Paul A. Broben
May 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Watching the soapy dramedy The Starter Wife is like spotting some overmanicured, SUV-piloting, cell-phone-gabbing, tiny-dog-fondling woman, preparing yourself for a hardcore hate strike…and discovering she’s really quite pleasant. Based on the novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer (wife of producer Brian Grazer), Starter could have been yet another tour of what fabulous people wear while drinking trendy cocktails. Indeed, the opening scene was just that worrisome: a Wizard of Oz dream sequence with star Debra Messing dressed as Dorothy, and attendant friends holding Prada bags and martinis and, in the case of her gay designer pal (Chris Diamantopoulos), wearing really great eyeliner. Heh.

In truth, Starter Wife does shamelessly evoke an L.A.-based Sex and the City. Molly (Messing) has been married to Hollywood bigwig Kenny (In Justice‘s Peter Jacobson, doing his best with a weaselly role) for 10 years, when he drops her for a young pop singer. With her three good friends, she gains her footing and has all sorts of winning adventures. The grand Judy Davis takes on the boozy, wisecracking gal role (which results in some incredibly odd, off-key, but fascinating scenes with her shrink), and Lord of the Rings‘ Miranda Otto plays a director’s dutiful wife who’s tempted to dump shunned Molly.

Like Sex and Desperate Housewives, Starter is easy on the senses, full of bright colors, a plinky Danny Elfman-esque score, and the visuals of a slick commercial — spacious beach houses, splashy sundresses, black SUVs in a row like chocolates. It has moments of very clever writing, as when Molly, feeling anonymous now that she’s been stripped of her famous husband, has an accident and flashes her own obituary: 40-ish Woman Drowns in Front of Celebrity Homes.

Speaking of said 40-ish woman, Messing is absolutely lovely here — she’ll remind you of what all that commotion was about when Will & Grace debuted. Roaming around without makeup in bloomy, roomy beach dresses, she doesn’t look like an actress trying her hand at being unglam — she looks like a woman who’s decided to drop the Hollywood Wife act and just hang with her young daughter (Bethany Whitmore). Messing’s earthiness anchors some of the hammier stuff, like Molly’s friendship with her security guard (Dreamgirls‘ Anika Noni Rose) and the annoyingly mysterious past of a handsome, boring neighbor (Stephen Moyer). Her moments with love interest Joe Mantegna — thanks for him, by the way — actually have genuine first-date fits and starts. Messing’s just plain natural here, in fact: She’s shed the tics of Grace and, in the course of one episode, forged a very different woman on screen. A quite charming woman, as it turns out. B

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