Review: American Woman 1×1 (US: Paramount)

Money rather than soul

American Woman

In the US: Thursdays, 10pm, Paramount
In the UK: Not yet acquired

A lot of American shows have the word American in the title. American Gladiators. American Housewife. American Crime Story. American Crime. American Horror Story. America’s Got Talent. America’s Funniest Home Videos. America’s Next Top Model. American Dad. American Gothic. Wet Hot American Summer. American Idol. American Dreams. American Bandstand. American Odyssey.

Oh yes, and The Americans.

That’s a lot. Sometimes it’s to cash in on a sense of patriotism. A lot of the time it’s to suggest something specifically culturally American.

And sometimes it’s to cash in on a song title.

American Woman seems to be focused almost entirely on this latter category, since almost the whole first episode is a build-up to the point when The Guess Who’s American Woman can be played at a suitably ‘You go, girl’ moment.

But the show also thinks it’s on to something a bit more universal. It thinks it might be saying something specific about the American woman. It might be, but inadvertently.

James Tupper and Alicia Silverstone in American Woman
James Tupper and Alicia Silverstone in American Woman

The Real Real Housewives of Beverly Hills

The show is based on the life of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richards – or maybe her mother’s life, seeing as it’s set in 1975. It sees Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, The Singles Table) as a rich Beverly Hills housewife, just trying to make her man (James Tupper) happy. Sure, they squabble over money because he’s a rich realtor and she’s a housewife who can only spend what he earns because he won’t let her work, but all seems well. Then she spies him with another woman and she decides to get a divorce.

But it’s 1975 and things aren’t easy for women going it alone. Fortunately, she has pals Mena Suvari (American Horror Story, American Beauty, American Pie) and Jennifer Bartels (Broken, Friends of the People) to help her get over the rough spots, even if they have problems of their own, like a secretly gay husband and a crappy job.

If all that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s all very very familiar. Even when the police show up at the end of the first episode to suggest that maybe Tupper’s riches might be illusory, we’re in the realm of the opening five seconds of The Good Fight, rather than anything remarkable.

There’s lot of “You go, girl” moments, but they’re very clunky. They’re Silverstone getting out of car at night to shout at two guys who have been harassing her (and then not getting shot for some reason). They’re Silverstone and Tupper arguing about a feminist on TV and whether she makes any sense. We’re not going for nuanced here.

It’s all supposed to be inspiring and maybe there’s a hint of “this is what your mothers had to go through – be awed by their bravery”, too. But largely, if there’s an American woman universality, rather than a simply 1970s universality, it’s the preeminence of money in every single conversation. Sure, it’s Beverly Hills, but literally every conversation is about who earns what, how much, who gets to spend it, how less can be spent, how more can be earned, and all the various permutations of self-worth based on earning potential that you can imagine.

I don’t think this is deliberate. I think it’s a sub-conscious reveal, because the emotional damage of Tupper’s affair are handled as little more than a reason to terminate a contract and open negotiations than something genuinely life-destroying.

Mena Suvari in American Woman

American Women?

Which may or may not resonate with you. Money is important, particularly in America, particularly if you haven’t got any. To me, it just made the whole thing soulless, like a placard rather than anything real. And because it didn’t feel real and the characters are just as much period dressing as the self-consciously 70s decor, the comedy didn’t work.

I like Alicia Silverstone, Suvari’s doing a fine job, Tupper is suitably dickish, but it’s all wasted on what’s basically a better filmed, better acted, better behaved version of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.