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Television Review

‘Trophy Wife’: Meet the exes

Bradley Whitford’s third wife (left), played by Malin Akerman, with Michaela Watkins, the other ex.

DANNY FELD/ABC

Bradley Whitford’s third wife (left), played by Malin Akerman, with Michaela Watkins, the other ex.

Bradley Whitford is the thrice-married star of “Trophy Wife,” with Marcia Gay Harden, an ex.

PETER “HOPPER’’ STONE/ABC

Bradley Whitford is the thrice-married star of “Trophy Wife,” with Marcia Gay Harden, an ex.

‘Trophy Wife” isn’t flat-out awful, which, in this network fall season of mediocrity, is saying something. The title of the ABC sitcom, however, is not only awful, it’s wrong.

The phrase “trophy wife” connotes a cynical situation in which a man marries a pretty younger woman purely as a status symbol. He is probably vain, she is probably a gold digger. The show “Trophy Wife,” on the other hand, revolves around a man, Bradley Whitford’s Pete, who marries a beautiful younger woman, Malin Akerman’s Kate, because he is in love with her. They’re at different stages of their lives; she was a party girl while he was getting married and divorced, twice, and having three children. But despite their 20-year difference, they’re clearly not just using each other for appearances or money.

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The show, which premieres Tuesday night at 9:30, is really about the unusual family situations that Kate encounters after she and Pete have been married for a year. She’s not especially maternal or good at homemaking, but she now has to act as stepmom and try to cook breakfast without burning the house down. She also has to deal with Pete’s ex-wives, each of whom is a trip and a half. Diane (Marcia Gay Harden) is a doctor and a humorless intellectual who tries to humiliate Kate; Jackie (Michaela Watkins) is a new-age flake. A day doesn’t seem to go by when one or both of them is not somehow getting up in Kate’s face.

And that’s it. A more appropriate title would be something like “Third Wife” or “Instant Mom,” but someone on the show or at ABC must think that the title “Trophy Wife” promises a more irresistibly juicy sitcom. The tone of the show is a bit like “Modern Family,” as all of the adults and children in this patched-together family learn to make do with one another. It’s not nearly as well-done or witty as “Modern Family,” even as “Modern Family” enters its fifth season, but it aims for the same kind of humane character-driven comedy.

There is some vague promise afoot in the ensemble of performers; they’re all adept enough to build distinctive characters if they have the time and the backing of writers who know how to write for actors. Akerman is perfect for the role; she doesn’t play a dumb blonde stereotype, fortunately, but she makes Kate’s misguided decisions sympathetic, such as when she lets her irresponsible friend Meg (Natalie Morales) drive the youngest kid to orchestra practice. She brought the same innocence and good intentions to her work on “The Comeback,” only in bigger doses.

Whitford is low-key and wry, and Harden makes a great heavy. She uses her silky voice and her stiff posture to torment Kate, making even stock material fly. “I’m a doctor, Kate,” she says condescendingly during a meeting with her 15-year-old son’s teacher. “I have forgotten more about erections than you’ll ever learn.” Maybe the cast can lift this one to another level? Maybe the writers can come up with better situations than dead hamsters and horny 15-year-old boys? I’m willing to give it one more episode. Where there’s no laugh track and a few good actors in the cast, there’s hope.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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