Bravo launched in 1980 as a network dedicated to airing programming about the fine and performing arts. For about two decades, the highbrow was its mission. (Inside the Actor’s Studio, which hasn’t always featured the likes of Bon Jovi, is a holdover from that era.) Then, in the early aughts, the network was sold to NBC and underwent a makeover, first with the help of respectable reality shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway and then with the Real Housewives, which transformed Bravo into the power-brand it is today: a home for delectable lowbrow entertainments that cater to people who are comfortable with the highbrow but get a kick out of a Lisa Vanderpump anyway. Under the guidance of its former head of development and network figurehead, Andy Cohen, Bravo has cultivated a self-aware audience of girls and gays with satisfying, winking, bitchy programming and a self-perpetuating universe of “bravolebrities,” who work Bravo’s cross-pollinating series of spin-offs, reunion specials, and talk shows like the Stations of the Cross.*
Starting tonight, Bravo adds a scripted series to its stable, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. It is a testament to just how well Bravo knows itself that the show—which stars Lisa Edelstein as Abby McCarthy, a woman who fits right into the Bravo demo—is such a canny and on-brand addition to its reality show slate. It almost goes without saying that Girlfriends’ Guide, loosely based on the series of books by Vicki Iovine, is, like most of Bravo’s shows, extremely entertaining, the TV equivalent of a great beach read. (Do you see me skirting the term “chick lit”? I am skirting my heart out.)
Like most of the Real Housewives, Abby is a polished fortysomething who uses her personal life to make it professionally. A married mother of two living in Los Angeles, she has built a best-selling, self-help empire of Girlfriend Guide books about whatever life stage she is in—pregnancy, child-rearing, etc.—that have made her beloved by Kathie Lee and Hoda et al. Edelstein, with her gravelly voice and brook-no-bullshit air, is very well cast, both commanding and nurturing enough to seem like the ideal advice-giver (as she also was for years and years on House).
Unfortunately for Abby, her authorial self-presentation as the woman who has it all—but in an approachable way—is a lie. As the show begins, she and her husband Jake (Paul Adelstein) are faking marital harmony for the sake of their kids and appearances, well on their way to a divorce. He’s sleeping with the twentysomething star of a CW show, coming home before dawn to be there when the kids wake up (and still smelling of sex). Abby has had an emotional affair with a married man and thinks it’s probably time to start getting laid. When all of this finally comes out—in a viral video of Abby confessing, at a book reading, that her marriage is a sham—it’s not just Abby’s marriage, but also her career and revenue stream that seem over.
Girlfriends’ Guide, which is being overseen by Marti Noxon (a writer and producer on Buffy, among many other shows), unabashedly pillages and riffs on all sorts of clichés, but it does so with an appealing knowingness. Yes, Abby ruins her career in a viral video, but what she says—that when her marriage was disintegrating, she sometimes thought it would be much easier if Jake were to die—is no boilerplate confession. Yes, when Abby does get laid it is by a younger man; she’s a cougar. And yes, the younger man coos, “Let me give you the younger man experience.” But on her way in and out of his house, Abby has to walk by a cadre of video game playing roommates, which is also part of the younger man experience.
It’s not just cougars and viral videos: mean girls, gorgeous L.A. apartments, a birthday party Gwyneth Paltrow might plausibly attend, industry banter, fake boobs, sex clubs—Girlfriends’ Guide has all of that. But it also has a satisfying and complex take on social dynamics in friendship and romance. Abby’s two, relatively new best friends, Phoebe (Beau Garrett) and Lyla (Janeane Garofalo), are the bad-girl moms at the private school Abby and Jake’s two children attend. They have that reputation partly because they earned it: Phoebe is an ex-model who occasionally prostitutes herself out to one very rich man and Lyla is a fierce lawyer who desperately wants to stop paying alimony and whose ex-husband is heavy into BDSM. (Between Lyla and Abby, two of the three female divorcees at the center of the show are their family’s primary breadwinners.) But they also have that reputation because they are divorced and are disapproved of by the more picture-perfect moms that Abby used to associate with. Meanwhile, the most judgmental parent around, the standard-bearer of the nuclear family at all costs, is Abby’s own brother Max (Patrick Heusinger), a married gay man.
Like much of Bravo’s reality programming, Girlfriends’ Guide is interested in exploring the experience of women past 40, with children. If Bravo’s dedication to wringing every possible bit of entertainment value out of this demographics’ exploits can get a little crass, it’s nonetheless true that this is a cohort of women written off as boring or invisible by much of pop culture. It’s a kick to watch the women in Girlfriends’ Guide be neither of these things.
Correction, Dec. 2, 2014: This article originally misidentified Andy Cohen as Bravo’s head of programming. He is the former head of development. (Return.)