A lot has been written this fall about female-centric comedy. A number of new sitcoms have been created or co-created by women and the fall's biggest comedy hit, 'New Girl,' was written by Elizabeth Meriwether and stars Zooey Deschanel.
Before we all link arms and dance a jig of glee about the number of ladies in the realm of TV comedy, a few reminders are in order: First, this trend is long overdue, given that women have always been funny (yes, even before Tina Fey), and this fall's uptick in female representation doesn't erase the fact that, as I explored in this story, the overall number of female writers in the TV industry is shrinking.
Also, the sad fact is, women are as capable of writing a misogynist, soul-killing TV comedy as anyone else. Exhibit A: 'I Hate My Teenage Daughter,' a shrieky nightmare that premieres 9:30PM ET on Fox.
Sherry Bilsing-Graham and Ellen Plummer Kreamer are listed as the executive producers of this show, which takes as its premise that people will enjoy seeing two women relentlessly mocked and humiliated by everyone around them. In the unlikely event that that premise strikes you as funny, what's on display here is so stale and mean-spirited that I urge you to avoid it at all costs.
Comedy characters have flaws, and there's nothing wrong with laughing at those flaws. But what makes 'Teenage Daughter' so vile is that it constantly reinforces the idea that the two mothers at the center of the show not only deserve their daughters' scorn, but the audience's as well. What is the horrible sin that Annie (Jaime Pressly) and Nikki (Katie Finneran) are guilty of, what is the crime that they must pay for again and again? They're insecure.
Yep, that's all. Annie and Nikki lack confidence. Burn the witches!
The thing is, a character's lack of self-confidence can be a useful tool in the hands of a good writer; neediness and awkwardness not only can get a character into trouble, those qualities can give us a window into what the character's hopes and fears are. We might chuckle at what they do to win acceptance, but we also might see a bit of ourselves in their stumbling quests for praise and love.
'New Girl' serves its female characters well in these arenas, as does '2 Broke Girls' on occasion. Women created or helped create both shows, but I'm happy to point out that 'Parks and Recreation' and 'Community,' to cite just two examples of comedies created by men, explore the neuroses of their male and female characters very well too. 'Whitney,' not so much, as Emily Nussbaum noted in this brilliant piece.
There's no understanding or generosity on display in 'Teenage Daughter,' which appears to hate Annie and Nikki as much as they hate themselves. For good measure, this show asks us to accept that Pressly's character was an unattractive nerd in high school and also requires viewers to put up with the most tired, predictable jokes on the small screen. Honestly, in terms of trying your patience, it's the 'Terra Nova' of TV comedies.
I'll let you in on a criticism secret (but maybe you'd already guessed this): Sometimes it's really fun to rip something apart. It can be a blast not to have to hedge or consider the ways in which a TV show might right itself or capitalize on its potential. It can be fun, and a kind of relief, to just let the vitriol flow.
But in the week since I watched the first two episodes of 'Teenage Daughter,' my anger about this disturbingly sexist mess has cooled and morphed into sadness. In 'Bridesmaids,' Kristen Wiig did a lovely and, at times, sidesplittingly funny job of exploring how low self-esteem and self-sabotage can screw up women's lives.
What made that 'Bridesmaids' resonate with so many viewers (of both genders) was that it wasn't condescending or cruel. As silly as it occasionally was, the story clearly emerged from the lived experience of a woman who has, no doubt, occasionally felt unattractive, dumb and useless but who got past those low points by relying on friends and rediscovering her own battered but unbroken sense of self-worth.
'Teenage Daughter' (which does the younger characters no favors either, by the way) is a good example of writers not going inside the experience of being an insecure female. It's an example of writers standing outside their characters in order to heap more scorn and mockery on women who display weakness.
It's hard to resist the urge to say this show's executive producers should know better. But maybe they don't, and that's just depressing.