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Published: Sunday, 5/13/2001

Strong, funny ... and female

BY ELAINE LINER
BLADE MEDIA EDITOR

In the beginning, there was Lucy. Then along came Mary (Tyler Moore). And Roseanne. Now there's Felicity, Buffy, Moesha, the Gilmore Girls, Sabrina, Dharma, Grace, and Joan (Cusack, not Rivers). There are no hotter characters on cable than Sex & the City's hilarious all-girl foursome on HBO.

TV is full of strong, funny women these days. Strong serious ones, too. Like Max the Dark Angel, X-Files' Agent Scully, Marg Helgenberger's no-nonsense investigator on C.S.I., Carmela Soprano and Dr. Melfi of The Sopranos, the DA's on Law & Order and The Practice, social crusader Kate Brasher, and a judge named Amy.

While it's still rare to find feature film hits centered on any female character who isn't young, sexy, and played by a bankable star - Erin Brockovich and Bridget Jones's Diary being recent examples - TV, a friendlier medium for female producers, writers, and performers, is finding success with shows starring women characters of varying ages, types, and professions.

This season, half a dozen new comedies, including the modest hits Three Sisters on NBC and What About Joan on ABC, focus on women and are written by staffs dominated by women. This was the best year for TV comedies by and about women since the 1980s, when prime time was dominated by The Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, and Designing Women.

“Diversifying portrayals of women - creating roles which better reflect the diversity of the population - is not unrelated to the increasing presence of women in the industry,” former Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard said recently. “The TV shows where women get a better shake tend to be the ones produced by women.”

All the new girl-centric comedies owe a flip of the hat to the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, the now-classic comedy that was one of the first half-hour series to present a woman in her 30s who was single by choice and on a big-city career track.

Producer James L. Brooks created the ABC sitcom What About Joan for Oscar-nominated comic actress Joan Cusack with the idea of updating the type of lovably wacky, single Midwestern woman he wrote for Mary Tyler Moore on her show in the '70s.

“There's a thread between the two characters,” said Brooks. “Mary is brilliant. Joan is brilliant, with very specific talents. It's interesting that Mary was a Midwestern girl, too.”

The biggest difference between the two shows, said Brooks, is the presence of more women in the writing room. “With Joan we talk so much about women's issues as we're writing. [The topic] is much more alive because there's a lot of women on the writing staff, more so than in the Mary Tyler Moore days. It's a very lively debate,” said Brooks.

Cusack accepts comparisons to Moore, but said she relates more directly with the kind of physical humor Lucille Ball employed on I Love Lucy. But with a modern spin.

“Lucy put herself in such embarrassing situations that were so painful. I think a more modern take on that is there are a lot of embar- rassing, painful situations in life. On our show, it's more about how you figure them out, how you deal with them, how you live your life if you're a person with feelings,” Cusack said.

Networks have turned their focus to women for the same reason TV does anything: money. In prime time this season, 6.5 million more women than men tuned into TV nightly. That's a number advertisers play close attention to.

“Advertisers have long realized that women are the key target audience,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who also is vice-president of research for women-oriented Lifetime Television (and is not related to James L.). “As a result, they've told the programmers they want large female audiences.”

Brooks sees the broadcasters and cable programmers moving away from shows that feature women merely mimicking traditionally male roles (Xena: Warrior Princess, for example) and toward shows about smart, “relatable” women.

“A show like Judging Amy wouldn't have run 10 years ago,” said Brooks. “Not only is the lead character a judge, but her chief protagonist is her mother. It's very female-centric in many dimensions.”

Lifetime, available on most basic cable lineups, has been ahead of this trend for several years. Nicknamed the “channel for women,” Lifetime is watched by an average 1.6 million cable homes nightly, more than any other cable network including USA and TBS. Lifetime is the most-watched cable network among women on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when it features back-to-back reruns of its original, made-for-cable movies. The channel's Sunday night original dramas featuring lead women characters -Any Day Now, Strong Medicine, and The Division - benefit from the huge tune-in earlier in the day and have been renewed for more new episodes. Name stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Sissy Spacek, Ellen Burstyn, Brooke Shields, and Laura Dern are lining up to bring projects to Lifetime.

This summer the Lifetime franchise adds a third network called Lifetime Real Women. (Lifetime also has the Lifetime Movie Network on cable.) Real Women will feature all reality shows “told from a women's perspective,” according to Lifetime president Carole Black.

Added Tim Brooks, “It's a short step from dramatic shows about women to shows about real women. Women have come to know that Lifetime is a channel that, whatever's on, they'll probably like it.”

Two of the most popular young female characters in prime time are Felicity Porter of The WB's drama Felicity and Max, the darkly witty, muscular heroine of Fox's Dark Angel.

Felicity, now wrapping up its third season on The WB, has let its title character grow up this year, evolving from a confused, flighty teenager who chased her dream date to college, into a confident, self-possessed young adult.

“When we first met her, she was someone who hadn't found her voice and tested her strength,” said Felicity creator J.J. Abrams. “She was full of dreams and no experience. The last three years have been full of trials for her.”

Young viewers, especially women, relate to Felicity Porter (played by Keri Russell) because “she's had failures and successes. She's become stronger and stronger at every turn,” Abrams said.

The show's “flowery, soft title” belies the character's toughness, said Abrams. Some viewers have perceived the series as mushy simply because of Russell's angelic looks. “But the character is surprisingly strong and confident,” Abrams said. “And she's increasingly risk-taking, learning through her experiences.”

While waiting to find out if The WB will renew Felicity for its fourth season (long enough to let the character graduate from college), Abrams currently is producing the 90-minute pilot for another new series about a strong, determined young woman. Alias, commissioned by ABC, is about a spy (Jennifer Garner) learning the ways of espionage from her male mentors (Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin, Carl Lumbley).

The polar opposite of a character like Felicity might be Max, the futuristic, keister-kicking heroine of Dark Angel. Played by Jessica Alba, Max is a direct descendant of similar characters in the movies Terminator and Alien, both directed by Dark Angel creator James Cameron.

“I think women respond to characters who appear strong and capable,” Cameron told TV critics recently. “But you balance that with vulnerability so that they're real.”

Men aren't necessarily turned off by such formidable women on film or TV, Cameron said, a notion that studio execs sometimes find hard to grasp. “When I started doing these types of characters, with Terminator and Alien, there was a sense among the powers-that-be at the studios that this was going to push away the typical 18-year-old male audience. Well, that's not true. They want to see girls kick butt, too.”



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