At first glance, "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," which premieres Tuesday, seems precisely what one would expect from Bravo's first scripted series.
Written by Marti Noxon and snugly based on the public life of best-selling-family-guru-turned-divorce-survivor Vicki Iovine ("The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy/Toddlers/Getting Your Groove Back" etc. ), it offers a highly polished opportunity for Bravo fans to do what they do best: Gawk at privileged women as they flail around in their bubbled lives while their marriages founder and their children are reared by others off-site.
But beneath that familiar Bravo veneer moves another stealthier show. This one is smartly acted, crisply written and willing to address all manner of issues — marriage, betrayal, family economics, friendship, even the pitfalls of public domesticity — in gratifyingly complex ways.
In fact, it may be the first recorded instance of double-agent television.
Like the "Housewives," "Girlfriends' Guide" exists in the roiling but still rarefied air of Earned Wealth. This time the setting is in Los Angeles (played, in knock-off form, by Vancouver), where the accouterment, including marriage, may be fabulous but is often in danger of repossession.
Abby McCarthy (Lisa Edelstein) has written the same line of successful books that made Iovine famous, but instead of being married to (and then divorced from) the co-founder of Interscope Records and Beats Electronics, she is the family bread-winner; husband Jake (Paul Adelstein) is a wanna-be director and primary care-giver (although there is, of course, a nanny).
With her getting-your-groove-back book about to hit the stores, Abby has a financial as well as emotional interest in preserving their marriage, even though it currently involves Jake sleeping with a young actress but still living at home so their two kids don't know Mommy and Daddy are "taking a break."
True to the genre, and the title, Abby is buttressed by two new BFFs. But where it might have been easier to go "Starter Wife" meets "First Wives Club," Noxon refuses to make any of her characters either victim or offender.
Lyla (Janeane Garofalo) is a tough-as-nails attorney furious that she has to pay alimony to her once-promising and now-unemployed chef husband, while the midriff-bearing former model Phoebe (Beau Garrett) has embraced her freedom so much she not only smokes but does so in stores too. United only by their concern for Abby, and their children's High Glam private schools, the two serve as confidantes, advisors and general Greek Chorus, should Jezebel ever get into the Greek Chorus biz.
Pilots being what they are, this means that the "Girlfriends" spend too many early minutes disparaging and/or using their exes, making snarky comments about other parents and encouraging Abby to have more sex. The second episode, however spotlights the very mixed feelings of the female breadwinner, the perilous tensions between marriage, family and personal identity as well as the myth of the "good divorce."
As with "Sex and the City," to which "Girlfriends" pays homage, casting is key. Edelstein, last seen as the equally complicated Cuddy on "House," is miraculously able to humanize what could be a fatally limited caricature. Having built a personal brand on the delicate back of her "perfect" family, Abby is far more self-centered than she knows, but Edelstein allows her to err more in good-intentioned ignorance than true narcissism. Frank and angry, Garofalo gets, and nails, many of the best lines, while Garrett's rule-breaking Phoebe is as absurdly, and obviously, lost as she is free.
More important, all the characters, including Jake and even his young girlfriend, are allowed an essential humanity; everyone and no one is to blame for the inevitable imperfection of human interaction.
There are, regrettably, the inevitable references to Manolos and Gwyneth and a scene in which women compare implants. Yes, the children appear only when it is quite convenient for the script, leaving the mommies copious free time to lunch and brunch and engage in retail therapy. And, yes, it is incredibly annoying when Abby frets about the "damage" motherhood has done to her body (hahahahaha).
But this is Bravo, after all, a network built on reality TV's weird conspiracy of admiration, aspiration and schadenfreude. And now it's been infiltrated by a surprisingly good scripted series.
'Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce'
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)