She’s a Genius At Work, A Hot Mess At Home

Last week, the TV networks unveiled their new shows, and they're more culturally diverse than ever. So, why can't prime-time get professional women right?

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The network upfronts, in which each of the big Four (CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX) plus the CW unveiled their 2014-2015 primetime shows to the press, wrapped last Thursday, and the excellent news is that there are more series led by actors of color—with multicultural casts—than ever before. It seems the networks finally awakened to the fact, thanks in no small part to Shonda Rhimes’s smash, Scandal, that the American viewer has grown weary of tokenism, and wants to watch stories with casts that more closely reflect their own lives. We’ll have an opportunity to see Alfre Woodard cast as the president of the United States in State of Affairs; Halle Berry star in sci-fi thriller Extant; Maggie Q in Stalker, and ensembles that include CCH Pounder (NCIS: New Orleans) and Dennis Haysbert (Backstrom, Rainn Wilson’s new show).

But networks continue to fail one group continually: women. And it’s not because leading actresses aren’t landing good vehicles. It’s that the networks apparently still feel the need to weigh down professional women in high-pressure jobs with the usual clichés, of not being able to get their personal lives straightened out, and/or striking the balance between their work and home lives.

The work-life balance trope for female characters has been in place for so long, that it can sneak right by the viewer. But take some of the shows that the networks introduced last week and put men in the leading roles, the need to show the character’s nurturing side disappears, and no one gives his home life a second thought. 

For instance, in its new Sunday night drama Madam Secretary, CBS manages to wedge in the balance issue by describing star Téa Leoni—who plays a law professor and former CIA analyst recruited by the president to step in as secretary of State— as someone “who drives international diplomacy, battles office politics and circumvents protocol as she negotiates global and domestic issues, both at the White House and at home.” They explain Leoni’s character, Elizabeth McCord, “debates Third World problems and finesses foreign dignitaries at work,” and “that’s just a warm-up for when she goes home to her supportive husband Henry (Tim Daly) and their two bright children, where ‘politics’ and ‘compromise’ take on new meaning.”

Imagine if the roles were reversed, with Tim Daly’s character playing the secretary of State and Leoni’s character still a professor. Would the show even care about how his “negotiations” at home were going? The whole series would, of course, focus on the mechanics of his unconventional diplomacy.

When was the last time you saw a hard-driving male character described as having an eye toward his home life while he advances in his career? Would we expect to read a description about Mad Men’s Don Draper as “a top creative voice at a New York ad firm in 1960” that poses the question: “How does he balance his all-consuming career with being a suburban dad?” We saw how he dealt with it: He drank and fucked around, which was basically a driving force behind the show for the last seven years.

NBC’s new Wednesday drama The Mysteries of Laura stars Debra Messing as a top-notch NYPD homicide detective. First try to get past the incredulity of this casting choice (here’s the trailer)—so you can watch as this badass cop tries to control her hellion twins and deal with an estranged husband that placates their kids instead of disciplining them.

“Between cleaning up after her boys and cleaning up the streets, she’d be the first to admit she has her ‘hot mess’ moments in this hilariously authentic look at what it really means to be a ‘working mom’ today,” reads the network’s description. So, if you’re a woman, and you’re good at your career, you must be making a huge and terrible sacrifice: You’re a crappy mom, a terrible wife, a lousy girlfriend—your home life has to be a mess. Would it have been any less “authentic” if Messing were just a great cop whose personal life barely registers with the audience, like the folks in NCIS or CSI? Did anyone ever care to see what Columbo’s home life was like?

It seems like the networks can’t seem to bring themselves to show a woman who’s good at her job as just that: a woman who’s good at her job. Their romantic, nurturing or motherly side has to be addressed in one way or another, whether it’s Olivia Pope’s affair with the president in Scandal or Katherine Heigl avenging the death of her boyfriend (who happens to be the president’s son) on the new NBC show State of Affairs—more often than not, the women on network TV are defined by their relationships to men, kids, or both.

If there were an opportunity on the 2014-15 schedule to go in a different direction, it would have been on NBC’s new Thursday comedy Bad Judge. Kate Walsh plays a municipal judge in Los Angeles who doles out creative and effective sentences and who is considered one of the best in her field. In her personal, life, she’s an unapologetic asshole: she gets drunk, sleeps with lawyers, parties her tuchus off.

As I was watching the trailer for this show, I thought I was seeing something akin to the female version of Gregory House; a genius at work who does what she wants in her personal life and doesn’t give a shit how it affects anyone else. Then, halfway through the trailer, I noticed that Walsh’s character takes in the young son of someone she put in prison, after promising the young mother she’d take care of her child. Of course, I thought. Network execs would get hives if they somehow didn’t show a gentler side of their female characters. Because we’d never buy into the fact that Walsh’s character somehow can live hard and do her job and be fulfilled that way.

Have the networks evened the playing field with their male counterparts? Let’s see: Fox is trotting out Rainn Wilson as Backstrom, essentially a CSI version of Gregory House. If the Big Four wants to truly embrace diversity, we’d be seeing more female Houses and Drapers. Still waiting … 

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