It’s a trend that repeats itself. Usually strong female roles are reserved for occasional leads or a few standouts in ensemble casts, but every few years the pendulum swings, and a rush of shows come out featuring women in power positions. One of those rare cycles is about to start again.
Why is the time ripe for another round of girl power? With past winners like “Alias” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” long gone, and “Veronica Mars” recently calling it a day, there’s a big gap to fill. These new shows borrow a lot from what came before them. But will the latest batch of ladies boasting physical, mental and emotional prowess make their own mark, or will viewers feel like they’ve seen it all before?
NBC’s “Bionic Woman” borrows the name of the 1976 classic, as well as the basic premise of a mechanically enhanced Jaime Sommers. But in this version there’s no Steve Austin to pave the cyborg way. Jaime has to navigate the shock of sudden superpowers on her own. The only one who can truly understand her is yet another bionic woman, who didn’t handle the transition so well herself.
In 2007, it’s no longer a given that Jamie will fall in line with the agency that rebuilt her. Instead, she recognizes that her strength gives her a choice. Sure, she’ll still take on the burden of beating down the baddies, but she has her own life to lead as well.
Further following in the tradition of chicks who can take care of themselves and others, too, is “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (Fox). This televised chapter of the “Terminator” story differs from most of the butt-kicking babe genre, as the lead character doesn’t have any supernatural skills. Sarah relies on her fit physique, a mother’s instinct and packing heat to protect her son from killer robots and save humanity’s future.
The problem with “Chronicles” is that it’s a spinoff of something better. Viewers have seen part of this story before, on a bigger screen with bigger names and more impressive special effects. It's unclear whether "Terminator" fans will take this as a well-deserved tribute or a cheap knockoff.
Working girlsThe upcoming strong women may have a lot to juggle, but they generally don’t have to worry about their careers. It’s where they all seem to excel. There’s hardly a job description in any of the titles that isn’t tagged as “bold” or “high-powered.”
Movers and shakers abound among the ladies-who-brunch on “Lipstick Jungle” (NBC). They may make some personal sacrifices in order to maintain it all, but they don’t complain about their jobs in magazines, movies and design.
ABC’s “Women’s Murder Club,” a procedural crime drama with a feminine facelift, depicts four women assuming vital roles in solving gruesome mysteries. There’s Lt. Lindsay Boxer, a homicide inspector, Claire Washburn, the medical examiner, Jill Barnhart, an assistant district attorney and crime reporter Cindy Thomas. When they’re not getting promotions or pats on the back, their dedication inspires them to meet for secret Nancy Drew sessions to solve the cases.
And there are plenty of other dedicated law and order types around, too. “Canterbury’s Law” (Fox) features Elizabeth Canterbury, a “gutsy” (read: rude) attorney, and the USA Network’s “In Plain Sight” centers on Mary Shannon, a United States Marshal.
Where are the guys?Even when woman are leading the pack, the guys are rarely far behind. In the case of “Women’s Murder Club,” other than career skills, the defining difference between the leads is their man-status. Lindsay’s still smarting from her divorce, Jill is engaged, Claire’s the obligatory married lady, and poor Cindy doesn’t know how to bow out of an uncomfortable relationship with her boyfriend. When they’re not chatting about the specifics of the latest murder, they're whining about their entanglements with the opposite sex.
It’s the same story with another ABC offering, “Cashmere Mafia,” where the women can’t take one step forward on the career paths without taking two steps back with the men in their lives. Then it’s back to bonding over their failed relationships.
It’s the downside of the “Sex and the City” effect. There’s a natural appeal to a women’s-only ensemble cast — a chance to show the chemistry unique to female friendships. But if it becomes too much about how they do or don’t get on with the fellas, it’s little more than an unfortunate cliché.
Good or bad, what’s to become of this new wave? Just like every other season, the networks never know exactly what’s going to work, so they throw a themed lot at viewers and wait to see what sticks. Truth is most of these female powerhouses won’t stick around for a sophomore season. “Bionic Woman,” which manages the tricky balance between a nod to the past and blazing its own trail, has the best shot.
Ree Hines is a writer in Tampa, Fla.