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Female Trouble

Regarding Lifetime's Tuesday-night comedy block of Oh Baby and Maggie , let me say first of all how nice it is that someone's running original sitcoms after 10 p.m.; whichever programming "geniuses" decreed that prime time was best wound down with police or hospital dramas or what the euphemizing machines translate as "newsmagazines," they are no friends of mine. By my informal but not untrustworthy count, there have been in the whole 50 years of network television fewer than three dozen situation comedies scheduled after 10 o'clock, and I am happy to have this alternative to NYPD Blue , Dateline NBC or the second half of whatever CBS Tuesday Movie I won't have seen the first half of. (Turning off the television is not an alternative. Where do you think you are?)

Second, I'd like to tell the world that these two cable comedies, both of which concern grown-up women in normal life-changing circumstances, are as good as anything the big boys have cooked up this year - though to be sure, the network-cable dichotomy is something of an illusion, Lifetime being half-owned by the Disney Company, which also owns ABC, the Disney Channel, most of ESPN, big chunks of A&E and E!, not to mention many TV and radio stations. Still, Lifetime has established its own viable identity - Television for Women (but strong enough for a man) - and among all those empowering dramas about how to survive a homicidal maniac, it has found room to play its own variations on the classic TV short forms.

What primarily distinguishes Oh Baby (Cynthia Stevenson gets artificially inseminated) and Maggie (Ann Cusack contemplates adultery) from their network kin, other than their off-center, gynocentric subjects and older-than-springtime - yet, may I say, extremely attractive - stars, is a matter of relaxed attitude: Because they play for commercially lower stakes, they don't have to strain so hard for your approval. (There's nothing sadder than a needy television show.) Neither series will insult your adult intelligence; both fool with form. A recent episode of Maggie - not to be confused with Maggie Winters, in which the lovely and talented Faith Ford goes back to live with Mom after her marriage falls apart, which is not to be confused with Jesse, in which the talented and lovely Christina Applegate goes back to work for Dad after her marriage falls apart - was framed as a folk ballad sung by Tommy Smothers to a group of small children. And in Oh Baby, a pregnant Stevenson addresses the audience directly while the show unwinds as a kind of untrustworthy home video relating how she got in that family way.

The emotions are real, nevertheless, and anchored by uniformly fine performances. Stevenson (Hope of Hope & Gloria) is a terrific actress who does with subtle movements of her very bright eyes and small but elastic mouth what some other comedians need five yards of stage to accomplish; together with the ever-excellent Joanna Gleason, in an Eve Arden turn that uses her splendidly, they make something much more than the sum of their already substantial parts. (I do not mean that they are fat.) Maggie's Cusack (the sister of John and Joan), a gifted player who has been hiding in plain sight for years, is marvelously several-minded as a woman in a midlife crisis, not yet out of love with her husband but falling in love with her boss. Of course, as with Oh Baby, the initial premise is not indefinitely sustainable - Stevenson is going to have that kid sooner than later, and Cusack's honest confusion could after a few years start to look like mere dithering. But these are comedies of change, not (as is usual) stasis, and I do expect good, if not necessarily happy, times ahead.

If Lifetime is Television for Women, "the WB" has positioned itself, with a success that's kept industry analysts up nights rereading their pie charts, as Television for Girls - and for boys who like to look at girls, which all told covers a lot of marketable ground. To Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Party of Five and Dawson's Creek, the network has this season added Felicity, retailing the adventures of a bright and good-looking yet socially inept college freshman in the big city of New York, and Charmed, an Aaron Spelling Buffy rip that offers up Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs as Wiccan sisters who suddenly discover they're fated to spend their prime dating years battling the dark forces of otherworldly evil.

Far from the post-Dawson snogfest one might expect, given that its characters are, for a change, over the age of consent, Felicity has been mostly a model of reticence and romance - and good old-fashioned pre-romantic antipathy. Big-haired Keri Russell is Felicity, who's liked by Noel (Scott Foley) but who likes Ben (Scott Speedman), who right now doesn't like her at all but for a while liked Julie (and quite sensibly, as she's played by Amy Jo Johnson, the Pink Power Ranger), who has lately been paired with Devon Gummersall, nerdy Brian from My So-Called Life - indeed, the relationship dynamics are very MSCL. There was also some initial journalistic foofaraw comparing the show to Ally McBeal, possibly because its main character, though book-smart and beautiful, is a bit of a wiener; but the resemblance, such as it is, ends there. (She's a bit of a Lucy, actually, what with her horribly backfiring hare-brained schemes.) While the cosmic event that sets this universe in motion - our heroine's decision to follow a guy she doesn't know across the country because of something he writes in her high school annual - may skirt credibility, what follows seems reasonable enough, if one remembers that the show is an idealized amplification of a time of life when the smallest things drip with serious soul and secret meaning, and the answer to absolutely everything is always just an espresso away. Felicity catches that mood pretty well, and scores points also for reviving the old ideal of Manhattan as a Mecca of self-discovery and neoclassical education, rather than merely the hotbed of crime and sitcom edy it has largely become.

If Felicity's New York, evoked in choice location shots, seems to palpably participate in the drama, the San Francisco of Charmed just looks like Echo Park to me. A similar not-quiteness, an air of the second-hand or substituted afflicts the show overall - we've seen those youth-sucking demons and dream-invading murderers before, and just about everything else here as well. Milano, Doherty and Combs are attractive presences, but the writing lacks bite or an ordering vision more variously exploitable than that sisterhood is powerful, and - between the jobs, the dates, the family matters, the identity issue, the supernatural murder mysteries, and the attempt to track three leads through every episode - there is perhaps too much in the cauldron for the series to cast an effective spell.

No such lack of focus afflicts The Powerpuff Girls, Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup - perhaps because they are too young to date, or perhaps because they are only cartoons, created for Cartoon Network by Craig McCracken (who worked on Dexter's Laboratory for Genndy Tartakovsky, who works for McCracken here). Born of a mixture of sugar, spice, everything nice and Chemical X, they are perfect little superheroines, with great big eyes and u-shaped mouths, who go to kindergarten, sleep with the light on and fight crime in the city of Townsville (whose mayor also baby-sits). Like much contemporary TV animation, the show is both postmodern and parodic, with nods to the geometric abstractions of UPA, the thick-lined stolidity of early Hanna-Barbera, and the force-in-repose of Astro Boy. It is also, as far as I can make out from close and careful study, perfect: perfectly drawn, perfectly written and perfectly voiced, its wit so much a combination of those elements as to be beyond quotation. Pretty colors, graceful shapes, and the world saved twice every half-hour - who could ask for anything more?


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