Emmy nominations underscore TV's younger, hipper, more feminine sensibilities

The cast of "Girls" includes (from left) Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet. MARK SELIGER
The cast of "Girls" includes (from left) Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet. MARK SELIGER
Posted: July 22, 2012

The TV industry isn't accustomed to celebrating raunchy, edgy shows such as Girls, the HBO series crafted by 26-year-old Lena Dunham. But the five Emmy nominations it grabbed Thursday reflect how television is increasingly driven by younger, hipper — and feminine — sensibilities.

After years of disdain from the men who run the business ("I don't like any women comedians," Jerry Lewis famously pronounced in 1998), women are making inroads in comedy. And never has that dynamic been more evident than on cable networks, where women are free of the content restrictions of broadcast television and — beyond the surprise success of the smash female-skewing comedy feature Bridesmaids — of the commercial imperatives of feature films, where teenage boys still typically rule.

Indeed, Girls is at the vanguard of an industrywide charge toward narrowly focused, female-centric scripted series that now dot the entire cable dial. Another HBO freshman, Veep, with former Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the nation's harried first female vice president, also got an Emmy comedy nod, joining the established veteran NBC's 30 Rock, created by and starring Tina Fey.

"This is part of a trend in the world of women wanting to hear their own stories told by women and not by men in suits or focus groups," Dunham said from the set of Girls in New York, where she expressed surprise at getting so many nominations.

Girls itself might have had trouble cracking a prime-time lineup just a few years ago.

A frank, arty and sometimes downbeat look at the career and romantic travails of a twentysomething aspiring novelist played by Dunham, who also created the series, the show has a scant audience, averaging barely one million viewers, or a fraction of those for a middling broadcast sitcom. It takes a direct approach to sexuality that may discomfit some viewers; the second episode of the just-concluded Season 1 was titled "Vagina Panic."

"I know by network standards it's not a massive amount of viewers," Dunham said, adding that "there just wouldn't be an appropriate home for what I want to do on a broadcast network."

The show, which has come under fire in some quarters for its lack of minority characters, is part of a larger programming move away from mainstream fare.

This year for the first time ever, major broadcast network shows with wider appeal were entirely shut out of the drama series race, including CBS's legal drama The Good Wife. PBS's British period piece Downton Abbey was the sole non-cable exception. Showtime's Homeland, an espionage thriller starring Claire Danes as a deeply troubled CIA operative, was among the top nominees.

Programmers have been targeting female viewers for years. Women make up 53 percent of prime-time audiences, according to Nielsen, with men dominating only during major sporting events.

Advertisers see reaching women as crucial because they buy most of the everyday items used around the house and are typically involved in big-ticket purchases such as cars and appliances as well.

What's new is that the shows are seeking narrower slices of the female audience. In the 1980s and '90s, broadcasters highlighted the changing roles of professional and working-class women with hit comedies such as Murphy Brown, Roseanne, and Ally McBeal.

Girls and other acclaimed new shows go far beyond traditional gender breakdowns and mirror larger social shifts, analysts say. "It reflects what's happening today — there are far more women in college than men [and] they are increasingly getting advanced and professional degrees and entering the workforce," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for the New York ad firm Horizon Media.

The new shows' main inspiration may be HBO's Sex and the City, an enormously popular sitcom from the late 1990s, based on the writing of Candace Bushnell, which headlined four career women in a glamorized New York and treated handsome men as romantic appendages — a total gender reversal of the traditional sitcom.

This year's top-rated new scripted series was CBS's sitcom 2 Broke Girls, which was co-created by a former Sex and the City writer — although during its first season it drew more complaints for its raunchy jokes than plaudits for its visionary gender politics.

Media buzz heralding this season's female-skewing comedies as the "year of the woman" irked some performers and writers.

"Tina Fey said in her book something that I always think about," said Zooey Deschanel, who was nominated for lead actress in a comedy series for Fox's New Girl, another show lumped in with the trend. " ‘You don't want it to be a female thing. You want it to get to a point where it's just about comedy.' That's the truth. But you do have to go through a little bit of this whole ‘female comedies are trending,' I guess. You have to have a breakthrough like this to get to that point."

Louis-Dreyfus has now tied Lucille Ball as the most-nominated comic actress in Emmy history, with 13 total.

When a Los Angeles Times reporter asked her how she planned to celebrate, the former Seinfeld star cracked: "I'm getting my teeth cleaned, and then my hair colored at 1. It is a day of beauty and hygiene."

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