A Eulogy for ‘Trophy Wife,’ ABC’s Best Modern Family

On Tuesday night, Trophy Wife aired its final episode after just one season. ABC had canceled the show five days earlier. The ratings were never impressive, the cast was pricey, it fell through the cracks, overshadowed by ABC’s other family-focused comedies — and it had the worst name of the bunch. But knowing this would happen didn’t soften the blow. Trophy Wife, created by Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern, was one of those small, beloved (by critics and its loyal group of fans; I include myself in both categories) sitcoms that largely went ignored by the masses and the network.

Trophy Wife suffered from an awful title that recalled Cougar Town. Viewers who might have liked the show had already developed preconceptions of what it was going to be like when in reality it was very different and much better. The phrase “trophy wife” is generally associated with unpleasantness — women as status symbols, women as gold diggers — and doesn’t lend itself well to a heartfelt family sitcom. It was supposed to be ironic, I suppose, but irony doesn’t really work on ABC.

Trophy Wife had one of the greatest sitcom pilots of the fall, bested only by Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As the season continued, the show got stronger by establishing its strange sense of humor, its unique idea of family, and its knack for taking broad storylines — adapting to a new family, aging, not fitting in with peers — and finding refreshing ways to tackle them. Trophy Wife was more clever than anyone assumed it would be when it came to the theme of a modern family, much smarter than Modern Family itself.

It’s no secret or surprise that Modern Family is ABC’s biggest comedy hit, but its episodes are often bland and unoriginal, featuring plots ranging from “a couple bickers” to “a different couple bickers.” The “modern families” on that show — a couple with children, a May-December couple with children, and a gay couple with children — aren’t anything special. Trophy Wife featured an older man/younger woman couple, too, but included a twist. There were two ex-wives in the mix, and everyone is heavily involved with the children: two from the first marriage, one adopted during the second. Trophy Wife focused on a family that basically had four parents of varying ages, backgrounds, approaches, and experiences. The way that these differences caused them to both clash and come together created an original — and very, very funny — story. With such rich characters (and the great actors behind them), Trophy Wife could throw any two together and have spectacular results.

There is no denying the similarities between Trophy Wife and Modern Family, which is why it’s so baffling that the two shows weren’t scheduled together. Instead, ABC made the laughably idiotic decision to pair Modern Family with Mixologyan abhorrent sitcom full of abhorrent characters, also recently canceled — although the shows were polar opposites.

Despite the similarities, Trophy Wife managed to have the edge over Modern Family, a comedy that has gone downhill since its premiere (in quality, laughs, and even slightly in ratings). You could tell that all the characters on Trophy Wife loved each other — even the wives cared for each other, and the confident finale touched upon the deep respect they all shared — and the show never created a toxic relationship between Pete and his exes. It didn’t need to vilify Diane and Jackie to make Kate seem better. The point was never that one wife was better than the other, just that they were all different. On the opposite side, I occasionally have a hard time believing that anyone on Modern Family loves anyone else, even with the overbearing voiceover and inexplicable talkinghead segments explicitly stating that they do.

It’s worth mentioning that another wonderful and funny ABC sitcom got the axe this season. Suburgatory, about a single father raising his teen daughter in the suburbs, aired its final episode this week, too. The comedy was another superb depiction of a modern family, and had a refreshing and touching approach to a father-daughter relationship (while examining a variety of other relationships, from the platonic to the romantic). It was another show that eclipsed Modern Family in terms of quality but would never get the same attention.

ABC is a family network full of family sitcoms — The Middle, The Goldbergsand Last Man Standing got renewals; next season will add even more — so it’s hard to stand out. But Trophy Wife did stand out, providing one of the most poignant and careful depictions of divorce on television, all while never losing its sense of humor. It’s a shame that ABC couldn’t see that.