by 99 Seats
We're a good month, month and a half into the new TV season (yeah, it's a TV post, what of it, you want to fight about it?) and it appears that the networks got the same memo this summer: A) if it works on cable, do that and B) do shows about women. Sort of.
It has seemed, to me, like a season full of shows revolving around women (if not, written by women, at all). If you buy into the idea that television, in addition to being a vehicle for advertising, is a kind of national subconscious, it makes you wonder what we think of these women. As the balance between the sexes, in terms of power, money and career, ever so slowly tips, is this push for shows about women an attempt to pander to a rising demographic? Or just retreads of old tires to catch a trend. I'm not entirely sure. But we have gotten a wide variety of characters on display. So...there's that, right?
Of course, that wide variety isn't, well, quite so wide. We have two shows from Whitney Cummings, a stand-up comedian, one of which is a star vehicle, the other, a pretty standard CBS, classic mold comedy with lots and lots of raunchiness. Honestly, I'm not a prude or anything, but the hour of 2 Broke Girls I could stand was just plain filled with smut. Lots of talk of three-ways, masturbation, tons of on-the-job sexual harrassment (all played for laughs), and generally just plain dirty-minded. Listen, I watch The League and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I don't consider myself a shrinking violet. I still found it shocking to find on a network program at 8 pm. It would have helped, I guess, if the jokes weren't lame, recycled crap. Imagine what a 12-year old boy would have written, if he was asked to come up with a TV show about two girls living together and you've pretty much written the first two episodes of 2 Broke Girls.
At the other end of the spectrum is the somewhat (in some circles) controversial New Girl, created by Liz Meriwether (in full disclosure: I know Liz; she was in a playwrights' group I ran a while back and I rather like her). Yep, there are things about it that may make you want to crawl up the wall. But there's also some damn fine writing, good ensemble acting and the conundrum of Zooey Deschanel. I know I'm supposed to hate her and find her insufferable. But I don't. I don't even find the character insufferable. Just...a touch confusing. Because, let's be honest, she's cute as hell. I don't know that I've met someone that cute who's that awkward without some serious mental problem. Even for TV, it's a headscratcher.
The two women I think gettting short shrift in all of this are, technically, on opposite ends of the spectrum, but I think they would get along just fine in some other, alternate universe: Emily from Revenge and Jane from Prime Suspect. Both are quickly becoming required viewing for me. If you haven't been keeping up, Revenge is a textbook guilty pleasure: it's soapy, melodramatic and awesome as all get out. It's a revision on The Count of Monte Cristo, with a sweet-faced young lady doling out the righteous revenge on the wealthy denizens of the Hamptons over the course of one summer. It's damn good fun, especially in times like these, to see bad people get their comeuppances. At the center of it, though, is Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who plays the line between total sociopath, willing to use anyone and everyone in order to get what she wants, and truly righteous avenger very, very well. So far, the show has even given her main nemesis, played by Madeleine Stowe, a bit of a soul. Like I said, it's soapy, but addictive.
Prime Suspect, as I'm sure you're aware, is an official American version of the classic British series starring Helen Mirren (TNT's The Closer has long claimed to be an unofficial one). I don't know the British series, but will definitely check it out, if for no other reason than to compare. In the American version, well, it's a fairly standard cop procedural. It's even pretty standard for a cop procedural starring a female lead. Crimes happen and Detective Jane Timoney solves them, with a snappy wisecrack and a jauntily cocked hat. One thing that do amp up is the sexism. Oh, my. The male cops on this show are SO sexist. Brian F. O'Byrne really needs a moustache to twirl when he's sending Jane off on obviously "women's work" assignments. It's thick and pervasive and feels both accurate and old-fashioned. The original series premiered in 1991, which isn't that long ago, but there's something about sexism here that calls to mind shows like Life on Mars or Mad Men, things set in the past. In a way, like with black presidents, our media is way, way ahead of real life. We're used to female detectives from, well, basically any cop show since Hill Street Blues, all serving without significant sexism. But the reality...maybe be different. And what Prime Suspect feels is real. Real in that they all seem like real cops. Including Jane. We get our standard cliche stuff (her live-in boyfriend has a young son and a snooty ex, who Jane regularly belittles and, on one occasion, blackmails into allowing an overnight visit), but Jane feels, if not original (because she's not) but truthy. And fairly hardcore. In the pilot episode, we get a police funeral (because what cop show is complete without one of those) and a tense little scene between Jane and her main cop antagonist, Brian F. O'Byrne (the character has the appropriately Irish name of Duffy). At the end of a little back-and-forth about how his precinct is his home and she's ruining it by being a woman, Duffy says to Jane something along the lines of "And watch, you'll tell me I'm your favorite because you know where I stand." That's how these relationships unfold, right? You expect her to say something winning and charming so he can start thinking, "Maybe she won't so bad." Not our Jane. She spits back, "You need to find a new home." And walks away. It's a nice little moment.
Listen, folks: it's TV. It really is primarily a vehicle for the delivery of advertising. It comes from a male-dominated world and is aimed primarily, still (and probably for a very long time), at a male-dominated audience. I wouldn't go so far as to call these shows and these particular female characters green shoots or anything. But it's better than a bunch of scantily clad women doing nothing interesting. Oh, wait. Never mind. Nothing's changed.