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'Trophy Wife' creators talk Tuesday blues, overcoming title hitch

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The "Trophy Wife"-ABC union hasn't exactly been a match made in ratings heaven, but creators Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern are hoping they make it past the paper anniversary.

Loosely based on Haskins' real life, the Tuesday comedy centers on a young woman (Malin Akerman) who marries an older man (Bradley Whitford), who already has two ex-wives and three kids. It's part of ABC's attempt to carve out a new block of comedy to complement its Wednesday lineup, propped by awards darling "Modern Family."

Despite critical support, mass viewership has stalled. Its most recent episode brought in just over 2.6 million viewers and a 0.8 in the key age 18-to-49 demographic.

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As the show kicks off a two-part wedding event Tuesday, Show Tracker spoke to Haskins and Halpern to talk about its time slot challenges, the show's title kerfuffle and the wonder of Bert.

Let's start with the genesis of the show. Sarah, "Trophy Wife" is loosely based on your life. And I feel like so many of us often feel like our lives would make for a great show. Talk about it actually happening.

Sarah Haskins: Well, it helps that I have an awesome writing partner who laughs at my stories. Obviously, I sort of married into this situation. That became something we talked about while we were doing other work. We always felt like our comedy -- this was even true in our first movie script -- is always strongest when it comes from a grounded place.  I mean, not everything has to be based on your own life, but certainly it was a situation we could easily fictionalize and have a lot of fun with. It didn’t hurt that we always wanted to write an ensemble comedy -- those are some of our favorites. So the mix of the material and the opportunity provided to have a bunch of different funny characters seemed like a perfect match. And it helps in the pitch when you go in and are like, “well, this actually happened to me, but this could happen in a show…” and they’re like, “OK, she has at least three ideas.”

Emily Halpern: I agree with everything that Sarah said. It’s true. We’d meet, and we’d talk about different ideas and brainstorm and just inevitably we’d wind up talking about our own lives and oftentimes those stories were the ones that would make us laugh the most. It’s also voices we were familiar with and so it winds up not being a conscious decision necessarily on our part. But yeah, you write what you know. I hope that it helped the show by doing so.

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Writing ensemble for a blended family like this in a half-hour seems like quite the task. Does that present any challenges in giving each enough time while not causing whiplash for the viewer?

Haskins: I think it was actually most challenging in the pilot, because not only did we have to introduce these eight people, but we made the choice to start in the middle of things. We see the night they meet and then we jump into them being married. We must have re-written that cold open 59 to 100 times, trying to make it a mix of funny and exposition so that when we got to the story in the pilot, we could just have the show. So that was the hardest. Now I think it works nicely. We’ve gotten into the A, B and C storyline groove and everyone is on a story.

Halpern: Yeah, hopefully, I think, it benefits us now. It was hard in the beginning to introduce so many characters. The nice benefit now is we have so many characters we can go to for a story.

What had you wanted to establish with Kate’s trajectory this season?

Haskins: I think this season’s journey for Kate was sort of a sink or swim thing -- her instant experience with motherhood and marriage at once, and how she wanted to feel included, even though the perception of her could be that she was not serious about it or too inexperienced. So it was her drive to be part of the Harrison family. I think we’ve done a good job. We’re an episodic show, we’re not super serialized. But I think that theme has carried through. Our season finale really sort of hits it on the head. It’s a Mother’s Day episode. I think that has been her big journey this season, learning to cope with this new role. I think it will always be a theme of the show, but in different ways. We sort of started hinting in the second half of the season, that now that she’s feeling a little more assimilated, what does she want to do? Does she want to go back to work,  does she want to go back to school?

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Let’s talk about the writers room atmosphere. The male-female ratio on writing staffs are always a topic of discussion.

Halpern: I think now it’s about even. When we started off, I think we had a few more women than men. Then halfway through the season, we had the opportunity to hire writers and they just happen to both be men that we hired. I think in general, when looking for our writers, we were interested in hiring a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds. We did want parents and people with families so we could draw on those experiences, but we also hired single people and a variety of ages. We had developed the pilot with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who are men. And we really enjoyed that collaboration and having their perspectives really opened up the world and helped the scripts get better. So I think we just tried to continue that when we were looking at the writers room. But obviously, it’s a female-centric show and a female-friendly show and we’re very proud of the fact that it has three strong female characters. While we didn’t deliberately set out and only hire women, there’s obviously a strong female presence on the show.

There’s been a lot of nods to Disney-ABC -- there was the Aladdin party and “The Bachelor” and “Scandal” shoutouts. Was that all your idea, or did you have any nudging?

Haskins: There were different reasons for each one. Doing an Aladdin party was much easier to get cleared, legally, than doing any other kind of party. “The Bachelor” was us certainly trying to do some tie-ins and create some buzz to get a little more promotion. Chris Harrison was such a great sport that it turned out to be super fun. And it definitely helps that Lee Eisenberg is a self-confessed huge “Bachelor” fan. He should be “The Bachelor,” actually. This is a good idea that you guys should start the campaign for. And then I think “Scandal” -- I mean, everyone in the writers room is a rabid, insane viewer of the show. Also, we’re not dumb. We know it’s super successful so it was a mix of ‘let’s have fun with ‘Scandal’ because we love it” … but also, ‘maybe we can eat some crumbs off the Shondaland cheese plate. But Emily also worked for Shondaland before.

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Halpern: Yeah, I was on “Private Practice” for a little while. We reached out early on to Betsy Beers and Shonda [Rhimes] and they were onboard with the idea.

Haskins: When they called us and said they were excited, I almost burst into tears. I was like, this is so awesome; I’m so happy.

Ahead of its debut, there were all these criticisms about the show’s title. Do you think people have moved on from that now?

Halpern: I hope so. I think that when people see the show, it becomes apparent that the title is ironic and I think that helps a lot. Obviously, the challenge for us has been getting those eyeballs to watch and realize the irony. The title was always intended to be ironic. But when you cast gorgeous Malin Akerman, a few things got lost in translation. The idea was always: she’s a young wife, but she isn’t at all what you think of when you hear stereotypical ‘trophy wife.’ She’s a young woman who fell in love with a guy who had ex-wives and kids and who really wants to be a good mom and become a part of the family.

Can we now talk about the wonder that is Bert?

Haskins: He is a marvelous, marvelous young man.

Halpern: He is the one the writers are probably most guilty of sneaking down to set to go talk to…

Haskins: Yeah, he’s very smart. And I think actually Albert Tsai, the actor, his own personality has informed the character. So I think our writing has leaned more toward wanting to sound like Albert. He’s so smart, but he’s not precocious. He doesn’t talk in big, long paragraphs. He talks in short sentences. We’ve learned from Albert’s own speech patterns.

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Could he take down Manny [from “Modern Family”]?

Haskins: In a fight or a trivia session? I think they’d be friends or frenemies -- like one is salutatorian and one is valedictorian, running for all the same things.

Halpern: Or they could join forces and take down some force of evil.

Haskins: Oh my God. Someone should write a movie like that. Shhh. No one say anything, be right back.

The end of Season 1 is nearing and people are sort of wondering whether it will be renewed for a second season.  Has it been hard, especially given it’s a new show, not to obsess over the numbers? And do you think it was a right fit for Tuesday?

Haskins: I think... I don’t know if it’s -- when they put it Tuesday nights at 9:30 p.m., I think we were all super optimistic because they were launching a new night. I think what happened is we didn’t get a big launch ourselves, and then maybe we’re not as much of a mass at the time slot as we could be, so what I like to think is our show obviously has so much potential. It maybe didn’t get the big marketing push initially, but ABC has been trying to push the upcoming two-part wedding episode. And maybe it’s not the exact right fit for the time slot, but maybe the marketing push will help it? It’s not like this show has been blown up and you see billboards everywhere and we still have these numbers. This show is a great show with potential to grow. I don’t know enough about the strategy. Certainly, we’d be a natural fit for Wednesday, but if they want to commit us to Tuesday but also are really committing to making us a success on Tuesday, I’d be interested in that discussion. We have a lot of potential, I think.

Halpern: I agree. Probably early on, we might have imagined that we’d be a fit for Wednesday, but we were excited about the prospect of what they were trying to do with Tuesdays. We’ve largely deferred to ABC when it comes to our time slot, partially because it is totally out of our control. Wherever they think we fit and they support us in that slot, we will be onboard. We just hope to continue to build our audience.

Haskins: If we come back next season at Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., we’d hope for a little more support. But I think that’s because it’s a tough time slot. We’re up against “The Mindy Project” -- I think we share an audience with them and the Fox comedies. We have some stiff competition. There are always what ifs, what could be different.

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