I am woman, hear me roar — and kick the crap out of bad guys.
How serious is TV’s current crush on female crime-fighters? So heavy that three cable series respectively featuring an FBI agent, CIA agent, and detective-coroner team — Syfy’s “Haven,” USA’s “Covert Affairs” and TNT’s “Rizzoli and Isles” — are premiering this month within days of each other.
Still, that hardly scratches the surface. Looking ahead to the fall finds more women cast in leading roles as U.S. marshals and spies (NBC’s “Chase” and “Undercovers,” respectively), coroners (ABC’s “Body of Proof”) and rogue assassins (CW’s “Nikita”). In almost every case, these programs offer the lure of attractive, lithe women physically neutralizing male opponents in some instances about twice their size.
Finally, there was the recent item about Lifetime ordering a trio of pilots, all in the crime genre. As Variety’s Michael Schneider put it, “Looks like Lifetime is pretty determined to get a femme-centric cop drama on the air.”
Part of this can be attributed to the traditional TV-see, TV-do development model, with everyone wanting to replicate TNT’s success with “The Closer.” But women and crime are being brought together by other factors, including the evolving business and indeed sociology of television.
For years, women have been the primary audience for network series. Men have proved more elusive, distracted by sports and movies, and generally less likely to commit on an episodic basis.
Television viewing by women is higher across virtually every demographic. For the TV season dating back to September, the aggregate rating for the major networks among women 18-49 is 25% higher than men in the same age range, based on Nielsen data, and that’s with a sizable Super Bowl boost included in the latter average.
At the same time, crime has reliably been TV’s most consistent ratings draw — and one of the few genres that readily lends itself to procedural storytelling, with crime, investigation and resolution neatly provided in a single hour. That’s no small consideration when the shelf life and repeatability of many serialized programs has rendered them all but useless after their initial telecast.
Last year, CBS Entertainment Prez Nina Tassler was blunt in defending her network’s “Crime pays” formula, saying, “I’m not concerned about how many crime dramas we have.”
Traditionally, women have been the main audience for such programs despite the fact most featured male leads. By contrast, women primarily star in more relationship-oriented fare, from “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to most of Showtime’s half-hour dramedies. Even the appeal of unscripted hits like “Dancing With the Stars” is wildly tilted toward women.
In this context, the invasion of female-fronted crime begins making more sense from a market-research perspective, as the television audience splinters and programmers grow savvier about catering to specific niches.
Crime shows about women — peppering hints of personal lives into otherwise self-contained stories — gives a female audience a taste of both programming worlds, which might be enough to attract the 3% or so of women in key demos that a series broadcast in the U.S. needs to survive.
So the CIA agent in “Covert Affairs” grapples with a Russian assassin — and also gets fixed up on a painfully awkward blind date. A title character in “Rizzoli” tackles a brutal serial killer — and worries about whether her dating skills are rusty when a handsome FBI agent shows up.
In most respects, the career-oriented women in TV ensembles — mostly doctors and lawyers — have come to represent symbols of progress and gender equality. Women, after all, are bravely serving in the military, and the media have come a long way from that 1980 Enjoli perfume commercial crooning about how a woman could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man.”
Yet the current parade of pony-tailed cops feels more cynical — a byproduct of the logic that married chocolate and peanut butter together because people tend to like both.
These shows stand or fall on their own merits. But seen as a whole, they betray a certain sense of desperation. While it might take a village to raise a child, it apparently takes a focus group to raise women’s profile on TV.