THE BLOG
10/11/2011 06:42 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2011

FACE IT: A Retro TV Season for Women

The viewers have spoken. The Playboy Cub is the first show cancelled of the new television season. Women could have told the networks this would happen, but from the looks of the current lineup, the networks don't really care about how real women feel about their shows.

So what to make so far of the new 2011 television season? Personally, I was just getting over my PMMS (Postponed MadMen Syndrome), so let's say I was grumpy going into it. Seeing how women are being portrayed is not helping.

I wondered if it was just me, but I ran into Carla Singer, who had been one of the first women in a top television programming position years ago. (Formerly at CBS, she's now an independent producer.) She said she was having flashback nightmares every time she turned on the TV. "What is this? Playboy bunnies? Stewardesses? 'Charlie's Angels'?" she exclaimed. "I feel like I am back in those network meetings when I was the only one fighting to keep "Cagney and Lacey" on the air. Talk about a time warp!"

Things do feel strangely déjà viewed on the networks. Yes, the shows are chock full of women, but how exactly are they being employed? We have "Unforgettable" (which isn't), and then we have "Revenge" (which is), about two conniving ladies of different generations, which feels more "Dynasty" than dynamic. The latter is supposedly empowering to women because female characters call the shots, but the only thing revealing about these characters is their clothing.

That lame rationale is similar to the, "Well, they are tough and smart, too," argument trotted out in defense of the newest incarnation of "Charlie's Angels." Come on. They take orders from a couple of guys and are there to show off their great bods, period.

Then there is "Pan Am." One can at least make the argument that Baby Boomlets of both sexes (for different reasons) momentarily gazed longingly at the stewardesses on board. And that the women of the series enjoy a sense of adventure and desire to see the world. But the truth is, a great many of the real Pan Am girls were up in the air trying to nab a pilot to ground them permanently. Playboy bunnies? Well, few dreamed of a long term future in Hef's world, and the series was dead by the time I finished writing this.

The bunnies and the stewardesses clearly came out of network meetings in which a few shrewd honchos got together and said, "Let's do our own Mad Men!" The original is worth revering, but let's not forget how original it was -- and remains. Another knockoff is more direct. NBC's Prime Suspect proudly touts the appeal of Maria Bello in the Americanized version of the great British series starring Helen Mirren. But Mirren's character, unlike Bello's, never resorted to cute hats and tight jeans to fight off the sexism on the force, which makes the show seem dated in a way the original never did.

There are a couple of potentially successful new comedies built around females. "New Girl" starring the queen of quirk Zooey Deschanel, and "Two Broke Girls" starring two hot babes, strive to be of today but ring of yesterday. Why suddenly are women "girls" again? At least the second one concerns a pair who are trying to eke out a living. The first seems mainly concerned with a daffy young thing getting over being dumped by a loser guy (and needing her three new male friends to help her with overwhelming tasks like retrieving her old furniture).

And I've just about lost hope for reality TV. All of those housewives are not doing women much good. Not only are they superficial and plastic, they are forced to bring drama to their programs by backbiting each other. As Carla Singer pointed out, "We don't even get to see healthy female friendships anymore."

Carla and I agreed that "The Good Wife" is probably still the most complex and fulfilling female-led series on TV. While it's officially season number two, in some ways it feels like the first for the newly liberated Alicia who has left her formerly cheating politico husband, taken on full time legal duties, and started a hot affair.

Though they have smaller audiences, cable series probably continue to use actresses in the most contemporary and least offensive ways. USA ,TNT and Showtime have found the most interesting roles for NONgenues like Kyra Sedgwick, Angie Harmon, Holly Hunter and Laura Linney. Now, Clare Danes has joined the pack. But HBO still seems male heavy, and when there are women -- think "Entourage" this season -- they are almost egregiously exploited.

Who is to blame for all of the sexist programming? There are now many Carla Singers working within all the networks (which are still run by men), and one hopes they are in there sticking up for non-stick figured females and more conscientious show creators. Their influence matters: witness Tina Fey. If you think this retroism must be all over the globe, check out two series which recently finished first season runs. "The Killing" on AMC revolved around a complicated and fabulous female detective. "The Hour" on BBC America featured a gloriously ambitious and appealing female lead running a new TV magazine show. The former was created by a woman in Norway; the latter by a woman in England.

Back on our shores, a test case may be "Harry's Law," starring Kathy Bates in what is its first full season. One has to wonder how long the network (CBS) will stay with a lead character who many women see as a welcomed return to real reality. Advertisers likely view her as the ultimate triple threat: Female. Well past 40. Well over size four.