One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
The advertising campaign for ABC’s newest family sitcom, American Housewife, states that the Otto family at its center is “anything but cookie cutter.” That edge doesn’t track much in the show’s pilot, which is appropriately amusing in a forward-thinking, inoffensive way, but not actually packing much in the way of clever jabs at fat-shaming American culture like its original title did in six words: The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport. Would that have ended well for the show? Probably not. But the creators’ decision (which was likely also ABC’s) to opt for reticence over overt boldness ends up highlighting the somewhat bland nature of American Housewife in one fell swoop.
That former title is essentially the exact plot of the 20-minute pilot, so it has the honest angle going for it as well, and that sits better with the show’s best creation: plus-sized housewife Katie Otto (Katy Mixon), who proudly wears her mess of a life on her sleeves (along with the pizza stains), except when it might further knock her down the pecking order among the “skinny idiots” in the town. The cast is bright and far more present than most current sitcoms, but each family member has their own forced “quirk,” the writing feels like it started as a sharper FX show that got sanded down by ABC, and the laser focus on Katie’s weight obsession, along with a reliance on fat jokes, sometimes feels awkward. It’s not a complete misfire, but it’s far closer to ABC’s cookie cutter creations (Modern Family, The Real O’Neals) than it would have you believe.
It kicks off when Katie discovers that her neighbor – she calls her “Fat Pam” – is leaving their little, aggressively pristine town of Westport, Connecticut because she’s giving up on trying to fit in with the double-Fitbit-wearing psycho moms who rock yoga pants year-round and drink a mysterious green juice each day. Katie isn’t so ready to upend her family just to leave the pressures of the body-shaming moms behind, mostly because the town has great school programs for her OCD-inclined daughter Anna-Kat (Julia Butters). But that doesn’t keep her from worrying about the new label she’ll inherit once Fat Pam hoofs it out of town: the second fattest housewife in Westport (“thank god for Evelyn,” she admits while eating second breakfast with her friends).
Show creator Sarah Dunn writes Westport with all of the wacky side characters these types of sitcoms live off of (Nude Norman gets top billing as neighborhood creep in the pilot), but the town lacks personality or any true mean-spirited edge, apart from a few passive aggressive barbs from the yoga moms. Unlike something like the lunatic world of Suburgatory (an ABC sitcom that usually managed to workaround the network’s censorship with carefully timed abrasiveness), American Housewife‘s setting feels indistinct. Maybe it’s ABC Studios’ down-to-a-science sitcom creation machine that stocks the show with goofy cutaways and just the right amount of topical issues, but as it stands, American Housewife is simply hard to tell apart from the crowd at the moment – and that’s maybe one of the harshest outcomes to befall any series.
But that doesn’t stop Mixon from dominating every scene in the pilot with her sheer forceful energy. After series regular turns on shows like Mike & Molly and Eastbound & Down, Mixon definitely feels overdue for a center stage role, and there’s little missteps she takes in establishing her brash character that has way more self conscious public image issues than she’d like to admit.
She narrates nearly most of the pilot – a trick that can normally grate, but Mixon’s dialogue trips over itself in delivering a few funny comments on her family and her town (“where every idiot has a boat and a labradoodle”), and it makes up for any initial awkwardness. Her character’s drive is familiar, but she makes the plastered-on, fake glee of suburban politics rightfully engaging; she hates these people, but she can’t help but feel obligated to be nice to them or risk socially ostracized oblivion.
She kind of shines over everyone else in the cast, though. Her husband Greg (Diedrich Bader) is introduced drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the toilet, which is where his characterization begins and ends. Her other two kids, including Trump-supporter-in-the-making Oliver (Daniel DiMaggio) and burgeoning-mean-girl Taylor (Meg Donnelly), sort of fade away behind the weirdo charm of little sister Anna-Kat, played with adorable precision by Butters. Best friends Angela (Carly Hughes) and Doris (Ali Wong) are only in a few scenes, and are kind of like the show itself: amusing, but a bit forgettable.
American Housewife just doesn’t add up to much by the end. Mixon is great, but her myopic quest to shield her family from the harm of a crazy town is so been-there-done-that it hurts. And while the general theme of accepting yourself no matter what others think is noble (if very, very earnest), the script’s adherence to building Katie’s character around one central obsession is a bit of a double-edged sword: she’s flawed, she admits that herself, but she’s also one-note and repetitive, even after being with her for just twenty minutes. It’s the one time American Housewife knocks Mixon down a peg, and it’s worrying moving forward in the show – will the writers figure out ways to better serve Katie the character, or Katy the actress?
Or can they do both at once? Using the pilot as an indicator, I’m not entirely sure. Like so many first episodes, American Housewife starts off functional, but only vaguely promising. It’s in the week-to-week allure where 30-minute comedies thrive, and at least in that regard the show has a foundation set up to potentially become a mainstay of families already watching sitcoms like Fresh Off the Boat and The Middle. Do you want to visit the Ottos consistently? Will you care? Are their escapades clever and funny enough to come back?
Judging on the merits of American Housewife‘s lead actress, all of those questions could easily lead to a “yes.” But once you back up and take in everything around her – the bland setting, the forcefully quirky characters, the sanded-off edginess – it becomes hard to justify commitment to something that is essentially what it claims not to be: cookie cutter.
Like many pilots nowadays, American Housewife is bolstered by an energetic lead performance - the wonderful Katy Mixon - but without real bite or insight, the show seeps into an indistinct "quirky" sitcom background pretty quickly.