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The Starter Wife

Given that her status as Mrs. Brian Grazer makes her the well-known "and a guest" on invitations, Gigi Levangie Grazer created an understandable stir in certain circles with her novel about a discarded, rail-thin Hollywood wife.

With:
Molly Kagan - Debra Messing Joan McAllister - Judy Davis Lou Manahan - Joe Mantegna Cricket Stewart - Miranda Otto Kenny Kagan - Peter Jacobson Lavender Caraway - Anika Noni Rose Rodney Evans - Chris Diamantopoulos Jorge Stewart - Aden Young Sam Knight - Stephen Moyer

Given that her status as Mrs. Brian Grazer makes her the well-known “and a guest” on invitations, Gigi Levangie Grazer created an understandable stir in certain circles with her novel about a discarded, rail-thin Hollywood wife. But as stitched together into a six-hour USA miniseries, the whole exercise feels like a nonstarter. The two-hour premiere (to be followed by four weekly installments) is neither trashy enough to qualify as a Jackie Collins-type guilty pleasure nor hip enough to break ground sifting through Hollywood’s dirty, overpriced lingerie. Essentially, it’s “Desperate Housewives” with “Entourage”-style namedropping, and not nearly as compelling as either.

The limited series’ problems are partially not of its making, coming as it does on the tail end of a showbiz-themed parade on cable, from “Fat Actress” to “The Comeback.” As such, the broader, more relatable thread involves a pampered, privileged wife having her idyllic existence upended, prompting the hangers-on and half-friends in her husband’s career orbit to quickly abandon her.

Outwardly, Molly (Debra Messing) has it all: a lovely daughter, beautiful home and studio-mogul husband, Kenny (a hyperkinetic Peter Jacobson, blending “Entourage’s” Ari Gold with Tim Robbins in “The Player”). She boasts about putting in 16-hour days to keep the family machinery running and, in the project’s best image, can be seen dropping off her kid at an exclusive private school where black SUVs line up like a presidential motorcade.

In a flash, though, Kenny announces his intent to break up with her and takes up with a twentysomething pop diva. Molly’s friend Cricket (Miranda Otto), under pressure from her husband, chooses Kenny’s side, while boozy buddy Joan (Judy Davis, caricaturing her Judy Garland portrayal) absconds for a month in rehab.

So Molly heads for the beach, where she discovers that first-rate tables are no longer assured. Fortunately, her options in terms of men are slightly better, if decidedly polarized: another studio honcho, Lou (Joe Mantegna), disenchanted by the town’s slimy facade; or a handsome beachcomber named Sam (Stephen Moyer), whose motives remain suspect.

Clearly, “Starter Wife” wants to project a tantalizing behind-the-ivied-gates allure, dropping the names Spielberg and Bruckheimer and dialogue like “Meg Ryan poached your nanny?”

Too bad the script by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, as directed by Jon Avnet, telegraphs most of the plot beats well in advance and doesn’t create an especially sympathetic protagonist in Molly. Even befriending the struggling gate guard at the Malibu Colony (Anika Noni Rose, fresh off “Dreamgirls”) doesn’t do much to humanize her.

There are, admittedly, a few savvy observations here, such as Lou describing himself as “the asshole who gets to crush them with a single no.” For the most part, though, “Starter Wife’s” insights are as enduring as a sprayed-on tan and authentic as the Australian locales subbed in for Southern California.

It’s also puzzling, frankly, how this big bet fits USA’s branded “characters welcome” profile. If that designation applies to cardboard cutouts the audience is unlikely to care about much, then, mission accomplished; otherwise, this beach excursion with the rich and beautiful feels tailored more to suits in a pitch meeting than the wider world that may yearn to sneak an illicit peek into their fabulous, frustrated lives.

Popular on Variety

The Starter Wife

USA, Thurs. May 31, 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Australia's Gold Coast by Hay Pop in association with McGibbon/Parriott Prods. and 3 Arts Entertainment for NBC Universal Television Studio. Executive producers, Josann McGibbon, Sara Parriott, Gigi Levangie Grazer, Howard Klein, Stephanie Davis, Jon Avnet; co-executive producer, Jeff Hayes; producer, Marsha Oglesby; director, Avnet; writers, McGibbon, Parriott; based on the book by Grazer.

Crew: Camera, Geoffrey Simpson; editor, Robert Florio; music, Ed Shearmur; production designer, Tracey Gallacher; line producer, Brent Popplewell; casting, Mary Jo Slater, Steven Brooksbank, Tom McSweeney. Running time: 6 HOURS.

With: Molly Kagan - Debra Messing Joan McAllister - Judy Davis Lou Manahan - Joe Mantegna Cricket Stewart - Miranda Otto Kenny Kagan - Peter Jacobson Lavender Caraway - Anika Noni Rose Rodney Evans - Chris Diamantopoulos Jorge Stewart - Aden Young Sam Knight - Stephen Moyer

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