The XX Factor

Are Actresses Better Off on TV?

Did Katherine Heigl shoot herself in the foot, artistically speaking, by leaving the small screen for the big one? LA Times movie critic Mary McNamara has an intriguing essay about how female characters on television have it way better than their sisters in the movies -better plot lines, more ass-kicking, less humiliation.

One prevailing rom-com formula dictates that uptight, careerist shrews get their hearts (and their dignities) handed to them by men who are boorish and/or immature but nonetheless understand Love better than our heroines. It’s a set-up as old as Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew , as McNamara notes, even if the pummeling is less blatant these days.

Things are different on television, though:

While Heigl and other stars are stuck in narrow, nasty movie roles, women get to do just about anything on TV.

They can chase down aliens (“Fringe”), converse with angels ("Saving Grace”), race through jungles and time continuums ("Lost”), catch serial killers while wearing hats and high heels ("The Closer”) and play both sides of the legal field with the likes of William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden ("Damages).

And when it comes to romance, they don’t all get bullied into submission:

Look at Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, as neurotic and controlling as it gets, but she’s not about to change for any darn man, not even one played by Jon Hamm.

On television, the battle of the sexes may rage on, but the playing field is decidedly post-Title IX.

Part of what makes TV more hospitable to strong, layered, female characters is the nature of the narrative-long, episodic stories allow for more character development, more twists and turns. It makes for better characters period, both male and female. And because resolution isn’t always the point of a television show-resolution can kill them, in fact; witness the cautionary fable of Moonlighting -they’re not forced to wrap up romances neatly and inauthentically, the way a 90-minute, self-contained film often is.

Most of McNamara’s evidence is drawn from dramas. What I want to know is, does this rosy picture extend to sitcoms besides 30 Rock ?