Kagan (Debra Messing) was living the happily ever after ending, part two. Adjusted to the emotional and financial turmoil of divorce, working as a writer, and dating a hunk of a beach bum, Molly was evidence that a divorcée could heal and move on—not that we hadn’t learned that lesson already with The First Wives Club and An Unmarried Woman.
Now, the full-on series premiere of The Starter Wife finds Molly in turmoil again. It seems that happily ever after, part two, is shorter than part one. Her ex, Kenny (David Alan Basche), has invested all of his money in his new film, causing him to fall behind in child support payments, Molly’s children’s book was a big flop, and the hunky bum just couldn’t adjust to living life inside of a house instead of a tent on the beach. It’s time to put the pieces of her life back together again.
The show’s premise is that putting your life together is more complicated when that life is lived in the shallow world of Hollywood. Envy, cattiness, and pressure to be a part of the “in” crowd make self-awareness and healing difficult. Still, Molly’s problems aren’t unique to the Hollywood ex-wife; they’re only more public where she lives, where the term “starter wife” refers to an accepted practice.
Molly does her best to fit in, hoping to establish herself as a writer. She joins a writer’s workshop led by Zach McNeill (Hart Bochner). The group is unimpressed with her writing for children, but embraces the humor and wit she displays in her journals. Her keen observations should be the foundation for her writing, McNeill proposes, but Molly can’t bring herself to publish her journal entries, as much of what she has written would prove embarrassing for her friends and neighbors. Predictably, her journal is stolen and excerpts fed to a gossip website under the title of “The Hollywood Wife.” While the internet buzzes with speculation as to her identity, Molly sets about trying to repair the damage.
To help, Molly has two dysfunctional friends who point out her every mistake and bad decision. Joan (Judy Davis) has stopped drinking and works at the rehab center, Destinies, where her first assignment is to corral British film star David Shea (Daniel Gerroll) into compliance with rehab rules. Told by her disinterested husband (Ronny Cox) that she is free to have an affair, Joan is plainly headed into the experienced arms of Shea. Molly’s other buddy, Rodney (Chris Diamantopoulos), falls for action star Felix (James Black), who refuses to come out of the closet.
We’ve seen this kind of drama before: this premiere episode seems like a hybrid of Desperate Housewives and Robert Altman’s The Player. Ultimately, the Hollywood angle serves as a distraction. The Starter Wife relies on our proclivity to savor gossip and desire to see Hollywood’s underbelly. We should feel better, it’s implied, about our own small lives by knowing the privileged lead lives far more painful and scandalous than even TMZ could report.
Yet, the problems that Molly and her friends face are typical of all cultures. Molly’s ex-husband could just as easily have been the premiere butcher in Ipswich, South Dakota, instead of a studio head, and the wealthy wives gossips in a Baptist church, and there would have been no difference in the emotional turmoil and confusion that Molly feels. The difference—besides glamorous settings and outfits—is that if Molly lived in Ipswich, it’s likely that she would see her child once in a while. Instead, young Jaden (Brielle Barbusca) is a prop, a reason for Molly and Kenny to talk or for Molly to interact with the snobbish mothers at his private school. It’s hard to sympathize with a woman who spends more time shopping and dining with her friends than helping her daughter adjust to her parents’ divorce. No doubt, the hired help takes care of that.
Molly and her friends spend so much time name-dropping and worrying about reputations, we never feel connected to their pain or joy. The show’s foundational preoccupation with Hollywood does produce some humor, most often in film-based fantasy sequences, but this hardly makes up for the cost: Molly herself remains a fantasy rather than someone with whom viewers can identify.