The Evolution Of Women-Led Sitcoms Will Make You Smile Just As Much As The Shows Do

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It’s 2018, and we’re officially entering the twilight zone (but not for the reasons you might already think). Two of the most influential women-led sitcoms of the ‘80s and ‘90s will be back on the air – and back in conversation — again. Murphy Brown and Roseanne were about as different as two sitcoms could be. Roseanne centered on a blue-collar, conservative family; Murphy Brown was about a liberal single WASP helming a newsroom. Despite their differences, they both significantly contributed to furthering women-led sitcoms as a genre.
In the reboots, Murphy Brown and Roseanne Conner will be in dialogue with politics that are eerily similar to the ‘80s culture wars. What has changed significantly since the shows went off the air (Roseanne in 1997, Murphy Brown in 1998) is the TV landscape. Women-led shows and sitcoms are no longer the exception — and neither are women-created sitcoms, as both Roseanne and Murphy Brown were. “It’s indisputable that some of the most exciting, innovative shows that are on the air in the last five years, certainly the last few years, have been made by women and people of color because their voices hadn’t been heard,” explained Joy Press, author of Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, to Refinery29.
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The arc of women-led sitcoms splays out from Lucy Ricardo in an apron to Abbi and Ilana high, running around New York. Now, sitcoms are able to frankly explore all the issues and facets of the women experience, from periods to disappointing relationships to ambition (and the days when ambition seems too lofty a goal). Nothing’s off limits – and we have the women who came before to thank for this liberated state of sitcom. Here are a few of the most influential sitcoms along the way.
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I Love Lucy (1951-1957)

Starring: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Typical Joke: Lucille Ball was the master of slapstick humor, and that, of course, cannot be rendered in words. But her character uttered some irreverent and memorable one-liners, like: “The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.”

I Love Lucy was a revolutionary show — and Lucille Ball was a revolutionary woman. Ball co-owned the show's production company with her husband, Desi Arnaz (he starred as Ball's husband in the show, too), and had creative control over her character. In the show, Ball plays a Lucy Ricardo, showgirl married to Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban bandleader. Her best friend is her next-door-neighbor Ethel, and theirs was one of TV's first warm, honest depictions of female friendship. Aside from introducing memorable comedy and an iconic catchphrase ("Honey, I'm hoooome!") to our cultural landscape, NPR pointed out that I Love Lucy created a template that all sitcoms continue to follow. "I Love Lucy was the sitcom that created the form that survives today: three cameras rolling before a live audience, and the cast of likable characters thrust into unlikely situations," the article reads.
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The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)

Starring: Mary Tyler Moore (duh), Valerie Harper, Ed Asner

Typical Joke:
Rhoda: [about her mother] "I think she's holding a grudge because I didn't go into the profession she wanted."
Mary: "What's that?"
Rhoda: "A housewife."

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the sitcom the women’s movement needed. It might sound absurd now, but Mary Richards was a radical character because Mary was unabashedly single, and more interested in pursuing her career at a TV station than nailing down another fiancé. Mary’s character remained consistent — in all the the show’s seven seasons, Mary never had a significantly long-term relationship. Rhoda (Valerie Harper), Mary’s best friend at the station, supported and encouraged each other. Their journey showed the joys and difficulties women encountered in the brave new working world.

On a side note: There can never be a theme song as good as the one from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “You might just make it after all,” coos the singer as the newly single Mary drives to a new city, and walks up to her new job. The song underestimates Mary on purpose. We know she’s definitely going to make it; no “might” necessary.
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Maude (1972-1978)

Starring: Bea Arthur, Bill Macy

Typical Joke:
Maude Findlay: "Walter, if you don't want my daughter and my only grandchild living here with us just tell me."
Walter Findlay: "And...?"
Maude Findlay: "And I'll rip your heart out."

Maude Findlay, played by Bea Arthur (who also was on The Golden Girls), was the first outright feminist of television. She'd been married four times, and was outspoken about her liberal values. Like many of creator Norman Lear's shows, Maude also pushed boundaries of what could be shown on TV (his transgender characters were some of the earliest and most sympathetic portrayals of the trans community). When she's 47, Maude undergoes an abortion — the first one ever seen on TV.
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The Golden Girls (1985-1992)

Starring: Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty

Typical Joke:
Blanche: "I love my body, I treat it like a temple."
Sophia: "Yeah, open day and night."

It sounds improbable, but some of the most frank discussions about sex on TV came packaged in a show about senior citizens in Florida. The Golden Girls centers on a clique of four best friends, who have moved on from the “marriage” phase of their lives. They find emotional companionship in each other, and fun with a plethora of with casual partners. The ladies get around. Blanche Devereux, the flashiest of the four, referenced 165 past relationships (a number Refinery29 found after a painstaking investigation). The Golden Girls showed that life didn’t end when youth ended; that aging had its own opportunities. The show also always incorporated progressive values.
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Murphy Brown (1988-1998)

Starring: Candice Bergen, Faith Ford

Typical Joke:
Murphy Brown: "These are difficult times for our country. In searching for the causes of our social ills, we could choose to blame the media. Or the Congress. Or an administration that's been in power for 12 years. Or, we could blame me. And while I will admit that my inability to balance a checkbook may have had something to do with the collapse of the savings and loan industry, I doubt that my status as a single mother has contributed all that much to the breakdown of Western civilization."

We’re used to seeing girl bosses on TV now (looking at you, Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope). But seeing a woman in a position of power on TV was, well, completely rare when Murphy Brown premiered. In the show — which was created by the visionary Diane English – Candice Bergen plays Murphy Brown, an investigative journalist and news anchor who took on real-life politicians, like Dan Quayle, on her show. She was notoriously tempestuous, and had a revolving door of secretaries who couldn't meet her standards. Over 90 tried, and failed, to become her secretary over the show's 10 years. Murphy Brown also allowed its titular character to choose her own fate, and she eventually become a proud single mother.

In an interview with Marketplace, Joy Press, the author of the book Stealing the Show, explained what made Murphy Brown such an incomparable presence on TV. “There were very limited ways to be a woman on television. And I think, really, women at that point were still expected to be a little bit less kind of aggressive and angry. And she was really an avenger. I mean, her job was, you know, to go after corporate bad guys and, you know, government cheaters. I mean, it feels like we could really use her right now,” she said. Lucky for us, Murphy Brown is coming back. A CBS reboot will premiere later this year.
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Roseanne (1988-1997)

Starring: Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf

Typical Joke: "I just bumped into my future and it was hideous."

In 1988, weren't characters like Murphy Brown on TV, and there also weren't characters like Roseanne, the crass, brazen, outspoken matriarch of Roseanne's Conner family. Like her husband Dan, Roseanne works a series of blue collar jobs to make ends meet, and it's usually a struggle. Roseanne also showed a radically realistic portrayal of motherhood. Juggling jobs and responsibilities, Roseanne never aimed to be a "perfect" mom. Adequate would do. As Joy Press writes in Stealing the Show, "Roseanne offered a rare public admission — in the midst of the religious rights family values crusade — that parenthood could be a rotten, soul-sapping affair, especially when you throw a low-wage job or two into the mix. Roseanne is often sarcastic and dismissive to her kids...but never actually neglects [them]."

The show explored a number of social issues that especially affect women, like access to birth control and even breast reduction surgery. With the reboot, Roseanne is once again representing the conservative slice of the country. Roseanne is a Trump supporter, as is her creator.
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Ellen (1994-1998)

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Jeremy Piven, Joely Fisher

Typical Joke:
Therapist: "There is nothing wrong with being choosy, Ellen."
Ellen: "Right. Exactly. And it's not like I'm looking for perfection, you know, I just want someone special, someone I click with."
Therapist: "And obviously you didn't click with Richard? (Ellen shakes her head) as there ever been anyone you felt you clicked with? (Ellen looks up) And what was his name?"
Ellen: "Susan."

Before Ellen Degeneres was the host of a popular talk show, she was the goofy, slacks-wearing heroine at the center of her own sitcom. Ellen was a beloved sitcom — but it became a legendary one when, on April 30, 1997, DeGeneres’ character came out as a lesbian, to an audience of 42 million. Two weeks before, DeGeneres herself had come out with a Time Magazine cover and the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay," and then spoke about her sexuality on Oprah. In another nod to how significantly DeGeneres' life mirrored her character's, Oprah played Ellen's on-screen therapist to whom she discusses her sexuality (and crush on Laura Dern's character).
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Sex and the City (1998-2004)

Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall

Typical Joke: A typical cheesy Carrie Bradshaw joke, like, "I like my money where I can see it. Hanging in my closet."

Don't bother trying to figure out how Carrie Bradshaw afforded the rent in that West Village apartment, and sustained her active social life at Manhattan's hottest clubs, on the salary of a sex and dating columnist. Don't bother, because that'll take away the escapist fun of Sex and the City, more a riff on the romantic comedy than a sitcom. The four friends in Sex and the City were "modern women:" Refusing to settle, and happy to enjoy the process of dating. Sex and the City has an enduring place in cultural conversations. In retrospect, it's obvious that even though we all wanted to be Carries, the sensible, even-keeled Miranda is the show's hero.
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Girlfriends (2000-2008)

Starring: Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks, Persia White, Jill Marie Jones

Typical Joke:
Joan Clayton: "My mother always said, 'When love runs out on you, God sends you love's equivalent... or better.'"
Toni Childs: "I thought she said, 'When you run out of love's lubricant, use butter.'"
Joan Clayton: "What?"
Toni Childs: "What? Your momma does mumble. And we both know she's a freak."

Joan Carol Clayton (Tracee Ellis Ross) has a demanding job as a lawyer, and she has a demanding — but amazing – group of friends to whom she is a stand-in mother, caretaker, shoulder to cry on, and best friend. A typical day in Joan’s life: Talking her oldest friend, Toni, into returning a $17,000 limited edition bag that she can’t afford, and then taking it from her when reason doesn’t work. Girlfriends is a light, hilarious sitcom that cared about the love and professional lives of young Black women. It’s also a showcase of Ellis Ross’ remarkable comedic timing, which is on full display in Black-ish.
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30 Rock (2006-2013)

Starring: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Jordan, Jane Krakowski

Typical Joke:
Jack: What are your plans for Valentine's Day, Lemon?
Liz: I am taking myself out of the equation entirely.I scheduled a root canal for February 14th, Jack. I will spend half the day in twilight sleep. Then I will go home and watch the Lifetime original movie, My Stepson is My Cyber-Husband.

Liz Lemon, on the one hand, is the head writer of a comedy show – the kind of job people spend their lives working toward. On the other hand, though, Liz is an uninhibited mess, with potato chip crumbs in her hair. She is ambitious, sure — but even more so, she’s relatable. Liz never apologized for her personality, or for the way she lived her life. By this point, we’d long progressed past the ethos of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which implied a woman had to be well-coiffed and presentable if she were to be a single woman working. 30 Rock says you just have to be your weird, weird self, and hope that your coworkers are either equally bananas or along for the ride.
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The Mindy Project (2012-2017)

Starring: Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Ed Weeks, Anna Camp

Typical Joke:
Mindy: "Your secret is safe with me. Largely because I don't care, and I'll probably forget."

Mindy Lahiri lives her life like it's a movie, and something really exciting is always about to happen to her. Sure, she's a little bit self-centered — but her dreaminess and romantic fixations are also incredibly relatable. Especially since Mindy wants to change and have a personality more "befitting" a successful gynecologist like herself, but she can't shake her natural tendencies. In a sitcom world saturated with single women characters, Mindy stands out for being equal parts admirable and delusional.
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Chewing Gum (2015-present)

Starring: Michaela Coel, Robert Lonsdale, Susan Wokoma

Typical Joke:
Tracy, praying to a poster of Beyoncé: "I need the strength you have to make the switch from R&B to hip-hop when they doubted you."

Tracy is a sex-crazed virgin living with her extremely religious mother and sister in an affordable housing complex in London. She wants, more than anything, to lose her virginity, her repressed fiancé and mother be damned. In many ways, Tracy is new to the world. As she ventures out and goes on adventures, she gets into some incredibly cringe-worthy situations — including, perhaps, the most acrobatically challenged makeout sesh of all time. Chewing Gum is a pioneer in cringe-humor, and more importantly, is the vehicle that launched star and creator Michaela Cole's star into the sky. She'll continue to make fascinating, offkilter comedy like Chewing Gum.
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Broad City (2014-present)

Starring: Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer

Typical Joke:
Abbi, figuring out how to fight the patriarchy with Lana: “I would take you on my shoulders, like I’d strap you up and be like, ‘Let’s go through hell.’”

Broad City tracks the adventures of two aimless 20-somethings with hazy dreams, would rather dawdle and go on adventures than choose a "serious" life path. The women are open to life, and all its potential messiness and joys. In the book Stealing the Show, Comedy Central's then VP of original programming Brooke Posch summed up the show like this: "'They are not rich, they are struggling to get by, and they put each other first. These are girls that love each other, who are best friends. That is the DNA of Broad City.'" Even if the Abbi and Lana have brief (usually laughably awkward) affairs on the show, the most important part of the show – the heart of it, so to speak — is their friendship.
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Fleabag (2016-present)

Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Olivia Coleman, Jenny Rainsford

Typical Joke:
Fleabag (deadpan): “I have a horrible feeling that I'm a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist."

Can we call Fleabag a sitcom? Sure, the episodes are under 30 minutes, and they make us laugh. But underlying every joke in Fleabag is a darkness. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s unnamed character uses humor to undercut the seriousness of dire, depressing situations, like the death of her best friend and the dissolution of her own family unit. Humor in this show is a coping mechanism. As women-led sitcoms have progressed, so too have the characters. Now, "likeability" isn't a required personality trait of a sitcom heroine. Rather, it's more important for characters to be authentic and uniquely themselves than upright, good people. Fleabag may be morally corrupt, but she's funny and compelling enough to helm a 21st century sitcom.
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