It’s a conflicted feeling to like American Housewife.
Here’s a show that is, in its title, a manifestation of TV’s most tired trope. You know the deal. The husband is the kind of guy who was probably hot about 9 years ago—and thank god for Google searches to confirm this—but now he’s the kind of schlub for whom a morning dump is used as a plot device in the pilot episode. And yet, in Diedrich Bader’s turn, he’s still very charming.
So charming that put-upon housewife Katie, played by Mike and Molly veteran Katy Mixon, doesn’t always want to murder him. She just does sometimes, while she raises his three kids and barely has time to sneak in her eye rolls at him. Oh, and deal with her body image issues.
This latter part is both the most progressive and the laziest twist in this classic sitcom premise. American Housewife might be the most candid show about what it’s like to be a stay at home mom and the toll it takes on a strong person and her self-esteem. It also might be the laziest. Because of the fat jokes.
The fat jokes, you see, weren’t always the problem. In fact, when this new family sitcom—a solid contributor to ABC’s increasingly strong family comedy roster, this one premiering Tuesday night—the fat jokes were even the point.
The original title for American Housewife was The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport, developed based on the life of showrunner Sarah Dunn. That’s a great title for a TV comedy. It’s subversive and provocative, perhaps offending in the way that generates eyeballs but not in the way that makes one morally opposed from tuning in, and it telegraphed a fresh promise for a kind of show that we haven’t yet seen.
There are fat jokes in the pilot that were written when the show was still The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport. Thinking of them with that as the title, these jokes seem rather empowering. They certainly don’t seem demeaning or retrograde, the way that, stripped of the title, they seem in Tuesday night’s premiere.
A device in the premiere episode in which Katie and her husband try to sabotage the open house across the street in order to ensure that a heavy woman moves in, staving off Katie’s looming status as the second fattest housewife in the town, is justifiable and certainly comical under that original plot-explaining banner. Under the second-thought show title, it’s instead aggravatingly implausible narrative heavy-handedness and even character betrayal.
Katie, the American Housewife, doesn’t have time for the kind of pride and self-consciousness that would lead to such hijnks. Katie, the Second Fattest Housewife in Westport, reserves time for her own paranoia, delusion, and reasoned unreasonableness.
She brunches with her girlfriends after dropping her kids off at school, bitching about the other moms in skinny jeans while shrugging off the fact that her pizza-stained sweater is on backwards. She reflexively throws out a green juice her teenage daughter brings home, fearful that it’s a gateway drug to her becoming one of the weight-conscious buzzkills that have made her feel ashamed of herself.
If she hears one more person patronizingly call her “real” she’ll become apoplectic.
Speaking to TV journalists this summer, Mixon was diplomatic—frustratingly so, if she wasn’t so intrinsically charming—about the meaningfulness of the character’s weight.
“I thought the premise was so incredible in the sense of she’s an authentic woman living in an inauthentic world, and she’s the best she can be to who she is,” she said. “And sometimes she’s fearless and sometimes she’s got so many insecurities. So, for me, what attracted me to the role was that everybody can relate.”
And that’s true. It’s also presumably why the executive decision was made to change the title, to double down on the idea that everyone can relate. Not just the fat people.
It’s a shame because this presumes that a working mom, or a skinny mom, or a mom who prides herself on the kind of scheduled regimen Katie would light on fire, wouldn’t be able to empathize with the identity struggles and stress of a stay at home mom because she is overweight. Actually, that notion may even perpetuate the idea that a person who has weight issues is lazy or complacent, which is rude and offensive and ostensibly (we hope) flies in the face of the premise of this show.
Visibility is so important in pop culture. That’s something we’ve written about incessantly, because it’s an ignored truth. It’s true when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation, and it’s true when it comes to body type. We’ve written that with visibility comes normalization and with normalization comes humanization, and weight is something that pop culture has, thus far, refused to humanize.
Sure there have been portraits of the reality of what it’s like to be a heavy person, from Roseanne to Mike and Molly, and it seemed like this season of fall television seemed intent on providing shades to those portraits, first with Chrissy Metz’s Kate in This Is Us and now with Katie in American Housewife.
Speaking to Buzzfeed about her This Is Us role, Metz said, “Opportunities for plus-size women are very few and far between. So to actually have [a character with] some substance and actually tell a story that other people can relate to… We need to to write more of those stories. We need to not always be the butt of the joke.”
We finally have plus-size characters who are allowed to be attractive and have feelings divorced from their weight, but also very much informed by their weight because that is part of their identity. To be more than just the fat character, but also be the fat character, because that’s very much what makes up their humanity, too.
(This is where we imagine that you will double-take at Katy Mixon and guffaw at the notion that she is overweight, or plus size, or fat.)
“What we were trying to find for that show was something that would make the show feel more universal,” ABC president Channing Dungey told The Hollywood Reporter.
She added that Second Fattest Housewife in Westport was a better title for the pilot than it was for the show going forward, which, based on the second episode available to critics, seems to tackle the challenges and stereotypes associated with being a woman who stays home to raise a family, without the added (to borrow the derided language from the series premiere, very “real”) challenges and stereotypes thrust at a woman also battling body image insecurities and self-confidence.
The worst mistake the show has made is changing the name. The universality it is aiming for is actually missing. Not because body image issues and the struggle to raise a family while battling your own insecurities aren’t universal. They certainly are. But, in the landscape of television as it is today, universality is boring and meaningless. The universal impact of the show is the very personalized anxieties of a person going through her life, attempting to quiet the negative voices in her head, not always succeeding, and doing the best she can anyway—and a pretty damn good job at that.
That’s the notion we can universally relate to. Not a neutered, pandering version of that.
ABC’s family comedy lineup is exceptional: Black-ish, Modern Family, The Goldbergs, The Middle, The Real O’Neals, and freshman offering Speechless. Not a stinker among them. It’s a difficult, truthfully near-impossible genre to pull off: to manage some bite, some perspective, and some edginess all while moralizing without seeming treacly or saccharine. That’s a lot of stipulations, and American Housewife basically satisfies all of them.
And this is where we’ve buried the lede: American Housewife is good. Its second episode is richer than the first, without the stink of lazy fat jokes that flopped without the support of its title.
Katy Mixon is a star. It’s honestly her intense likability that makes this show so watchable, for of all of the non-fat joke-related mistakes it makes (chiefly its Alex P. Keaton knockoff older son character). There’s a joke about Stalin that might be one of the best one-liners of the fall season, and episode two centers entirely around trying to take a nap. We can get behind that.
The disappointment is that this was a show that sought to say something while ticking all those family comedy boxes, and that’s what elevates an OK ABC family comedy to a spectacular one. So now, as is, American Housewife is also the second greatest new family comedy in ABC’s lineup.