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.