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Reviewed by Will Harris
ebra Messing really made the right move when she decided to tackle the USA Network miniseries “The Starter Wife” for her first high-profile gig after “Will & Grace” closed up shop. It would’ve been all too easy for her to skip out on TV and try and build on the semi-success of “The Wedding Date,” but no, she decided to play it safe. The end result was a solid blend of critical acclaim and solid ratings – and more importantly, it resulted in the adventures of Molly Hagan being continued into a weekly series.
Didn’t see the miniseries? No worries. The first episode of “The Starter Wife: Season One” offers a rapid-fire recap that’ll save you from having to go rent it, but in truth, you really only need to know one thing: Molly (Messing) has survived a divorce from a high-profile movie producer, and now she’s trying to find her own path in life. You’ll probably find yourself wondering why the series found itself on USA rather than Lifetime, and it’s a fair cop, but for as much as the show possesses the chick-friendly vibe of series like “Sex and the City” and “Army Wives,” there’s enough Hollywood-derived humor to bring in the guys who watch “Entourage,” too.
The first episode, “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin Queen,” begins in the same manner as nine out of ten episodes do: with a movie parody. (In this particular case, the film is “Elizabeth.”) You won’t believe the way Messing manages to either resemble the actresses whose roles she’s playing, from Drew Barrymore in “Scream” to Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly” to Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” Hell, she even manages to come off as menacing as Jack Nicholson when she takes on the role of Colonel Nathan Jessup in a recreation of the courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men.” This concept would ordinarily seem gimmicky, but the reproductions are done with such a thorough attempt to make them look identical to the originals, all the way down to the lighting. They’re quite stunning, actually.
Although Messing may be the matinee name of the series, she’s part of an extremely strong ensemble. Judy Davis had already earned herself an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her work in the original “Starter Wife” miniseries, so it’s no surprise that the writers would give her a solid dramatic storyline to work with; as Joan McAllister, Molly’s closest friend, Davis gets to play the part of a long-married woman who’s informed by her husband (played by Ronny Cox) that, although he still loves her, the change in the dynamic of their “spark” over the years is such that she should feel free to have an affair. The only caveat: that she can’t fall in love. This is, of course, easier said than done, and Joan’s attempts to find someone who she doesn’t particularly like but still finds attractive – David Shea (Daniel Gerroll), a famous Shakespearean actor who’s battling the bottle – fails miserably when she realizes just how much more fun Daniel is. Joan and Molly also share another friend: Rodney Evans (Chris Diamantopoulos), a gay designer who has his own romantic problems when he falls in love with Felix Jones, an action star who shares Rodney’s affections but whose career requires him to remain steadfastly in the closet.
But wait, there’s more! Molly’s major storyline throughout the season kicks off when her precious journal, in which she’s written all of the juicy secrets she knows about her famous friends, is stolen; worse, the thief is maliciously doling out information to various gossip websites, thereby making Molly the most hated woman in Tinseltown. Things were bad enough for her in the wake of being divorced by Kenny (David Rasche), but when this happens, she stands to lose the only new friend she’s managed to find since then: Liz Marsh (Danielle Nicolet), the wife of major league baseball player Devon Marsh (Reggie Austin). In fact, the only thing that’s really going right in Molly’s life is her burgeoning relationship with Zach (Hart Bochner), who’s teaching the writing class that she’s been attending. Fortunately, things start to turn around for Molly soon enough. Once she manages to prove that someone else leaked the information from her journal, she decides to try and turn her story into a TV series. Or maybe a movie. And maybe the newly-divorced woman is actually a private investigator. No, wait, she’s a bounty hunter!
If you loved “The Starter Wife” as a miniseries, you’ll love it as a series – although if you’re like my wife, it may take you a little while to get used to seeing David Rasche in the role of Molly’s husband. (I am assured that Peter Jacobson, who played the part in the miniseries, was “more weasely looking and easier to dislike.”) The show’s writers are generally aware when they’re approaching a situation that bears the stench of cliché – which is to be expected, given all the in-jokes about Hollywood – and defuse the moment with a one-liner that mocks how hackneyed the circumstances are. There’s obviously a lot of comedy to be had, but the situation with Joan is handled with the appropriate amount of drama. And although Rodney treats his situation with Felix with plenty of flip one-liners, the storyline progresses to a point when it becomes evident just how horrific the P.R. industry can be when they’re trying to pretend that established facts aren’t true.
By now, you’ve no doubt gotten the idea that “The Starter Wife” is a great show, but here’s the bad news, so brace yourself: despite the optimistic subtitle of this set, the USA network has since made the decision to cancel “The Starter Wife,” thereby turning what was once “Season One” into “The Complete Series.” Worse, not every loose end is tied up by the time the credits roll on the final episode. Molly gets a happy ending, at least, and although Rodney and Felix have a rocky road ahead of them, it’s fair to say that they’re on the right track. The same can be said of Liz and Reggie, but dammit, what about Joan? When we last catch sight of her, she’s slipping out of sight to avoid arrest, and that’s hardly an adequate conclusion.
Dare we hope for another “Starter Wife” miniseries in a few years? Let’s keep our fingers crossed, just in case.
Special Features: In addition to a couple of full-length episodic commentaries from Messing, Bochner, and screenwriters/executive producers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott (one on the season premiere, one on the finale), the group also offers up remarks about the various fantasy sequences from throughout the season, which have been isolated for your viewing enjoyment.