Women, Providence, and Judging Amy

Judging Amy, a CBS drama premiering tonight at 10 p.m., imitates NBC’s Providence, which returns for another season on Friday at 8 p.m., and Providence incarnates a new kind of show second in hotness only to those aimed at teen-agers: the series meant to keep high-spending grown-up women from abandoning network television. (Now that Geraldine Laybourne has started Oxygen, a cable channel for women, the networks fear that the hitherto male world of cable could start stealing their loyal female viewers.)  

Both shows feature leggy professional babes with big, fabulous tresses (Amy Brenneman of NYPD Blue as Amy in Judging Amy, Melina Kanakaredes as Syd Hansen in Providence) who have thrown over high-powered careers (corporate law for Amy, plastic surgery for Syd) in fast-paced cities (New York, Los Angeles) for noble, self-sacrificing careers (family court judge, family doctor) in depressed Northeastern cities (Hartford, Providence), where they both move in with their families. The divorcing Amy is marginally more believable as a woman whose life has taken a scary new turn than the unflappable single Syd ever was–Amy gets flustered; she doesn’t know what to wear; her clothes don’t seem designed to show off an improbably sculpted body, as Syd’s do; she has no pat reasons for having left her husband; her mom, played by Tyne Daly, is pitch-perfect as the smart, confident older woman who quashes her daughter (she’s a more compelling character than Syd’s father, a wan veterinarian who can do no wrong); and Amy’s own daughter–well, Amy’s daughter is unbearable, a stereotypical know-it-all TV tyke. Overall, though, both shows are riffs on the same Mary Tyler Moore theme, which after 30 years has become the key slogan of TV feminism: They’re going to make it after all.

 The difference between Mary Richards and these two, of course, is that she was striking out on her own, and they, having done so, are coming home. Is this TV’s blow against feminism? If we see the shows in a Mary Tyler Moore-era feminist perspective, the answer would probably be yes. Something has definitely gone wrong with their ambitions to become successful professionals. But the twist is that Syd and Amy’s problems don’t have much to do with their being female. Their issue is, they don’t like their jobs. Syd and Amy don’t go home to become homemakers or marry high-school sweethearts. They go home because they choose occupations that mean more to them–in which, as Amy says in tonight’s episode of Judging Amy, they get to “make a difference”–but pay less. (There are secondary reasons: Syd wants to take care of her widowed father, Amy wants to get away from life with her ex-husband.) Both have long been the achievers in their families. Both have trod a well-worn meritocratic path from A’s in school to top-flight colleges to well-paying professions–without really knowing what they wanted to be once they got to wherever they were going. Amy feels she’s been on autopilot: Whenever an opportunity presented itself, she says, “I had to do it. I couldn’t fail. I don’t fail well.”

But their compulsion to suceed and their advanced degrees do them little good when it comes to getting along with regular people, a skill they must and eventually do master. (Actually, Syd gets it instinctively, another way in which she’s smugly annoying.) When they grow, as characters in television dramas must, it is by learning that their former positions in the upper-middle classes don’t give them any particular edge over the common folk they find themselves among. In short, Amy and Syd are TV populists, not TV anti-feminists. They could be Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, or politicians preparing to run for president, or even, perhaps, the fantasy projections of self-pitying network executives who wish they could chuck the lunches at the Dome and the whole rat race and just go home again. That the women are women is more a reflection of the network’s demographic needs at the moment than of anything else. Their sex is incidental to the theme–which in a perverse sort of way may make these the most feminist series on television today.