Women with their wit about them
If, thanks to “Bridesmaids,” 2011 marked the year that Hollywood remembered that women can indeed be funny, then this past television season took that late-to-the-party realization a step further. With the arrival of several new comedies created and written at least in part by women —"New Girl,""Girls,""Up All Night,""2 Broke Girls,""Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" and"Whitney"— viewers were treated to a host of funny females looking at modern life from a wide array of angles and comic sensibilities.
All six shows have been renewed for second seasons, speaking to their ability to connect both with viewers and the pop culture at large. They’ve also generated a range of reactions, from utter devotion to ambivalence and outright anger — most famously when"Two and a Half Men"co-creator Lee Aronsohn told a Toronto screenwriting conference that “we are approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation. Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.”
“Actually, I’m excited to see what peak vagina looks like,” says “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether, adding that she sees her series, with two women and three guys, as featuring perspectives from both genders. “Though it might be emasculating that we did break a penis on one episode,” she adds.
Whitney Cummings, who co-created CBS’hit “2 Broke Girls” as well as “Whitney,” the embattled comedy she headlines, dismisses Aronsohn’s observation as irrelevant to what she and her colleagues are doing.
“He’s not our audience,” Cummings says. “Finally, people are making shows for not that guy. And that’s really cool.”
The comedies share some common elements besides the prevalence of the word “girl” in their titles. (“If we called it ‘New Woman,’ it would have sounded like a feminine hygiene product,” Meriwether says.) Core friendships reign supreme and usually remain stable. Dating relationships (save for the marrieds on “Up All Night”) are usually in flux. And sometimes there’s an overlap between the two. (“New Girl’s” Jess and Nick have become this generation’s version of Ross and Rachel’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship on “Friends.”) Sex and work dominate the conversation, with satisfaction in either area rarely guaranteed. (These girls really are broke.)
But look past the shows’ sexual content and frankness and their shared young female, “not that guy” viewing audience, and you’ll see some notable differences, particularly in style and approach. “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney” utilize a traditional, multi-camera sitcom format, while “Up All Night” and “New Girl” ditch the laugh track and live audience molds,using the single-camera setups that"The Office"brought into vogue.
With HBO’s “Girls,” writer-director-star Lena Dunham had the luxury of spending six months in the editing bay to craft her 10 tightly focused half-hour stories of flawed, over-educated young women navigating the choppy waters of post-collegiate life.
Some of the other show runners — Cummings, Meriwether and “Up All Night’s” Emily Spivey — ground through 22- to 24-episode seasons, a brutal pace that allows little opportunity, Meriwether says, to fashion grand statements on feminism, though “New Girl” was often seen as doing just that.
“I was surprised by some of the feminist reaction to the show, which I thought had more to do with different ideas of the word ‘girl’ or some idea ofZooey [Deschanel, the star] that has nothing to do with who she is more than it did the show itself,” Meriwether says. “It’s so funny when things get analyzed. With network television, things move so fast, you don’t have time to redefine womanhood.”
Adds Cummings: “We’re all writing from personal experience, yet when a woman’s show comes out, it gets examined and pulled apart like we’re trying to make some sweeping statement about how every woman is. If you happen to relate to the shows, great. If you don’t, you get to watch character studies of someone you’re not.”
“Up All Night,” which stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as an older couple adjusting to their new roles as parents, flew under pundits’ radar, probably because, creator Spivey says, the characters were the first to admit they didn’t know what they were doing.
But Spivey’s low-fi concept comedy quietly made a mark in its own way, telling the story of two smart professionals sharing the joys and trials of raising a newborn.
“My experience and that of my friends is the dude and the lady are both a good mommy and daddy,” Spivey says. “Everybody’s doing everything. It’s not a situation where the mom goes off to work and the dad doesn’t know how to run the washing machine.”
That so many people parsed the shows’ characters, content and titles for deeper meaning isn’t, for the most part, a negative for any of the women involved.
“Maybe the scrutiny comes because there’s a real urgent desire for female-created shows, so the women that are watching want to make sure they’re accurately representing their wish,” Dunham says. “The downside comes when that scrutiny has us all being pitted against each other in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to other comedies. That said, I’m just happy people are talking about women in comedy.”
Adds Cummings: “I think we’re well beyond that ‘women can be funny’ phase, which to me would have been a talking point if you lived in Saudi Arabia. But, you know, not in America. Here in America, it’s a pretty amazing time.”
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