From 2 Broke Girls to Apartment 23, female-centric comedies are invading network lineups, with mixed results
This fall television season was supposed to represent the triumph of Bridesmaids. Networks greenlighted a round of new comedies with female leads ostensibly inspired by the comedy about female friends that broke box office records this summer. But in some ways this year's sitcoms—which include 2 Broke Girls, Apartment 23, Up All Night, The New Girl, and Whitney—feel a lot more like throwbacks to Archie comics than a continuation of the R-rated exploration of sex, materialism, and friendship that proved so powerful with movie audiences. These shows pit caustic and manipulative brunettes against surprisingly canny blondes, or alternatively, focus on dippy brunettes. And while their setups promise interesting explorations of marriage, friendships between men and women, and even the recession-era economy, they're also an acute illustration of the limitations of network television.
There's something odd and unfortunate about the tendency of sitcoms to pitch women against each other—even when there aren't the affections of a boy like Archie Andrews at stake. In CBS's 2 Broke Girls, which premieres tonight at 9:30, brunette Max (a tart and wonderful Kat Dennings) is immediately suspicious of Caroline (Beth Behrs), a former socialite who lost her fortune when her father's Ponzi scheme collapsed and takes a job at the same Brooklyn diner where Max works. A gentler version of that dynamic is at work in NBC's family comedy Up All Night, where new mother Reagan (Christina Applegate) tries to defend her right to family time against the demands of her boss and friend, talk show host Ava (Maya Rudolph, the only woman of color in a leading role in any of these shows). And in Apartment 23, which will debut on ABC later this fall, June (Dreama Walker), who moves to New York only to have her job vanish in yet another Madoff-like collapse, ends up rooming with the cartoonishly manipulative Chloe (the always wonderful Krysten Ritter).
In each case, some of the tension between each pair dissipates by the end of the first episode. But it remains frustrating that the most common way to generate dynamic friction between women in pop culture is to start with a win-lose scenario, where only one woman can end up in control of her time, a choice New York apartment, or a deeply scuzzy diner in an up-and-coming neighborhood. If the stakes were higher, the competitions might seem justified, but there's something depressingly recession-sized about these conflicts, and the faster these shows move on to interesting and fraught collaborations rather than battles over scraps, the better.
On the other hand, at least these battles of the blondes and brunettes tend to emphasize their participants' competence. On 2 Broke Girls, Max is a hustler, and Caroline gives her the ambition to dream of running a bakery rather than selling a few underpriced cupcakes at a time in a diner. In Up All Night Ava may be demanding and needy, but she acknowledges that Reagan is a genius programmer and ultimately accepts that she needs to accommodate Reagan's family to retain her talents. And in Apartment 23, Chloe brings out strength and savvy that June didn't know she had but that she desperately needs to get a job in a competitive New York economy.
By contrast, sole female leads in The New Girl and Whitney are distinguished less by their abilities than their eccentricities. Jess (Zooey Deschanel) may be a teacher, but she's introduced less in terms of her capacities as an educator than her tolerance for repeat viewings of Dirty Dancing, her inability to choose first-date outfits, and a bad tendency to burn off bits of her hair when distracted. Similarly, we're told that Whitney (Whitney Cummings) doesn't know how to dress appropriately for weddings or play a sexy nurse without making her boyfriend of five years fill out his employer's information on a mock medical registration form (there's something particularly strange about the shows' decisions to make two extremely attractive women as sexually clumsy as possible).
Even with their flaws, all of these shows have interesting ideas about men and women's roles and societal expectations for the established pattern of relationships. Up All Night insists that raising children is just as difficult as a high-powered corporate job, making that message palatable to mass audiences by putting it in the mouth of Will Arnett's stay-at-home father. Whitney insists that marriage isn't—and shouldn't have to be—every woman's dream, even as it spotlights the challenges faced by unmarried couples who may not have the same rights as married couples in situations like hospital visitation. If The New Girl manages to dial back its grating quirkiness, it could be a unique look at platonic friendships with men and women, relationships generally treated as if they're about as plausible as unicorns. And both 2 Broke Girls and Apartment 23 usefully dial back the lavish depictions of life in New York, suggesting that economic hardship may force appealing characters into uncomfortable situations if they're to pursue their dreams.
This being network television, the stay-at-home Dad gets to play high-end video games—there are no broke, emasculated man-children living off of disability checks like in Knocked Up. Recession apartments still come with plenty of sun and space and in Brooklyn, back yards big enough to keep a horse in—no abject business failures have flattened our heroines as they did Kristen Wiig's Annie in Bridesmaids. And sexual exploration and liberation mostly consists of trench coats over lingerie in the back of a cab or a sexy nurse's outfit. But maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Improving women's representation on television is all too often a game of inches.