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New fall TV shows are dominated by women

She is a fumbling mess.

An adorable, pretty nerd with a habit of giving her heart to adulterous guys, she winds up with three male roommates unprepared for her quirky charms.

She also is an in-your-face cop with a need to prove herself, a mouthy photographer with a name like a porn star, an ex-detective who forgets nothing except the man who killed her sister and a Playboy bunny who accidentally killed the biggest crime boss in Chicago.

He, on the other hand, is an unapologetic man's man stuck in a house filled with women, a divorced dad who cries after sex, and an egotistical surgeon pushed toward a better emotional life by the spirit of his dead ex-wife.

Together, these characters chart the outline for a new battle of the sexes brewing on your TV, courtesy of the new fall shows debuting on network television this week and beyond.

In one corner: 15 different new series centered on women — sometimes empowered, sometimes objectified, often both at the same time. At once, they provide a refreshing array of female images, featuring experienced TV hands (Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, Jaime Pressly), sometime film stars (Christina Ricci, Maria Bello, Zooey Deschanel) and new talent (Whitney Cummings, Amber Heard).

But six new programs head in the other direction, focused on men struggling to define their masculinity in an age when women have never had more access to money, power and visibility.

There's Tim Allen's macho, outdoorsy dad, stuck in a house with a wife and three daughters (ABC's Last Man Standing); Hank Azaria's weepy divorced dad, falling into a reluctant affair with a co-worker (NBC's Free Agents); and Kevin Dillon's dim-witted personal trainer, charged with helping a persnickety etiquette expert learn enough to write a magazine column on "real men" on CBS's How to Be a Gentleman.

Buried in the background is the idea that real men have become an endangered species in modern life — made so mostly by their open emotions, good grooming, distaste for physical labor and overbearing wives or girlfriends.

"I like the process of letting a woman take care of you, and it's either (considered) old school or misogynistic," said Last Man Standing's Allen, describing a fight he had on HLN anchor Joy Behar's cable TV show about the roles of men and women. "She took offense to it. I said, 'The women in my life like cooking for their men, and the men in my life like futzing around the house.' And when men lose this capacity to (work on) wood, we're kind of left with nothing to do, like those drone bees that get kicked out of the hive."

Allen got a little unexpected backup from Teri Polo (the Helen Hunt-ish wife in Meet the Fockers), now playing a Helen Hunt-ish wife on the new series Man Up!

In Polo's new show, she's the acerbic, long-suffering wife stuck with a too-sensitive spouse who frets over picking an appropriately masculine present for their young son, as well as his addiction to Call of Duty.

"I think certain generations got a little mixed up, a little messed up in defining who they are," she said. "And I think our generation is definitely one of those generations where men aren't quite sure. Am I supposed to mow the lawn? Is that manly?"

For most of us, it's just sweaty.

These two types of shows come at gender roles from opposing sides. On the guys' programs, women are obstacles, foils and objects of mystery; when females take center stage, guess who gets stuck playing the hardheaded, humorless person in power?

As usual, there's a hardheaded business reason behind all this gender-centered angst.

More women watch TV than men, making them a prime audience for aggressive networks. Among the top 30 network shows last season, just two or three shows outside of football broadcasts drew more male viewers than females.

ABC, built on female-skewing hits such as Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Dancing With the Stars and the departing Desperate Housewives, needs some men to shake up its audience. If the network is lucky, Allen draws the guys while the other women onscreen interest female viewers.

"Television has always been a female medium," said Body of Proof star Dana Delany, who saw producers soften her neurosurgeon-turned-medical examiner character last season to make her more appealing. ("She was really annoying in the pilot" episode, the star admitted.)

"I think women do control the clicker in the end, and they're the only ones who will watch these shows from week to week," added Delany, who played another strong female character, Vietnam War nurse Colleen McMurphy, in the '80s show China Beach. "I was spoiled with China Beach, because it was a great female character, and I thought it was always going to be like that. I feel like everyone has caught on now . . . you're actually a three-dimensional character."

What happens when the characters may not be so positive?

Standup comic Whitney Cummings, who embodies a new breed of bawdy female comedians, has two new shows debuting this fall: her self-titled Whitney on NBC and the CBS sitcom she co-created and produces, 2 Broke Girls. Cable TV star Chelsea Handler, another boozy, sexually frank comic, has a sitcom based on one of her books debuting on NBC in 2012.

There are two new series looking back with gauzy nostalgia at times long ago when women had much less power and autonomy. NBC's The Playboy Club casts Amber Heard (Zombieland) as a '60s-era bunny who accidentally kills a mob boss trying to take advantage, while ABC's 1963-set Pan Am turns stewardesses into girdled, chaperoned symbols of Jet Age glamor — escaping their limited options by serving drinks and fluffing pillows at 30,000 feet.

"I love the idea that these girls were navigating a blatantly misogynistic society," said Ricci, who plays a bohemian free spirit drawn to work as a Pan Am stewardess by the pay and travel.

"There was this misconception about what stewardesses were," she said. "We live in a thinly veiled misogynistic society, and so the idea that they had to go through girdle checks and makeup checks to see the world and run their lives and be free (seems comparable)."

Liberated women vs. emasculated men: Whichever shows survive may tell us more about how America feels on these issues than any opinion poll.

Because what we allow in our homes through the TV set may be the truest measure of our values.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. Blog: tampabay.com/blogs/media. Twitter: @Deggans.

New fall TV shows are dominated by women 09/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:23pm]

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