Don't be fooled by the name (yes, it's meant to be ironic) -- ABC's Trophy Wife should be at the top of your to-do list. The show is about a former party girl (Malin Akerman) who inherits a huge family after falling in love with an older man (Bradley Whitford) with two ex-wives and three kids. We spent a day on the set chatting to the cast and getting to the bottom of what makes it magic.
So if you were waiting for a reason to tune in on Tuesday nights, look no further. We've got five:
No. 1: Albert Tsai is smart. Really smart.
Pint-sized breakout star Albert Tsai is best thing about Trophy Wife, and because he's so loveable in real life, nobody minds. In addition to shouldering many of the show's laugh-out-loud moments, he's also a genius.
"I'm just so grateful because there was nothing in the pilot episode that suggested my son was adopted or from China," says SNL alum Michaela Watkins, who plays Jackie, Bert's mom and wife No. 3. "When I met him, I was like, 'Well, OK, Lucy Liu is going to be in my makeup chair, because he's not going anywhere.' So I'm just thrilled to still be here."
"Originally, his character wasn't going to be adopted, but when he auditioned, it was just like 'Whoaaa...what? How did this drop into our laps?'" says producer Lee Eisenberg. "We changed the character to fit Albert. Albert is actually a genius in real life."
"Albert can probably read better than I can. And I'm going to college," adds Ryan Lee, who plays his brother, Warren.
"I mean, don't get crazy," says Michaela. "It's not like he knows everything about the Edwardian and Victorian era. He just knows most things."
Once you meet Albert himself, the praise doesn't seem out of place. He's tiny, gentlemanly, articulate, and totally irresistible. It helps that he and his character, Bert, have a lot in common.
"It's been an interesting journey for me. Bert is smart and funny and he's really curious and likes to ask questions. And he likes to do Bert-wheels. So do I! But as more episodes were filmed, I found that Bert has some other interests. It's really fun to for me to watch Bert develop."
Yep, that's a 9-year-old talking.
"I'm afraid of what's going to happen when we wrap and he goes on to do other things," admits Michaela. "I don't want him to be a sideshow, because he's so unique and incredible."
No. 2: You get to watch The West Wing's Bradley Whitford do comedy.
Anyone who grew up watching Bradley Whitford in the seminal role of Joshua Lyman, the brilliant, fast-talking politico who was the backbone of The West Wing, might have trouble imagining him as mild-mannered, straight-laced family man Pete. But it's definitely worth the mental adjustment, and there's a good reason why:
"In the pilot script initially, the character's name was Brad, because Bradley Whitford was always the character we had in mind, " says Lee. "They hadn't even picked it up to pilot yet, and we were like, well, we'll just write down Bradley Whitford and change it later. We'll sometimes say to him, 'Lyman this take!' if we feel like he's not really bringing it. Like, hey, Emmy winner! Do an Emmy performance! Stop Whitfording it!"
For Bradley himself, the role is not as extreme as a departure as you might expect. "One of the fun things about The West Wing was that there was serious stuff going on, but part of what makes Aaron Sorkin's stuff work is that he's got an amazing sense of humor. As an actor, you do a drama and generally have to be totally irony-deficient for an hour, which feels fake. And then often you do a sitcom and you feel like you have to be wisecracking relentlessly. With Pete, the trickiest thing is that he's in such an extreme situation ... it's like 'Ex-Wives of the Caribbean.' And it's never going to end. And there's a calm in the face of this chaos -- there's something steady about him, as opposed to Josh, who was always twitching."
No. 3: It's the sweetest show about divorce you'll ever see.
Yes, the show is about broken homes, bickering ex-wives, and failed marriages, but it somehow manages to be anything but mean-spirited. "It's not a show where a bunch of exes are trying to annihilate each other," points out Michaela. "It's much more reflective of the world we live in. When my parents got divorced, there was this climate of: everybody go and try to screw over your partner as much as you can! But now it's like, wait, I loved you once; we have kids, why would we go and create hell on earth? How are we going to make the most of it? And this show is a really good template for that."
Marcia Gay Harden (whom you can catch playing another intensely intelligent mother figure in 2015's 50 Shades of Grey) feels strongly about this aspect of the show for personal reasons. "There were a couple of things that were important to me coming into this character right on the heels of a divorce myself. I didn't ever want to seem like I was pooh-poohing divorce or making light of it. It's one of the most painful things anyone can ever go through, and it's a dissolving of the family you once pictured. And as that family dissolves, to choose to embrace a new picture of the family for the children is an incredibly generous, heroic, and important thing to do."
Malin Akerman, who stars as Kate, also has a personal connection to the premise. "I grew up in a family like this," she says. "I've had many step-dads and step-moms and step-siblings and half-siblings ... so to be perfectly honest, it feels pretty normal as far as parenting goes, and that's what I love about it. At least for me, this is a really relatable family."
"They're not dysfunctional people -- they're highly functional people in a very dysfunctional situation, " adds Bradley. "I call it the 'Post-Modern Family.'"
"I want people to recognize the beauty and joys and painfulness of parenting, and then to laugh," Marcia says. "That's the bones of a good show."
No. 4: The kids are all right.
The kids take center stage in Trophy Wife, but again, the adults don't seem to mind, because these kids are awesome. Although according to Bailee Madison (Hillary), "adults" is a relative term: "Everyone here is a kid. There are no adults on set, which is great. Brad barks, Marcia makes fun of him, Michaela's doing some crazy accent, Malin's speaking Swedish in the background, Albert is yelling ... it's just tons of fun and laughter."
"Speaking of the kids, it's nice to have people chaperoning us, " Malin agrees. "They put us in our place. When we forget our lines, Albert gives them to us because he is always off book and knows everybody's line."
And having well-prepared child stars on set is not a given. "You can be on sets with kids that are just little Munsters and they think they run the frickin' show," says Marcia. "It's monumentally irritating. If the kids were divas, the entire experience would be so different."
"They're a joyous group of kids," Bradley agrees. "You worry about kids in show business, but not with these kids. A lot of this comes from Malin, who is a bizarrely kind and functional person. I think when you take a gander at her, there's a part of you that wants to think, 'She must be a nightmare.' But she is the sweetest, and as a producer, she really sets the tone with everybody."
Admiration for the kids extends off set as well, according to Bailee, who also has a following from playing a younger Ginnifer Goodwin in Once Upon a Time. "I'll have dads come up to me and say, 'Thank you for doing wholesome and age appropriate projects!' To me, that's the best thing you can hear."
No. 5: Tonight's wedding episode.
When Kate peeks at Pete's old wedding videos, she starts to want a real wedding of her own. Bring out the guest stars ... and the Muppets? "It's probably one of the most original wedding scenes you've ever seen, " says Malin. "I don't think I've ever seen a wedding scene with Muppets and an airplane. Add Megan Mullally as one of the guests, and crazy things happen."
Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch) will also make an appearance as Pete's mother. "It always fascinates me because you think of Florence as this lovely, sweet, classy, proper lady, and she's all raunchy and joking around. She's rolling with the punches and I love that about her," says Malin.
If weddings don't do it for you, there's also an episode parodying Scandal coming up. Show co-creator Emily Halpern explains: "Diane has a bit of a failure, which we know is very unlike her, and she ends up binge watching a bunch of Scandal episodes and channels her inner Olivia Pope. She and Kate team up to solve the problem."
"They tape stuff to windows. It's awesome," adds Sarah.
Side note: Just don't bring up Scandal with Bradley Whitford, whatever you do. "I have a tortured relationship with Josh Malina," he starts. "Josh is, I don't know how to explain it ... he's perverse. You can talk to anybody on Scandal about this. If anybody's iPod was lying there on West Wing, the moment you turned around, it would be changed to Mandarin. And if you think about it, and this is just sick, he would very often tear out the last three pages of the book I'd be reading on set. It's just evil. And this is pre e-books. I'd have to go to bookstores just to read the last three pages.
So in one of the West Wing episodes that I wrote, I made Josh say over and over on national television: 'I can't act. I'm a terrible actor.' That was a highlight of my career."
But that sounds like a story for a different time.
Trophy Wife airs on Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c.
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