The Starter Wife

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9-11 p.m., Thursday, May 31
USA Network


Debra Messing reportedly was determined to exorcise any trace of her "Will & Grace" character Grace Adler from her persona while shooting her mostly inspired (if a bit transparently shallow) new six-hour USA Network miniseries "The Starter Wife," and darned if she doesn't pull it off.

Messing is magnetic and alluring in the adaptation of Gigi Levangie Grazer's best-selling novel inspired by her split -- temporary, as it turned out -- from high-powered Hollywood hubby Brian Grazer. The mini is about being shunted aside for a newer, blonder piece of eye candy and having to dig deep to find one's essence once the parties stop and the high-powered life itself divorces you. Messing is more than up to the task of bringing this social death to life, effectively erasing any memory of that job she used to have on that NBC comedy, whatever it was called.

"Wife" is entertaining and bitingly irreverent, at once sweet and sour. It ropes you in because Messing is so adept at making us like her neurotic personage. If there is an abiding problem with the mini (and this isn't insignificant), it's that it actually is based on something of a flawed premise. It isn't a riches-to-rags story so much as a riches-to-riches. See, after Molly Kagan's (Messing) little weasel of a husband, Kenny (nice work from Peter Jacobson), dumps her to take up with young blonde bimbette Shoshanna (Trilby Glover), she isn't forced to take her daughter and share a one-bedroom apartment in Alhambra. She's allowed to stay in the beachfront Malibu Colony estate of a friend in secret rehab. So forget down-and-out; this is down-and-up.

That friend, Joan McAllister (a spectacularly over-the-top turn by the exquisite Judy Davis), is seen as one of only two who doesn't abandon Molly in her hour of need. The other is her gay designer pal Rodney (Chris Diamantopoulos). The message, apparently, is that one need be an alcoholic or a homosexual to be fully human -- though we know it's only a matter of time before Molly's best pal, Cricket Stewart (Miranda Otto), comes to her senses and stops shunning her.

Than again, trying to scrutinize motives is fairly futile in "Wife." As demonstrated in the sassy, somewhat stereotype-riddled teleplay by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, the five-parter (it kicks off with a two-hour and then plays for an hour over four subsequent Thursdays in June) is far more interested in being a lighthearted romp than a serious character study. Sometimes, however, those themes clash, the outrageous moments sometimes awkwardly intertwining with far more weighty themes.

One of those is embodied in a big-time Hollywood mogul named Lou Manahan (smartly played by dependable Joe Mantegna), whose charismatic overtures draw Molly's romantic interest but whose demons lead him down a tragic path. This side journey is dismissed in an almost perfunctory way.

Veteran director/exec producer Jon Avnet brings all of his lensing skills to bear here, shooting the project with assured flair and making his leading lady look ravishing even when she's dressing down. (To Messing's immense credit, she allows herself to appear frumpy at times and pokes fun at the whole concept of actress body-image issues.) This is like a good page-turner in that it's never less than energetic, witty and a kick to watch, though the depiction of Hollywood superficiality and excess is too broad and cartoony to make much of a larger point about female empowerment. It's more like, "I am woman, hear me whine."

THE STARTER WIFE
USA Network
Hay Pop Pty Limited in association with McGibbon/Parriott Prods., 3 Arts Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio
Credits:
Executive producers: Josann McGibbon, Sara Parriott, Jon Avnet, Gigi Levangie Grazer, Howard Klein, Stephanie Davis
Co-executive producer: Jeff Hayes
Producer: Marsha Oglesby
Line producer: Brett Popplewell
Teleplay: Josann McGibbon, Sara Parriott
Director: Jon Avnet
Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson
Production designer: Tracey Gallacher
Art director: Brian Edmonds
Costume designers: Marion Boyce, Debra McGuire
Editor: Robert Florio
Music: Ed Shearmur
Casting: Mary Jo Slater, Steven Brooksbank, Tom McSweeney
Cast:
Molly Kagan: Debra Messing
Joan McAllister: Judy Davis
Lou Manahan: Joe Mantegna
Cricket Stewart: Miranda Otto
Kenny Kagan: Peter Jacobson
Lavender Caraway: Anika Noni Rose
Rodney Evans: Chris Diamantopoulos
Nana: Novella Nelson
Jorge Stewart: Aden Young
Sam Knight: Stephen Moyer
Jaden Kagan: Bethany Whitmore
Shoshanna: Trilby Glover
Aaron: Paul Gleeson
Pappy: Barry Langrishe
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