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Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Binge-Watching Away the Dog Days

Margaret Carlson was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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As you allocate your scarce remaining hours of summer, may I suggest bingeing on Bravo’s “Odd Mom Out”?

The star of the series is Jill Kargman, who wrote “Momzillas,” the novel that inspired the show. She also plays the lead role, a stay-at-home mom named Jill Weber who, like Kargman, grew up on New York’s Upper East Side in that long-ago era when there was “some shame in being rich.”

Kargman’s character is merely comfortable among the ridiculously wealthy (her husband is a lawyer, not a Wall Street tycoon), weaving her way through the mean streets from Park Avenue to Fifth, covering much the same territory as the bestseller “Primates of Park Avenue” by Wednesday Martin, though far more ably and accurately.

Jill dances to an upbeat drummer (in fact, family gatherings devolve into dance parties at the drop of a hat), though she occasionally wishes her life were made easier by more disposable income. Living in a fifth-floor walk-up doesn’t bother her, except when mothers who inhabit elevator-doorman heaven arrive sweaty after dragging their children up for play dates.

In “Primates,” Martin relies on her outsiderness as the narrative device for what she calls an “anthropological memoir.” She wants us to believe that moving from Greenwich Village to the East 90’s is akin to Margaret Mead traveling to Samoa. She’s amazed to discover that the Uptown moms, unlike those who reside in equally high-rent areas 50 blocks downtown, overshop, overgroom, overexercise, and over-enrich their children slated for Harvard from birth. 

She professes to be shocked that the Upper East Side goddesses tend to socialize with other goddesses, as goddesses have done in all zip codes since junior high. (Martin’s claims to anthropological rigor have been challenged: The memoir’s signature scenes were debunked by the New York Post and others. Simon & Schuster has appended a “clarifying note” to the book.)

The tour guide to the one percent club in “Odd Mom Out” is more credible, even if she is entirely fictional. She has troubles that are not in themselves new, but she is. It helps that she’s Jewish, an outsider among her WASP in-laws, and not quite pretty. She’s almost subjected to an intervention aimed at persuading her to streak her hair organized by her, natch, unnaturally blond sister-in law, Brooke. Her status-conscious in-laws speak of “Jill’s people” as exotics and grow excited when research finds there was an aristocratic Austrian “von” before the Weber, which they decide makes all the linens worth re-monogramming. Jill’s amiable brother-in-law who stumbled into hundreds of millions when his bagel company was bought by Chinese capitalists, cluelessly remarks that a branch “of the Webers did resurface in Argentina in the 1960s.” That he could have relatives who fought on the wrong side in World War II is something he finds “cool.”

At the heart of the comedy -- which just wrapped up its 10-episode first season -- is female friendship, the most fraught and fragile relationship in life. After all, it takes a lot to get divorced, but you can simply ghost a girlfriend by being repeatedly too busy for a cup of coffee. Sister-in-law Brooke wants to be Jill’s best friend, if only Jill would let her make her over. Brooke is so slim you can’t tell she’s about to have a baby, partly the result of shrieking “no bread” at the approach of a waiter. She has a posse but no friends.

Jill’s best friend of long-standing is Vanessa. A stubborn brunette like Jill, Vanessa is a once-married, now single doctor who jogs, has occasional sex, and saves lives, which makes her invisible in Brooke-land. 

Coming home late from a ghastly group dinner at a chic Japanese restaurant where minuscule courses were served over many hours, Jill apologizes for keeping Vanessa, who has patiently answered the three kids’ questions about AIDS, the tooth fairy, and starving children, up way past her bedtime. As long as Jill doesn’t become a MomBot like Brooke, Vanessa’s not complaining.

You know the rest -- Brooke gradually subsumes Jill into her life and into chairing her benefit gala so that Jill lies to Vanessa about why she can’t come to her birthday party. But watch anyway, if only for the scene where Jill comes clean: “Those bitches aren’t my friends. You and simple carbohydrates are my friends.”

The interactions of Jill (and hubby Andy) with the (von) Webers offer rich glimpses into the unsettled nature of family relationships that linger long after we are grown up. Jill’s lawyer husband is no slouch. He is overshadowed by his not-as-smart-but-more-successful brother who lives in a prewar mansion with high ceilings, servants to meet every need, with time to find an untaken cause (providing “prophylactic gastric bypasses for at-risk kids with morbidly obese parents”).

Jill’s in-laws get caught up in the last Darwinian competition, securing a place in the city’s most desirable cemetery. Jill is late to the meeting with the snooty funeral director and then disturbs the deadly calm by frantically taking calls: her children are in danger of being waitlisted for the best private schools while her in-laws risk being waitlisted for a final resting spot with a water view. 

True, some of this recalls ’50s humor: Lucy and Ethel could have delivered Brooke’s baby and struggled to compete at Brooke’s fundraiser at SoulCycle. But there is freshness in the way people are shown getting ahead, getting hurt and finding comfort as life goes conventionally on. Surely, parents in Peoria also climb the greasy pole of success and struggle to get their kids into the best schools. But it’s more entertaining to watch in Manhattan, where human nature, with all its striving and humiliation, shallowness and depth, plays out in the most compressed, and stratified hothouse on Earth.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net