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'American Housewife' finds comedy in the new normal

'American Housewife' finds comedy in the new normal
Katy Mixon (right) stars in the ABC sitcom "American Housewife." (Adam Taylor / ABC)

In "American Housewife," premiering Tuesday on ABC, average is the new diverse.

While its broadcast rivals continue to struggle in the comedy department, the network has built a successful formula of sitcoms centered on distinctive families, from striving Taiwanese immigrants ("Fresh Off The Boat") to upscale African Americans ("black-ish").

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This fall, the network seems determined to expand the very definition of "diversity," all too often used as shorthand for "nonwhite," to include people of varying incomes, body shapes and physical abilities. That is, to look a bit more like the country in which we live. 

First there was "Speechless," starring Minnie Driver as a mother of modest means who advocates fiercely on behalf of her son with cerebral palsy. And now there's "American Housewife," a series that depicts two groups sorely underrepresented on television despite constituting a large swath of the American populace: the middle class and the (ever-so-slightly) overweight.

Created by Sarah Dunn, "American Housewife" follows Katie Otto (Katy Mixon), a "well-nourished" stay-at-home mom of three living among the Lululemon-clad size 0s in Westport, Conn., a bastion for hedge-fund gazillionaires. Though Katie is neither fat nor poor, her neighbors, with their "big houses and tiny butts," certainly make her feel that way, and when it comes to wealth and weight, it's all relative.

With a "cozy" rented house and a daughter plagued by anxiety issues, Katie feels like a misfit. Then she learns that  her neighbor, known only as "Fat Pam," is moving to Vermont, officially making Katie "the second-fattest housewife in Westport," a title she is loath to inherit.

"It's like stepping into a really bright spotlight," she explains to her adoring husband, Greg (Diedrich Bader, "Veep"), "and it's making me feel really bad about something I already don't feel great about in the first place." He proposes a solution, or what passes for one: Find a "largerish-type gal" to buy Fat Pam's house.

A fish-out-of-water sitcom that purports to celebrate normalcy in a world warped by privilege and unrealistic ideals, "American Housewife" embraces a woman with an average physique while shaming the heavier set and engaging in the very type of exclusion and intolerance it aims to ridicule.

Viewed in a charitable light, the show is simply making the point that people — and perhaps women in particular — soothe our insecurities by comparing ourselves to those who are worse off (or in this case, bigger).

But even so, there are too many moments in the pilot that feel unnecessarily cruel and regressive, as when Greg observes of a plus-size, prospective buyer, "There's no getting around her on the sidewalk."

Such meanness mars what is otherwise a sharply observed sitcom.  Mixon, who starred in "Mike & Molly," another comedy  that dealt with class and body image, is a delight. Blessed with cavernous dimples and the most expressive set of eyebrows this side of Lady Mary Crawley, she conveys Katie's insecurities in a way that's convincing but never self-loathing, even when the writing veers in that direction.

As Katie, Mixon is a comfortable proxy for the audience, the proudly imperfect mom who shows up at school dropoff wearing a backward pizza-stained shirt and is baffled by the grown women around her who seem "to do nothing but diet and work out."

Thankfully, Katie can commiserate with her friends, who also fall outside the community's prevailing demographics: Angela (Carly Hughes) is a black lesbian going through a nasty divorce, while Doris (Ali Wong) is a sarcastic, super-wealthy Tiger Mom (hopefully the series can harness some of the brilliance Wong displays in her Netflix special, "Baby Cobra").

Originally known as "The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport," "American Housewife" is about class as much as body image. After all, it costs a lot of money to barely subsist on a diet of $8 organic juices, and the Ottos, while comfortable, are clearly not members of the 1%.

But as Katie explains in voiceover, they were attracted to Westport because of its high-quality public schools with programs for their youngest child, Anna Kat (Julia Butters), who has what appears to be obsessive compulsive disorder.

"American Housewife" joins a growing number of shows and movies ("Bad Moms," "Odd Mom Out," "Better Things") that take what is invariably described as a "refreshingly honest" view on parenthood.

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Dunn, a novelist and TV writer with credits including "Spin City" and "Bunheads," has a keen eye for anthropological details and an understanding of the interplay among class, consumerism and motherhood.

In contrast to the uptight helicopter moms around her, Katie jokes about eating soft cheeses while pregnant and — gasp! — admits she favors Anna Kat over her other children. She is "so real," as the Westport "skinnies" tell her, through clenched grins.

With good reason, Katie worries that her kids might be affected by their surroundings. Her oldest, Taylor (Meg Donnelly), is pretty, thin and popular, while middle child Oliver (Daniel DiMaggio) is the show's Alex P. Keaton, a boy capitalist who peruses copies of the Robb Report for fun.

"My full-time job is to make sure two of my kids fit in less and one fits in more," she explains.

Lurking somewhere in "American Housewife" is an incisive sitcom that can sit companionably along with ABC's thoughtful, culturally relevant sitcoms. In a mostly encouraging sign, the second episode of "American Housewife" ditches the weight talk almost entirely, but it also feels softer and, like its revised title, generic. "American Housewife" needs to find the middle ground.

Follow me @MeredithBlake

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