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For Women in Sitcoms, It’s the Next Generation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I am woman. Hear me roar--right off the air.

Murphy Brown couldn’t keep a secretary, sang Aretha Franklin songs badly but with abandon and told off Dan Quayle (in a vintage moment of art imitating life when life believed the art was real). Cybill, the fortysomething Hollywood actress, was constantly shoring up two ex-husbands and fighting to maintain some shred of dignity through a changing parade of goofball acting jobs. Ellen--well, Ellen announced to the world that she was gay--over a loudspeaker (inadvertently). Grace was the sharp-witted, struggling, working-class heroine.

They were assertive, outspoken, funny, strong, and now they’re gone.

Being ushered out this television season, a year after the departure of “Roseanne,” are the sitcoms “Ellen,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Murphy Brown,” which airs its finale tonight. “Cybill,” which has been off the air since April 1, is scheduled to air seven new episodes starting May 25 and has not been officially canceled, according to a CBS spokesman. But most observers--including its star--don’t expect the show to return next season.

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In their place is a sea of comedy babes--younger, ditsier and cheerier. Dharma of “Dharma & Greg” is the ultimate flower child grown-up; Ally of “Ally McBeal” is now famous for her quirky fantasies and moments of tongue-tied awkwardness; Brooke Shields’ Susan, of “Suddenly Susan,” is struggling to find her voice and backbone. It’s not stupidity they embrace--Dharma is sage; Ally is a Harvard-trained lawyer. But they do seem to represent a turn of the tide in comedy heroines.

“I kind of characterize the new ones as lovers and the old ones going out as fighters,” muses producer and writer Diane English, who created “Murphy Brown” and ran the show for the first four of its 10 years on the air. “They’re young and they don’t feel the need--as women in their 40s do, and did--to push their way into things. . . . Ally and Dharma are not necessarily weak women, they just have different agendas and different goals, and they do kind of get what they want. But [at least] they’re not playing the girlfriend or weak women who have nothing to say.”

“Cybill,” “Murphy” and “Ellen” all suffered from lackluster ratings this season. So did “Grace Under Fire,” although when production ended last January, the producers said it was so that star Brett Butler could “resolve personal issues.”

“I’ve specialized in representing strong women and it’s been very frustrating,” says Karen Taussig, a talent manager whose clients include female comedians. “We’ve lost Roseanne, Ellen, Brett Butler, Murphy Brown--any intelligent woman with a voice is gone. Elaine [of “Seinfeld”], not a particularly good role model, is gone. And they’re being replaced with what? Calista Flockhart and Jenna Elfman? What kind of a message is this?”

Chuck Lorre, who is in the unique position of having created the outgoing “Cybill"--before he was fired by its star, Cybill Shepherd--and (with producer Dottie Dartland) the reigning “Dharma & Greg,” defends Dharma as strong.

“But in a much healthier way,” says Lorre. “It’s not a neurotic strength. It’s not generated by pain. We were creating a character who was very much alive in the moment and in touch with her feelings but totally capable of being angry and filled with grief. . . . She’s not a constantly happy zombie.”

And he rejects the notion that she’s a ditz. “If being ditsy means having a joyful life, then that’s a sad commentary,” Lorre says. “I just feel it’s kind of unfortunate that in order to be acceptable by the media you have to be dark and brooding and troubled and angry. If you’re angry, that’s de facto hip. That’s nonsense. That’s tired. That’s played out. . . . If you can bitch and moan, you’re a modern. Maybe Dharma is postmodern.”

You can call it postmodern, post-feminist or post-loud sitcom women. Or you can just call it a natural change of television events.

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“These things are generally cyclical,” says Michael Marsden, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern Michigan University and editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television. “In the ‘70s, we had ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘Rhoda,’ ‘Maude.’ Those were the first shows that dealt with women in the workplace. Now, when we look back, that was pretty lame stuff by contemporary standards, but back then those were significant statements. . . . Television programming is really a continuing conversation the culture is having with itself. Those conversations will shift according to the cultural and social needs of the society.”

Looking at the whole of television, there are a lot of conversations going on. You could hardly say that hourlong drama lacks strong women when “ER” has actress Laura Innes playing the steely Dr. Kerry Weaver (despite her momentary meltdown on the season finale) and “The Practice” has Camryn Manheim playing such a confident and poised attorney you wish you could call her up and hire her.

In the area of literal strength, you can’t get much stronger than warrior Xena or Buffy, the vampire slayer--although both of them operate in fantasy scenarios.

And the very nature of a long-running show, which at its best has weeks to lavishly unpeel the layers of personality of its characters, means that even the goofy comedy heroines have their moments of fortitude and the pillars of strength have their moments of softness. Even the cantankerous, booming Murphy Brown sang softly to her newborn baby moments after he was born.

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But one thing does seem unimpeachable: The departing strong women are in their 40s (or older--Candice Bergen is 52). Most of the female stars of sitcoms at the moment are in their 20s and 30s. As beautiful as Bergen and Shepherd are, the premium seems to be on sheer youth.

Consider the symbolism of replacing “Ellen” with “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place"--where the “girl” (and the “two guys,” for that matter) is young, cute and pleasantly vacuous.

Says English, who wrote tonight’s final episode and who turns 50 today, “Women my age don’t exist on television. I’m going out of the [advertiser-preferred 18-to-49] demographic. The theory is you don’t buy as much or you’re too loyal to one brand you bought in your 20s. They should look at my MasterCard bill. I am not spending less as I get older. At some point, advertisers will figure out what bull---- that is, and then you will see women in their 40s and 50s playing leads.”

The youth imperative goes for men too, some producers report. “When I’m doing a cop show, someone will ask, ‘Can you make the detective 24?’ ” says writer Bob Ward, who was a producer on “Miami Vice” and “New York Undercover” and is co-creating a series about the Mafia for Showtime. “I say, ‘No, the guy can’t make detective when he’s 24, OK?’ . . . Any time I do a series, the network says, ‘Can you make them younger?'--because they buy the products.”

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Shepherd echoes Diane English on the subject of advertising. “First of all, people in their 40s and 50s are the people with money. The boomer babes are where it’s at,” the actress says.

She is circumspect about the demise of her show and what it represents and whether there’s any chance of it returning. “If you talked to [the network], you know more than I do,” she says with a chuckle. “I would think it’s highly unlikely.

“I don’t want to blame the younger women,” Shepherd adds. “There really should be room for all women--we have so many different stories to tell.”

* The final episode of “Murphy Brown” airs at 9 tonight on CBS (Channel 2).

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