TV's crop of new fall shows is touting girl power
NEW YORK (AP) -- Viewers, it's time to make way for girl power!
Among the two dozen shows premiering this fall on the five major networks, women will be standing tall.
Of course, a debate already rages whether females are liberated or demeaned on certain new shows, namely ABC's "Pan Am" with all those sleek stewardesses and NBC's "The Playboy Club" with its satin dolls.
But that's an argument as old as the term "jiggle TV" harking back to the original "Charlie's Angels" — which, 35 years later, returns to ABC in an updated but no less jiggly version starring tough-but-tantalizin g Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly and Rachael Taylor.
In fact, it's an argument as old as television itself.
Premiering 60 years ago this fall, "I Love Lucy" became TV's first enduring scripted series, and it continues to serve as the classic template for sitcoms, despite conflicting views on whether Lucille Ball's zany housewife was a victim of domestic oppression or — as she schemed to break into show biz or expand her world in some other novel way — a pre-feminist subversive. (Maybe both?)
In any case, it's ladies first on the vast majority of new shows this fall — an overwhelming display of gender domination and easily the season's biggest trend.
Women rule on "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," which portray the fairer sex in two high-profile jobs that called for beauty, performance and impeccable service, even while offering women a rare chance to get ahead.
"Pan Am," set in 1963, is a melodrama that focuses on stewardesses in their snugly tailored blue twill at the dawning of the jet age. It stars Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Margot Robbie and Karine Vanasse. "The Playboy Club," set in 1961, is a swanky soap centering on the cotton-tailed, look-but-don't-touch waitresses in the original Chicago club. Starring as those Playboy bunnies are Amber Heard, Jenna Dewan Tatum, Naturi Naughton, Leah Renee and, as the Bunny Mother, Laura Benanti.
Neither series has hit the air. But already both shows have been called upon to justify themselves as if, by telling these tales from a half-century ago, they are violating contemporary norms and dealing a retroactive blow to the women's movement — as if any of that were usually a standard against which TV shows are measured.
Many questions on this topic arose at the recent Television Critics Association conference in Los Angeles. In one response to eye-rolling reporters, Heard said, "I think it's just chauvinistic to deny women their sexuality."
Defending her show, "Playboy," and its women characters, she continued, "It comes down ultimately to choices. And just like anything else, if there are choices available and they're making the choice, they're not being exploited."
On the New York set of "Pan Am," Garner had a similar message.
"Men and women are equal in so many ways," she said, "but if there's a way that women have a bit more power over men, it's the power of their sexuality if used smartly. And I just wish more women would be OK with that."
Both series celebrate the good life — enjoyed even by those who helped serve it up — and celebrate escape, even for those women.
But whatever the similarities that have linked them thus far in the audience's mind, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" are pretty different from one another. And among the crop of new shows, there are many other varying explorations of girl power, including two series with "girl" in the title.
The CBS sitcom "2 Broke Girls" stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs as two struggling but plucky waitresses in a down-trodden Brooklyn diner. The Fox sitcom "New Girl" stars Zooey Deschanel as a kookie lass who, seeking solace after a painful breakup, moves in with three single guys whom she drafts as her surrogate brothers.
Even CBS' "A Gifted Man" — which stars Patrick Wilson as a brilliant but all-business surgeon — has a woman at its core: the doctor's dead ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle), who tries to teach him a new brand of compassion from her perspective as a lovely apparition.
Mind you, every new show isn't supercharged with estrogen.
There's a romantic comedy: NBC's "Free Agents" star Hank Azaria gets equal time with Kathryn Hahn as emotionally damaged co-workers who may or may not fall in love.
There's a parenting comedy: NBC's "Up All Night" stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as the working mom and stay-at-home dad of a new baby.
There's a family-that-travels- back-to-prehistoric-times-and-hangs-with-dinosaurs adventure: Fox's much-anticipated "Terra Nova," with the prominent name Steven Spielberg looming large among its credits.
There's Fox's "Allen Gregory," an animated series about a precocious 7-year-old being raised by his father and his father's male life partner.
There's a gritty, paranoia-inducing crime thriller, CBS' "Person of Interest," which stars Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson as unlikely partners in a preventive brand of vigilante justice.
And in a category of its own, there's Fox's "The X-Factor," the Simon Cowell-produced singing competition.
The elusive nature of manhood is the focus of three new sitcoms.
The three chums of ABC's "Man Up!" are happy enough with their comfortable middle-class lives. But they want to reclaim the manliness of their forefathers as they reinvoke their inner Iron John.
"What do you get a kid turning 13 that says `I'm a man'?" worries one of the friends, whose son is facing a rite of passage into teenhood.
Suggestions from his pals: "What about a couple of hookers? Or a trash bag full of chicken wings?"
The same concerns continue to plague Tim Allen in "Last Man Standing," his follow-up to "Home Improvement," which premiered 20 seasons ago. Though the character Allen plays this time feels manly enough, he feels threatened by a world going soft — and by his minority status in a household otherwise composed of females.
The tagline for the CBS sitcom "How to Be a Gentleman" is "prude meets dude." David Hornsby, playing an overrefined etiquette columnist, joins forces with Kevin Dillon as his loutish life coach to transform him into more of a he-man.
The world of fairytales has inspired not one but two new series.
NBC's "Grimm" is a police procedural where the bad guys are mythological creatures recognizable as nonhuman only by special criminal profilers such as Nick Burkhardt, a homicide detective in Portland, Ore. (When Little Red Riding Hood goes missing, Nick, played by David Giuntoli, is specially equipped to track down her nonhuman abductor.)
In a much different vein, ABC's "Once Upon a Time" has a fantastical, wondrous tone, and a decidedly woman's touch: Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) squares off against the Evil Queen (Lana Parilla), who has put a curse on the characters of the fairytale world by imprisoning them in the modern real world — namely, the town of Storybrooke, Maine.
There, "time will stop and we will be trapped," Rumpelstiltskin warns Snow White. "No more happy endings." At least, not until yet another woman, Snow White's daughter, shows up to help.
The CW's "The Secret Circle," too, is sparked by the supernatural. A seemingly ordinary teenage girl (Britt Robertson) moves to a high school where her new friends turn out to be descended from powerful witches — and where she discovers her own magical powers.
Also on the CW, Sarah Michelle Gellar (formerly Buffy the Vampire Slayer) returns to series TV in "Ringer" as a woman who, after witnessing a murder, goes on the lam and claims the identity of her twin sister — only to learn that her sister's seemingly ideal existence is just as imperiled as the life she's trying to evade.
And that network's third new series, "Hart of Dixie," stars Rachel Bilson as a brand-new doctor who moves from New York to a tiny Alabama town to take over a family practice amid much culture shock.
CBS' "Unforgettable" stars Poppy Montgomery as a police detective with a rare condition that imprints every detail of her life into her memory, where it's available for exact, instant retrieval. This is a help in crime solving, but otherwise a mixed blessing.
Talk about girl power! Not only is Whitney Cummings a co-executive producer of "2 Broke Girls," but this young writer-stand-up-comi c is also an executive producer and star of her NBC sitcom, "Whitney," which is billed as "a hilarious look at modern-day love" centering on her and co-star Chris D'Elia, "a happily unmarried couple."
In the ABC soap "Revenge," Emily Van Camp plays a scheming young woman who returns to the moneyed getaway of the Hamptons on New York's Long Island. Adopting a winsome new identity, she means to settle the score with this privileged class for grievous wrongs inflicted years ago on her and her father.
On the ABC comedy "Suburgatory," 16-year-old Tessa (Jane Levy), much to her dismay, is whisked from the temptations of New York City to a new life in the suburbs by her protective father (Jeremy Sisto).
The generation gap, female style, is explored in the Fox comedy "I Hate My Teenage Daughter," starring Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran as single moms who clash with their spoiled offspring.
And Maria Bello stars as a New York City homicide detective trying to penetrate a man's world in NBC's Americanized "Prime Suspect," whose 1990s British original, starring Helen Mirren, remains one of TV's best-ever dramas.
Detective Jane Timoney is ambitious, abrasive and stubborn — qualities that don't endear her to the male-dominated precinct house where she has just been transferred.
Surrounded in the squad room by her co-workers, she is subjected to a sneering lecture on the precinct's "beef trust," men who do the real police work: "knock on doors, follow leads, hear the words on the street. Because the beef trust can't flutter their eyelashes. All the beef trust can do is the work."
Well, they talk tough. But the beef trust can't overwhelm Timoney. Just one of the TV sisterhood awaiting viewers, she has plenty of company this fall.
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.; CBS is a division of CBS Corp.; Fox is a unit of News Corp.; NBC is controlled by Comcast; CW is a joint venture of Warner Bros. Entertainment and CBS Corp.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier
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