A lot of people dismiss network sitcoms as corny and antiquated, shiny, boring plastic, like a cheap toy you get from a Kinder Surprise and then throw away because, c’mon, it’s the chocolate — i.e., the prestige channels high up on the dial — you really want. To those people I usually counter with ABC’s excellent family sitcoms Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat, or NBC’s fun workplace comedies Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore. But with ABC’s latest half-hour comedy American Housewife — a weird Frankenstein’s monster of liberal and conservative values — I got nothing. It’s shiny, boring plastic. It’s the reason people hate sitcoms.
American Housewife, which premieres tonight, stars Katy Mixon (Eastbound and Down) as Katie Otto, a wife and mother of three who’s just moved to tony Westport, Connecticut, where “the houses are big and butts are tiny.” Her youngest child, Anna-Kat (Julia Butters) is an adorable germaphobe; her son, Oliver (Daniel DiMaggio), is a devoted member of his school’s stock-trading club whose goal in life is to get rich; and her eldest, Taylor (Meg Donnelly), is a stock Angsty Teen who’s recently sprouted breasts. In the first minutes of the pilot, we learn the Ottos’ neighbor, “fat Pam,” is moving to Vermont, which makes Katie the “second fattest housewife in Westport” — which was the original title of the series, if you can believe and/or stomach it.
In voiceover, Katie explains that she and her history professor husband, Greg (Diedrich Bader), moved to Westport for the good schools, and that they rent, not own, their spacious, sunny home. (It’s never explained how the family can afford to live in such a wealthy enclave on one salary.) This fact, coupled with Katie’s rather average-sized body, are what the show would like us to believe separates the Otto clan from the rest of well-healed Westport. Driving her kids to school in the first episode, Katie stares daggers at the other “Westport mommies” with their “flat stomachs, tight, high asses, thighs that don’t touch, and those stupid green drinks.”
It says a lot about the state of the sitcom wife that Katie, with her perpetually blown-out hair and flawless makeup and, what, size 14 body, is positioned as a kind of anti-hero. Katie and Greg are a nice change from the fat-slob-husband/thin-beautiful-wife dynamic we’re used to seeing on network comedies. Still, it’s disappointing that the one time a sitcom wife is heavier than her husband, the show has to make it all about the fact that she’s heavier than her husband.
American Housewife’s satire of privileged stay-at-home moms who live in yoga pants is too broad to be all that funny. But those characters seem to exist less for the laughs than to make Katie and her family look like scrappy underdogs and not the beneficiaries of the exact same privilege. After a “Westport mommy” fake-smiles at Katie and congratulates her for being “so real,” Katie turns to her cool-mom friends (played by Ali Wong and Carly Hughes) and says, “What do you say, bitches? Second breakfast?” Just because Katie eats solid food instead of sipping discreetly from a Mason jar doesn’t make her any more “real” or less advantaged than the objects of her scorn.
American Housewife is a strange and deceptive mix of progressive and conservative impulses. When Katie objects to Oliver’s stock-trading hobby, he points out, “If I thought I might be a girl on the inside, you’d let me wear a skirt to school. This is no different.” In one scene, Greg casually wears a t-shirt that reads, “My wife is married to a feminist.”
And yet the second episode firmly establishes the conservatism at the heart of American Housewife, with a plot that revolves around Katie’s desire to take a nap. Through more irritating voiceover, we learn that Katie has a marketing degree from Duke and used to work as a sales director — for a stroller company, lest this information throw her essential domesticity into question. Driving home after her ritual second breakfast, Katie notices Oliver left his lunch in the backseat of the car. “If I had a job, I’d have my assistant do this,” she says in voiceover as she delivers the lunch bag to school — as if every job comes with such perks.
Later, Katie reveals that her boss at the ol’ stroller company wants her back, in her old position. She appears to be on the verge of accepting the offer, until she abruptly talks herself out of it and decides, “Being at home with my kids is the most important thing I could be doing right now.”
Look, there’s nothing wrong with a woman who wants to stay at home and look after the kids. And I appreciate that taking care of children is hard work. But for Greg and Katie, this isn’t even a conversation — there’s no mention of whether they can afford childcare if she goes back to work, or if it would be viable for Katie to commute to work, or if Greg’s lone salary is enough to support the family. There are no difficult choices to be made here; just endless snide remarks about the depravity of everyone else.
American Housewife presents itself as a story about a housewife who’s too fat to fit in. But Katie’s weight turns out to be a mask for the show’s retrograde message, which is that women with children belong at home. The result is a mess, a weird mix of antiquated sitcom tropes harking back to the bygone era of Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, diluted but not countered by its of-the-moment liberal talking points. According to this show, putting a wife to work may not be “dangerous.” But it ain’t American.
American Housewife premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.