Katie Otto (Katy Mixon), the lead of ABC’s upcoming sitcom “American Housewife,” defines herself by her weight. She is the “third-fattest housewife in Westport,” and much to her chagrin, about to become the second-fattest; her neighbor across the street, “Fat Pam,” is decamping from their rich Connecticut enclave. Katie, a constantly wisecracking stay-at-home mom, embodies a kind of raw enthusiasm for life that is at odds with the other housewives in Westport — who are, in her mind, yoga-pants-clad, Fitbit-wearing, green-juice-toting skinny bitches.
At least, that’s what Meghan Trainor called them in her 2014 single “All About That Bass” — and to a degree, “American Housewife” is a sitcom version of a Trainor song, with all of the positives and negatives that implies. On one hand, it’s refreshingly acrid about what intense scrutiny about appearance does to the social dynamics between women, especially women with means (so much athleisure!). On the other hand, in gleefully tossing around the language and rhetoric of mean girls (the word “fat” is used as a pejorative an awful lot of times in just 22 minutes) “American Housewife” runs the risk of being exactly what it means to parody.
This being said, it’s difficult to feel too outraged by “American Housewife.” The essential core of the sitcom is Mixon’s delightful, sarcastic turn as Katie, whose life seems more filled with messy indignities than the lives of her neatly put-together neighbors. In voiceover narration, Katie revels in the privacy of her unsafe opinions — such as the fact that her youngest daughter is her favorite, or that the cautionary tale she keeps telling her oldest is a lie. The inner snark is much of the appeal of the show — the ongoing soliloquy where Katie tells the truth, punctuated by Mixon’s skillful balance of eye-rolling cynicism, cheerful enthusiasm, and deep-seated worry..
Early in the pilot, Katie confesses to the audience that she and her husband Jeff (Diedrich Bader) are renters in Westport — the rich little town’s equivalent of poor people — because they wanted to be closer to good schools for their youngest daughter Anna-Kat (Julia Butters), who has an anxiety disorder. Katie feels different because she is different, and her anxiety is exacerbated by how well her two oldest children are fitting in with their conservative classmates — and, conversely, by how hard it continues to be for Anna-Kat to fit in.
The show undeniably has a mean streak, and in the trying-too-hard pilot, “American Housewife” struggles to manage tone as it introduces the viewer to Katie’s life. Mixon’s got the shtick down, but the sitcom around her hasn’t quite matched her rhythm — yet. The pilot uses the song “Take My Breath Away” in a very funny punchline, and Bader’s Jeff is a fantastic counterweight to Katie’s harebrained schemes and bottled-up temper. (In a touch that indicates broader perspective, Katie calls herself and others “fat” constantly; Jeff, who loves and wants to have sex with his wife, never uses the term.) But sometimes Mixon seems like she’s in a different reality than the people around her; in an expression of maternal frustration, she seizes her son’s piggy bank and yells, “I’m Stalin!” at the end of a labored joke that might be too brutal to be funny.
Still, the cult of perfect motherhood — and perfect bodies — is pervasive enough, in this era of weekly Goop and judgmental mommy blogs, that “American Housewife” sourness is deliciously appealing. Katie’s at times reductive and impulsive, but she’s offering up a cranky, unfiltered voice that’s honest about unrealistic expectations, feminine competitiveness, and the annoyances of being a mom. “Who came up with the idea that a mother of three should have an ass like a 19-year-old?” she rants. “It’s a complete waste of feminine energy!” Underneath her seemingly staid life is a nascent radical consciousness – one that intellectually dismisses the idiocy of attempting “perfection” or performing “ease,” even as she withers under the sidelong stares of the other moms. Sure, sometimes it seems like she’s just attended her first gender studies class, or finally cracked open Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” But some teachings are always relevant.