Sunday, April 12, 2009

TV: Women and sitcoms

In "Chalice Borealis," Carole King observes, "Didn't work out quite the way you wanted, how were you to know?" We wonder: When does it ever?


Last Sunday the plan (as we announced in February) was to cover women in sitcoms. That was the plan because we were going to tackle Parks and Recreation, the new NBC sitcom starring Amy Poehler. Other things came up. We told ourselves we could push the topic back one week, it could wait. Then came Thursday and a friend called to ask, "Did you read Alessandra Stanley?" Do we ever?

No. And no insult to her but we're covering TV and the last thing we want to do is be accused of copying her or, worse, actually copying her. Well, we were informed, Alessandra was doing what we were planning. We flinched for a second and then felt relief that we didn't have to tackle it. We could focus on something else. But, help us out, what did she say about Rashida Jones?


That was the reply. At which point, we had to read. Alessandra usually stands apart from the Water Cooler Set and usually has some points worth sharing. But somehow she managed to write about women in sitcoms . . . without writing about women.

No, we don't mean she confused Bob Saget with Christina Applegate. We mean that she seemed unaware of women as a plural. We hope Alessandra's not suffering from Queen Bee Syndrome but it does seem to be all the rage these days.

When speaking to friends working on shows, especially show runners, our biggest beef is almost always the same. In fact, it's why we waited on weighing in on Fringe. We were about to rip that show apart when a friend passed on the first three episodes. Why? We're so damn sick of the Jennifer Garner Alias bulls**t or, if you prefer, the Deanna Durbin Syndrome: One Hundred Men and a Girl. We were asked to wait on Fringe, told they were aware of the issue and were working on it (and they did move to improve the situation, to their credit).

But the reality is that these 'women who think like men' or 'women who act like men' are always one woman surrounded by plenty of men. There's nothing empowering about that or realistic. It is, however, what we get over and over from the media.

Take NPR where Diane Rehm fancies herself Marlene Dietrich singing "The Boys In The Backroom" as evidenced by her need to surround herself with men. Each Friday finds Diane sitting down with three guests for the first hour and three guests for the second hour for a "news roundup." April 10, she sat with six men. April 3rd, she sat with five men and one woman (Nancy A. Youssef). March 27th, she had five men and one woman (Lynn Sweet). March 20th, she had five men and one woman (Karen DeYoung), March 13th, she had five men and one woman (Jeanne Cummings). And, in what passes for 'revolutionary' and 'equality' in Diane's world, March 6th she actually had two women and four men (Susan Page and Jackie Calmes). Now in the real world, when you book six guests each Friday, there's no reason you can't offer three men and three women. Wait, there is a reason. You're a Queen Bee who only cares about yourself.

It's disgusting that Diane Rehm refuses to book women for those roundtables. It's disgusting that her vanity is so great that she's threatened by another woman. Is that a sexist thought? Good. She's pushing sexist notions on her programs. Such as last Friday, during the second hour. Her guests were Foreign Policy's Moises Naim, Washington Post's Michael Shear and The Finanical Times' resident pig Demetri Sevastopulo.

Demetri Sevastopulo: Well I think the only person -- and I'm being slightly cheeky here -- but the only person in Europe last week who didn't enjoy Michelle Obama being there might possibly have been Carla Bruni, the wife of President Sarkozy [Michael brays like a donkey or, more to the point, like an ass], because all of the sudden she was no longer the darling of the media and quite frankly Michelle Obama looked a lot more glamorous and lively and entergetic than Carla Bruni.

Diane Rehm: It's interesting. You felt that as well, Michael.

Michael Shear: Oh well I mean when we came into Strasbourg from London, we landed and drove into a castle, essentially, a palace, to meet with President Sarkozy --

We included Diane and Michael's blah blah blah just so you know that no one objected. No one said a damn word about that offensive slop Demetri threw out. But it got worse, much much worse. Near the end of the second hour, a call came in.

Diane Rehm: Alright to Mary Louise who is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Good morning to you, you're on the air.

Mary Louise: Hi, Diane.

Diane Rehm: Hi there.

Mary Louise: It's great to talk to you. I'm just kind of annoyed by the continuing chauvinistic expectation that when two women come together there has to be some kind of a personal, sexual or fashion competition. I thought that Carla Bruni was very graceful and hospitable to Michelle Obama to give her precedence during their meetings. That's the polite, appropriate and diplomatic thing to do any woman that invites another woman to her home and then tries to outshine her in some boorish way, is really -- that's really a kind of classless thing to do and I think the media and the way we look at women is still stuck in this kind of old time view and I think you should call them out on that, Diane.

Diane Rehm: You know I felt that the comment that was made did not seem to be a put down of anyone rather simply an acknowledgement that Carla Bruni has, since her marriage to Sarkozy, has been given such extraordinary attention and now when Michelle Obama came onto the scene as you point out Mary Louise Carla Bruni gracefully stepped aside and allowed the wife of the president of the United States to take front and center. Demetri?

Demetri Sevastopulo: Exactly and I prefaced my comments with saying I was being a bit cheeky and was joking and it wasn't any kind of a male chauvinist comment.

Right, Demetri, and we're sure racists say they were joking and weren't making any kind of a racist comment either. Demetri's remarks were sexist and were offensive. And just how cheap and trashy the remarks were was demonstrated by Michael's braying while Demetri was 'joking.' Here's a clue for the backstabbing Diane Rehm, "You're not a comedian." In other words, you and your panel of journalists are on the air to provide information not to make people chuckle.

If Diane could grasp that, she might stop trying to work in her little digs against Hillary Clinton. She can't get through a week without them and she'll apparently be grudge f**king Hillary until they pry the microphone loose from Diane's tired, shaky hands.

Because Diane's all about the men. A woman who got a career because NPR realized how few women were present in the media then went on to ride that to her advantage as far as it would take her; however, she refused to help any other women along the way which is how you get Diane each Friday with five or six men. It's how you get that gender imbalance and it's how you get sexists comments on the program, offensive ones that have no place on NPR and it's how you get Diane saying a big F**K YOU to Mary Louise and any other caller who has the self-respect to call that sexist crap out.

The proper response from Diane was, "Yes, that was an offensive remark and we're sorry." The way to fix that is to stop promoting the gender imbalance. In other words, it will never be fixed while Diane's around. For four decades now, she's gotten away with this crap. There's no excuse for it.

Which brings us to Parks and Recreation.

The sitcom stars Amy Poehler and airs Thursday nights on NBC. Leslie Knope is her character's name. She works for a municipal parks and recreation department. And, strangely there are hardly any women around. "Strangely" because Parks & Recreation isn't just a department of municipal government women are comfortable in, it's one that they actually head and overwhelmingly staff in most of the country's most populated cities.

That's not the case on TV, of course. In fact, Valerie Harper's 1989 sitcom City (CBS) featured more women working for the city government than Poehler's sitcom that's been created two decades later. Yes, that is a huge step backwards.

In an early scene, we see Amy sitting around a table with co-workers. Another woman is present, an African-American woman. She has no lines and will not be seen again for the rest of the episode. Instead we get Mark (Paul Schneider), Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Ron (Nick Offerman). If anyone thinks throwing in the young Aubrey Plaza as college intern April counts, they should think again.

For those who don't know, and the creators appear not to, the Parks and Recreation Department is over maintaining the parks, over scheduling the various sports lots, over scheduling festivities, etc. They're the hospitality arm of municipal government. For some unknown reason, the writers have Amy's character attending townhalls -- no, holding townhalls that she would never hold. People attending the townhalls would be seeing various city staff -- from other departments -- and Amy's character would come on for a bit. And the questions she would answer would go to her department.

So when Rashida Jones shows up at a townhall as Ann, an upset city resident, and wants to talk about the empty lot that developers dug up for a now-cancelled project, that question would be fielded by someone in the city manager's office, by a city council person, by someone in Development & Planning. It would not be fielded by someone in Parks & Recreation. But the show's only supplied Parks & Recreation staff for the townhall.

That may seem minor to some or it may seem like we're one of those people dissing a film because a fire arm in a scene wouldn't have shot as many bullets as we counted during the movie. No. It goes to reality in the world and, most importantly, it goes to reality on TV.

See, we've done the Alessandra thing. We've done it and we've moved beyond it. We've counted the women on TV by counting only which woman got a starring role. And we've done our happy little review and thought that as the show progressed the problems would be fixed. But, thing is, these shows rarely see the low number of women in the cast as a "problem." Fringe did, congratulations to it for that. Seriously.

But we are so damn sick of Jennifer Garner's Sydney or Tina Fey's Liz. We're so damn sick of these women surrounded by men, men, men and so damn sick of these actresses who are threatened by any other woman being in the cast.

That's the only explanation for it. All this time later, Fey has refused to develop the character Jenna. Forget Cerie (Katrina Bowden) who has a 'good' episode if she gets a line, 30 Rock has Tina Fey and, in a lesser role, Jane Krakowski. And how many men are in the cast credits? Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Keith Powell, Lonny Ross, Kevin Brown, Grizz Chapman and Maulik Pancholy. That's ten male characters. No one's ever supposed to see a problem with that. When 30 Rock came on, it was a funny show. It had problems. We thought they'd be fixed. Chief among the problems was under-utilizng Jane Krakowski. That never got fixed and she actually does less funny things this season than in the first season. Tina Fey can't stand sharing the spotlight with another woman and everyone knows that. Instead of rounding out Jane's character, Tina's distorted it to the point that Jane's character and all the characters are no longer characters but joke factories who say and do things to get a laugh even though it's frequently completely against their character. It doesn't matter because it's not a script, it's a series of skits. Outlandish ones, divorced from reality, all the things that nearly tanked Will & Grace before that show pulled it together.

By contrast, we've seen a show like The New Adventures of Old Christine -- whose first episode (as we noted) was among the worst debuts ever, but whose second episode showed tremendous skill -- which has actually improved week after week until it's become the most consistently funny sitcom on TV. Sometimes, you cringe when you realize what you're laughing at. Such as this season when Christine got her foot stuck in the toilet. No, not cringing over that, cringing when you grasped how hard Christine would have hit the bathroom floor, face first. You laugh at it, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a very physical comedian who can pull it off, and only after do you think, "oooowwww." And second only to the laugh factor, you've got Julia, a woman who lives in the real world and very much expects to get as much of it on TV as possible. You see that in the storylines, you see that in the casting. Forget Tina Fey trying to deliver a snarky line, Julia's playing a real character, doing what great comedic actress do and doing it better than any other sitcom actress currently.

Giving Julia a close run for the money is Megyn Price and Bianca Kajlich (CBS' Rules of Engagement) and Megan Mullaly (In The Motherhood). Watch any of those women or Julia's amazing comic foil Wanda Sykes and you grasp what comedic acting actually is. (And some who know nothing but this decade will discover that, yes, actresses can be funny.) You won't find it on Kath & Kim (which never found the right tone) and you won't find it on The Office except in the small bits they toss out to Mindy Kaling from time to time (she's the only woman allowed to be zany on that show). You won't find it on My Name Is Earl. This decade has been horrible for women -- on the big screen and on the small. It has rendered them invisible, reduced them to nags, undercut them at every step of the way. And, amazingly, TV sitcoms have been the worst offenders.

"Amazingly" because they can try their revisionary nonsense all they want, the world knows and will always know that Lucille Ball made the sitcom. She took a format and made it one of the formats, a TV staple. She took a format and became, some say, the "queen" of it but, reality, she was the finest of it for her era, male or female. Lucille Ball defined sitcoms success. In the years since, Marlo Thomas, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizbeth Montgomery, Nell Carter, Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, Valerie Bertinelli, Bea Arthur, Betty White, Marla Gibbs, Jackee, Valerie Haper, Cloris Leachman, Isabel Sanford, Ja'net Du Bois, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, Delta Burke, Judith Light, Danielle Spencer, Jane Curtain, Susan Saint James, Belita Moreno, Constance Marie, Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Fran Drescher, Cybill Shepherd, Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, Jasmine Guy, Shelley Long, Helen Hunt, Ellen, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox-Arquette, Debra Messing, Judy Reyes, Christa Miller, and many other women -- not the least of whom is Roseanne -- have delivered the belly laughs and left their mark on the genre. But other than the women currently on the air that we've already praised, there's not been much worth noting for women in this decade. In fact, the only sitcom in the first half of this decade that lasted more than a season and is worthy of praise, Still Standing, offered one of the strongest roles for women with Jami Gertz' lead performance. Otherwise, the women did nothing over and over and over.

So while Alessandra gets excited that a woman gets to star in a sitcom, our concern goes to women plural. What are the women doing?

Not a whole damn lot. The character of the intern does not become sketched out in the scripts we've read (or the episode that airs this Thursday, the only other episode we've seen of the show other than the debut). Rashida Jones' Ann is repeatedly written as a straight character. Jones is talented and we've praised her here before. She can and does add bits that bring humor into her scenes but she's not being written a funny character. The men are written to be off the wall funny. Strangely, Cyndi Lauper may have sang "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" but on this TV show starring a woman, it's the boys that are getting all the laugh lines even more so than the alleged star of the show, Amy Poehler.

It wasn't that way at the start of the episode, before the credits. When the only character they had was Amy's Leslie, they offered a series of jump shots of Leslie getting a vagrant out of the children's slide, interacting with children and with a hot male number.


But then the opening credits rolled and the others were introduced. The writers are fascinated with the characters of Ron and Tom. So much so, that they turn the show over to those two characters and Amy Poehler, in the scripts we read, was left playing Sally Rogers. (Rose Marie's character on The Dick Van Dyke Show -- famous for the "Sally can't get a man" jokes and subplots.) A funny moment here or there but a character you pity more than enjoy. Reality check for producer Amy Poehler, you're going to have to hire some women writers. Until you do, the men will continue to nod at you, pretend they're listening, and go write another script where the men are wild and crazy, Leslie is pathetic and the other two women are non-existent.

Amy appears to be suckered into believing that all the characters are pathetic losers. Not true. Only her character is pathetic. In the first episode, for example, her male assistant and the college intern are laughing at her, flashing photos they took of her with her skirt up. Yeah, Ron and Tom aren't very smart but they're not portrayed as pathetic. And while Tom hits on any woman he can, Leslie is the one who's portrayed as sad. She's not just hard up and lonely, she's apparently so bad in bed that Mark has to have his memory jogged to even remember that he slept with Leslie. Tom and Ron have no such embarrassing moments. They're not written as pathetic. They're written as zany characters with inflated ideals of themselves.

Leslie is written as pathetic.

So Alessandra can go ahead and cheer but we're not seeing much worth cheering. We're seeing another sitcom where Rashida Jones is given an underwritten role and manages to use her considerable talents to flesh it out. We're seeing Amy Poehler listed as the star and supposedly playing a funny character but pushed aside because the writers (who are also the show's exec producers) are more fascinated with Ron and Tom. We're seeing yet another sitcom where just someone being a woman qualifies as the butt of the joke. We've yet to see even one sitcom this decade where being a man qualified as the butt of the joke.

Amy Poehler could carry this show. She has the talent to. But she's going to have to grasp what many women before her have, sometimes you have to be willing to be called a bitch or else you better prepare to smile as they fade you into the background.

We mentioned Roseanne earlier. Her self-titled show captured the nation. But only after she stopped playing nice. While she was playing nice, all the funny lines were going elsewhere. While she was playing nice, her character was the butt of every joke. While she was playing nice, she had a so-so sitcom. She made it clear she wasn't going to stand for it and she made it clear that you could call her a bitch and it wasn't going to phase her. It was her show and she was going to be listened to, she was going to be respected and her character wasn't going to be written as a supporting player in each episode. Cybill can tell about the battles she had to fight. Most women can. When you come across a woman who hasn't had to do that, she's either owned the production company or been married to a man who did. Otherwise, you have to fight.

And, thing is, it's the same way the male stars are fighting. But they never get called out. Not even when they're really not that talented and supposedly 'co-starring' in a TV romantic comedy in which the 'co-star' pretty much has to do the impossible -- say win an Oscar -- before she really gets treated with respect.

We don't know if Amy has it in her to be a bitch. If she doesn't, NBC may as well cancel Parks and Recreation right now because it's already drifting away from her character and that will only continue unless Amy has the guts to stand up for herself. Watching a good sitcom can bring more joy and laughter than anything else, but never for a minute be tricked into thinking that joy and laughter produced it. The good shows, the ones that last, are notorious for all the on-set drama. The reason for that is because comics -- actors, writers, directors -- grew up using humor instead of their fists. If the set doesn't have any drama, everyone's coasting. And any real lead actress knows you can be called far worse things than "bitch." For example, you can be called "Second Banana."
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