Review: Alicia Silverstone is that ’70s ‘American Woman’
It is not necessary, when approaching “American Woman,” an enjoyable new situation comedy premiering Thursday on the Paramount Network (formerly Spike), to know that it is inspired by the early life of Kyle Richards, a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and by her mother, who really was a Beverly Hills housewife.
Neither do you need to know that original creator-showrunner John Riggi (whose credits include “The Comeback,” “30 Rock” and “The Larry Sanders Show”) departed the series while the first season was in production, with executive producer John Wells stepping in to finish the season, as he did for “The West Wing” after the fifth-season departure of Aaron Sorkin. It is interesting to note, at least, without implying any sort of judgment, that this series about women overcoming men is run by men.
Alicia Silverstone plays Bonnie Nolan — Mrs. Bonnie Nolan — who lives with her husband, Steve (James Tupper), and their two children (Makenna James, the older one, detached; Lia McHugh, the little one, attached) in a nice house on a hill in the year 1975, long before reality television was a glimmer in a producer’s eye. (Mentions are made of Phil Donahue, “Dark Shadows,” “Barry Lyndon,” Pan Am, “Cannon,” Jerry Brown the first time he was governor and the May Co.)
We first meet Steve coming home to find Rep. Bella Abzug — look her up, kids — on TV, giving a speech about equal pay for women. “Do you understand what she’s talking about?” he asks Bonnie, drawing a target on his forehead. “‘Cause I sure don’t.” It is possible they have made his character a little too awful; by the end of the first episode, he seems useless, and everything he has to say we can either take as witless male chauvinism (“This isn’t a democracy; it’s a marriage”) or a self-protective lie.
At first one takes the couple’s expressed affection as sincere and mutual, but you know as soon as Bonnie tells Steve, “You don’t smell like you,” that he is sleeping with another woman, and that she shortly will know it too. She will also learn, not long after she has thrown him out, that he has been involved in shady land deals, and that all the money is gone.
In American comedy, great wealth has long been associated with moral weakness and practical incompetence. Losing one’s money is therefore a step to freedom and agency — see “Schitt’s Creek” — even if, as is also often the case, it is restored in the end: Having become a better person, the heroine or hero now deserves it.
“When we were together,” Steve tells Bonnie, “you never had to worry about anything.” “Maybe that was the problem,” replies Bonnie who, after a transitional period of denial — it would be “humiliating” to work at the May Co., she says, because her friends shop there — decides that humiliation is in the mind of the supposedly humiliated.
Silverstone, whom pop culture met as a teenager, is 41 now, but with an innate girlishness that age cannot wither nor the cigarettes Bonnie is forever waving disguise. With her crooked mouth and active eyes, she seems to be moving even in repose, but she lays her performance on a bed of melancholy. And the role suits her: It is almost as if Cher Horowitz — her career-making role in “Clueless,” but you knew that — had taken another 20 years to get woke.
Bonnie’s quickly sketched back story is that she comes from a “nice New York family,” got pregnant and quit acting; she also mentions having worked at a Dairy Queen once. One senses from the way Bonnie moves and speaks — she sometimes has a way of pronouncing her words carefully, like Eliza Doolittle at the embassy ball — that she is a sort of self-assembled character, held together half out of habit.
Silverstone gets good support from Jennifer Bartels and Mena Suvari as the allotted two friends. Diana (Bartels), who wants to work but I’m not sure has to, has a job in a bank as a junior loan officer and labors under a glass ceiling. Kathleen (Suvari) is from Texas and rich and labors under the illusion that her boyfriend (Cheyenne Jackson, beneath that ‘70s floppy hair and soft-rock beard) is not gay.
“American Woman” is much of a type, the story of a suddenly single woman finding fulfillment in unexpected ways that she was not raised to expect (currently see “Younger” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” another period piece about what a woman can or can’t be). But pointing out that there’s nothing particularly original or groundbreaking here, notwithstanding its real-life roots, is not to deny the series’ pleasures, from its performances to its production design — and what, after all, is less original than real life?
Its political points have been the stuff of comedy and drama more or less since the time in which the film was set — which is not to say they don’t still need making — and as the show gets underway, it is perhaps a little obvious in its critique of late 20th century male privilege. And yet, for viewers younger than, say, Silverstone, 1975 will be ancient, possibly never-learned history; some context may be in order.
As to why it’s called “American Woman,” well, that was a song from a few years before the show was set, though it was hardly a paean to American womanhood. (“American woman, get away from me,” is its best remembered line.) Perhaps it’s to say that Bonnie’s struggle is in some way common to all her sex. Or it may just be that “American Housewife” was already taken.
Where: Paramount Network
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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