'American Woman': TV Review

Viewers got more important things to do than spend their time growing old with you.
6/7/2018

Paramount Network's new 1970s-set half-hour comedy isn't funny or distinctive and lacks a true voice behind it, even with Kyle Richards as inspiration and Alicia Silverstone as star.

When the fledgling Paramount Network acquired American Woman and the remake of Heathers from corporate sibling TV Land, it wasn't technically a trade, since Paramount Network gave nothing up in return. Despite that, Paramount Network still got the worst end of the deal.

Both Heathers and American Woman have been central to the launch of Paramount's new brand this spring and instead of clarifying, the two shows have muddied the waters. Instead of laying a foundation for the network's upcoming Kevin Costner big swing, Yellowstone, they've created a vacuum. Heathers was one of the year's true disasters, a show built for controversy that wasn't good enough for its network to proudly stand behind. American Woman is practically the opposite, a show that generates neither enmity nor warmth, nor a reaction of any kind.

Inspired, albeit without much real inspiration, by the childhood of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richards, American Woman offers the second-wave feminism by-the-numbers story of Bonnie Nolan (Alicia Silverstone). Bonnie has a seemingly perfect life with real estate star Steve (James Tupper), including two kids (Makenna James and Lia McHugh), a huge home in the Hollywood Hills and all the creature comforts life had to offer a housewife in 1975 Los Angeles.

When Bonnie discovers that Steve is cheating on her and under investigation for shady practices, she finds herself without a man and without any marketable skills. She is not, however, alone because she has those two daughters and also faithful best friends — sunny and idly rich Texan Kathleen (Mena Suvari) and sarcastic Diana (Jennifer Bartels), a frustrated bank worker who knows what's in store for Bonnie in the real world.

Of course this is a story that's personal for Richards, and I'm sure there are fans of the Real Housewives franchise curious to get a generation-spanning understanding of what was presumably a formative figure in her life and development. What's most instantly striking about American Woman, then, is how utterly lacking it is in a defined and distinctive voice.

Through three episodes, every adult character here is easily recognizable as an archetype from dozens of movies and television shows, and none has evolved beyond that. The daughters, one of whom presumably might be based on Richards, are even less recognizable as characters. It's not that the kids need to be key parts of the show, but in a show without a perspective of its own, Richards would have seemed like a logical and unutilized prism to work through.

In this light, does it matter that, in this show about women breaking out of societal constraints to find their voices, the three episodes sent to critics were all directed by men, and Becky Hartman Edwards, who co-wrote the second episode with creator John Riggi, is the only female scribe credited? It certainly feels like a questionable choice in 2018.

Ultimately, the much more questionable choice was doing American Woman as a half-hour show, without coming to an evident conclusion on whether it's a comedy. There are no real jokes and few limited signs of intended humor, but the running time strips out room for stakes, leaving an odd situation drama, or sitdram. Sitdrams aren't a thing, because they generally aren't satisfying, and American Woman surely is not. Each episode presents a problem and a solution, and the rush to resolve in 21-to-26 minutes makes episodes go by quickly and forgettably.

Episode one: Bonnie finds out about her husband's philandering and they separate. Episode two: Bonnie realizes she needs to find a job, so she finds a job. The third episode, set at the latest incarnation of Every Hollywood Pool Party Ever, is less structurally obvious, but not more impactful. Factor in B-stories for Bonnie's friends, usually only a scene or two apiece, and there's no time to think or feel anything about what's happening.

Throw in a non-stop run of period-tweaking dramatic irony and characters explaining what scenes ought to have illustrated by themselves — "I was hoping that all my years of being a wife and a mother would have some sort of relevance in the business world!" — and the show has no time to breathe at all.

Some more generous viewers or critics will feel a desire to tie American Woman into a #MeToo or Time's Up moment, a reductive perspective that suggests all female movements are interchangeable. Shows like Good Girls Revolt, Swingtown and I'm Dying Up Here have done much better jobs of mining women's struggles of this period for contemporary relevance. This isn't me doubting that the story of American Woman is worthy of telling. I think it's worthy of being told much better than American Woman's ability to tell it. On these intersectionally deprived terms, it's presented as a saga of being beautiful, white and temporarily economically inconvenienced when it should be much more nuanced.

There wouldn't have been any recasting required for American Woman to be a better show. Playing easily overlooked women with surprising moxie has been a Silverstone trademark dating back to Clueless, so she looks completely comfortable even if she's the biggest victim of the show's tonal uncertainty, sometimes going broad for punchlines that aren't there. Suvari brings a sing-song levity to some predictable scenes with Cheyenne Jackson as the gay casting director Kathleen loves, and Bartels looks to be wholly capable of being the sarcastic best friend from a far superior '70s comedy.

Nobody else in the cast really stands out, though everybody looks great in a show that does a fine job capturing the visual palette of glossy '70s magazine ads, all hazy and golden nostalgia punctuated by regrettable color choices in decor and appliances. It just happens to be the exact same look that production designers and cinematographers and costumers generally tend to give shows from this era.

The aesthetic is probably the thing American Woman delivers best. Yet it fails to answer the "What does this show, in particular, want to reflect about the culture?" question, one that the series fumbles on every level. And that's an insurmountable issue.

Cast: Alicia Silverstone, Mena Suvari, Jennifer Bartels, Makenna James, Lia McHugh, Cheyenne Jackson, James Tupper
Creator: John Riggi
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Paramount Network)

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