BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Promotional spots for NBC’s 1960s-era drama “The Playboy Club” describe Hugh Hefner’s glitzy hangout as a “place where men hold the key, but women run the show.”
That just as easily could be the slogan for the upcoming broadcast-television season.
Of the 26 new network series arriving this fall, at least 14 are directly pegged to female stars and/or lean heavily toward female-centric themes. The trend is reflected in dramas such as “Ringer,” a moody mystery starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, and “Prime Suspect,” a remake of the iconic crime series featuring Maria Bello.
And it’s especially evident on the comedy front, where Zooey Deschanel (“New Girl”) and Whitney Cummings (“Whitney”) lead a pack of estrogen-rich sitcoms.
According to audience research, this influx of femininity would seem to make perfect sense. Women, after all, watch much more television than men — by almost 16 hours per month, according to Nielsen. But the surge in female-driven shows is also fueled by increasing numbers of women working behind the camera.
“More women are writing for TV, and women tend to write strong women (characters),” Cummings told reporters attending the recent TV critics summer press tour in Beverly Hills.
And Cummings, mainly known as a bawdy stand-up comedian, is riding the wave. Dubbed by some in the media as TV’s new “it girl,” she not only is star and executive producer of her autobiographical vehicle for NBC, she’s a co-creator and co-producer of “2 Broke Girls,” another female-driven freshman sitcom on CBS.
“We’re in a really amazing time when there are a lot of fantastic female actresses and comedians,” she said, noting the contributions of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chelsea Handler and others. “So there’s a great opportunity for women to have powerful roles.”
As for the men, well, they still have their place in prime time, but several new sitcoms depict them as the oppressed underclass — or self-pitying weaklings and victims.
In ABC’s “Last Man Standing,” for example, Tim Allen’s macho character finds himself surrounded by so-called girlie men. “Man Up” is pegged to a group of male buddies who worry that they’ve lost touch with their inner tough guy. And in “How to Be a Gentleman,” a metrosexual writer hires a trainer to make him less wimpy.
But none of these guys is quite as desperate as the characters in “Work It,” a midseason comedy about two unemployed males who don wigs and dresses in order to land a job. Yes, in the sitcom world, men are the new women.
These shows, in exaggerated ways, are clearly tapping into current events that have seen many men question their societal roles, while women increase their presence in the workforce and on college campuses.
“I think it’s our job to create television that questions how people feel in the world,” ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee said.
Meanwhile, critics question whether women watching at home will feel well represented this season by the women on their TV screens.
Two freshman dramas — NBC’s “The Playboy Club” and ABC’s “Pan Am” — are set in the 1960s, when key clubs and airlines were accused of objectifying and sexualizing women. Then there’s “Charlie’s Angels,” a remake of the 1970s hit that featured braless, gun-toting babes and gave rise to the term “jiggle TV.”
Producers and stars of all three dramas spent much of their panel sessions at the press tour defending their shows and debating the nuances of the term “female empowerment.”
“These girls are using so much more than their bodies,” said Naturi Naughton, who plays one of Hef’s scantily clad, cotton-tailed bunnies. “(They’re) smart, they’re going to school, they’re buying homes, buying property — things that women weren’t able to do at the time. They’re using their resources and relying on themselves.”
Francie Calfo, an executive producer for “The Playboy Club,” agreed, saying the drama series will explore “really interesting and smart women.”
“I’m a mom. I have three kids. I come from a very traditional family,” she said. “And I feel like that’s part of the reason I like this subject matter. I have a very different experience as a working woman than these women had, and I feel like they were kind of pioneers in a way. Whether or not it would have been something I chose to do or not, it feels vital and important. And it’s a relevant part of our history, given where we are as women.”
“Pan Am” follows an elite group of female flight attendants who, back in the day, were forced to submit to grooming checks and weight requirements. One scene in the series pilot even depicts the Pan Am women being monitored for girdles before they take to the air.
But Nancy Hult Ganis, a former Pan Am flight attendant and producer on the show, insists that she never felt like a victim of sexism. On the contrary, she and her peers experienced a sense of excitement and freedom.
“It was a great escape, a wonderful adventure,” says Hult Ganis, who answered a Pan Am recruitment ad while attending the University of California Berkeley. “We were able to see the world, and we were given opportunities that few women had at the time.”
Gloria Steinem, one of the nation’s foremost feminists, stopped by the press tour to promote an HBO documentary on her life. She was asked if these retro dramas and the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot might be resurrecting demeaning imagery.
Viewers need to question the “attitude” of the shows, said Steinem, who worked undercover as a Playboy bunny in the ‘60s for a famous expose. “(Are they) aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they showing the problems of the past in order to show that we have come forward and continue to come forward?”
Women in TV comedy have certainly come forward in recent years, making the kind of advancements that obliterate the old notion — mainly put forth by males — that women just aren’t all that funny. In the new sitcoms, female characters run the gamut, from financially strapped waitress (“2 Broke Girls”) and rebellious teens (“Suburgatory”), to young roommate on the rebound (“New Girl”) and exasperated mothers (“I Hate My Teenage Daughter”).
Liz Meriwether, the creator behind “New Girl,” a show earning early critical raves, said movies such as “Bridesmaids” and sitcoms like “30 Rock” are showing Hollywood that “women want to see things made by women.”
“I think we’ve proven once and for all that we can be just as funny as men,” she said. “Hopefully, the trend can continue.”
For now, at least, there appears to be no glass barrier when it comes to TV comedy.
Said Cummings, “Really, it seems like it’s more of an advantage (to be a woman) these days than a disadvantage.”