TV’s youth focus creates whirl for girls

Female stars who don't quite measure up

For years, executives have lamented a shortage of qualified young leading men for television. It’s one of the reason many talented imports from the U.K. and Australia have found homes in American series, albeit carefully hiding their native tongues.

This season, it appears that deficiency has spread to network-approved women, amid what the Wall Street Journal characterized — somewhat hyperbolically — as an explosion of “She TV.”

It’s purely subjective, of course, but one recurring flaw in this fall’s new programs involves female stars who don’t quite measure up — in some cases through no fault of their own, having simply been miscast. Part of that stems from pressure to go with younger performers, which has rendered some of these concepts silly almost on their (admittedly flawless and wrinkle-free) faces.

Perhaps the CW audience can buy Rachel Bilson as a brilliant thoracic surgeon in “Hart of Dixie,” but for those who have seen real doctors in their actual habitat, it’s a stretch. Ditto for fresh-faced Emily VanCamp as the seductress/schemer plotting against seasoned hedge-fund managers and the Hamptons elite in “Revenge.” Frankly, watching 100-pound actresses pummel oversized men (hello, “Nikita”) seems more plausible, or at least more entertaining.

Similarly, ABC’s comedy “Suburgatory” starts with a fertile premise — a big-city family moving to Stepford-esque suburbs — but instead of the likable dad, features his eye-rolling teenage daughter as the narrator/guide to their environs. While that doubtless makes sense for ABC Family, the Disney Channel or MTV (which have no shortage of offerings built around teen girls), that access point feels slightly misplaced between “The Middle” and “Modern Family.”

Casting directors no doubt found themselves tested by a related mini-trend this season — namely, programs built around young female ensembles. Assembling actresses for “Pan Am,” “The Playboy Club” and “Charlie’s Angels” clearly put a run on performers capable of filling those shoes — not to mention the uniforms.

“I can’t imagine this comes as a surprise to anyone who watches movies and television, but men have an easier time aging,” said Martha Lauzen, a San Diego State University professor who heads the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Lauzen annually monitors opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. Among her findings for the 2010-11 season is women in primetime are invariably younger than male counterparts, with men accounting for nearly 70% of characters 50 and older on the major networks.

This longstanding disparity becomes more conspicuous, though, when women are thrown into workplace settings or scenarios that, practically speaking, come with certain age expectations.

The movie “The First Wives Club” memorably described the stages of an actress’ career as “Babe, district attorney and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ ” If the pattern still holds true, several of this fall’s programs have conveniently skipped the years encompassed by college and law school, merging the first two categories.

Think “Debbie Howser, M.D.”

“It’s too bad for a whole lot of reasons,” Lauzen said. “It compromises the fundamental integrity of these characters.”

There’s little mystery why this is happening. Combine the imperative to reach younger demographics with the tendency of women to watch more episodic programming than men, and voila, every night is “girls” night.

Lauzen also cites a notable shift in comedy from the day when strong female characters like “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown” occupied center stage. Although shows featuring “girls” — as in CBS’ “2 Broke” and Fox’s “New” — are off to promising starts ratings-wise, Lauzen was taken aback seeing the eponymous star of NBC’s “Whitney” donning a sexy nurse outfit in the premiere.

The rule in sitcoms, she said, appears to be “Even if they’re funny, they have to be funny and hot.”

To be fair, there are a number of age-appropriate women headlining series, and fretting about runway models playing cops and doctors is pretty well a lost cause — sort of like complaining about all the gorgeous extras on “Entourage.”

Looks, however, aren’t the problem. It’s the near-absence of a time lapse between actresses playing characters who say “What do you mean I’m grounded?” and “Get him to the ER! We have to operate!”

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