- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

Fall schedule

includes

Geena Davis

as president

ATLANTA

Heather Graham sounded like a jilted lover. She has been a big-time, big-screen babe (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”), has brought some cinematic star wattage to the small screen (a guest arc on the Emmy-nominated “Scrubs”) and even famously dallied with an Aussie boy toy (Heath Ledger). Yet there she was recently, going off all stalkerlike on the subject of a certain television show.

“I became obsessed with ‘Sex and the City,’ and I never really missed an episode,” Miss Graham said earlier this summer at a press conference about her new ABC sitcom, “Emily’s Reasons Why Not.”

“You know, as a woman, when I watch things, I feel like there’s not enough of a female perspective out there,” she said.

She’s kidding, right? Or just not quite up to speed yet. Say what you want about the new fall television season, which rolls out in earnest over the next two weeks — say, for example, that it’s more criminally overloaded than ever with procedural dramas, that it has one (OK, three) too many alien invasions going on — but don’t say it’s not flush with females.

“One of the goals we had for this year was to get some female perspective back on our air,” says ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson, who has replaced last season’s rowdy single-dad-with-five-sons sitcom “Savages” with “Supernanny” on Friday nights. He also has scheduled “Hot Properties,” a “Sex and the City” knockoff, at 9:30 p.m.

“‘Desperate Housewives’ proved there was a thirst for it,” Mr. McPherson says.

With 15 Emmy nominations (including one for outstanding comedy and three for outstanding lead actress in a comedy) for tonight’s competition and about a zillion times that many magazine covers to its credit, “Desperate Housewives” was such a critical and popular success in its first season that the question seemed not whether any copycat shows would emerge this fall, but how many.

The answer both is and isn’t surprising. Though no one has specifically cloned Wisteria Lane, all the networks definitely are moving into the female-friendly neighborhood.

Four new ensemble comedies about women are on the fall schedule (five if you count “Freddie,” in which one man lives with four female relatives), and two of the four new procedurals have a strong woman in the lead role, heretofore reserved for the stone-faced likes of William Petersen and David Caruso.

The president of the United States is a woman now — or she will be come Sept. 27, when “Commander in Chief” debuts on ABC with Oscar winner Geena Davis in the title role. Likewise the new owner of the Montecito Casino on NBC’s “Las Vegas,” where Lara Flynn Boyle becomes James Caan’s boss.

Gone, meanwhile, is the male swagger of last fall, when mouthy moguls Donald Trump, Mark Cuban and Richard Branson all whipped out their own versions of reality shows and NBC and Fox scheduled competing “unscripted” boxing series. In their place are two — yup, just two — new reality shows, both fronted by women.

“Three Wishes,” hosted by singer Amy Grant (and premiering Friday at 9 p.m.), is NBC’s attempt to mine the same good feelings and great ratings engendered by ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Though the Donald is back, his “Apprentice” seems likely to end up laboring in the shadow of “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” (debuting Wednesday at 8 p.m.), which has more buzz, a less competitive time slot and, oh, by the way, more female contestants than male.

“We tried very hard to choose contestants that would be good for a job at Martha Stewart Living,” Miss Stewart says, noting that her company is about 70 percent female. “It’s not very different from what reality is,” she adds.

Here’s another reality: Women influence the buying decisions for more than 85 percent of all purchases. So, while a show that gets lots of viewers is good, a show that gets lots of female viewers is even better.

As good as the 58 percent female viewership of No. 1-rated “CSI” is, the 63 percent attracted by the less gritty, more girly “Desperate Housewives’” is even better.

“Women watch more television than men in general,” says Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming at the media-buying firm Carat USA. “So it kind of makes sense to come up with programming that attracts the viewers most likely to be watching.”

Gauging women

Yes, but what do women really want? TV hasn’t completely figured that out yet, bless its hard-wired little heart. Watching the pilot episodes of “Hot Properties” and its UPN doppelganger, “Love, Inc.,” or the midseason show “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” and “Everything I Know About Men,” it’s easy to believe TV believes the pursuit of romance is the only thing on women’s minds.

“Our job is to put couples together, but we’re both alone,” sleek, successful businesswoman Clea (Holly Robinson Peete) laments to her dating firm’s top employee, Denise (Busy Philipps), on the “Love, Inc.” premiere. “I want someone real. Someone to sleep with, cuddle me and tell me I’m pretty.”

Other shows savvily or empathetically play on the pressures of being a modern woman, from the mixed messages society sends about body image and beauty (WB’s “Twins,” NBC’s midseason “Thick and Thin”) and the anxiety that can accompany starting a family (NBC’s “Inconceivable,” the WB’s midseason “Misconceptions”) to the complexities of “having it all.”

Indeed, what’s most fascinating about “Commander in Chief” in the early going is its portrayal of the political struggles at home, as Vice President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) assumes the presidency over the objections of her teenage daughter and with her one-time chief-of-staff husband, Rod (Kyle Secor), sidelined to a subservient, ill-defined role as first spouse.

If it’s occasionally credulity-straining — some might even say unfair to high-powered women — to see the new president fussing over her 6-year-old at mealtime, creator Rod Lurie makes no apologies.

“We’re going to deal a lot with how you get the kids to school,” says Mr. Lurie, who also wrote the script for 2000’s similarly themed, Oscar-nominated “The Contender.”

“If there’s one thing that history has taught us about the rise of women? They can become powerful, they can become presidents and prime ministers of countries, and they can become the heads of Fortune 500 companies. But they almost always remain the primary caregivers of their children, and I don’t think that that’s going to disappear even if a woman became the president.”

That same maternal tug is felt in “Close to Home,” a CBS procedural series as far removed from “CSI” in some ways as its suburban Indianapolis setting is from Las Vegas. The lead character, Annabeth Chase (Jennifer Finnigan), is a feisty young prosecutor with a perfect conviction record who has just returned from her first maternity leave. While she still talks tough to suspects and in the courtroom, Chase’s goo-gooey phone calls to check on the baby and her acknowledgment of her own conflicted priorities isn’t like anything we’re used to seeing from, say, the tough women prosecutors on “Law & Order.”

Precisely, say its creators.

“From most of these shows, you get a different perspective,” says “Close to Home” executive producer Jonathan Littman, who calls the sort of young professional working mother character played by Miss Finnigan “very underrepresented on TV.”

In real life, his professor wife “struggled with going back to work or not going back to work” when their children were young, says the other executive producer of “Close.”

“She felt like no matter what she did, she wasn’t doing a great job,” Jim Leonard says. “A lot of that came pouring back as I worked on this.”

Maybe a bit too much, judging from the expertly made, yet somewhat emotionally overdrawn pilot episode.

Female victims

That’s not what’s most annoying about “Close to Home,” which tries to have it all by depicting women both as competent professionals and as dramatically disturbing crime props. Episode 1’s story line about a woman whose husband imprisons her in their home brings it squarely in line with the almost gleeful trend toward outrageous female victimization in procedural and crime shows.

“Law & Order: SVU” began last season with an episode about illegal immigrants held captive and forced to work as prostitutes, while “NCIS” just reran an episode from earlier this year about a decomposed woman in a wedding dress found in an underground cell.

The pilot episode of “Bones,” a Fox procedural about a forensic anthropologist (Emily Deschanel), uses holograms to vividly re-enact the stabbing death of a pregnant young woman. On the debut of CBS’ new “Criminal Minds” (airing Wednesday evening at 9) a serial killer keeps his female victims locked in cages, while the premiere of Fox’s “Killer Instinct’s” (Friday at 9 p.m.) shows spiders crawling across a rape victim’s body.

It’s a “female perspective” that might not be appreciated by all members of the increasingly valuable female viewing bloc — an irony that seems lost on some network executives.

“Our attitude is: There is something for everybody, and the audience seems to be onboard,” said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July.

“We’re gearing these crimes to be almost popcornish,” Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori later said about “Killer Instinct.”

Rape and murder — popcornish?

“Well, I was referring to the spider more than the aftermath,” Mr. Liguori said.

So much for having it all.

COX NEWS SERVICE

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