Jonathan Storm | In Lalaland, dumped but full of gumption

Surrounded by a high-toned, lighthearted production, Debra Messing (Will & Grace) breezes back to TV tonight at 9 in the USA cable mini-series The Starter Wife.

As much fun as a cosmo at Skybar on the Sunset Strip, it's a satire of hollow Hollywood, where executives elbow incessantly for power and money while their wives engage in glorious artifice to make it all look so easy. But The Starter Wife is also a just-ducky study in pluck.

Debra Messing is the wife, Peter Jacobson the showbiz-exec husband.

Messing plays Molly Kagan, left in the lurch by her showbiz-executive husband, who phones in the news from the Peninsula Hotel.

Hightailing it from their luscious Brentwood abode to hubby's suite at Beverly Hills' swankiest joint, she challenges him incredulously: "I work 24/7, making sure that Kenny Kagan never has to remember or do anything that he doesn't want to do. I do it all with perfect hair. . . . I'm fired?"

Yup. And she doesn't take it well.

"Somebody's cranky," says her decorator, friend and confidant, Rodney.

"Of course I'm cranky," she snaps. "I haven't eaten for 12 years."

The show, which starts with a two-hour send-off tonight and follows with four, one-hour installments on Thursdays through June, is based on Gigi Levangie Grazer's novel of the same name.

Grazer, wife of mogul Brian Grazer (24, Shark, Friday Night Lights and a million movies including The Da Vinci Code and Cinderella Man), is considerably more successful and accomplished than the typical Hollywood wife, and it's likely that if Brian dumped her, she'd still get prime seats in the hottest restaurants and keep her club memberships, if she cared about such things.

But Molly gets snubbed and booted. We normal folks, fishing around behind the cushions for enough change to cover two Happy Meals for the kids, aren't likely to care about that. Messing, however, imbues the character with likability, and Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon's script (they wrote Runaway Bride for Julia Roberts) leavens the cynicism of Grazer's best-seller.

Jon Avnet, who would need a whole room to show off all his awards from Broadway, TV and the movies, directs. He did Fried Green Tomatoes and The Burning Bed, among lots of others. This crowd of big-timers knows how to treat the ladies.

The Starter femmes include double Emmy winner and double Oscar nominee Judy Davis, who's convulsively funny as Molly's older BFF, Joan; and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, the guard at the Malibu Colony (where, in real life, the Grazers have a $16 million shack and neighbors who include Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey). She becomes one of lonely Molly's few new friends when our jilted jewel winds up in Joan's house on the beach because the owner's spending the summer in France.

Only it's not France. It's the Charity Harbor rehab center, where Joan finds herself trapped until she can deal with childhood "issues" that the therapist knows have driven her into Martiniland - very dry, up, with olives. Since she's quite contented there and would like to return tout de suite, and since there are no issues, Judy/Joan creates them in a comic tour de force.

There are a handsome stranger and a Russian nanny and an adorable child, and it's all played with Desperate Housewives-style pizzicato strings in the background to make sure you take nothing too seriously, as if you ever could.

It's hard to imagine better warm-weather fun. Too bad just-fired NBC boss Kevin Reilly couldn't wangle the show away from sister network USA and run it on the big network last month, when NBC was getting such abysmal ratings.

Instead of queuing up like Molly, Reilly, one of the least cutthroat network toppers in the last few years, might still be getting a good table at Morton's.

Jonathan Storm |

Television Review

The Starter Wife,

a six-hour mini-series, debuts at 9 tonight on USA.

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