Edgy women like ‘Whitney’ lead the fall TV lineup

“I do not belong on network television. It’s a complete fluke!” says Whitney Cummings, sprinting across the studio backlot. She is late for a rehearsal for her new sitcom, “Whitney,” because, she says, “I have really low self-esteem, so I told my assistant she didn’t have to get up early this morning.” Walking onto the set, she apologizes to everyone she passes. “I’m so sorry I’m late, so sorry!”

This is the woman NBC Chief Bob Greenblatt has dubbed the “It” girl of the fall TV season. The 29-year-old comedian is not only the creator and star of the relationship comedy “Whitney” (premiering Sept. 22) but also the co-creator of another buzzy fall sitcom, CBS’ “2 Broke Girls” (Monday), featuring Kat Dennings.

So how did a stand-up comic best known for making the bawdiest, most tasteless quips at Friars Club roasts end up with two prime-time sitcoms, both of which crack vagina jokes in the first 10 minutes?

The TV landscape is suddenly flooded with edgy “It” girls, both in front of and behind the camera. NBC alone has signed a number of foul-mouthed female comedians — along with Cummings, there is Chelsea Handler’s “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” set for midseason and Sarah Silverman’s autobiographical sitcom snatched up after a bidding war. ABC has sharp-edged comedy “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" starring Krysten Ritter set for midseason; Fox is launching “The New Girl” (premiering Tuesday), starring Zooey Deschanel and created by filmmaker Liz Meriwether; MTV has ordered a pilot about twentysomethings called “Dumb Girls” from “Awkward” creator Lauren Iungerich, and indie film darling Lena Dunham recently finished shooting her Judd Apatow-produced series “Girls” on HBO.


Most of the network comedies aren’t exactly revolutionary in format — “Whitney” is a modern romantic comedy, while “2 Broke Girls” and “Apartment 23" are buddy shows with a caustic twist — but the profusion of provocative series about young women’s lives driven by female creators suggests a shift in Hollywood. It’s a shift allowed, in no small part, by loosening standards on broadcast networks when it comes to racy language and adult situations.

“There was nothing like [my show] in the air when I wrote it,” says Nahnatchka Khan, creator of “Apartment 23.” “Now it’s like this zeitgeist thing. ‘Bridesmaids’ came out this year, and everybody was so surprised it did well. It makes me happy that people are seeing that we can tell hard, funny stories with girls you can recognize.”

The “Bridesmaids effect” may have played some role in the current push for more raw women’s voices on TV, but a title frequently mentioned by female show runners is “Sex and the City,” which went off the air in 2004.

“‘Sex and the City’ was the first thing that I emotionally connected to,” says Cummings. “In my stand-up, my goal was to pick up where it left off. Carrie was flawed, she smoked, she made bad decisions. It was real. When it finished, I felt like there was this void for women.”

That show was also, Cummings points out, “a love story between women,” something she hopes to revive on “2 Broke Girls,” co-created by “Sex and the City’s” own Michael Patrick King. The female equivalent of a bromance, it features a sharp-witted, self-reliant waitress (Dennings) who takes a smart, bankrupt heiress (Beth Behrs) under her wing. Cummings says King’s secret is that he “doesn’t go for jokes; he goes for honest, uncomfortable, specific moments.”

Dunham’s forthcoming series “Girls” overtly nods to “Sex and the City.” (“You’re definitely like a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair,” one young woman tells another in the pilot. “It’s a good combination.”) As an HBO series focused on four young New York women, Dunham felt “Girls” had to acknowledge its precursor. But she says her own influences are much less glamorous, more gawky: Mary Tyler Moore and “My So Called Life.”

“A lot of the time girls on TV are allowed to be a mess in an adorable way, and my series is girls being a mess in a not adorable way,” says Dunham, 25, who stars in as well as writes “Girls.”

Dealing realistically with raunchy material may be key to drawing younger viewers, raised on blogs and websites like Jezebel that leave nothing about the female experience (sex aids, bodily fluids, the intricacies of childbirth) unsaid. Dunham says that being able to get graphic on television was crucial to her, much as it was in her movie “Tiny Furniture.”

“Sexuality is such an integral part of my experience as a twentysomething woman that if I had to hide bodies, it would be challenging to tell this story,” she notes. “I am constantly tweeting things and going, why did I just say that to the world? I wanted to capture that feeling of there being no clear boundary anymore between public and private.”

One reason for the lack of realistic depictions of female experience on prime time might be the scarcity of women writing them. A recent report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State found that women made up just 15% of writers on prime-time network TV in the 2010-11 season (down from 29% in the 2009-10 season).

The lady-centric show creators say they are conscious of who they bring into the writers’ room.

“It was important that the ‘2 Broke Girls’ [writers] room was not 10 45-year-old dudes who have written for every sitcom ever,” Cummings says. Along with King and veteran TV writers such as Jhoni Marchinko and Greg Malins, they brought on blogger Molly McAleer, who burnishes the “broke” theme with tales of her odd jobs and bedbug infestation. Similarly, “Girls” hired “downtown scene chick” and former Vice magazine columnist Lesley Arfin for a team that also includes experienced co-executive producers Jenni Konner and Bruce Eric Kaplan.

Some worry that if these shows don’t bring big ratings, networks will write this off as a failed experiment. Iungerich, who created MTV’s “Awkward” and is developing the twentysomething comedy “Dumb Girls,” says the current hunger for girl talk has been “a great thing for me, as someone who likes to write authentic female voices. I just hope it’s not a passing trend and that it’s open to all different versions of the female experience.”

More female buddy shows are waiting in the pipeline: NBC has scheduled “Best Friends Forever” for midseason and just announced “My Best Friend is a Lesbo,” while ABC is developing a comedy about a ‘90s girl band.

So could girl-centric series become the new normal?

As Khan quips, “Nobody ever says there are too many shows about a man with an attractive wife.”