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TELEVISION & RADIO : TELEVISION REVIEW

'Starter' moves to next round

October 10, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

"The Starter Wife," premiering tonight on USA Network, picks up from last year's miniseries of the same name. Adapted from a novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, the miniseries lost about half its audience across its five-episode run, but it also gathered 10 Emmy nominations, including a supporting actress win for Judy Davis. Now it's back as a regular series, much as Pinocchio became a real boy.

The miniseries told the story of Molly Kagan (Debra Messing), a 41-year-old Hollywood wife and mother, invested in all the shiny things that money brings, whose producer husband unceremoniously leaves her for a newer model. (Grazer is the wife of producer Brian Grazer, from whom she was briefly separated.) It was a comical revenge fantasy built on the lines of a Harlequin Romance and one that frequently oversold its points. Molly's awful ex- (played by short, bald Peter Jacobson) was so awful that it reflected badly on her own judgment in marrying him, while the beach bum Prince Charming who saved her life, literally, was deeply good and gorgeous to behold.

The new series, to judge by the two opening hours, is better balanced and plays more to the players' strengths. The actors have lived in their characters for a while, and the writers are now writing for that actor-character. Ex-husband Kenny has been recast and reconfigured -- he is now the conventionally good-looking David Alan Basche and less a monster than a case of arrested development whom she regards with exasperated affection. You can see, at least, that they married for love

As we rejoin Molly, the beach bum has decamped to some other beach, the children's book she wrote has tanked. (A showbiz seal of realness, writing a children's book.) Money is tight, relatively speaking -- she can't buy every pair of shoes she wants, and she's helping keep her daughter in private school by volunteering as a crossing guard. Though she is, in her reduced state, looked down upon as much as the heroine of any Victorian novel, it's not all that much of a fall. She's not working retail or serving coffee.

Still, in the new developing plot, she's portrayed less as a victim of the evils of Hollywood than the unwitting architect of her own troubles: Her journal, in which she has recorded the secret foibles of the rich and famous around her, has been stolen and its contents excerpted on a popular Internet gossip sight. This is bad news for Molly but good news for Messing, an accomplished comic actress whose guiding spirit is Lucille Ball; frenzy and desperation bring out the best in her.

As Molly's best friend, Davis, Emmy notwithstanding, is also better served this time out. Her hapless alcoholism in the first season grew wearing. Now sober and working as a chauffeur-minder for a rehab spa and saddled with the care of a difficult Irish actor (Daniel Gerroll) with whom she will probably have an affair, she gets to be funny and spiky and not just out of control.

The least interesting element of the new run is the unavoidable budding romance with Zach (Hart Bochner), a novelist-screenwriter whose writers' workshop Molly attends. (This is yet another screenplay in which screenwriting is seen as the sad alternative to writing, you know, books.)

That he has penned a novel called "Frankincense and Myrrh" does not speak well for his literary smarts, nor does that he doesn't seem to notice that everyone in his writers group writes pretentious drivel. But we are meant to take him as thoughtful and talented. Anyway, he's cute.

As before, the plot-reflecting movie-parody dream sequences are well done and give the stars permission to overact. They splash around in these scenes like kids in a wading pool.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'The Starter Wife'

Where: USA

When: 9 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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