Turns out a starter wife can be a trophy wife too. Case in point, “The Starter Wife,” the Emmy-nominated mini-turned-regular series that returns to USA Network. Debra Messing reprises her role as the eponymous spouse, a Hollywood idiom for the woman who unwittingly prepares hubby for a younger, hotter version. She’s rejoined by Chris Diamantopoulos and Judy Davis as the divorcees, decorators and debauchers who live among the rich and ridiculous but are too self-aware not to be, not exactly ashamed, but at least hilariously pithy about their lifestyle choices. A real coup for USA, these characters are not only welcome — to borrow its promotional slogan — they have standing reservations.
Series picks up with a two-hour premiere in post-divorce frothy, fantasy fun with Molly Kagan (Messing), not yet a cougar, but no longer a sex kitten, imagining herself as the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, swearing off men forever. Of course, her vow is only a vague inclination. Still feeling the repercussions of her divorce from mega-Hollywood producer Kenny Kagan (David Alan Bascnohe), Molly remains relegated to the loser table even at the elementary school silent auction.
Although the sarcastic triumvirate of Molly, Joan (Davis) and Rodney (Diamantopoulos) remains intact, other key characters like Molly’s hot love interest, played by Stephan Moyer, have moved on (to HBO’s “True Blood”) or, like Miranda Otto’s Cricket, are inexplicably missing (rumors of her return abound should the series get picked up for a second season).
Others, like Bascnohe’s Kenny, pull a Darren Stephens, playing characters originated by another actor.
Despite the casting changes, the character dilemma remains the same. Molly searches for self in an already self-obsessed society — now she just does it with a lot more humor and a lot less money and fewer designer clothes. Molly makes new friends with insecure Liz Marsh (Danielle Nicolet), a jealous pro baseball player’s wife, as well as sexy has-been novelist Zach McNeill (Hart Bochner). But when her explicit journal, full of acerbic observations about the extravagances and hypocrisy of Hollywood, is stolen and exposed on a Perez Hilton-like site, Molly becomes an even bigger social pariah.
Production values are stellar, especially the frequent fantasy sequences that send up everything from “Elizabeth” to “Mission: Impossible” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Messing is goofy, funny and sweet, with a lot of Grace Adler coming through in her Molly — a more comforting than annoying coincidence. Diamantopoulos is endearing as the lovelorn Rodney, but still vastly underused and underdeveloped.
Davis, however, is so good in her part as the newly sober Joan that, signed only for three episodes, her eventual absence risks unbalancing the show. While the characters here haven’t yet had the chance to become as interesting as Carrie Bradshaw and company, this great adaptation of Gigi Levangie Grazer’s story should help fill the void left by “Sex and the City.”