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TELEVISION: She Who Laughs Last …

3 minute read
Richard Zoglin

How do you recognize a tv breakthrough? Network publicists usually try hard to sound the alert — a cop show with nudity! an Asian-American sitcom! She TV too arrived on ABC last month with a high-concept selling point: TV’s first sketch-comedy show focusing on, and creatively dominated by, women. Actually, from a commercial standpoint the female angle has probably hurt more than it has helped. Critics were generally cool to a show that wore its feminist agenda on its sleeve, and a lot of potential male viewers were probably scared off as well. Ratings have been mediocre, and prospects for the show (halfway through a six-week summer run) are dicey. Which is sad, because She TV is not just a gender-bending gimmick; it really is a breakthrough.

Women have long been second-class citizens in TV sketch comedy, never more so than today. On Saturday Night Live, the female cast members are so overshadowed that most of the women’s roles seem to be played by men in drag. The only memorable character created by a woman in the past five years is Julia Sweeney’s Pat — and the joke is that no one knows Pat’s sex. The show has all but abandoned nuanced relationship comedy in favor of TV parodies and broad, running characters that are like antic vaudeville acts. Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner used to play sketches in bed together. Now we have Operaman.

She TV does media parodies too, and good ones. Nick Bakay has nailed the sensitive-macho posturing of NYPD Blue’s David Caruso, and the show has lampooned everything from Forrest Gump to a dippy model turned TV host named Bagitta. But She TV’s horizons are broader. That became clear its first week, in an inspired sketch called “What Do Women Want?” Ostensibly a parody of a game show, it turned into a sly satire of the gulf between the sexes; a lone male contestant is trapped in a world where the rules are fuzzy and he’s the only one who isn’t clued in. (Emcee’s question: “Your 10th anniversary falls on a Monday — .” Female player hitting the buzzer before he finishes: “A romantic phone call during your lunch hour!” )

Produced by former SNL writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, She TV ventures into corporate boardrooms, suburban kaffeeklatsches and neighborhood bars with the savvy eye of comics who actually have lives outside the TV studio.

A female executive is so pleased with her mnemonic techniques for remembering names (“bimbo — Fran!”) that she can’t understand why her underlings hate her. A group of tight-faced suburban matrons discuss their plastic surgery. (“Was it painful?” “No, darling, it was Silverman.”) A women’s book club meets every week to discuss the same novel, The Bridges of Madison County. The group’s leader has restyled her hair and wardrobe to look like Francesca, the farm wife who has a torrid affair in the book with a magazine photographer. The others are just as far gone. “You know, I’ve searched through over a hundred copies of National Geographic, and I cannot find a Robert Kincaid photograph for the life of me,” says one. “Why don’t they give him credit?”

The sketches are plentiful and blessedly short, making their satiric point and dashing on. The eight cast members (five women, three men) are uniformly good. She TV is smarter, fresher and more perceptive than any other TV comedy in years. Why hasn’t anyone noticed?

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