When ABC asked former "thirty-something" producer Ann Lewis Hamilton last year to create a crime-drama about three rookie female cops, she tried to come up with a title that accurately reflected what men call women police officers.
The network wanted to call the TV series "Cookies"--"like tough cookies," Hamilton explained with a wince.
Somebody else suggested "Cherry Tops," referring to the light bar on top of police cars. "That was a little too dirty," said Hamilton, 35, who referred to the project herself as "Gal Cops."
Finally, a producer friend of Hamilton's called with two ideas: "Sirens" and "Panty Shields." Before the suggestions went any further off the deep end, Hamilton reluctantly agreed on "Sirens"--even though the title "makes the series sound dumb, kind of Aaron Spelling-esque, like it exploits women."
The difficulty in naming "Sirens" summed up the fine line Hamilton and her producing partner, Bob Butler, had to walk in creating three believable female characters for the cop-show genre.
"Simply, I set out to write three smart women, just three smart women," said Hamilton, who read once that the most common profession of women on television is a prostitute. "When I went into this, I thought women couldn't possibly be as good as men cops. Because they're not as strong. Then I realized, pretty soon on, because women aren't as strong they have to be smarter."
Last fall, CBS decided to cancel "Angel Street," a crime-drama about two sharp women homicide detectives--one of them Robin Givens--after only two weeks on the air.
But "Sirens," Wednesdays at 10 p.m., has held on since its premiere five weeks ago. The series, starring Adrienne-Joi Johnson, Liza Snyder and Jayne Brook, receives better ratings than "Civil Wars"--the legal drama it replaced--although nothing spectacular. That leaves ABC with a difficult decision in May: Either pick up "Sirens" for this fall, hoping the audience will build, or take a chance on something new.
"In one of my favorite reviews--I'm kidding--somebody said the three women in the series are too similar. They're all smart and sassy," Hamilton said over lunch in Century City, near her ABC office where she has a two-year deal with ABC Productions.
"What? One of them is supposed to be dumb? Actually, yes. In the wide world of TV, one of them should be dumb. One of them should be kooky and dumb. One of them should be a rocket scientist. And the other should be a martial-arts expert. It's like, forget it, they're going to be smart."
Hamilton knows a lot about Hollywood's habit of cheapening women. Her husband, John Schouweiler, has produced such low-budget movies as "Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama" and "Attack of the Killer Bimbos." What's more, throughout the late 1980s, Hamilton supported her husband's career by writing screenplays for him.
She notes the irony of writing for macho, male-bonding men given her desire to create intelligent women. But, she said, "I never had women being raped or women being tortured--even in this particularly bad movie I wrote. The woman is this psychopathic killer and she kills men. She's a succubus: She has sex with men and then kills them. So my women were always really, really strong."
Hamilton landed her first TV writing job in 1984 because she was willing to take a writing assignment on the pulp detective series "Matt Houston" while her friends from UCLA's film school were trying to sell what she called "their little Frank Capra" screenplays. Eventually, she became "the token woman" brought in to write tough-minded TV shows.
When first looking for "thirty-something" writers, co-creator Marshall Herskovitz remembered reading Hamilton's work on "The Street," a raw, late-night and short-lived syndicated series she wrote about two cops.
"There are certain things we look for that are perhaps beneath the surface that have to do with the craft of writing," Herskovitz said. "We were very taken with her dialogue, with her ability to portray a male world, and a sort of attendant sensibility and language. We found that was, for us, a very auspicious sign of her talent."
Ditching the guns and writing emotions on "thirtysomething" came easily for Hamilton. The character Hope's miscarriage was patterned after Hamilton's miscarriage; the birth of Susannah's baby was the birth of her own baby.
Slight of frame with short brown hair, Hamilton exhibits a subtle strength. She recalled the first time she stepped up to direct an episode of "thirtysomething." A male crew member tried to test her, she felt, by telling a joke close by with a punch line that referred crudely to a part of the female anatomy.
"I thought, 'I could be incredibly offended,' " Hamilton said. "I could say, 'Don't use that kind of language.' But what's the point of that? I kind of waited a little bit, and I told a joke to him, and I used (a profanity). I just wanted to say, 'Language isn't going to get me. Don't do that.' Life's too short to be intimidated by that. I mean, if you're going to allow yourself to be intimidated by men . . ."
Her voice trailed off. Rather than complain about the inequities she faces as a woman in Hollywood, she instead seems to want to work them to her advantage. At one point, she and Butler, a veteran TV producer and director since the early 1960s, were looking for studio space to shoot "Sirens."
"Bob and I were walking around with some guy who was showing us around his studio," Hamilton said. "I think he thought I was Bob's assistant. Bob is real tall, handsome, just looks like a director. And there I am, kind of tagging along with Bob. And this guy is only talking to Bob, you know. And he's kind of treating me like the secretary. It didn't bother me. I just thought it was kind of amusing, because I think you can sort of use that. You listen, and you save it to use later."
Hamilton studied drama at the University of Virginia, believing she wanted to be an actress. But her knack for writing short plays led her to film school. She was an assistant to Julie Corman--the wife of B-movie master Roger Corman--in 1984 when she married Schouweiler, an attorney at the time.
"We knew this low-budget world, and that's what John wanted to go into," Hamilton said. "So I said, 'Honey, for our wedding present, I'll write you a script. I'll give you two weeks of my life, and I'll write you a low-budget, action script.' "
Hamilton took director John Ford's 1939 classic film "Stagecoach" and set the story after the apocalypse, making the John Wayne character a woman and the prostitute a man. She wrote the script under a male pseudonym, Buck Finch, to help it sell.
"I wanted to pick the most masculine first name I could," she said. "I thought of Rod or Dick, and settled on Buck. And Finch is from Atticus Finch from 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' my favorite book."
Hamilton noted wryly that "Neon City" was finally filmed not long ago, but producers rewrote the story and put a guy, Michael Ironside, back in the lead with a woman at his side.