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Fall TV—Women Creators Take Their Shot

September 18, 2006

This week marks an annual fall ritual, the parade of new TV shows each hoping to become the next big hit.  Perhaps because women haven’t had the opportunities men have to create shows, TV, like the rest of the media, has served up few three-dimensional women characters.  But looking at some of the shows this season, maybe, just maybe things might be looking up. ABC, which over the last couple of years has improved its track record of female leads with shows like Grey's Anatomy and Commander in Chief, kicked off its season last week with two episodes of Men in Trees—created, executive produced and written by Jenny Bicks.  The former executive producer of Sex & the City has created a kind of retro reverse Northern Exposure: Anne Heche, as relationship expert Marin Frist, moves to Elmo, Alaska to learn about men when she finds her fiancé cheating on her. In Marin Frist, Heche creates a quirky character you want to root for. That may or may not be enough to earn the ratings needed to keep it on the air. Bicks knows it is no easy feat to get shows on the air about women.  "I think, until recently, there was a bias against female leads—a feeling that they couldn’t ‘carry’ a show.  It doesn’t help that many of the network executives who are actually the final decision-makers are men. Often they just want to watch shows about themselves." ABC also brings us one of the most anticipated shows of the season: Ugly Betty, executive produced by Salma Hayek.  Based on a Columbian telenovela, the show features an America Ferrara (Real Women Have Curves) with braces, big glasses and thick eyebrows, as a recent college graduate from Queens.  Betty gets hired at Mode Magazine (think Vogue) as someone who won’t tempt a new editor in chief with a reputation for sleeping with his assistants. Already, in the first episode, she saves his job. Women of color are scant on network TV and Ugly Betty boasts a full complement, including Vanessa Williams as Mode's creative director and resident schemer, Wilhelmina Slater. The show’s name takes some getting used to, but brains trump looks, and Ferrara is endearing as she gives herself a first day on the job pep talk—“You are an attractive, confident, intelligent businesswoman”—right before walking into a glass door. NBC gives us two shows based on the same genre—the TV variety show. Straight from her job as SNL head writer, Tina Fey has created and stars in 30 Rock, which she also writes and produces.  With her biting and clearly feminine sense of humor, Fey is Liz Lemon, head writer of the Girlie Show. But Fey gives the guys the best lines—especially Alec Baldwin playing her new boss. The second, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, stars Amanda Peet as Jordan McDeere, the newly anointed president of the National Broadcasting System who, before she even starts her official first day of work, has to deal with a Network type meltdown during a live broadcast.  Peet is lucky enough to be uttering the words of Aaron Sorkin, who always writes his women smart.  Her character has the guts to rehire a writer and director (played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) who were fired four years previously, though she knows she is under intense scrutiny: "You know what happened the morning after it was announced that I was the new president of NBS? TMG's stock dropped 3/8 of a point.  I actually caused a dip in the NASDAQ index by showing up to work in the morning.  I don't think a lot of people are betting on me." With lines like that, we know she will be interesting to watch this season. Currently #1, CBS needs fewer new shows to add to their crime show packed lineup. A Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle that debuted in early 2006, The New Adventures of Old Christine created by Kari Linzer, continues, with Dreyfus as a divorced mom trying to be friends with her ex, who happens to be dating a younger woman also named Christine. Women are behind other new shows including: ABC's Notes from the Underbelly created by Stacy Traub, which will follow a woman through pregnancy; ABC's The Nine created by KJ Steinberg (with her brother Hank) about the aftermath of a bank hostage holdup; and the CW’s The Game, a Girlfriends spin-off created by Mara Brock Akil about a medical student who relocates to be with pro football player boyfriend. The networks may still struggle with women leads, but cable has become a place where women can shine as realistic and quirky characters. This past June, the second season premiere of The Closer on TNT—with  Emmy nominated actress Kyra Sedgwick as LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson managing a squad of prickly detectives—pulled in a cable record of 8 million viewers.  Other summer fare included Mary Louise Parker as a widowed mom selling pot to keep her family afloat on Showtime's Weeds created by Jenji Kohan. And in August, IFC launched the Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman written, executive produced and starring Laura Kightlinger. With bold and dark humor, the show reveals the difficulty of a women trying to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter. "I think as more of us women get into leadership positions, the perception that we can’t do this job will slowly go away,” predicts Bicks “I do still think there is the double standard—a woman who is a tough show runner can sometimes be perceived as a bitch; a tough male show runner is seen as a success.  In the end, if you do your job well and produce a good show the gender differences seem to fade away."