As the women-in-comedy trend grows, certain archetypes for fictional funny ladies are emerging.
One of the most heralded trends of the fall television season was the heavy investment by networks in female-centric comedies. Not all of them have panned out entirely as expected. Whitney's ratings started at 6.7 million viewers, fell to 4 million, and sputtered back up again to 6 million ahead of the premiere of Are You There, Chelsea? in January, hardly a huge hit. And the biggest success of the bunch, 2 Broke Girls, is mired in a swamp of ethnic humor that would have seemed cutting edge in 1952. (The show's executive producer, Michael Patrick King, vigorously defended that direction for the show in a wildly contentious session at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif. last week.)
But networks are sticking with the funny ladies (in scripted television and not, as David Letterman fired his comedy booker Eddie Brill after Brill suggested women weren't as comically authentic as men) in spring television. And the tropes for a generation of funny fictional ladies are starting to emerge. Here are the four types of women you can expect to see on TV for the months (and possibly years) to come:
1. The Woodland Creature
This genre is defined by Zooey Deschanel, whose eyes may come mail-order from Disney rather than Mother Nature, but uses them to convey an impression of vulnerable adorability. New Girl's Jess, her well-meaning free-spirit who is baffled by many of the rules of human society, has been one of the breakout characters of fall. At Fox's comedy panel at press tour, all the other actors on stage with Deschanel found themselves commenting on their own "adorkability." And Jess's unworldliness has become the spark for a debate about whether twee naivete is feminist self-expression or evidence of arrested development.
It's also hard not to see Jess as an influence on Dee Dee (Lauren Lapkus), the wacky roommate to the title character in NBC's Are You There, Chelsea? Among the things the show finds amusing about Dee Dee are her lack of knowledge about pot brownies, her conviction that Chelsea's cat is frustrated by his inability to communicate verbally, and her commitment to her virginity. Where Jess's three male roommates on New Girl offer her a chance to learn from her mistakes—a setup that shows some actual respect for her capacity to learn—so far Chelsea and her best friend are meant to be the sophisticates to this naif, introducing her to the ways of bars and men as if she's the human equivalent of a baby duck. While I've found myself wishing Jess would just grow up already, I sort of want Dee Dee to keep doing her baby duck thing just to drive Chelsea and Olivia nuts.
2. The Crude Broad
That's because Chelsea in particular is the most egregious example of a second comedic trope: the gal we're supposed to appreciate because she's like some people's conception of a guy. She drinks, she behaves badly, she talks about sex crudely. In the much-commented opening of Are You There, Chelsea?, our leading lady gets busted for drunk driving, plays gay in prison, prays to vodka (in the show's best line, she tells her sister that the liquor is like God because "They're both invisible and have a hand in unplanned pregnancies"), and when bailed out by her sister changes her life by drinking her car instead of her drinking habit. Perhaps we're meant to think she's a truth-teller, or getting what she wants because she's claiming prerogatives men normally reserve for themselves. But when she suggests that a red-headed date trim his pubic hair in the heat of the moment or mocks Olivia's attempts to get a job in the field she actually studied for, Chelsea just seems like an jerk, independent of whatever gendered traits have made her that way.
Fortunately, the two other hard broads the networks have given us are defined by more than their attachments to their shot glasses. On CBS's smash hit 2 Broke Girls, Max may make awfully frequent reference to her vagina, but we also know her dream of illustrating children books is on hold while she services her student loan debt. We also know that she's capable of falling hard, whether for hipster graffiti artist Johnny or roommate Caroline's horse Chestnut. The tough exterior she projects in the diner where she and Caroline work is actually protecting something.
Chloe (Krysten Ritter), the main character in ABC's upcoming Don't Trust the B— In Apartment 23, may be a worse human being than Chelsea is and is certainly less sensitive than Max. But show creator Nahnatchka Khan's given us a delightful twentysomething anti-hero. Chloe makes a living taking on roommates and then harassing them into leaving so she can keep their security deposits. When it turns out she can't drive away June, the small-town dreamer who falls into her trap, she decides to help her adjust—but her chosen method of getting June out of a bad situation includes seducing June's boyfriend. Her best friend is James Van Der Beek playing a fictionally sexed-up version of himself. And Chloe doesn't have to try to be a dude: she's just delightfully, evilly herself.