Oh, the glories of a half-hour show.
In this age of “peak TV,” where hour-long dramas go on for 90 minutes or more and even if you never slept you couldn’t watch everything, I have such an appreciation for brevity. It is, after all, the soul of wit.
So American Woman, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on the newly branded Paramount Network, has that going for it right away. It also has Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari, two delightful actors who should be part of a successful TV show.
And finally, it has the look. I’m sure the series will garner many comparisons to Mad Men. The shows couldn’t be more different. But as that beloved AMC drama brought the 1960s to life, the outfits, the hair, the décor, the smoking and the drinking of American Woman evoke the 1970s in such a vibrant way that my eyes started to water from all the cigarette smoke.
Silverstone stars as Bonnie, a woman who makes her husband a drink every night when he comes home from work and has a housekeeper for the cleaning, a landscaper for the lawn, a pool guy for the pool—you get the idea. Bonnie has put her own aspirations aside, and her husband, Steve (James Tupper), doesn’t get why any woman would want more than what he’s providing. “I feel like you women have it pretty good. I mean, why complain,” he tells his wife.
Steve thinks she has it so good that he can cheat on Bonnie with no consequences. “This isn’t a democracy. It’s a marriage,” he says. Yes, Steve’s a real prize. But Bonnie isn’t having it. She kicks Steve out of the house and must figure out a way to support herself and her two daughters. She’s got her two best friends, Kathleen (Survari) and Diana (Jennifer Bartels), to help her.
Inspired by the upbringing of Kyle Richards (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), who serves as a co-executive producer on the series, American Woman can be very funny. “A liar is the worst thing you can be. A stripper is also bad,” Bonnie tells her girls. Later, when she’s talking to a recruiter who worries that having children will impede Bonnie’s ability to work because she will have to leave if her girls get sick, Bonnie replies, “Don’t worry. I don’t allow my children to be sick.” I laughed, because that’s my parenting philosophy as well.
Because we’ve barely met Bonnie before she decides to leave her husband and embark on life as a single mom, it’s hard to understand why a woman as ostensibly feisty as Bonnie would have put up with Steve for as long as she did. But Silverstone is a delight. Her delivery is pitch perfect. If you listen closely, you can hear hints of a grown-up Cher Horowitz. Bartels is a lot of fun to watch as she struggles to fit into the corporate banking world, where women are dismissed. And Survari is great as the rich but ambitious Texan trying to start her own business. The supportive friendship among these women feels real and relatable.
However, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, three episodes in there’s not a lot of there there. American Woman is more concerned with the 1970s look each characters sports. There are a lot of wigs involved, and much of the fun comes from trying to figure out who’s under the motley hair and giant mustaches. There’s Cheyenne Jackson as a casting agent and Andy Favreau as a creepy guy at a party. There are lines of cocaine, parties with swingers, and Ellen Barkin as a powerful, well-connected woman in the entertainment industry (a role she’s been doing a lot lately). There’s also a storyline about a closeted gay man that the show doesn’t seem interested in exploring beyond how it will impede another character.
The pervasive sexism of the 1970s is everywhere on American Woman. It’s hard to watch, but for the most part American Woman is a slight, fluffy show. There’s nothing wrong with that, but will it cut through all the noise? It has the potential to become something of a retro Sex and the City, but just as easily it could be quickly forgotten.
American Woman premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .