'Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce': TV Review

Girlfriends Guide to Divorce Still - H 2014
Carole Segal/Bravo

Girlfriends Guide to Divorce Still - H 2014

A worthy new must-watch option in a very crowded field

Bravo's first original scripted series is about a successful marital-advice book author who finds her own marriage going south

With the premiere of Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce coming up quickly, Bravo owes Marti Noxon big-time — and weary, overcommitted viewers owe it to themselves to let one more series into their lives.

Bravo's first foray into original scripted fare is, if you don't know Noxon's resume (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, Glee, etc.), a bit of a shocker in that almost everything about it works; for a first effort, that's defying the odds and then some.

Noxon, who created and wrote this series, "inspired by" the book franchise from Vicki Iovine (who also is an executive producer), is impressively on top of her game (this is the one series that's truly her baby). It's extremely difficult to pull off a smart and sophisticated dramedy about relationships without falling into numerous traps — too saccharine, too light, too cutesy, too much emphasis on humor that undercuts the deeper emotions you need to fuel a believable drama. Everything, in fact, points to a show like Girlfriends' Guide being cloying and/or annoying.

And yet, even early in the game (critics were given the first two episodes), this series is the closest anything in recent memory has come to Sex and the City when that series was at its zeitgeisty best.

Noxon's writing is the anchor here, with an impressive cast nailing the comedy-drama switchbacks with aplomb and strong, visually attentive directing tying it together.

Of particular note is star Lisa Edelstein (House), whose performance is exceptional — there's really no overselling how outstanding she is in every scene, which is essential to convincing viewers that the show is not only worth a look, but a full commitment.

And it is.

Girlfriends' Guide focuses on Abby McCarthy (Edelstein), whose self-help books have preached marriage and family contentment. With a new book just coming out, Abby finds her marriage to Jake (Paul Adelstein, also excellent here) starting to unravel. But not just in a clearly defined way, a story choice indicative of how Noxon is steering the series into complicated gray areas of emotion and choice.

Without hammering it home, we find out that Abby, who has a teenage daughter and very young son with Jake, was caught in a nonsexual relationship with a married man whose children attend the same school (C. Thomas Howell pops up in the second episode as the object of Abby's mental affection). At a point in her marriage when making real effort may have been forgotten, Abby needs the mental stimulation of someone whose words make her feel alive again.

Abby and Jake's marriage clearly had some stalled (and stale) elements to it, but Jake uses the "break" the two are taking to have his own (sexual) affair while still living in the house. Abby is OK about it (but not) because she feels guilty for the emotional intimacy of her "affair."

"We're exploring what we want," Abby tells her best friend, entertainment lawyer Lyla (Janeane Garofalo). "What he wants is a sports car and club snatch," Lyla responds.

It's a funny (and true) line that a best friend uses to comfort someone in a crisis — and one of those moments where Girlfriends' Guide shows what it's about.

It's clear whether Jake is keen to move on, even though he agreed with Abby that he should "pretend" to still live at home (arriving late at night) so the kids don't catch on (but they do, of course). When Jake complains via text that this whole sham marriage thing is ridiculous, Abby responds, also via text, "at least I didn't wake up smelling like Astroglide."

What the series is mining, both for truth (and subsequent emotional fallout and drama) and for laughs, is how hard it is to be married, stay married and then get out of a marriage, even if you're trying to do it amicably.

Jake may think that Abby has used their family to build an empire selling books, but he's also been the beneficiary of that lifestyle and has been out of work (as a director) for ages. (Their house is gorgeous and filled with enough modern furniture to give one pause about messing up that sweet setup).

As Abby's career seems to be unraveling along with her marriage, she turns to her divorced friends Lyla and Phoebe (Beau Garrett) for support. Garofalo is particularly spot-on and superb as go-getter Lyla, who has allowed her weaker husband, Dan (Michael Weaver), a former star chef, to live under the largesse of her success — an act that so emasculates him, he spends her money on a dominatrix. Even though that is played for laughs, it's indicative of the writing agility in the series that it can also pivot rather quickly into drama.

For example, even though Dan can't really defend his not working, he can defend to Lyla his role as a supportive and present father to their two boys — and call her not only on her lack of parenting, but also on her role in the state of their marriage. "You gave up," he tells her bluntly. "No, you gave up when you licked the boot," Lyla responds, with ferocity.

What stands out about Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce is not just that all the humor — and there's plenty of it, a la Sex and the City — is nailed with precision by Noxon, as someone who really gets the funny nuances of a multitude of relationship scenarios, but how that humor never undercuts the emotional realism. That's a deft trick, difficult to pull off. And it's especially important because Girlfriends' Guide resonates (and will likely succeed creatively) for its heavier moments. You want to watch more episodes of this series not just because it's funny, but because it understands that the emotionally complex elements of loving someone, marrying them and having kids with them are probably the reasons marriage tears two people apart over time.

Noxon has a lot to say on the subject. She cleverly uses Abby's gay and married brother, Max (Patrick Heusinger), as her sometime sounding board, but also to show someone who, having fought for the right to even be married, is willing to fight to hang on to a marriage when it gets rocky. It's another reminder that Girlfriends' Guide isn't as flippant as its title suggests.

The series is also unique in that it shows two successful women — Abby and Lyla — with men who are not their financial equals; it's a twist on television's decades-long overreliance on a dated trope.

None of this might be relevant, however, if not for Edelstein's performance. She's been memorable in almost everything she's been in, but Girlfriends' Guide is her tour de force — not just in flaunting impressive range as an actress, but also in making a new series, in a crowded field, on a channel not known for scripted fare, feel absolutely essential.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine