Anna Faris (left) and Rebel Wilson star in two of network TV's five new female-focused comedies coming up this fall.
What are you doing with your summer? Catching up with friends? Starting a fun, new creative project? Just kicking back and relaxing?
Wrong! The correct answer is: "Analyzing the fall 2013 network TV schedules!" I mean, seriously. You can go camping or swim at the beach any time! But you can only prep for fall's new TV comedies right now.
Based on this TV Guide listing of fall's new shows, 21 new network comedies are slated to debut this season. Of those, only five appear to be focused primarily on female characters. That's not so good. Seven more seem to include female actors as primary members of mixed-gender ensemble casts, but that means just under half of the new TV comedy lineup appear to have no major female roles at all.
Of the five comedies that focus on women, four star leading ladies who are making the jump from film to TV—Anna Faris stars in "Mom", Rebel Wilson in "Super Fun Night," Malin Akerman in "Trophy Wife", and Ari Graynor in "Bad Teacher" —presumably hoping for some of the success that Zooey Deschanel and Kat Dennings encountered making that same switch in fall 2011 with "New Girl" and "2 Broke Girls," respectively.
Going purely by the numbers, fall 2013 beats fall 2012 lineup in roles for funny women. Last year there where (by my count) nine new network comedies, three with women in major ensemble cast roles, and two focused primarily on female main characters. Four of this year's new comedies ("Bad Teacher," "Friends with Better Lives," "Super Fun Night," and "Trophy Wife") are also being headed up by female show-runners. But fall 2013 still doesn't match fall 2011, when there were seven new network comedies, two of which featured women as major ensemble characters and four which featured women as the primary characters—among those the aforementioned "2 Broke Girls" and "New Girl," which are still big hits.
It could be tempting to peg this fall as some kind of "Return of Lady Comedy" type thing. But a closer look reveals that things are a bit more complicated than that.
Though network TV might seem like a strange place to go for intelligent comedy programming, that's actually where comedy has found its warmest home over the past few years. NBC in particular has served up surprisingly challenging and striking comedic fare, like "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation," as well as the cancelled-too-soon "BFF," while ABC recently experimented with female-led post-"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" comedic nihilism with "Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23" and post-"Friends" ensemble comedy with "Happy Endings."
But here's the rub: can you name the common quality among almost all of the shows I listed in the above paragraph? Most of them were cancelled. Some, like "Happy Endings," were cancelled after protracted ratings struggles and fan campaigns; while others, like "BFF" and "Don't Trust the B…," were cancelled before really being given a chance to find an audience (seriously, R.I.P. "Don't Trust the B").
When "30 Rock" landed in 2006, followed by "Parks and Recreation" in 2009, the shows and their female actor-comedian stars drew so much critical praise and attention that it would be easy to assume they were ratings smashes, as well. But that was not the case: despite its status as an award-winning critical darling, "30 Rock" was a ratings failure. As quoted in this Forbes tribute to the show (tellingly subtitled "Low Ratings, But Plenty of Awards"), Fey noted that the awards the show received "kept us alive." The similarly critically adored and award-winning "Parks and Recreation" came in as 66th overall in ratings this past season, below cancelled shows like "The New Normal" and "How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life."
Though, of course, the female-focused comedies of this coming fall season will bear the legacy of patron comedy saints Poehler and Fey, the heavy reliance on film stars to fuel these female-focused comedies seems to hint at a compromise at the big networks: sure, we'll create female-focused comedies that employ renowned female writers, but we'll cast them with well-known film stars to ensure ratings.
And its certainly good sense from the network side—star-led comedies like "New Girl" and "2 Broke Girls," do very well in ratings. "2 Broke Girls" is the only series focused on female heroines to crack the top ten in ratings in recent years, coming in at number 9 in 2011. Both shows also employ female showrunners—Whitney Cummings and Liz Meriwether, respectively—and "New Girl," at least, got pretty funny in its second season ("2 Broke…", sadly, remains a total lost cause).
For fans, this trend offers some good news, as well: these shows will most likely get decent-to-good ratings and stay on the air, giving excellent female writers a home.
But a few things are lost in this playing-it-safe approach. Though the shows bear surface similarities to "30 Rock" and "Parks and Rec" by featuring independent, tough-minded female characters, none of the shows focus on the unique talents that comedian-writers bring to the table. Recently proposed shows in that vein—like ABC's planned remake of the British TV show "Pulling," which would have starred brilliant comedian-writers Jenny Slate, Kristen Schaal, and June Diane Raphael—were not picked up.
Last season's "The Mindy Project" seemed like an attempt to fuse that comedian-writer sensibility with something more traditional—tacking Kaling's persona onto a romantic sitcom structure—but the show met with mixed critical and ratings success, coming in 74th overall (though it will return for a second season this fall). The bumpy road of "The Mindy Project" (especially when compared to "New Girl"'s smooth one) seems to suggest that it's easier to make a Hollywood star fit inside an off-beat comedy than it is to produce a traditional romantic comedy helmed by a comedian-writer.
This week's debut of Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" suggests that new media might provide an alternative to the ratings-or-originality trade-off.
"Orange is the New Black" is funny, warm, and unique, with a diverse cast and a lot of different stories to tell. Though a few of the cast members' names might jump out at you (and yes, Red was totally Captain Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager"), the show's emphasis is on ensemble storytelling, not star power. "Orange" has a pinch more drama than most straight-up sitcoms, but if it is a success with viewers, the show could signal that streaming video and other direct-to-consumer technologies offer a new, effective way to get female-focused comedy out there into the hands of fans, even when advertisers, network execs, or big movie stars aren't on board.
Read this whole blog series on comedy and feminism, Women Aren't Funny!