Could I propose a corollary to the Bechdel test? It would go like this: To pass the test, a work of fiction would need to
- have at least two women characters, who
- talk to each other, about
- something other than their weight.
American Housewife, ABC’s new Tuesday-night sitcom, would fail that test. Repeatedly. Aggressively. Weight, here, isn’t just a visual element of the show’s sitcomic universe; it is its own Strong Female Lead. Here is how the Housewife in question, Katie, introduces herself to viewers—in the very first scene of the sitcom’s very first episode:
They say one day a meteor will strike the earth, obliterating life as we know it. But it’s not coming soon enough to help me. You see, my neighbor, Fat Pam, is giving up and moving to Vermont. She’s had enough of the skinnies in this town. And once Fat Pam is gone, I am going to be the second fattest—
Katie interrupts her musings when she notices her young daughter, Anna-Kat, peeing on the family’s lawn.
With this, American Housewife, as its sweepingly sociological title might suggest, presents itself as yet one more example of the now-typical network sitcom: edgy, relatably wacky, normal in its abnormality. From the outset, via its talk of pee and Pam, the show promises that its gaze will be more gimlet-eyed than rosy-lensed; that it will take the regressive idealism of the early family sitcom and replace it with misbehaving children, frazzled parents, and the overriding sense that there is never quite enough time to get done all the things that need doing.
The Ottos are the American Family this time around. Besides Katie (Katy Mixon), wife of one and mother of three, there’s Greg (Diedrich Bader), her husband. Their kids are Taylor (Meg Donnelly), a teenager who has just emerged from an awkward phase to become pretty and popular; Oliver (Daniel DiMaggio), 12, an Alex P. Keaton in the making; and Anna-Kat (Julia Butters), the youngest—who we learn, per Katie’s narration, “has a touch of the anxieties. Not Rain Man anxiety, but it’s not in the family newsletter.”
The show’s sympathies, though—as its title might also suggest—lie with Katie. It’s Katie who narrates the action. It’s Katie who admits, of Oliver, “I’m not gonna lie to you: We boned it pretty bad with this one.” And it’s Katie who, through her outspokenness, promises some much-needed RealTalk™ when it comes to that most still-taboo of subjects in American culture: weight. Weight, in particular, that has the added audacity of being carried by a woman.
American Housewife makes good on that promise (Fat Pam!), but it does so to a fault: The show’s pilot, it soon becomes wincingly clear, revolves entirely around the problem Katie lays out in her introduction. Over the next 30 minutes, this particular American housewife will obsessively attempt to fill the house that had been occupied by Fat Pam with … someone even fatter. Or, at the very least, someone equally fat. So that Katie can maintain her status as Third Fattest in town, without being relegated to Second.
Had that been a passing joke, it might have been funny—a wry recognition of the way women are taught that their aesthetic value is both cruelly fixed and geographically relative. “Fat Pam,” however, is not a passing joke. Katie’s quest to replace her permeates the episode’s extremely petty Hero’s Journey. “Oh, Fat Pam, why are you abandoning me?” Katie wails, approximately two minutes after we’ve first met her. She repeats the stakes of all this: “Once Fat Pam is gone, I am going to be the second fattest housewife in Westport! Damn you, Fat Pam!”
It’s not, however, just Pam: Nearly everything else that occupies the gleaming suburban universe American Housewife has built for itself revolves, somehow, around weight, and not just Katie’s. The Ottos live in the tony New York suburb of Westport, Connecticut—and Westport, Katie explains, is not just a town, but “the kind of town where people have big houses and tiny butts.” Taylor, Katie’s daughter, isn’t just blossoming physically; she’s also, Katie confides, in danger of becoming a teenage version of the “Westport mommies” that Katie resents so much (on account of their “flat stomachs, tight, high asses,” and “thighs that don’t touch”—and also of the fact that they seem always to be sipping “those stupid green drinks”). Katie talks about her weight with Greg (think that conversation will involve her uttering the line “This is the part where you say I’m not fat”? Then you are correct). Katie talks about her weight with her two best friends (Carly Hughes and Ali Wong, shining even in small roles), as the trio enjoys “second breakfast.”
And: She keeps talking about it. Katie enlists her husband and Anna-Kat (yes, the young daughter with “a touch of the anxieties”) to help her scare away the “skinnies” at the open house taking place in Fat Pam’s former home—via discussions of murders that took place on its premises, etc. The plan backfires, though. This is Westport. “There hasn’t been a single tubby person in this place all afternoon!” Katie laments at the parade of Fitbit-wearing thin people who come to see the fancy house. “We might as well accept it: I’m going to be vice fattest!”
This … is meant to be sad? And/or funny? It is both, but likely not in the way the show was intending. The whole thing reads, fat joke after fat joke, as a waste—of time, of talent, of good will. The writing here is strong, for the most part (save for a joke about, ooof, the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson that unsurprisingly fails to justify itself). And the acting here is strong, too, for the most part. (Julia Butters, as Anna-Kat, is a particular delight.)
But these qualities might have been applied to more worthy subjects than (no offense, Fat Pam, but) Fat Pam. Katie mentions, off-handedly, that the Ottos rent their house—they moved to Westport, Katie explains, because the schools there offer programs that benefit Anna-Kat, whose “anxiety” seems to manifest, via several jokes about hand-washing and stair-hopping, as OCD. That would seem to offer a rich premise for the exploration of class, the 5 percent clashing with the 1—a built-in tension that would give American Housewife a sense of cultural urgency. But there’s little beyond the seeming here: Even class, in the show’s universe, is determined not by wealth, but by weight. Weight determines everything. “I used to look like that—let’s see what she looks like after having three kids,” Katie says, sizing up another woman.
The other woman is her teenage daughter.
Mixon (who, tellingly, previously co-starred in Mike & Molly, another sitcomic ode to the determinative forces of weight) is a charismatic presence. She’s theatrical in manner and blessed with a voice that is Chenowethian in its elasticity—with the result that Katie, delightfully if inexplicably, tends to pronounces “again” as “uh-GAY-yan” and “I am” as “I AY-am.” It’s all very winning. And it’s immensely refreshing, of course, that this particular American housewife doesn’t conform to the body type of a Desperate one. But Mixon’s casting would have been much more meaningful had her show more frequently let her form speak for itself. American Housewife’s star, so far, is Katie’s weight—and a number is a pretty boring premise for a story.