Advanced TV Herstory Podcast Scripts & More

Bewitched’s Holiday Ep “Sisters at Heart”

Click to Listen

Click to Listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

TV series that stretch out over many seasons often include holiday episodes. Sometimes producers avoid them and that might be a good thing. In this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we ‘re going to review a holiday episode you very may well have never heard of. I selected it for this year’s holiday theme for its context in American history, the story behind its development and of course, the role a woman played in ensuring this important message was well delivered.


Yes, like a technicolor time capsule, the sweetheart show of syndication Bewitched, starring Elizabeth Montgomery produced a holiday episode in 1970 that tells a story not so much of Christmas, but of the idea that in America, children don’t see division in differences.

First, a bit about Bewitched. It aired for 8 seasons, from 1964 to 1972. Think about what a changing landscape America was at that point. The end of the baby boom was in diapers when it began. It lasted clear through the Vietnam War, through the Civil Rights Movement, many U.S. missions to space and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X.

Bewitched survived Green Acres and Hogan’s Heroes, and shared a few seasons on the air with the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Bewitched had something special and with children playing an important role in the Stevens household, I think they were a factor to the shows longevity as well as its messaging.

Bewitched starred Elizabeth Montgomery and was produced by her second husband, William Asher. Montgomery was the daughter of acclaimed film actor Robert Montgomery – she was a second generation Hollywood star who was just a few years older than Liza Minnelli and Candice Bergen.

Montgomery was a veteran of stage, TV and film before Bewitched premiered in 1964. In a video posted to of the Biography series, she credits the show’s eight years as an incredible training ground that prepared her for the hundreds of TV roles she played after Bewitched.

As was the case with most sitcoms of the 60s, there are few actors of color throughout the series. Yet the series in a sense had everything to do with the acceptance of diversity and the lengths to which someone will go to subvert their own identity in order to fit in. In this case, witch Samantha tries each and every day to live as a mortal in her marriage to Darrin.

And when their children, Tabitha and Adam are both born with magical powers, the show yielded countless conversations about differences and trying to fit in. Think about it, this was quite a stage for progressive plots in the American living room, as programming suitable for a freshly bathed 6 year old.

Creating fare suitable for audiences that spanned 6 to 76 years of age, the show wasn’t known for its sophisticated story arcs. Who needed clever plots or deep meaning when you had a laugh track and Agnes Moorhead as Endora and Bernard Fox as Doctor Bombay?

In 1969, according to the wisdom of Wikipedia, a young teacher at an almost all African-American high school in Los Angeles, took action to learn more about her 9th grade students’ reading and comprehension. She had already learned through a poetry section that their reading skills were low, so she used the storytelling of their favorite TV shows to jump start their comprehension and interest in writing.

As it turns out, their favorite shows – remember this is 1969 – were Julia (about an African-American widow raising her son as a single, working mother), Room 222, a show about a racially diverse high school that co-starred two African-Americans and Bewitched.

The teacher contacted all three shows in an attempt to illustrate how she was using their shows to increase comprehension, an important fact given a bit less half of them, according to Wikipedia, read at a 3rd grade level. Only Elizabeth Montgomery and William Asher replied to her letter.

I have to note that the Wikipedia page on this is quite complete. It’s fortified by quotes from noted Elizabeth Montgomery biographer Herbie Pilato.

Montgomery and Asher paid for the class to tour the studio and were so impressed by the experience thascreen-shot-emontt they wrote a teleplay that formed the basis of Sisters at Heart.

EMont intro

The work was submitted to Montgomery and Asher without the holiday tie-in. Barbara Avedon, one of the earliest and most accomplished women TV writers in the business, was assigned to prepare the story for production.  Pilato wrote in his 2001 book Bewitched Forever, The Immortal Companion to Television’s Most Magical Supernatural Situation Comedy,

“Avedon expressed amazement over the script the students produced. She promised the students no changes would be made to the script unless they approved. It was because of her recommendation that the story was reformulated as a Christmas episode.”

Regular listeners of this podcast will likely recognize the name of Barbara Avedon – she was one of the two Barbaras to guide the

Barbara Avedon (1925-1994)

Barbara Avedon (1925-1994)

formation and scripting success of Cagney & Lacey, and she also wrote for shows Gidget, Maude, Fish and Love American Style.

So, in short, here’s the story, which I encourage you to view on It’s the only location online that I found that contains the entire episode.

Tabitha Stevens is joined for a few nights’ visit by Lisa, the daughter of another McMahon & Tate advertising executive. Lisa appears to be about Tabitha’s age and is African-American. During Lisa’s stay with the Stevens family, the girls get bullied at the playground by another girl who professes there’s no way Tabitha and Lisa could be sisters because they have different skin color.

This comes to Samantha’s attention when the girls are discussing friendship and siblings.


Now while Lisa’s parents are out of town, Darrin Stevens is charged with landing the Brockway account. We find out that Mr. Brockway of Brockway Toys is old school and generally seems to have no problem asserting the power of his company.

Brockway Skeletons

Brockway gets to the Stevens home, to be greeted at the door by Lisa. Remember, this plot was developed by a group of 9th grade African Americans – not professional writers. But the episode contains twists and turns you’ve never seen before.


Moments later Lisa rejoins Tabitha, whose nose is still a bit out of joint about the bully who proclaimed that she and Lisa could spot-girlsnever be sisters. Tabitha works some magic and applies large spots to her own skin and Lisa’s.

The clock to undo the magic and return the girls to normal starts ticking for Samantha, who has to figure out how to undo the spell before Lisa’s parents come to pick her up. There’s even more conflict when Brockway tells Larry he’s not sure Darrin is the right one for the job – not saying outright that his impression that Darrin’s marriage is mixed. Larry Tate invites Brockway to the company Christmas party which will suddenly be relocated to the Stevens residence, just so Brockway can see how all-American Samantha and Darrin are.

Spots on face, Brockway’s bias, it’s a stronger message than we’re used to for a 22 minute sitcom holiday episode.

After consulting Dr. Bombay, Samantha gets a grasp on the spot problem…


And then there’s a showdown at the Christmas party led by none other than Larry Tate. He shows himself to be a progressive manager and business owner when he comes to learn the source of Brockway’s apprehension about Darrin is his belief that Darrin is married to Dorothy Wilson, Lisa’s mother.

Larry tells Brockway McMahon and Tate doesn’t want him as a client. Darrin asks Samantha to intercede – to teach Brockway a lesson in way that doesn’t include Larry’s name calling. Samantha does so and Brockway leaves  – nearly catches the guy’s coat in the door as it slams.

Upstairs, with her house filling with party guests, Samantha spends a little more time with the girls.


So you think everything turned out for the best, right? Tabitha and Lisa have bonded as lifelong sisters, her parents are none the wiser and Larry Tate earned the Best Boss Award for standing up to Brockway. That’s not the case, as there was a little hangover from Samantha’s spell from the night before. Brockway shows up at the Stevens’ residence on Christmas Day.

Brockway last

Wow! Talk about self-awareness coming from the mouth of a middle aged white male character?

In all of his books about Elizabeth Montgomery, author Herbie Pilato quotes her as saying that this episode Sisters at Heart was her favorite one of the whole series.

Maybe this podcast segment and this one episode of Bewitched will cause you to look at the series in a while new light. What other subtle messages did Montgomery and her husband William Asher embed in the plots that were soaked up by American kids of all backgrounds?

I’m thrilled and not a bit surprised that the power couple assigned Barbara Avedon to work the script so it would be ready for production. I wonder whether the teacher who wrote to a handful of popular shows, to only be answered by the Bewitched people – is she still alive? She’d be about 70 today. What other ways did she use TV storytelling to engage her students?

If you’ve got 22 minutes, go to and watch the episode “Sisters at Heart.” Jot me a note at if you thought it was the best holiday episode you’ve ever seen. Or even, if after viewing it, you toogeo-dress think that the little girls’ clothing and this one wrap dress with geometric pattern that Samantha wears to the party is pretty much the most excellent apparel you’ve seen all day. And Elizabeth Montgomery’s hair, which is simply profound.

Take your thoughts public by leaving a review at our Libsyn hosting site or iTunes. Follow the podcast on Twitter our handle is TVHerstory.

A final note about the two women mentioned frequently in this installment. We lost Elizabeth Montgomery to colon cancer when she was just 62 years old – in 1995. Her career was illustrious and she was nominated for a number of Emmys for Bewitched and other television movie roles. In 1995 she was posthumously awarded the Women in Film: Crystal and Lucy Award.

Barbara Avedon was a television writer most well-known for her collaborative work on Cagney & Lacey.  She passed away at the age of 69, in 1994. In all, we lost two fine, talented ladies too soon. I bet they had some great stories to tell and lessons to share.





Daytime Storyteller & Showrunner Agnes Nixon

audio-slideClick to listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

TV Herstorians, today we pay homage to Daytime Drama Icon Agnes Nixon. I’m in the mood to call them Daytime Dramas, because that’s what they are. It shouldn’t matter who financed them.  We don’t call football Erectile Dysfunction Medicine Sport, do we? Should we?

Agnes Nixon, creator and overseer of all things One Life to Live and All My Children passed away earlier10000-ep this year. She lived a long life, so this segment of Advanced TV Herstory takes a look into her thinking and her style of storytelling. If you’re looking for pure biography, there’s plenty to find online.

We’ll start off with a 2 minute obituary from Hoda and Kathy Lee the day after Nixon’s death was announced. Then we’ll revisit highlights from an interview Dick Cavett conducted with Agnes Nixon that aired in November 1978 that help us understand Nixon’s professionalism and her craft. The late 70s were the heyday of daytime dramas and her talents and place in herstory was finally being understood.  Then, finally, you’ll hear an interview with Advanced TV Herstory loyal listener and respected author, Dr. Elana Levine, who is deep in her manuscript about daytime drama and the role the genre played in the evolution of TV.


For the record, I need to add that the actress who appears in the Loving clip used in this tribute also contains Patricia Kalember – who went on to a recurring role in Thirtysomething, was Georgie on the 90s series Sisters and is a recurring judge on SVU.

Broadcast TV and the rise of the living room television was an event of the early 50s. It didn’t happen at once. Television slowly but surely assumed some of the key roles that radio had played in the lives of Americans – all Americans. Radio news advanced to television news. But it didn’t happen overnight.

Radio serials enjoyed great audiences, as did the serials that ran before full length features at the movies.

TV playwright Agnes E. Nixon, speaking into recording machine probably in her office at home. (Photo by Charles Bonnay//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

TV playwright Agnes E. Nixon, speaking into recording machine probably in her office at home. (Photo by Charles Bonnay//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

We love our stories and even Dick Cavett, in this 1978 interview with Agnes, credits her with not only maintaining the art of storytelling that had been handed to her by the likes of Charles Dickens and the great radio talents, but in advancing it.

Cavett maybe thought he was coming off as supportive when he asked her what she says to people who say “I think I could come up with a soap opera.”

Nixon creation

Even after this thoughtful, serious answer, Cavett then projects his 5-minutes’ worth of thought into why his idea for an entire show would be good. She handled him and his smarmy-ness graciously by getting into the detail and craft that she honed to perfection.



Dr. Elana Levine tells more in our interview about how Nixon used her craft and her experience as an educated American woman to change the game and the expectations of daytime drama.  Nixon’s entry into TV had come from Irna Phillips, who was also an accomplished writer, showrunner and actress.  Considered The Mother of Daytime Drama for both radio and TV, Irna Phillips was born, educated and died in the Midwest.

Dr. Levine is currently immersed in research and chapter building in anticipation of her next book, Her Stories: Daytime Soap Operas and US Television History. I’m thrilled to share this excerpt from a longer conversation we had.

Agnes Nixon

In 2016, we’ve lost some big names in entertainment and powerful women of and in TV. Dr. Levine and I didn’t have the chance to connect in this way about Claire Labine, who wrote and created Ryan’s Hope and contributed to countless other daytime dramas. These two women shaped an entire generation. Agnes Nixon’s memoir is due out in March 2017 – as was mentioned by Hoda and Kathy Lee, it’s called My Life to Live: How I Became the Queen of Soaps When Men Ruled the Airwaves.

Big thank you to Dr. Elana Levine for the chance to visit about Agnes Nixon. Other clips in this installment – Dick Cavett’s 1978 interview can be found on YouTube and the Today Show’s website houses the Kathy Lee and Hoda heartfelt tribute.

Advanced TV Herstory knows that daytime dramas have played a huge role in the evolution of women in media and was the proving ground for many who have gone on to careers in front of and behind the camera. Stay tuned for more installments and certainly, if you have a favorite storyline, send an email to and we’ll see how we can share it with the world.

Speaking of the world, follow us on Twitter at TVHerstory. Subscribe and leave a review on our hosting site, Libsyn or on iTunes or Google Play. For this script and those from past installments, go to  Sound quality continues to improve due to the ear hand coordination of one David Brown, who can stand alongside Agnes Nixon as a Northwestern alum.

Thanks to YOU for listening, I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Geena Davis as Commander in Chief

Click to Listen

Click to Listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Oh America, we have a lot of reflecting to do. We’re in the vortex of A LOT of change – political, social and economic. It’s why we’re a little crabby and on edge.

This segment of Advanced TV Herstory reminds you if you look hard enough there’s a TV show or moment, which features a woman, which makes it all better. Or at least eases your transition. Or gives you strength to stand tall and manage others through change.

This segment is about superheroes, short-lived TV shows with a strong female lead and the 2005-2006 fall-adgroundbreaker, Commander in Chief. What, you don’t recall the 19 episodes that ran, with a mid-winter break, in 2005 and 2006 starring Geena Davis as the first woman president? The role of President Mackenzie Allen, you remember? Don’t you?

Herstorians, let’s revisit 2005 for a minute and learn a bit about how a man, Rod Lurie, cut through the icy waters of Hollywood to sell a network on the importance and relevance of a show about America’s first woman president.

Lurie had produced a critically acclaimed movie, The Contender, in 2000. Commander in Chief’s 18 episodes are available on Hulu, but if you want a richer look, buy the DVDs and enjoy the bonus features of Lurie as well as Geena Davis providing insight into the show. Buy the DVDs, pass them along.

So yeah, creators worked this show around the time of the George Bush re-election.

In his commentary about the show’s pilot, Lurie gives his backstory of Commander in Chief’s origin.


Lurie says time and again that in the early 2000s, his aim was not to project this show as partisan. The writers, with the help of Capitol Hill veterans who served as consultants, presented a series of plotlines aimed at the nation’s international and domestic affairs. They are conflicts, points of law, discussion of priorities. Dialogue harkens back to a time when progressive and conservative perspectives could come together with a goal of compromise.

If anything, this show is a mind grinder. In some ways it feels like the last grasp of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – the ideals and energy that compel and propel a woman or man to serve in elected office. Geena Davis and the show’s writers DO NOT DISAPPOINT. We’ll talk more about this in a minute.

But there’s also a sense, in viewing up close the personal ploys for power, the importance of loyalty and trust, the doers versus the talkers, that with a date stamp as 2005, things have only gotten worse.

I’m doing all I can to steer clear of spoilers. The 19 episodes contain continued plotlines that are very engaging. In fact, the first few episodes pulled in 17 million viewers, dropping to 10 million. It was 2005 and 2006. The economy was coursing along at a breakneck speed which we learned a few years later was a bit hollow.

George W. Bush had been re-elected in 2004 – so Americans knew that the 2008 election would bring a new president. And really, it was only 10 years ago that presidential campaigns lasted for about 18 months instead of 2 years. The landmark Supreme Court decision of Citizens United occurred many years after this show aired. So if it was made today, the power money in presidential politics changes the show entirely. That’s sad… and that’s why this show, sort of like a reset to default settings, is a good thing.

But, let’s get back to Lurie’s intent and the goodness that comes from seeing good looking characters on screen – women and men with backbones and ideals, who are prone to giving lofty, well-written speeches about the character of our people and the potential of our future.


Stay with me as I try to string together a few thoughts. In the 10 years since this series aired, Geena Davis gdigmhas built the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. It’s housed at Mount St. Mary University in Los Angeles. Her work and the work of the Institute and its grantees is to raise awareness of representation of women in TV, film and entertainment. By representation, we’re talking quantitative and qualitative presence of women in front of the camera as well as behind it.  The number of roles, large and small, speaking and non-speaking, that are written for women characters or could be gender neutral but cast as men. And, the quality of those roles – what kind of characters are depicted? Do they represent something that we want our daughters to see, learn more about and aspire to? Are they relevant to our experience as American women of all races, education and status?

This podcast’s origins lay in the sad state of representation of women in TV today – both roles we see as well as opportunities behind the camera to produce, direct, write. The Geena Davis Institute’s tag line is If She Can See It, She Can Be It. Learn more at

We’re all in this together, right? Are you? At Advanced TV Herstory we do our best to mine moments when women made TV herstory, celebrate creative genius and tell stories of diligence. You can make a difference by

  1. becoming more aware of the great gap of representation,
  2. support organizations like the Geena Davis Institute – they’re helping fund the research that shows how much or how little progress we’re making and
  3. become more vocal by sharing on Facebook and Twitter, writing reviews at websites for women-oriented series and films and commenting on reviews written by men that reveal privilege or a singular point of view. That’s how we can all be in this together.

Okay, back to Rod Lurie, Geena Davis and a woman in the White House.

So 10 years following Lurie’s Iron Man intentions to depict superhero-like goodness of President Mackenzie Allen, I feel the effort might be mistaken for PollyAnna-ishness. Audiences and critics today aren’t necessarily privy to Lurie’s intention to create a superhero. Browse through the credits, there are a few women writers. Browse through the cast list and President Allen is largely alone, professionally, in a sea of men. And alone as a political independent.

So while it was Lurie’s goal to put President Allen on the screen and not turn the dramas that surround her presidency into battles of the sexes, the 2016 viewer knows better. Is that good or bad or just necessary, given the historic nature of trying to feature a political figure America had never known or seen.

What I know about what needs to happen for a breakthrough show to gain permanent foothold comes from stories told about the 70s and 80s – the amount of work and salesmanship it took to get Cagney and Lacey on the air. Two installments of Advanced TV Herstory tell those stories, with the help of an audio book by the show’s creator Barney Rosenzweig. He lived the long, hard slog that was filled with a lot of men in powerful positions who didn’t want the show to air or succeed.

He’s candid in his storytelling, yet the show went on to an incredibly successful run and its stars, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, bagged as many Emmys as were available during the series’ run.

Second, writers and producers Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday took great pains to create characters from a woman’s point of view. Daly and Gless had the experience and confidence to bring Lacey and Cagney to life. Was it just that the 80s were a different time?

In the talent department, Geena Davis brought serious screen cred to Commander in Chief, and was thrilled for the opportunity.

Davis bonus

At 6 feet tall, she had the look and voice we envisioned our first woman president to have. America or at least American women, had enjoyed Davis’ independent spirit in Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own. For her 19 episodes on Commander in Chief, Davis earned an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

President Allen, who we might guess would have been about 45 years old, tends to wear fitted pant suits cic-snipwith a traditional button up blouse under it. Not many scarves. Few dresses. Occasionally we see Allen wearing a skirt suit with a fully buttoned jacket. This would have been in keeping with her fashion preferences that fit the president’s professional experiences leading up to the show. She had been a prosecutor, Member of Congress and university chancellor.

Davis’ hair doesn’t really change and to keep the show real, they have plotl ines that show her with little or no make up.

Why is this important? Because now that we have lived through the first woman candidate for president endorsed by a major party, we see how much strength, skill and smarts (and inordinate attention paid to hair and apparel) it took to navigate the waters.

So maybe a statuesque, young-ish president is our aspiration. Commander in Chief’s family scenes foreshadowed what we would come to experience when the Obama family moved into the White House, complete with a grandmother in tow.

But I wonder if, given how under-represented women have always been on TV, and how much work it takes to get a show with a strong female character on the air, whether Lurie’s goal of creating a superhero was just too much nuance. It sounded good on paper.

For while Lurie can recall the impressions of Superman, Spiderman and other comic book heroes that shaped his character and values, girls have only a fraction of that exposure – in women or other girls. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Powerpuff Girls. The Bionic Woman. They didn’t come to the screen from comic books, but they have used super human powers to inspire us. And they were and remain our role models.

It likely didn’t occur to Lurie that women watch TV differently than men do. We don’t have the countless hours of affirmation and adoration that comes with televised sports. We’re used to the disparity, to the vast gap in representation. Because of that, we pay attention differently. Writing matters more. Wardrobe matters more. Character development… details.

Women – in their heads – can turn a regular TV character into a superhero – Julia Sugarbaker or Alicia Florrick or Olivia Benson.

I’m going to leave it at that. I go back to how much work it took to get Cagney and Lacey launched and then I look at the big kick off of Commander in Chief.  The road of hiccups it took before never even completing its first season was likely seen as predictable by those who had been associated with quality, short-run series.

After a few episodes, Steven Bochco and team briefly, came on board to smooth out characters and create some momentum. There was a gap of many months between the fall episodes and the ones promoted in Spring 2006.  In 2005 and 2006, there was no must-see TV in my life. Our two kids were in middle school. I had a two hour round trip commute and a mother with a heart condition.

Having just viewed all 19 episodes, the seriousness of the plot lines – again – it feels like they were trying to accomplish an awful lot.

Shariah Lurie

I love that they devoted plot bandwidth to international affairs. American TV as a whole has drifted away from the notion that our business and government are  leaders of the world stage. Davis as President Allen is credible and measured – the consummate professional.

Commander in Chief overlapped with the last season of the critically acclaimed political drama The West Wing. It’s easy to understand that the bar had been set high for Commander in Chief creator Lurie and a cast led by Davis and another accomplished actor from film, Donald Sutherland.

One big difference between the two was Commander in Chief’s dedication of each episode to the president’s family. By the time the Bushes left in 2008, they were empty-nesters. President Allen has three children – two teens and a 6 year old. If you watch closely, you’ll see that it’s the family scenes that bring out the subtle conversations about feminism, gender roles, gender-biased media scrutiny and the historical experience that this family is living. These were real conversations heard at American dining room tables!

Adding colorful, straight-talking Polly Bergen to the family cast was a stroke of genius. Early in the series run, we see family needs take a toll on President Allen and her husband Rod. This is something all working families feel. Because President Allen is from Connecticut, her mother is on the east coast as well. She comes for Thanksgiving and Mackenzie, with Rod’s encouragement, asks her to stay.

It’s Bergen’s character, Mrs. Allen, who voices the awe and admiration women feel about the advancement polly-bergenof a woman to the presidency. The writers chose to depict teenage daughter Rebecca as self-centered and struggling with the significance and sacrifice that comes with being a member of the First Family. Bergen projects just the right balance of broad shoulders, street smarts and compassion to help you better understand how her daughter, superhero Mackenzie Allen could even exist.

Maybe Mackenzie should have brought her on the scene sooner to handle daughter Rebecca…


Without spoiling anything further, I will tell you that they position Rebecca as Republican leaning, though there’s little dialogue written to explain why. That might make for easy family plot conflict, but it gives short shrift to the characters of Mrs. Allen and Mackenzie. By the 21st century, family conversations about economics, justice, education and feminism would like have made Rebecca more aware of the world around her.

Rebecca shifts a bit, maybe finally coming to a maturity to understand the middle ground positions and successes her mother is leading. However, for reasons not fully probed, she’s the footdragger on sacrificing anything more, particularly when the family starts talking about whether President Allen is going to run for the office, following her succession to the seat.

Family run

Rebecca’s evolving. I wonder what she’d be doing today.

Becca oval

We’ll never know whether President Allen, as a sitting president without a party ever got elected to a four year term. But the writers delivered the appropriate dose of earnestness with competitive confidence to make you want to root for good, support the one who wants to work hard and compromise, yet who draws the line at shady dealing.


Advanced TV Herstory is indeed fascinated by critically acclaimed series that lasts only a season. We see it time and again. One need only look back on My So-Called Life – covered in an earlier podcast installment, for proof.

Clips taken for this installment come from the DVDs – the 19 episodes as well as bonus features. I recommend buying them and passing them along to girls and women of all ages. But yes, you can also find them on Hulu.

Follow THIS podcast on Twitter – our handle is  @TVHerstory. Find this script and those from past installments – perfect reading for when you’re in the doctor’s office waiting room – at

Cast your vote for this podcast in the form of a rating and review at iTunes or our hosting site Libsyn. And the mailbox is always open. Big thank you to David Brown for production services. It’s been fun hearing from listeners lately – who knew this would be the season to revisit our Anita Hill testimony, study Billie Jean King’s courage and pay homage, for just a moment, to Bea Arthur as Maude.

Because if we don’t, who will? Stay tuned for more glimpses into the stories and achievements of women in and of TV. It’s all here at Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.



Maude: TV’s Timeless Feminist Icon


Click to listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

TV Herstorians, any time we go back to the 70s it’s a deep deep dive into the foundations of what we see on TV today. There’s just so much there – the fashion, the hair, the dialogue (usually but not always written by men….wait – nothing’s changed on that front!) but the plots were changing… they might be right out of vaudeville or a variation on an I Love Lucy Lucy/Ethel shtick or they might weave in social themes that simmered top of mind. Change brought on by the Baby Boom was taking hold.

Norman Lear helped us through those final growing pains by holding a mirror up to America’s face. What we saw wasn’t pretty or free of wrinkles or wealthy or silly sophomoric humor. Norman Lear gave words and presence to voices that were emerging and those that were viewing their own obsolescence.

We’re looking at the TV series Maude – which planted a brilliant, tall flag on the landscape of American feminism. It aired from 1972 to 78 – 6seasons of a unique look at relationships, social matters of the day – life’s aspirations and fears – through the eyes of a woman approaching 50.

This segment of Advanced TV Herstory revisits the relationships, themes and incredible acting and dialogue that makes Maude a pillar of TV herstory. The Maude story starts with her creator, Norman Lear and is carried by the incomparable and talented, Beatrice Arthur.

In 1971, the landmark TV hit All in the Family debuted. Norman Lear’s creation put America’s change right in themaude-ad living room via the conversations that took place in Archie Bunker’s house. Archie, Edith, daughter Gloria and her husband Michael Stivick took turns wrestling with big topics: racism, freedom of speech, many topics of feminism, patriotism – it was generational. As was happening in real life, an episode often ended with no resolution, just an open ended question for the viewer to ponder.

Working to keep the show fresh, Lear tells my favorite website, Emmy TV Legends how he introduced a woman character in the second season who could give it to Archie as well as he dished it to others.


View All in the Family and Maude and there is an element of drama, delivery, timing and tight writing that just isn’t found today. The live studio audience gave it a sense of real theater as did the training of the cast members – Bea Arthur, Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor – they had acting chops! And just a reminder, it seemed like a majority of the dialogue in the show was yelled, even when the plot called for them to all be laid up with the flu – which was the very reason for Maude’s stay.

AIF 1, 2

Little did anyone know at the time – anything Norman Lear touched, it seemed, turned to gold! With little fanfare, decisions flew to spin off Maude and The Jeffersons. And from Maude came Good Times, which starred the incomparable Esther Rolle as Florida Evans.

Bea Arthur recounts her adjustment to the character Maude – perhaps the first female TV character, out of sheer personality, was larger than life.


That was Arthur recounting her memories playing Maude and being part of the show to Emmy TV Legends. She was nominated five times for an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series and took home the trophy in 1977. Ten years later, she’d be nominated four times for the same category for her role in The Golden Girls and winning in 1988.

Her recall, to Emmy TV Legends, of the selfless team work and effort put in by writers, producers and the cast is a sign of the humility that came with those longstanding accomplished performers who had found a quality home on television.


But just as Carroll O’Connor was nothing like Archie Bunker in real life, Bea Arthur wasn’t 100% Maude. Maude Findlay, with her four husbands would have been born in the mid-20s and most likely would have worked during World War II. In the show, Maude attended college and over the show’s run, we track her real estate career as well as her interest in government and politics.

Outspoken on progressive issues, Maude often found herself walking the line between suburban, white privilege and comfort and her political ideas. With a respectful live audience, great writers and an incredibly talented cast, this made for momentous TV.

So what was all this content about? More than politics, you should know. And the guest appearances…. Maude became one of those shows high profile enough to attract cameos of talented big stars of stage and film – among them: John Wayne, Eve Arden, Roscoe Lee Browne, Henry Fonda, Barbara Rush, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Dysart and Nanette Fabray.

These folks joined the supporting cast which developed in the first season and pretty loyally stuck through the entire show’s run. Bill Macy played Walter Findlay, Rue McClanahan (who went on to co-star with Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls) played Vivian, her neighbor and friend from college. Early in the show’s run, Vivian married Dr. Arthur Harmon, one of Walter’s old Army buddies. Maude had a housekeeper, which I don’t know whether most middle American sensibilities knew what to think of that.

This recurring supporting role provided as much skewer as plot – courtesy of Esther Rolle as Florida Evans and bea-and-estherHermione Baddely as Mrs. Naugatuck. An African American and a Brit – accomplished actresses who complimented the tone. Maude’s daughter Carol and grandson drove a few plots too.

Enjoy this riff – perfect comedic timing between guest star and TV pioneer Eve Arden, who played Maude’s Aunt Lola and the regular cast. First, the build up.

S5 E20 Lola 1

S5 E20 decisive

When this aired, Arden was approaching 70, but that didn’t stop Aunt Lola from going after her nemesis Mrs. Naugatuck’s new husband, rather than staying in and playing party games.



Eve Arden is a name that may not mean much today, but in the mid-70s, hers and the many other cameos showcased emerging talent and Broadway caliber performance.

Long before her guest role on All in the Family, Bea Arthur occasionally appeared on TV shows and a few films, mainly in the 50s. In the 60s, she was a Broadway workhorse, cast as the first Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and earning a Tony Award for her portrayal of Vera Charles in Mame – these were musicals, performed before high tech amplification could boost a voice.

Hence, Bea Arthur’s voice never needed any help and thus, in four episodes across the shows 6 season run, Maude choreographed a show for charity, managed a telethon, led a fundraising efforts that include a TV musical and Tuckahoe’s televised Bicentennial celebration. Oh and in a runaway hit show with big talent, a lead occasionally Arthur got to break into song – just because she could.

Maude’s family presented a number of social challenges: Walter’s drinking rose to a level of concern in a few episodes – this was pretty serious stuff for American TV in the day – including the moment when, after a fight, Walter slapped Maude. Daughter Carol dated men older and younger than she – including one man Maude went out with in between husbands.

Maude’s grandson Philip voiced the younger half of the Baby Boom, not afraid to challenge his mother or grandmother.

Women of all ages, however, heard Maude and Vivian broach topics previously off-limits: Vivian got a facelift, which Maude initially criticized – until she went out and got one too. Maude worried about her marriage – her fifth, about her husband’s fidelity, his drinking, their sex life, his success, her success, his depression, her sense of being unfulfilled.

Maude got a hysterectomy. Maude encountered a man who attempted to rape her 30 years prior.  She found her progressive principles and ideals challenged more than once, while sipping a drink from her Tuckahoe New York living room. She ran for the New York state senate and lost but in the series’ end, her political future wrapped up nicely – I won’t spoil it for you.

Few entire series from the 70s are worthy of a binge –  most Maude episodes can be found on YouTube but consider buying the entire series on DVD, watching it and then passing it along to the feminists in your life. It’s a time capsule of social themes and wild 70s fashion.

Channel surfing not long ago I encountered the episode Maude Bares Her Soul, which aired in November 1975 – season 4. It’s literally a one-woman show – the premise being that Maude is seeing a psychiatrist, who we never see or hear. View it for the writing, the acting, the content, the force. Maude Bares Her Soul – season 4, episode 9.

No controversy was spared in the making of this series. Norman Lear loaded the cannon and just kept firing until

Actors Jean Stapleton & Carroll O'Connor, seated, hold their Emmys after receiving them in Hollywood, Calif., Sept. 18, 1978. At rear, from left to right are Rob Reiner, who won an Emmy for supporting actor in the same series; Norman Lear, producer of the show; and executive producer Mort Lachman. (AP Photo)

Actors Jean Stapleton & Carroll O’Connor, seated, hold their Emmys after receiving them in Hollywood, Calif., Sept. 18, 1978. At rear, from left to right are Rob Reiner, who won an Emmy for supporting actor in the same series; Norman Lear, producer of the show; and executive producer Mort Lachman. (AP Photo)

America was more comfortable with the sensitive issues of the day. Due to Title IX and the ERA, the women’s movement was in full force. It wasn’t as united as it could have been and this TV show sometimes drove that point home. They may have only had 22 minutes, but those writers more often than not honed in on a complex issue and exposed it. Not necessarily with an answer, but for sure with enough fodder for both sides to hear.

That was back when America was okay with hearing the other side of an issue.

In season one, Lear and writers took chances that even through today’s lenses seem controversial – some might say impossible. Lear tells Emmy TV Legends…


In this first season, Maude is 47, part of a generation that didn’t discuss birth control, didn’t discuss menopause and had limited options for even managing their periods. The understanding even of what a late-in-life pregnancy could mean for the mother or the baby was sketchy.

Yet surely, this was a situation silently managed throughout American by women and their best friends – of all classes, colors and religions.

S1 E9

With all of America watching, Lear used this his soap box – with the statuesque 5 foot 9 Bea Arthur with booming voice standing atop it – to even educate women (daughters, moms and grandmas) about birth control options.


So in season one, this 2-part episode tackled a controversy that had only recently been “settled” – I just used air-quotes – by the Supreme Court. It featured a woman’s perspective. It’s Season 1,episode 9 entitled Maude’s Dilemma.

S1E9 No time

These weren’t sophomoric laughs, they were nervous ones. Women in the audience saw women in situations that weren’t pie in the face haha, they were tinged with irony and sarcasm, where eye-rolling was okay and women could be frank. Maude deserves a place on the highest shelf of Herstory. Watch it today and realized it has aged as it should – like a rare book you’d find in a library that can’t tell you how the world is today – but was written with such rich detail of the time as to transport you back.

It’s a solid show that can’t be unraveled – the writing and acting are tight. The message, on the other hand, blows mightily or stands still, depending upon political winds. Thankfully, we have YouTube and DVDs that enable us to keep this treasure alive.

Loyal listeners, if you’ve been with Advanced TV Herstory from the beginning, you know we’d get to Maude and Bea Arthur sooner or later. Right now the political winds are at Maude’s back and fashion’s eye to the 70s, complete with long vests and long coat pant suits, make it must-see TV all over again.

Clips from this installment were found at Emmy TV Legends interviews with Lear and Arthur, as well as series episodes found on YouTube. Do you have a Maude memory or idea for a future podcast? Shoot a note to or tweet us at @TVHerstory. If you’ve got a relative or friend who doesn’t understand that a podcast can be audio streamed – no download necessary – just show them how to pull up the show at Libsyn, press play and listen right from their iPad or desktop.

Your recommendations, reviews and plugs mean the world to me! Thank you and thanks for listening, each and every time.

I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams






Unsinkable Rosie O’Donnell

libsyn-audioclick to listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Advanced TV Herstory knows you’re curious about Rosie O’Donnell. Depending on your age, your questions range from Who is she – to what has Rosie been up to lately? Depending upon what you already know and your source of news, you might wonder what’s the connection between Rosie O’Donnell and presidential candidate Donald Trump?

This segment of Advanced TV Herstory seeks to answer all those questions about America’s EveryWoman, Rosie O’Donnell. Why this is important is that it doesn’t take a billionaire to put smart money on the fact that Rosie will be a participant in American dialogue well into the future.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

Rosie O’Donnell got her start in stand up comedy. She’s a native of Commack NY – which happens to be the town next door to my husband’s home town. Rosie is basically his age, so with that small connection, my view of her is that she’s deep down, just plain folk.

In the 80s, she was a refreshing change from other emerging and established comics. She was candid about aspects of her childhood – her mother’s death, life in the suburbs, TV – that made American women, in particular, appreciate her presence on TV.

She had a few small roles in TV sitcoms, and you might remember she was the wise-cracking 3rd baseperson of the World War 2 women’s professional baseball team from A League of their Own – Doris Murphy. Alongside Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, Rosie’s performance lives up to the movie’s tagline:

Once in a lifetime you get a chance to do something different.

1992 was a long time ago, but Rosie is still going strong.

She’s an actress, comedian, writer, blogger, speaker and entrepreneur who is known for her candor. In fact, when you hear about some of the instances when her candor rankled the establishment or the status quo, you have to think that Rosie more often than not is on the right side of herstory. Sometimes she’s just a few years ahead of the times.

Let’s look at the high profile clashes that highlight of her career. She’s no stranger to controversy – or – in another way of thinking – she gives as well as she gets. In the corporate world, she’d be known as a change agent. And if she was a man, she may not have been pegged with nearly as much negative baggage as she has.

From 1996 to 2002, Rosie’s award winning TV talk-variety show made her a household name. Whether in her opening monologue or through her selection of guests, we got to know Rosie as Every Woman. She shared her loves and losses, her crushes and moments of awe.

The show, its crew and Rosie won multiple Daytime Emmys in the talk show category during its run. Rosie’s guests were occasionally brought into controversial topics – whether they were prepared for it or not is another story. If unprepared, it was spun by the media as an ambush or dust up. Rosie had opinions about guns, war, parenting – a whole host of topics that she felt didn’t get discussed with nearly the intensity – on American TV – as it should. She had 1193 episodes to work with and many, including her, report that she was burning out and losing her grasp toward the end of the show’s run.

Those final years, punctuated with politically charged rants or aggressive interviews with guests earned her the reputation for being difficult to get along with – a label placed on many more women than men in this world.

She was straddling the demands of her show and fame with her true values that helped her get to her position – from her desire to create a loving healthy environment for her family to delivering high quality performances, like those of her idols.

In her 2007 book Celebrity Detox, Rosie writes that quote

– “six years of celebrity-hood had left me depleted and I had to find myself, find my art, find my family again. I went off the air so I could touch down on the ground.”

In 2016, is this book even relevant to media studies and our interest in celebrities? Yes. Is it relevant in book-coverunderstanding sexism in media? Yes. How many other women, whether they are in politics or not, can withstand the criticism for her opinions and perceived “dust ups” with others? Not many.

So really, do yourself a favor and read or listen to Rosie O’Donnell’s Celebrity Detox, published by the Hachette Group in 2007.

The book does a great job of reminding us just how real Rosie is, even today. She provides us context into her awe of Billie Jean King, Barbara Walters and Barbra Streisand. She reveals the encouragement she remembers from her mother, who died young, that a working class girl could make it in America.

And Rosie shares real encounters with celebrities. Very fun.


“Billie Jean is the real deal. It’s like befriending your teacher in a way – no matter how familiar she becomes to me, I will always slightly be mystified that I am near her.  Billie Jean King inspired me, to try, for sure, walking onto the court with Bobby Riggs, a loudmouth, old man tennis player who hated everything Billie Jean was. He called her names, taunted her, teased her; he challenged her to a game of tennis. ” Rosie O’Donnell, Celebrity Detox, page 31


He was her Trump. Billie Jean’s Trump, only Riggs had actual talent… Rosie goes on to recount her memory of watching the Battle of the Sexes on TV in 1973.

She has since spent countless hours in King’s presence.

By the time she had written Celebrity Detox, Rosie’s initial feud with Donald Trump was history. She recounts its beginning on page 143…

The night of December 19, Kel (Kelli Carpenter) and I were relaxing, watching TV and on came Trump in a press conference about his benevolence vis-à-vis Miss USA and her expected recovery from an alcohol problem. I have a problem – SHE WRITES – with the whole notion of Miss USA as it’s defined and enacted by men like Donald, taking twenty year old girls, parading them around onstage in bikinis while he and a bunch of other old men give them a score, and if they win, then what? The become Donald’s own doll for a year, his brand for 365 days, because he’d bought the pageant, which means to me at least, he’d bought the girls and buying people, especially young nubile ones who probably make you far more money than you pay them to do your bidding – of course I have a problem with this.

So that’s where it started and there’s no need to go into he said-she said details. This happened more than a dozen years ago. Remember by then, the luster of beauty pageants had worn off. Women saw through the rewards… the scholarships. Delta Burke had been held up to a high standard as she, who is just one of many pageant winners who has attempted to cross over into TV. The Designing Women star gained weight in the show’s second and third seasons. That’s covered in another segment of Advanced TV Herstory.

With beauty and the tiara come high expectations.

Rosie wasn’t having any of it. And once provoked, neither was Donald. In 2006 – yes a decade ago, someone uploaded to YouTube an edited down version of a no-holds-barred interview Trump gave Entertainment Tonight.

Trump Montage

If there’s any doubt that he made those statements only once and then regretted them – well there is notrump-et-insider doubt. In fact, he doubled down on the controversy – reveled in it in a little bro-chat with David Letterman on The Tonight Show.

Trump Letterman

Okay, let’s take a deep breath or a shower – whatever you might need to remove those sounds from your head.

If I were more of a cynic, I’d say the feud was a staged set up of two cons who like to hear their own voices and think that because of their fame, their opinions matter more than yours or mine. Stoke the coals of controversy to keep your name on the nightly Entertainment Tonight Show, to grab the paragraph in People Magazine

But at what cost?

I and really all of American – okay now that Miss Universe is involved – all of the world’s womanhood should give Rosie credit for, in that moment, calling out the pageant circuit for what it is. Moreover, as the economics of the pageant industry had changed, thereby allowing them to be bought out by a wealthy lewd billionaire – her voice was essential. And she had the bully pulpit to do it. So it was the right thing.

And in 2016, maybe we respect her a lot more for spending a bit of her celebrity capital on that important issue.

Because when the TV show that bears your name runs nearly 1200 episodes over 6 years, you spend a little, you earn a little.

Like this wonderful bit with Bea Arthur, who tells a story of Rosie being Rosie. The Rosie who came from with-bea-arthurthe Long Island suburb a few miles from my husband old ‘hood.

Maude theme

The book Celebrity Detox is a candid expression of the ups and downs of fame. And Rosie’s fame, at the time she quit her show, was tied more to controversy and conflict than it was her consistent delivery of a quality product. She cared a lot about many topics of importance to American life, but from a public relations perspective, I would say she was using the wrong tools to express those concerns.

She burned through her capital quickly because she was using the wrong tools and methods for her messaging.

Rosie withdrew from the spotlight, took care of her kids, found balance. She invested in a cruise line offering for gay families.

And then one of her childhood idols, a woman who defined perseverance and class in Rosie’s eyes, asked her to join The View. Barbara Walters asked Rosie O’Donnell to resume her place in the spotlight.

Full disclosure, I’ve never been a View fan. I like the women who are on there as entertainers. But it’s largely through their fame as entertainers (Barbara Walters and a handful of journalists are the exception) that they have access to be on this show.

Last I checked even with modern conveniences, I only have 24 hours in a day. I don’t need to hear from Elizabeth Hasselbeck about anything. She’s a softball player who led her Boston College team to victory, later married a football player, was a tennis shoe designer for Puma for five minutes and otherwise has simply carried talking points for a conservative agenda.

If she was my neighbor, I’d be nice to Elizabeth Hasselbeck. I’d lend her my folding chairs or picnic cooler. I wouldn’t get involved in a conversation that included news of the day, politics or religion.

So that’s why I don’t watch The View and never will. Moreover, I don’t like it when women OR men speak viewover each other and interrupt each other. This is theater. It’s disrespectful theater that only sets the example for younger viewers that conversations are more about who can get in the louder word, the last word, the more provocative word.

But Rosie was known for being provocative, for being loud and for caring enough about many, many issues to return to the spotlight.

Unlike her own show, Rosie had little control of The View’s production. That was Barbara Walter’s area. It essentially was Barbara’s show. Rosie saw opportunities for improvement, but at a table of Alpha Women, did she really expect that her ideas would be warmly received?

So initially, Rosie filled the role as a progressive feminist with strong interest in women’s issues, families, safety and peace. Her first celebrated day on The View – – She’s returned a few times now – she was cordial and measured, but strong and opinionated.


The table of Alpha Women known as The View maybe was never given a credible metric for success or ever really understood. Rosie’s addition, according to her book Celebrity Detox, helped ratings immensely.

The View’s groundbreaking format was an intentional sense that the conversation was candid and directly from the women seated in the chairs. Rosie resisted wearing the audio device in her ear by which she and the other women took direction from producers. Should we be disappointed to learn that the facts, points and statistics these entertainers-turned-policy analysts rattled off weren’t even in their brains to begin with?

Rosie didn’t want others to program or direct her part of the conversation. She had led her own show and conducted her own interviews.

So the controversy started brewing. Rosie fell out of Barbara Walters’ good graces. She was the bad girl. Was this just another fabricated measure of controversy, like the Trump & Rosie feud could have been, to keep the show in the public conversation?

Here’s how Entertainment Weekly covered it…

The View EW

In the study and teaching of leadership, you have leaders and followers. Leaders must lead, regardless of how large their egos are. Otherwise things falter. Barbara and Rosie clashed and while yes, ratings equate to money, Barbara’s command of her show and resistance to changing it may not have made her the best role model.

Alpha Women are much more effective when they have a common enemy than when they are simply placed at a table and provided topics that are beneath their talents and intellect.

A look at this stand which Rosie took with Elizabeth Hasselbeck is out there for the public record. It puts Rosie on the right side of history.


Catching a few clips on YouTube while reading Celebrity Detox is quite a walk down memory lane. Rosie’s show and even The View contained moments that make me proud of the role women have played in TV. Taboo topics land front and center. Tough points get made. Progress. And as the controversial one, Barbara’s nemesis, the one who asked pointed questions of her own guests, Rosie has been in and out of the spotlight. She’s taken a lot of heat and sometimes, the spotlight is even too bright for her.

Yet, battle-tested is a valuable adjective when the moment calls for it. In 2016, Rosie made headlines again…. Okay, small-ish headlines. It was Donald Trump who raised memories of their longstanding feud in the first presidential debate. In this moment in time, Alpha Women across the country – indeed around the world – join together in a shared cause of not only electing the first woman president but also for calling out sexism and racism that stands in the way of equality for all.

Giving as good as she gets and never backing down from a fight, Rosie O’Donnell has joined the esteemed club led by Senator Elizabeth Warren – of prominent women who tweet and taunt – releasing hot air out of a balloon that seems to refill every day – as herstory counts down to Election Day.

You’ve been listening to Advanced TV Herstory. If you like what you heard, please post a review at iTunes or our hosting site Libsyn. Look for this script and others from past segments at That’s also a place to get information if you’re interested in having me speak on leadership or women in TV to your group or conference. Follow the podcast on Twitter – our handle is AT TVHerstory.

Rosie O’Donnell has written two books, but I confess I only read the more current of the two – Celebrity Detox. Audio clips used in this segment come from montages compiled by and clips posted by other YouTube account holders.

When it comes to the untold stories of women in and of TV, there’s no shortage of content. Big thank you to David Brown, who makes this content sound better with every show. So stay tuned… and thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.



Daytime TV’s Vulture Culture


click to listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

American TV audiences come in all shapes and sizes. Daytime TV – across the many channels available – presents a host of options; reruns of westerns from the 60s; game shows, which never seem to get old. And then there are the various talk show formats and judge shows.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory looks at daytime shows from the 90s and 2000s, analyzed and cataloged by media studies experts Kathalene Razzano, Loubna Skalli and Christine Quail.

In their book, entitled Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows, look at “a culture that has its own logic, topicality, values, market and audiences.”

I had the chance to interview Skalli and Razzano at the 2016 Cultural Studies Association conference in Philadelphia this summer.

Much of their study and continued interest is on the portrayal of women in the judge shows, the rowdy-audience talk shows like Maury Povich and Jenny Jones, the self-help side of Oprah Winfrey’s show and its spinoffs… there was a lot of change in daytime TV during the 90s and 2000s!

You don’t have to be old as dirt to remember daytime talk shows that were variety shows –  interviews with up and coming musicians or comedians, a cooking demonstration. Or Dinah Shore hosting a reunion of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in what was the last televised appearance of this famous TV duo.

Daytime talk got more serious when Phil Donahue hit the airwaves in 1967. For 28 years, Donahue’s one hour format delivered viewers in-depth conversations with experts, panels and live audience shows that traveled the country. It was on Donahue’s show that acclaimed actress Patty “Anna” Duke spoke at length about her bipolar diagnosis. A podcast installment examined Duke’s career, including this important historic interview – listen to Patty Duke’s Place in TV Herstory if you get a chance.

But in the 1990s and 2000s, the need for networks to air shows that weren’t infomercials was great. Soap operas were on the wane. Game shows were out of favor. But something called The People’s Court had done well in the late 70s in syndication. Enter Judge Judy.

Phil Donohue’s format took off successfully in the form of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran from 1986 to 2011. Hour long segments. Good conversation.

The three scholars published Vulture Culture in 2005, three years before the recession started. book-coverTheir work preserves for us the big shift in daytime programming that produced “spectacles” and preyed upon vulnerability, class and the feeling of disenfranchisement to deliver whatever they person sought: answers, advice, the right diet, intervention.

This was a new level of sharing, manufactured by producers to raise the bar on provocative. On that which we consider “controversial.” As the authors write,

“Vulture culture is the process by which the media scavenge the personal narratives and popular discourses of everyday knowledge and common sense and re-present them back to us as spectacle, entertainment and information.”

More often than not… a woman was at the center of the spectacle…

By way of introduction, you should know that Dr. Kathalene Razzano is an Adjunct Professor of Global Affairs at George Mason University. She specializes in cultural studies, feminist social theory, political economy, critical legal studies, and media studies.

Loubna Skalli Hanna is an international scholar and consultant. Her research examines issues at the intersection of development, politics, gender, youth, culture and communication, with regional expertise is in the Middle East and North Africa.

Finally, Christine Quail, who contributed to the book but whose voice you won’t hear in this interview, is an assistant professor in Communication Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

One day, these three were talking about daytime TV…

Theme & form


These three author-scholars approached this social phenomena used a rigorous and methodical approach to arriving at some pretty startling conclusions about how these shows preyed on vulnerable people, particularly women.


“Why do people watch these shows?” I asked. “Is there any societal good that comes from them? What does it teach our young people – our young women and what stereotypes does it reinforce?”

Progressive taboo

Hearing them speak now about research they conducted a dozen years ago and analysis they drafted carefully – it helps us understand a lot about TV today and how the depiction of women has changed.

Focus on women

So let’s do a quick run down of the lists and categories they looked at. Our conversation wasn’t exhaustive. Professors Skalli and Razzano honed in on the notion of empowerment – how do these shows empower the women who appear on them and perhaps, indirectly, the women in the audience and viewing at home.

They spoke of daytime TV’s power to broach subjects in an informative way that definitely has led to a broader understanding of issues that were long considered taboo.

And finally, they spoke of the life lessons that get dealt on judge shows in particular. Common sense no longer handed down in the home or through lessons taught in the classroom now gets delivered as part of the public spectacle.

You remember the shows: Maury Povich, Jenny Jones, Sally Jesse Raphael, Ricki Lake, Mortonricki-lake-clip Downey and Montel Williams. They were masterful with the microphone and well known for their whipped up audiences.

MPovich teaser

Without wanting to chase down a philosophical rabbit hole, which came first, the flock of teens wanting to get pregnant before their 16th birthday or the TV show that went to great lengths to find and audition them for 15 minutes of fame?

Don’t answer that. But think about it.

Then there were other shows, mainly with women at the helm – Oprah, Ellen, Wendy Williams and so many others. They didn’t necessarily stoop to the sensational as much as the first list did – though you can hear in your head the announcer often putting out the call of “If you or someone you know…whatever… contact our show at – and then a phone number.”

There are the doctor shows – Doctor Oz, Doctor Phil and The Doctors come to mind. As shows these weren’t included in Vulture Culture, but the professors’ capably researched the role of “the expert” in each show’s format.

Then there are the judge shows, with the best known, thematically, being Divorce Court, The People’s Court and Paternity Court.

Now remember, the research the professors conducted spanned the early 90s into the early 2000s.


As Oprah’s show came to a close just a few years ago, it really was celebrated for taking on all sorts of issues, bringing authors and scholars into the everyday conversation and showing us parts of the world which have problems far more complex than ours. Rather than getting whipped up to denigrate or embarrass a person less fortunate, Oprah often left her studio and viewing audiences with the reminder of just how blessed we were.

There are volumes written on Oprah, her style and her impact. The hallmark of a great oprah-mphillipsinterviewer is the ability to create an environment of trust with the person being interviewed. Time and again, her studio audience created a space of respect and calm as persons regular and famous bared their souls or shared their stories.

Like child-actress Mackenzie Phillips, who appeared on Oprah in 2009 promoting her book and sharing her revelations around incest.


This wasn’t spectacle in the way that other daytime series (usually in syndication, not on a regular broadcast schedule like Oprah followed). We are very much in need of another Oprah, another Phil Donahue – someone with integrity, at least some journalistic skill and a capacity to probe a topic in a way that’s respectful, yet revealing.

Oh well.

In the meantime, we have court shows, which sometimes hand down common sense advice from an actual sworn judge. Professor Razzano spoke of her research across the many shows that featured paternity as a the day’s topic. By the mid-90s, technology had put the paternity test in reach of the general public, thereby creating a new way to air laundry and possibly find resolution.


So were these shows really empowering? I asked the professors…

Empowerment YN

Empowering language

Now every once in a while, channel surfing brings me to an episode of Judge Judy, a woman judge who served the people of the State of New York for a few decades. As Judge Judy, she’s stepped away from the decorum and tradition of the family court and assumed a role of the voice of common sense and the occasional lecture.

There’s value there. I have to believe that Judge Judy’s people are sharp enough to set up a docket of cases where she can lambast the defendants and plaintiffs who are appearing before her in lieu of Small Claims Court.

Her points are as valid as you’d find from anyone’s mother, uncle or therapist, alluding to trusty, trustworthiness, accountability, responsibility, dignity, self-respect, self-esteem and the Golden Rule.

Stupidity and laziness know no gender preference in Judge Judy’s courtroom. Since the book Vulture Culture was written, there have been other court shows too, some of which feature male judges. Each brings a different style and personality to the bench. Judge Judy with her New York accent is usually direct, often cites statistics and will engage the plaintiff or defendant in her own line of interro – er questioning.

Was it Judge Judy and her dramatic pronouncements and lectures who used her show to transcend the decorum of the courtroom for the bully pulpit? Most likely, since before her, you had The People’s Court. While People’s Court had a string of mostly male judges ruling from the bench, I cannot recall them being quite as aggressive as Judge Judy. She paved the way for the lecture and public humiliation that comes with forsaking your day in small claims court for a day in her court.

In doing so, did she help or hurt the average American’s view of the justice system? How hard is it for some viewers to differentiate that this is staged and a far cry from real – like professional wrestling – complete with security officers posing as real bailiffs.

One woman judge who’s assumed a similar bully pulpit from her bench is Divorce Court’s Judge Lynn Toler. There are a host of interviews with her available on YouTube in which Judge

Judge Lynn Toler

Judge Lynn Toler

Toler speaks about her role in each situation the comes before her. Often, Divorce Court couples act out in a “spectacle” or carnival-like way, before a revved up audience. Are these the real facts? Where is their self-respect?  The professors maintain that the empowerment that comes from the moment of fame, the chance to bring an issue to Divorce Court  is indeed worth the loss of privacy.

And within that spectacle, Judge Toler takes a deep breath and can deliver a monologue worthy of Julia Sugarbaker from Designing Women.


The studio and viewing audience – does this very eloquent speech delivered from an educated, well-read judge make them reflect on accountability and trust and the value of work and putting others over self?

Within the confines of a court room where the judge had leeway to express opinion and reflection, one might hope that family and interested parties of the divorcing couple would take heed. Be humbled.

This podcast segment barely does justice to the book written by my two guests. It’s a deep, revealing look at how TV was a dozen years ago. Very valid work. And in American daytime TV, the spectacle still continues. Rude, disrespectful and violent behavior is accepted in some studio shows. Experts clash with experts and resort to their polarized positions at the expense of a viewing public in sore need of compromisers, builders and nurterers.

And all too often, women’s bodies, spirits and minds are the focus of these controversies. From eating disorders to tattoos, rebelling against controlling parents or mustering the courage to confront an abuser on TV.

Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows is a must read for students interested in media and gender studies. The professors create a time capsule of an important turning point in how women, minorities, LGBT and other populations were given their 15 minutes of fame, in exchange for their stories. How that story was told and made into spectacle varied.

The shows have evolved and so have we, but the book documents with great clarity the corrosive effects, framed within the sociological and economic context of popular media’s impact. Women and their imperfections – that mindset that permeates even today – are alive and well in these Vulture Culture shows.

I’d like to thank Professors Kathalene Razzano and Loubna Skalli for their time and good work. Find their book online. It was published in 2005 by Peter Lang Publishing. Audio clips from shows and teasers can be found on YouTube.

If you’d like to know more about Vulture Culture from the professors, contact them at or

Advanced TV Herstory wants to hear from you! We’re celebrating, analyzing and documenting the good work of women in and of TV from all angles and experimenting with formats. Loyal AND first-time listeners – rate and review us at our host site Libsyn or at iTunes. Send your thoughts or segment ideas to Follow the podcast on Twitter at AT TVHerstory.

Finally, a note of thanks to audio expert and Northwestern University grad David Brown for his good work on this segment. Loyal listeners, I hope you’ll agree that this podcast has never sounded better!

Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.





Salute to TV HS Teachers

click to play

Hello Friends,

Let’s go back to school – via the powers of TV. Pretty much every kid growing up in America longed to have a teacher as cool as some of the ones we’ll talk about.

TV has always considered teaching to be a respectable woman’s profession. Though a trend you’ll notice is that the teachers we discuss are largely single women. And there was a time, 50 years ago, when a married teacher was discouraged from teaching much beyond her wedding day.

Teachers today have it just as hard, but they do sport a more varied wardrobe than their predecessors.

There’s a veritable swarm of teachers who have graced the tiny screen over the decades. It would be positively TEDIOUS to run clips and profile each. Here’s why. Just like in your own school experience, some teachers were really profound. They inspired you. You remember them. You’d actually look them up when you go back to your hometown.

Then there are teachers who were like background noise

With 50 plus years of herstory – TV shows featuring women teachers as main characters or regular supporting ones – we’ve got quite a highlight reel. We’re paying extra attention today to extraordinary performances, positive messaging and quirky style.

There’s so much to cover, that our Salute to Teachers will cover two segments. We’ll review college and high school teachers and administrators in this segment. Elementary school teachers – about a dozen – will be featured in another podcast segment.

Let’s start off with higher education. There haven’t been too many TV shows that took place in a college or technical school, let alone law school, which is where we are introduced by the very cool, smart and confident professor and defense attorney Anna Lise Keating played by Viola Davis. The show, How to Get Away with Murder.


Davis has twice been nominated for Oscars for her work in film. She’s won a host of other awards, including an Emmy for lead actress in a drama – for How to Get Away with Murder, which premiered in 2014 and begins its third season soon. Give it a try if you aren’t already a faithful fan!

Due to the fact that there really are few memorable shows that take place in a higher education setting and feature a woman character. It’s kind of amazing to realize and it certainly begs the question – why? Here’s another question – Have I missed one? It wasn’t on purpose so please let me know.

There are, however, a plethora of women high school teachers who’ve graced the small screen over the years. It’s a list worth savoring – some mighty talented actresses who appeared in dramas and comedies and yes we looked at characters who were administrators, not necessarily teachers.

We can all appreciate the drama-filled years of high school. Pack a few hundred kids into a building, toss in hormones, immaturity and all sorts of pressures and good writers and producers can create a great show. We’re reminded too that this phase of life may appear different from generation to generation – hair, clothes, speech – but the underlying life lessons and growing pains are the same.

Take high school counselor Liz McIntyre played by Denise Nicholas, who was on Room 222 during its run from 1969 to 1974. While this might seem like ancient herstory, let me underscore that this show was huge. While technically a 30 minute sitcom, it broached all sorts of coming-of-age plots experienced by the older half of the baby boom.

Those were years where most houses only had one TV and it only got 3,maybe 4 channels. Cable TV’s draw on the major networks was still a few years off. Room 222, created by James L. Brooks, brought a diverse cast to prime time and offered up frank discussions about teen marriage, drugs, cheating, money and pushing the boundaries of the establishment.

Denise Nicholas and her co-star Lloyd Haynes, both African-Americans, received top billing. Denise’s

ROOM 222, Denise Nicholas, Michael Constantine, Karen Valentine, Lloyd Haynes, 1969-1974, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

ROOM 222, Denise Nicholas, Michael Constantine, Karen Valentine, Lloyd Haynes, 1969-1974, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

character Liz was an educated woman who was well-respected by her peers and the very diverse group of students with whom she interacted. Late in the first season, she tries to gently help a female student come to her senses about why getting married while still in high school, when you don’t have to, is a bad idea. Liz pushes the limits of possibly aiding the young woman’s decision by hosting her bridal shower at her apartment.


This was must-see TV in the late 60s and early 70s, much like Friday Night Lights was from 2006 to 2011. Tami Taylor played by Connie Britton was a counselor who sometimes got embroiled in the complicated social network of football players, young women students and the parents of a very football-oriented, conservative community. Here’s how Connie Britton described the show’s foray into an abortion plot and her character’s involvement to the Archive of American Television.


Friday Night Lights is excellent family viewing if you’ve got teens. It will age well, in part because the plots involve all those familiar, universal growing pains of young adulthood.

As counselors, Liz McIntyre and Tami Taylor served as confidantes and advisors. And just as Tami Taylor helped young men AND women through the politics of football – with all the pressures that come with that, we can’t forget a certain motivator who set the standard for women coaches. In this case, we’re talking about the rough and tumble world of grooming world-class dancers… just a few steps off Broadway.


Seriously, I listen to the incredibly talented and prolific actress, producer, director AND dancer, Debbie Allen bark those words to her students at New York City High School for the Performing Arts. I feel like a total slacker.

Allen’s character, dance teacher Lydia Grant, was a carry over from the 1980 movie Fame to the TV show ofDebbie-Allen-featured-pic1 the same name, which ran from 1982-1987. For more on Debbie Allen and her incredible career, tune into an entire segment of this podcast.

Those are some very memorable characters who held key roles in ensemble shows. Apart from How to Get Away with Murder, a show that includes a teacher is likely to be a family show. Some years we have time to watch a family show, some years we don’t. And maybe we’re more drawn to the colors, plots or performers in a family show as a young viewer – pre-teen or teenage.

Now this list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few you might remember…

Also from Room 222, student-teacher-turned-permanent Alice Johnson played by Karen Valentine at the incredibly large and diverse Walt Whitman High School. These 5 years as this young perky teacher made Karen Valentine a household name and she earned an Emmy in the show’s first year. Amazingly, she hasn’t done a significant series or film since. But I’m guessing that during the early 70s, her character inspired all sorts of young people to become teachers. She was THAT perky.

Don’t believe me? Catch an episode on You Tube or buy the DVDs of Seasons One and Two.


Now about eight years later, you had to have not blinked or you’d have missed Square Pegs, a great series created by a woman that  ran just 20 episodes in 1982 and ‘83. It’s available online and on DVD. Honestly, it should come packaged as the consummate 80s time capsule. Teacher Ms. Loomis played by Catlin Adams influenced lead characters Patty Greene, played by Sarah Jessica Parker and Lauren Hutchinson played by Amy Linker. Also worth the price of admission – performances by Devo and The Waitresses.

Fast forward another 5 years and you get another show aimed at teens and pre-teens. From 1987 to 1989, Good Morning Miss Bliss was about a fictional high school in Indianapolis and starred acclaimed British actress Hayley Mills in the title role.

Disney Productions launched the show initially, though with some misguided belief that teens would find a GOOD-MORNING-MISS-BLISSmiddle-aged Hayley Mills as charming and provocative teens found her as a teen.


Umm… going to great lengths to prank any teacher, even if it IS Hayley Mills. No. Not even close. Wrong audience.  Disney handed it off, the show re-oriented around the students and became Saved By the Bell. They eventually became Miss Bliss-less.

About that same time, Canada sent us quality television for teens in the form of the Degrassi franchise. It started in 1987 as Degrassi Junior High and quickly morphed into Degrassi High. Maybe any show with junior high in the title registers just doesn’t resonate with American teens.

Once renamed, it embarked on all sorts of heavy teen topics and ultimately spawned a few more series that focus pretty realistically on teen life. In that first series, Degrassi High teacher Ms. Karen Avery was the focus of a few early plots as they reveal her to be a lesbian. Remember, this is 1987 and was breakthrough stuff. The character of Karen Avery didn’t remain with the spin offs, but Michelle Goodeve, the actress who played her, helped establish the show’s street cred.

By the mid 90s and into the 2000s, there weren’t as many women authority figures on shows centered around teens. There are all sorts of theories as to why that occurred. Moesha, starring Brandy Norwood in the title Moesharole, was one of the many quality sitcoms that appeared on independent network UPN that featured almost exclusively African-American casts. In this case, Moesha is the daughter in a middle class, stable home. The smooth and divine Sheryl Lee Ralph, a veteran of both the big screen, Broadway and TV played Moesha’s stepmother and principal at her high school.

What do these high school teachers and administrators have in common? They appear in shows where young people are part of the ongoing plots. The ensemble cast revolves around a family or a school. It makes total sense.

So my personal favorite high school teacher is one with super-human powers to not only defeat the forces of evil, but to engage with young people in a charming and effective manner. Of course I’m talking about The Bionic Woman – Jamie Sommers played by the incomparable Lindsay Wagner.

Some background about the show. It aired from 1976-78 and was a spin-off from the Six Million Dollar Man. Jamie Sommers had been a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Her hometown friend Col. Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, pleads the case for her survival to the government agency that installed his bionics after his accident.

Thus, in her own show, Jamie is a government agent going undercover in all sorts of situations as payback for her being rebuilt with bionic hearing, one bionic arm and two legs. Yes she was a retired world-class tennis player who appeared at Wimbledon (a nice tip of the hat to Billie Jean King and the strength of women’s tennis in the late70s) and yes, in her spare time she taught classes on a military base in California.

But once when Oscar Goldman, the director of the OSI and source of Jamie’s spy assignments asked her to go undercover to tutor the son of a foreign target, well…


Seemingly Jamie will never learn that when the government needs her, her protests fall on deaf ears. There’s Jamie and the Kingexcellent backstory to the amount of influence Lindsay Wagner had on the plots and approaches to keeping violence to a minimum. But we can’t get into that now.

Jamie meets with Ishmael’s father, the king of a Middle Eastern country which has recently gained great wealth from oil. Remember, this was the 70s. Jamie checks in with a little New Age Earth Mother Western pedagogy…


Before we move on to the next clip which has Jamie working one on one with Ishmael, you should know that Ishmael was played by Afterschool Special Teen Throb Lance Kerwin. There’s no editing his really bad accent and I just won’t ask the question of whether there was a teenage actor any closer to Middle Eastern descent or appearance than blonde-haired blue-eyed Kerwin. True to form, Jamie steers past bad acting and boorish men… even young men.

WINNING OVER [needs trimming]

Where would America be without its high school teachers, both women AND men. The great part about having so many high school teachers – women – featured in TV shows  – spanning nearly 50 years – is that this is indeed an occupation that helps us better understand the culture at the time. Perhaps not perfectly, but it’s all preserved, ready for interpretation – different approaches to addressing the universal drama of American teens and young people. From Liz McIntyre on Room 222 to AnnaLise Keating, it’s just plain fascinating to see how writers empower these women to use their position of respect, trust, knowledge and life to change the world.

Aaaah! It’s taken 36 installments but I was finally able to squeeze in a little Bionic Woman! Audio clips from this segment are mainly from videos posted on You Tube. The episode from the Bionic Woman, entitled Jamie and the King aired in February 1977 and was pulled from the show’s DVD set.

Please, send your thoughts, ideas or memories of teachers in TV to Do it in 140 characters on Twitter by finding us AT TVHerstory. This show and all podcasts live at the mercy of iTunes, so the nicest thing you could do would be to rate the show at iTunes & post a few kind words of review.

Stay tuned for a tour de force of those wonderful elementary school teachers. I’ve got 8 on my list… what about you?

Thanks for listening, I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.








Angela Bassett Leads ER’s Final Season (2008-9)

Click to play

Click to play


(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

An earlier installment of Advanced TV Herstory took us back to the first few seasons of the long-running medical drama, ER. Specifically, we reviewed the characters of Nurse Carol Hathaway and Doctor Susan Lewis. Appropriately, we tipped our podcast hat to actresses Julianna Margulies and Sherry Stringfield for anchoring the show with two strong, competent portrayals.

Fast forward a dozen years and viewers were still tuning in to the drama inside County General every Thursday night. Nearly all the faces of the nurses, doctors and staff had changed. In that final season, the 15th, which aired in 2008-9, modern healthcare delivery challenges were decidedly more complex than they’d been in 1994.

This segment of Advanced TV Herstory celebrates the producers’ decision to ride out the series with the incredibly talented Angela Bassett at the helm as Dr. Cate Banfield. She made the 15th season well worth watching. Bassett is an actress who runs away with a role – usually on the big screen – so the pleasure was all ours to see her artistry, each week – portraying a character as complex, tightly wired and professional – well, as we think Angela Bassett might be in real life.

We’ll probe her character’s personal life, which unfortunately comes to affect her professional performance. And we’ll review how the other lead characters complemented the aura she carried.

By this last season, we had come to know the doctor/nurse relationship betweenCast_Season_15 John Stamos’ and Linda Cardellini’s characters. Actress Parminder Nagra as Dr. Neela Rasgotra lived the career of the high achieving foreign-born, U.S. trained physician who expected a lot of herself and others.

By the 15th season, some pretty big names had worn ER scrubs, lab coats or hospital gowns. Early on it was Margulies and George Clooney. In those middle seasons William H. Macy, Kellie Martin, Gloria Reuben, Sara Gilbert, Mariska Hargitay and Sally Field carried short and long term story arcs.

The 15th season was peppered with cameo appearances and pop ups from some of the most beloved characters of the past, an approach that I think was particularly effective in celebrating the show’s longevity and tying up these final episodes.

Behind the camera, a few episodes were directed by women, namely Lesli Linka Glatter (who went on to become the force behind Homeland) and Mimi Leder. Women writers in the last season include Lisa Zwerling, Janine Sherman Barrois, Shannon Goss, and Karen Maser.

With a keen emphasis on the turnover of interns and the ER’s role as a teaching unit, a new batch of medical students and doctors in training are introduced in the first few episodes, as is the newly appointed Chief of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Cate Banfield.

Banfield’s demeanor was all-work. Dr. Archie Morris, played by Scott Grimes, served up a little levity. Unlike Dr. Kerry Weaver, Bassett’s Banfield had a more decisive, accountable presence on the floor from Day One. That could have been a factor of age and experience. It could have been that writers had consistently presented characters of color as fairly serious and driven, with high expectations of themselves. This goes all the way back to the first few seasons as we watched Dr. Peter Benton strategize about his opportunities for advancement and acceptance.

So after the first few episodes, you see Bassett as Banfield getting a chance to shine in the weekly realm of TV, versus the concentrated performances she’s brought us on the big screen. For instance, in 1994 for her portrayal of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It Bassett won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. Her work is recognized with nominations and awards from a host of organizations that promote the diversity. For her role as Dr. Cate Banfield, Bassett won an Image Award and was nominated for a BET Award as best actress.

If you’re not a stickler for watching a series in chronological order, buy ER Season 15 on DVD. The season was masterfully constructed and the series finale, which was much anticipated in the spring of 2009, is a two-hour, with a one hour retrospective. Plus you get Bassett in 21 of those episodes… at her best.

Dr. Cate Banfield,  tense, smart and her team respects her. How did she end up working in this ER?

That question gets answered in an excellent, must-see episode entitled Heal Thyself. It’s as well-written and directed as it is acted. Bits of audio barely do it justice, but there’s excellent perspective – a mother’s perspective – embedded in the storyline.

And the complexity of the storyline was where the writers shone most brightly. Lake MIShortly in to the start of the story, when Dr. Banfield, still an unknown to the viewer had an exchange with her husband, then bolted for a run along Lake Michigan.

From that point, flashbacks intersperse with her day.

And while burning up the running path along the lake, Banfield joined others in the rescue of a young girl who had just fallen in to the lake. It was a cold raw day. Banfield went into hero mode – by no, not jumping in to save her, but rather working on her in the ambulance that sped to County General.

She flashed back some number of years – the difference is made mainly in her hair and that she effusively smiled. The first is a scene that included her then-five year old son, Daryl.

Sets scene

Competent, nerves of steel. We know from the interactions of the Banfields that they are alone, no children. These flashback scenes provided the vital background for the loyal viewer to finally understand her intensity.

You be the mom

As adults, we like to think of ourselves as having learned from mistakes. Dr. Banfield relived the actions and inactions which she led… as her son’s mother and as an emergency medicine physician… on this day when confronted with this patient, a young girl so close to death.

Additional care

We learn in this episode that she had previously been a doctor at the hospital affiliated with the University of Southern California. As the mother of a patient at County General, she experienced first-hand limited, strained or non-existent resources to diagnose the cause of her son’s present state.

It feels like his parents had had Daryl Banfield’s full work-up at another hospital. This wasn’t a case of County General’s negligence. Dr. Mark Greene, played in a cameo appearance by Anthony Edwards, was the doctor assigned to the Banfield boy. Greene was battling cancer and in this scene, went head to head with Bassett as Dr. Mama Grizzley.

Digging deeper

Dr. Banfield led the young girl’s case with the whole flashback guiding her actions and words. Viewers learn that young Daryl Banfield had a stroke caused by acute leukemia, undiagnosed even though he had been sent through a battery of tests. Had she assumed that other physicians were as competent as she? Regardless of who was to blame for Daryl’s deteriorating condition that day in County General’s Trauma Room Dr. Banfield carried the lesson.


The two incidents collided in Dr. Banfield’s heart and in her head. This beautifully Greene Banfieldtold story revealed her dignity, the weight her heart held every day and why excellence is a hallmark of her professional reputation. And Dr. Mark Greene helped her see that in herself, in his gentle, mortal way.

Greene Banfield

Run down the list in your head of accomplished dramatic actresses – say ranging in age from 40 to 55 – who could have nailed this performance, this character, as well as Angela Bassett did?

Bassett pulled off complexity and calm, self-discipline and sacrifice in a role that normally would be reserved for a brooding man.

But for a mother who is also an accomplished physician to have been so blind to her son’s serious condition – who wouldn’t live with a head and heart full of second guessing? How do you regain your own confidence?

Aside from Dr. Mark Greene, who we grew to respect and love over his 182 episodes, Bassett as Banfield was the most nuanced character on the show. These flashback sequences in a single story got us inside her head. Bassett’s performances in 21 episodes – remember the series featured nearly 5,000 performers – is a reminder why every once in a while, an Oscar nominee who “stoops” to do TV will find a role that is worthy of her talent.

Here’s how Banfield revealed some of her most private details to colleague Dr. Archie Morris. Remember how earlier in this installment I described Dr. Morris as the resident cut-up. He was a bit of a smarty pants, but he also was genuine. Played by Scott Grimes, Dr. Morris often wore his feelings on his sleeve. The final gesture of this scene has Dr. Banfield pulling the girl’s stuffed animal which she’d retrieved from the scene at the lake and handing it to Morris.

Doctors lounge

This entire episode also reminds us that we don’t know everything about the people er-angela-bassettwe work with or are even close to knowing it all. In this age of Instagram and Facebook, not everyone wants to share every detail – happy or sad – in order to live for the reaction of others. And that in this lifetime, we may be fortunate to hold all sorts of titles, spouse, sibling, child, parent, grandchild or grandparent. With those titles may come sacrifice and responsibility within the family unit, above and beyond that which is currently on our plates. Our hearts tell us these challenges are part of our purpose. And when that person no longer needs us, that relationship is a changed one. In some instances, to Dr. Banfield’s point, the English language hasn’t necessarily assigned a word for that new status.

This is a subtle theme through women’s roles in TV, manifesting perhaps more frequently even in daytime dramas than on prime time. Advanced TV Herstory puts Angela Bassett’s performance at the top of the list for bringing so much of herself to this complex, wonderful character.

Ummm Angela. Umm, Ms. Bassett?  More please.

Advanced TV Herstory thanks you for sticking with us through all the tough medicine included in this segment. Audio from Season 15, episode 7 entitled Heal Thyself of ER was pulled from the DVD, which you should buy… STAT.

Stay in touch through a host of methods – like by emailing me at Follow the podcast on Twitter – handle is AT TV Herstory. Please leave feedback and ratings at the hosting sites Libsyn and iTunes. Listeners have great ideas and perspective, so it’s a joy to hear from you. Finally, find this script and past scripts at my website Find out there how I can bring TV Herstory themes to your team training or conference.

Advanced TV Herstory is nearing its first anniversary. It’s been a terrific ride, so thanks for listening and all your encouragement! I’m your writer, researcher, producer and host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Murphy Brown Gives Birth (May 1992)

Click to listen

Click to listen

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Advanced TV Herstory takes TV’s portrayal of motherhood very seriously. There’s a long and wonderful list of memorable TV moms… from sitcoms to dramas and more than a few fun and smart ones found in daytime TV.

This Mother’s Day salute gives the high sign to Murphy Brown, as played by Candice Bergen and as created by the incredibly talented Diane English.

There’s a lot to celebrate in this respected series. During its run from the late 80s to the late-90s, it broke ground for women characters, writers and directors, took pot shots at politicians and attracted big name talent for cameo fun.

In this segment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’re going to look in depth at the episode in which Murphy gives birth to her son Avery and the fanfare that led up to it. In many ways, this delivery segment was every bit as herstory-making as Lucy heading off to the hospital to deliver little Ricky.

We here at Advanced TV Herstory raise our glasses of TAB and seltzer to mothers everywhere. We’ll share just enough audio of the Murphy Brown episode to remind you all of the funnier moments of delivery and how it was that we knew her co-workers would become Avery’s extended family.

Here goes…

In its fourth season, Murphy Brown was still in the hands of its creator, producer and writer, Diane English. English has a rich resume of bringing women characters to sitcoms… you may remember My Sister Sam, Love and War and Foley Square. They weren’t as memorable as Murphy Brown, but gave her the experience and confidence to put American audiences back into the fictional TV newsroom. But Murphy Brown was no Mary Richards.

It’s important to know up front just how difficult – if not impossible – it is to view the entire series, which ran from 1988 to 1998. Only Season One has been released on DVD. It’s reported that low sales of Season One, combined with the expense of clearing copyrights to all the music that was used in every season, makes it a poor candidate for boxed set release any time soon.

Episodes of Murphy Brown can be found on a smattering of cable channels. Good luck in your hunt.

Murphy Brown’s first three seasons were strong but not at the top of the pile.

In Season Four, Murphy learns she is pregnant by old flame, left wing activist Jake

Lowenstein. Lowenstein responds to the news by saying that he’s not the marrying kind and settling down wouldn’t fit with his work and lifestyle.

Further into season 4, which by the way put the show at the #3 rank for the entire season, Murphy decides she will have her baby and raise it alone. The news of the pregnancy and that decision bring her closer to her own mother, Avery Brown. Murphy’s mother was played by the incredibly talented and accomplished Colleen dewhurstDewhurst. Dewhurst’s career spans the stage, film and TV and her work recognized with two Tonys and four Emmys. She was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. These two actresses were well paired. Their character likenesses extended beyond being stubborn, strong-willed and gifted with the turn of the word. Dewhurst and Bergen both had great hair.

But, before the premiere of the fourth season and with two Emmys in hand for her role as world-traveler Avery Brown, Dewhurst died from cervical cancer. A pregnant Murphy mourned the death of her mother and faced the daunting challenge of beingBergen Dewhurst a single mother without the help of her own.

Viewers of Murphy Brown remember that even though it was a comedy, it never shied away from heavy topics and certainly wandered into controversy and political editorialization.

Murphy’s decision to become a single mother (a working single mother earning a very good salary, living in a nice home in Washington, D.C) raised the hackles of conservative pundits and talk radio. There goes the country!

Then Vice Presidential Candidate Dan Quayle attempted to make political hay.


The Quayle reference crossed the wonderful line that is now permanently smudged. Back in the early 90s, TV shows and TV news held distinct turf. Politicians didn’t weigh in on the fictional comings and goings of TV characters. Dan Quayle attempted to use pop culture to make a point only he picked the wrong show and the wrong decade. And he also picked the wrong actress on whom to pin the fictional decision.

Once Quayle’s remark in the televised debate had been uttered, it was fair game for Time Magthe politically oriented comedy series. The season opener of the fifth season revolved around Quayle’s statement and the whirl it created for Murphy.

Quayle’s attempt to place Murphy at odds with family values was a stretch at best. Again, here is an educated career woman who very well could have chosen to have an abortion. Given her age, career demands or concern for her own image as a single mother, termination would have been a much less “family values” decision than carrying her baby to term and keeping him.

Murphy did. And eventually Quayle got the message and developed a more realistic perspective about the complexity of Murphy’s decision. Moreover, Bergen herself said in a 2002 interview that she fully agrees with Quayle that fathers are vitally important to a child’s growth, well being and success.

In the long tenure of the series, Avery Brown the child is not a central figure. But his conception and birth really did rival TV’s first – Lucy’s pregnancy with Ricky – for the top spot in TV herstory, pregnancy edition.

Viewers were treated to the best Diane English had to offer in episode 26 of the fourth season, entitled Birth 101. It began with a very pregnant Murphy celebrating the fact that she had made it through the fictional show FYI’s season before giving birth.

Set stage

Seconds into her final on-camera interview, her water broke.


As we have come to expect from the FYI gang, each contributed to the dvdwell-intentioned turmoil that unfolded as Murphy was admitted to the maternity ward and began having contractions. Frank, played by Joe Regalbuto, brought all the wrong items from Murphy’s house. Jim Dial, played by Charles Kimbrough, was his usual stiff self, happy to drive her to the hospital but all the rest was just too much personal information for him.

Corky Sherwood and Miles Silverberg garnered a few laughs. Bits were interspersed with a video narrative that produced by the team for the baby to see in the future, which was a wonderful way to keep the bits short and for her colleagues to offer perspective on Murphy’s character.


Candice Bergen’s delivery of labor surely hit home for every mother whoever watched. It was relatable in detailed ways revealing it was clearly written by women – namely English and writer producer Korby Siamis.

Even with the news of Murphy’s mother’s passing, viewers were confident that Murphy could successfully welcome a baby into her busy life. Eldin, who had originally been hired as a house painter had now become key to the day to day living at the Brown house. It was only natural that Eldin should be Murphy’s labor coach. Eldin wasn’t the father, but he was clearly someone Murphy trusted with her most personal details and thoughts.

And through all their adventures, Eldin had a way of bringing out the best in Murphy.

Eldin as coach

This Mother’s Day tribute to Murphy Brown will not wander into the rich field of character analysis that she and Eldin offer. It’s a fascinating relationship and it made the show work.

After the break from commercial, viewers are back in Murphy’s hospital room. Bergen’s hair looks great. Eldin is in a recliner, eating leftover ribs.

Eldin’s hero

Regardless of your age or status as a parent, this was a touching episode.  Bergen murphy-baby averydelivered one of her many performances that earned her five Emmy statues.

The FYI gang glowed with support and pride. Eldin was that gentle giant whose heart of gold would be a patient positive influence on a baby boy with blue ribbon DNA. And at season’s end, regular viewers felt the bittersweet pang of Murphy’s year, the loss of her mother and the arrival of her son.

English signed off on her culturally significant creation in the same way she ushered it in. Murphy Brown, all-American success story, really just lives her life with a soundtrack in her head and the lyrics on her tongue. If you need more context by seeing how we were introduced to Murph, run out and buy the DVD set of Season One. If enough of listeners of this podcast do it, maybe just maybe, they’ll find out that Murphy’s fan base is as strong as ever.

Bonding with Avery

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, dedicated to mothers everywhere. Audio from season four episode 26 – entitled Birth 101 can be found at

I’d like to thank Northwestern University soon to be graduate and my daughter Al crop 1Alison Abrams (delivered via C-Section) for input and inspiration of this segment. Not only is Alison is a huge Murphy Brown fan – via syndication since the show ended before her fourth birthday – but she also has a mane of hair much like Candice Bergen had during the 80s and early 90s.

Celebrate women and TV by following Advanced TV Herstory on Facebook. On Twitter our handle is AT TV Herstory. Friends in our Twitter community had suggested that we feature the sitcom Roseanne for our tribute to motherhood. That character’s relationship with her daughters OR her mother will take some work to study. So many topics and seminal moments…

So yes, send your thoughts or suggestions via email to Find this script and past scripts at my website, – where you will also find yet another way to contact me or learn how I transform TV herstory themes into leadership sessions. Your professional conference will never be the same.

Finally, thank you for sharing Advanced TV Herstory with others. I’m Cynthia Bemis Abrams and want you to know that I’m proud to write, research, host and produce it just for you and you and you.

Early ER’s Lewis & Hathaway

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

Advanced TV Herstory’s email inbox received a message of joy, actually a message from Joy, from Ottawa, who shares our enthusiasm for women and television. She wrote,

I found your podcast by fluke when searching for material on the late Patty Duke. I m really enjoying other episodes, particularly the MTM ones.

Joy shared a terrific list of ideas for future installments, including the women of ER – specifically Kerry Weaver, Susan Lewis and Abby Lockhart. Joy – this one and the next one and maybe even one more – they’re for you. And I promise to work on the other story ideas you presented. Thank you for your enthusiasm and your salutation of “keep on podcasting!” You know it! I will!

In 1994, a medical drama appeared on the horizon that would change TV storytelling. This was no Marcus Welby or Medical Center. E R’s first three episodes demonstrated consistent innovation in blending the personal lives of medical professionals with the workplace challenges – often in exhaustive detail. Those three episodes would lay the foundation for 15 seasons of remarkable TV.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory scrolls all the way back in ER archives to the first two seasons. When it all began, viewers followed the realistic story arcs of two strong women characters, Dr. Susan Lewis played by Sherry Stringfield and Nurse Carol Hathaway played by Julianna Margulies. Amid a growing cast, these two held their own to deliver memorable performances and give us all insight into the lives of women in the medical profession in the mid 90s.

In Dr. Lewis, we’ll get to see the work/life balance question plunked squarely, albeit unexpectedly, into the lap of a smart, articulate, mostly brave doctor. With the benefit of 20 years of herstory, we’ll grab some audio that shows just how hard she worked and how her competitive peers treated her.

Nurse Hathaway’s story was both reflective and aspirational. She dated men of all stripes and character, but none met her expectations. Those expectations, of what she wants in life and what she feels she can contribute, impact her career path.

Excellent and well-written storytelling – that was the hallmark of ER. Let’s review a bit what else went into ER that made it different.

Clearly there was influence of two veteran writers and producers, who just happened to be women. Lydia Woodward and Carol Flint had teamed up in prior series, most notably, China Beach and St. Elsewhere. Woodward would go on to become the showrunner. Woodward and Flint would also be joined by directors Lesli Linka Glatter (a genius behind the series Homeland) and Mimi Leder.

I have to believe their strength and confident presence, behind the scenes, contributed to noticeable elements like paramedic crews that consistently featured a woman, usually, providing the patient details as they brought said patient in on the gurney.

Emily Wagner played Medic Doris Pickman in 160 episodes. Here’s how she earned her paycheck…Emily Wagner

Medic Doris

Every once in a while, it was a team of women – physicians, nurses and technicians, working a trauma room. There wasn’t much sugar coating of women in any of these professions. In a realistic fashion, women characters provided constructive feedback, gave orders and led teams, reminding us that medicine is a profession where competence is paramount.

And, it should be noted that with nearly 5000 cast members appearing over the 15 seasons, diversity was a high priority. Casting was colorblind wherever possible.

ER delivered a new approach to medical drama storytelling, putting the viewer squarely in the middle of the action with mobile camera units that traveled alongside carts, viewed patients from overhead or peered through windows at worried family members. With rapid dialogue and fast-paced scripts, each episode covered a lot of ground. Some would say there’s an adrenalin factor to hospital jobs. ER depicted that force pumping for both genders.

On to our two early series characters. In the early 90s, Sherry Stringfield’s career was on the upswing. Fresh out of college she landed on CBS soap, The Guiding Light. She was an original cast member of NYPD Blue, but left the show early in its run. Her time on ER was relatively brief, as she left in the third season to slow her life down. She returned to her Dr. Susan Lewis character in later seasons, thus appearing in 142 episodes.

ER closed its doors in 2009. Stringfield spoke at a 2007 National Organization for Women (NOW) Stringfield NOWConference and the timeless topic of women roles in TV and film and how she’s had to navigate her career in pursuit of quality opportunities.


In Season One we see Dr. Susan Lewis as capable, though in many scenes she is not as active as Dr. Mark Greene. The fact that Dr. Greene is the Attending Resident may have something to do with that, but there are many scenes where she is a passive or non-active person in the scene. And then there are scenes where a male physician is actively tending the patient and she is looking over his shoulder or at his side. Sometimes she recommends a different course of action that what he is embarking on, sometimes she tells him, particularly Dr. Greene, that he has missed something.

You get the sense she is competent and still finding her way in a field dominated by men.

By the mid-90s, there was an emerging understanding that western style medicine wasn’t always the most effective way to treat conditions. Dr. Lewis held that interest in many storylines, with her either advocating for less invasive approaches, more humane treatments or at the minimum, extending the observation period a bit longer in order to not proceed unnecessarily, in haste.

Two examples worth hearing. First, a heart patient who presented with a host of symptoms indicating an impending heart attack. Dr. Lewis treated first with a round of drug therapy and asked for the cardiologist on call to see him in the ER. Time passed and ultimately, the cardiologist arrived, yelling at her in front of others that she didn’t take proper action. Dr. Morgenstern, the Chief Resident at the time, brought the question of her actions to a teaching session.

SS teaching session

Medicine, law, engineering, software development – this setting could have been in any field. A smart woman saw the value in a different approach and defended it. She had just enough support to take the stage to make her case in a way that demonstrated the value of her decisions. And in this case, she deserved credit for a favorable outcome.

But she didn’t get it.

We also see the touch of writers Lydia Woodward and Carol Flint when it comes to the compassionate stories that are part and parcel with emergency room work. Dr. Susan Lewis and Nurse Carol Hathaway, in an early episode, manage symptoms of an older woman who has end stage leukemia, which she’s chosen not to aggressively treat. They encourage her to at least get a blood transfusion.

As she is leaving their care, she helps reveal the identity of an Alzheimer’s Jane Doe who has also been in the unit all day. In this episode, Rosemary Clooney is the big name cameo, who also happens to be the aunt of George Clooney who plays the cad Dr. Doug Ross.

SS JM RClooney

Dr. Lewis doesn’t fit in very well with this ER. The situation grows worse when her sister Chloe appears on her doorstep, very pregnant and in need of a lot of support. Lewis aids her sister through sherry-stringfield-er-1995the delivery of niece Susie and while the baby is just months old, sister Chloe abandons her.

Stretching over nearly an entire season, Dr. Lewis struggled with unexpected single parenthood, pondered adoption, questioned her life plan and managed her anger and disappointment with her sister.

Extra Credit

It came to a head when sister Chloe returned with the baby’s father and they resumed custody of Susie.

Heartwrenching life/balance, but it’s a story that needs telling every once in a while. Ultimately Dr. Lewis left the hospital, but returned five seasons later as an attending physician. In her second term, which lasted four seasons, she further developed her voice but still found herself at odds with Dr. Kerry Weaver. Her final departure from Cook County General Hospital was prompted by Weaver’s decision to award a tenured resident position to Dr. John Carter, not Lewis. Younger than Lewis by a few years, Carter’s career is launched in the first season too.

From Season 2, when Dr. Weaver is introduced, you get the sense she doesn’t like Dr. Lewis. She’s judgmental, but will offer an occasional compliment. Does Weaver sense competition? Is this an Alpha Woman – there can only be one of us – situation? They both seem competent but at least in the early seasons, Dr. Lewis was the one you’d like to go have a margarita with.

Future installments of Advanced TV Herstory will profile other strong women characters of ER. With 15 seasons to cover, there were many and Dr. Kerry Weaver, played by Laura Innes is one of them.

Just as Lewis opened storylines about less invasive therapies and alternative medicine, Weaver represented diversity by having a visible disability – which we learn over time is caused by congenital hip dysplasia.

So in Season 2, we were got a deeper look at Lewis and Weaver as physicians. In this clip, Weaver shows compassion and underscores the value of listening and paying attention to clues in the case of a young girl brought in suffering seizures.

Weaver ep girl

We like Kerry Weaver, but not much. Does she have an edge because her disability has forced her to be more aggressive? Both Lewis and Weaver were smart, hard working doctors, but there was a difference in their motivation. In this clip, Weaver follows up with the epileptic patient.

Weaver ep 2

As a viewer, sometimes it was a relief to have the camera leave their tussle and put us in the situation with Carol Hathaway, another talented hardworking woman who was a well-liked nurse in the ER.

In the first three episodes, we see Hathaway as a competent team player. There are hints that she’d had a relationship with Dr. Doug Ross. Clooney defines the title “cad” in his entire time as Doug Ross. At the end of a shift, Hathaway leaves work. Hours later a medic team is bringing her in as an overdose. The first three episodes build up and recover from her suicide attempt and the team’s reaction. ER’s risk taking and innovation was revealed.

Great acting, great writing. Her incident and return opened up chances for dialogue about life, second chances, protecting yourself from others and not settling for something or someone who doesn’t meet your expectations.

Margulies proved her acting chops as Carol. She delivered the drama and there was probably a period good-wife-09of time where we all thought Carol Hathaway would define Margulies as an actress. Margulies left the show in Season 6 – 2000 and in 2009 premiered in the title role of the acclaimed TV drama, The Good Wife.

In her six seasons, Nurse Carol Hathaway lived a complicated life to the fullest. She showed heart, instincts and excellent nursing skills. In 9 episodes of Season Two, future CSI star Jorja Fox (who would play Sara Seidel) appeared as Dr. Maggie Doyle – an intern.

We learn that Doyle is two years younger than Hathaway and that they attended the same high school and community college. In a storyline where they are both called upon to treat a patient who turned out to be their high school chemistry teacher, we learn that Hathaway was a student of great potential – in fact, the chem teacher mistook her for being a physician.

Doyle avoided duty with the chem teacher, revealing that she failed his class twice.

Hathaway, who has a hard time finding stability in her personal life, begins to wonder if her talents in medicine are wasted in nursing.

Pelvic 1

Who hasn’t been in the position of assisting someone who has chosen a different career path but likely isn’t as smart as you are? Those experiences can either be a wake up call for reflection or lead to bitterness – glass half empty, glass half full.

Pelvic 2

Fortunately for Hathaway, Doyle was more interested in getting along with everybody. She offered tips about the pre-med program at Malcolm X Community College.

Malcolm X

Over the next several seasons, we’d follow Nurse Hathaway as she decided against becoming a doctor,

Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

met and parted with a host of men who didn’t live up to the bar Doug Ross set as her soulmate. The later seasons were different from the first two seasons as Margulies’ character’s emphasis went from work challenges to the more serial soap opera wandering of her personal life.

One might say that all the women characters got a shot at depicting the work/life balance in some fashion – the challenge of squeezing into one day caring for all these patients as well as caring for a loved one – or caring for themselves.

In its 15 years, the show bagged 23 Emmys amid 124 nominations. Margulies won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy in 1995 and numerous Screen Actors Guild and Viewers for Quality Television Awards.

331 episodes – the storylines take viewers beyond the walls of the ER and the apartments of the main characters. Advanced TV Herstory will profile characters who appeared in many episodes, like Kerry Weaver, Abby Lockhart, played by Maura Tierney and Alex Kingston’s Elizabeth Corday. We’ll also find the gem moments of long-serving supporting role actresses like Yvette Feldman as nurse Haleh Adams and Laura Cheron as Chuny Marquez. And maybe tip our hat to Frances Sternhagen, who played Dr. Carter’s mother, Angela Bassett who capably gave us Dr. Cate Banfield, Gloria Reuben’s Jeanie Boulet, Sally Field as Dr. Lockhart’s mother and Mariska Hargitay as Cynthia Hooper.

There’s so much more to the incomparable TV series ER than heartthrobs George Clooney and Noah Wyle. Just ask Advanced TV Herstory….

Thanks for listening to this installment, which was on the long list of topic ideas but rose to the top as a result of Joy’s suggestion. Clips in this installment are from the ER Season 3 episodes 3 and 4 and Season 2 episode 6 “Days Like This.” The clip of the NOW speech that Stringfield gave in 2007 is found on YouTube.

Some of the 331 episodes are found online through paysites and on YouTube. All 15 seasons are available on DVD – a good investment I’d say as I think the show has aged well.

Find this script and past podcast scripts on my website Be like Joy and send your ideas for future segments to Leave comments or rate the podcast at iTunes or our hosting site libsyn. We’re on Twitter – with a handle of at TVHerstory as well as Facebook.

Our community only gets larger so thanks for being a part of it and for all you do when you share Advanced TV Herstory with friends. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.








Women Who Influenced Early MTV

Audio slide

Click to play

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Listeners, you know the parameters. Women and TV. What fun we’ve had hitting the pause button on a myriad of moments in TV herstory. Knowledge is power. Today we’re going to look at a few revolutionary years in media, precisely music and television, and a few of the women of influence.

On August 1, 1981 (get it, 8, 1, 1981 – remember when bar trivia asks the question) Music Television MTV launched via cable TV into few than a half million homes nationwide This podcast introduces you to a few of those influential women who worked behind the scenes – working for MTV the channel, record labels and some as independent freelancers assigned to projects. We’ll also touch on a few of the less attractive sides of MTV and its own evolution that was so necessary to appeal to the changing youth demographic: sexism and racism.

Regular listeners know that this podcast prides itself on solid research that is supported with first hand accounts found preserved for all eternity on the internet. Sadly, there’s really no audio or video of candid reflection or commentary on their days at MTV by any of the women we’ll be discussing.

Instead, this segment relies on a doorstop of a handbook entitled, I Want My MTV: the Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, Dutton Publishing, 2011.Book cover The authors should take huge credit for archiving history recorded through dozens of interviews with industry and network executives, crew members, VJs, performers, directors and producers. Comprehensive and one I recommend enthusiastically.

They did a great job of pulling together candid recollections of key events. They cover the business side of the emerging cable TV industry, who the pioneer technicians were who gave us the first big videos and how women proved themselves as producers, directors and promoters.

Now for some background. MTV’s original format, 24 hours a day on cable TV, featured five video jockeys (the television equivalent of a disc jockey) who would read copy between music videos. The first VJs were Nina Blackwood, JJ Jackson, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. No one had ever been a VJ before, but a few of them had musical or radio experience. Preparation enough for a fledgling cable channel.

Once it went to full day programming, MTV needed to fill 24 hours a day. That’s a lot of videos and the premise was still new enough that industry execs weren’t sold on the value of bankrolling this expensive form of promotion… for just any band. And not just any band wanted to do a video. And then there were artists who did want to do a video, but MTV didn’t want to air.

As it developed, executives set policies that unlike commercial radio, MTV would not pay to air videos. The videos were the responsibility of the record label and artists. If you knew how to made videos on the cheap, your band had a better shot of landing on MTV in the early days. In fact, that’s one of two reasons why MTV literally made the careers of so many acts. Someone on their team had the presence of mind to say, “let’s do a video” and then actually did it.

The second reason is this: Before MTV, the music industry’s concentration in New York and L.A. left little role for the general consumer. Radio networks were the distribution arm of decisions made on the east and west coasts.

Think of the infrastructure of cable TV like you do the interstate highway system. A highway in a rural or suburban setting is more essential to that area’s daily life and economy than it is in the urban core. With concentrated living comes more options for getting around.

In the Midwest, teens didn’t have many radio options. Cable operators were landing contracts to bring the amenity to cities and towns through these sprawling states where it helped complete the quality of life. It was easier to install cable into new or recently built suburbs than into 90 year old brownstones or stucco single family homes. Sports, news, movies – cable would makes us connected – as a nation. And it succeeded.

So how did cable and MTV make the careers of performers? These Midwest markets were hungry for

The original VJs: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, JJ Jackson & Alan Hunter

The original VJs: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, JJ Jackson & Allen Hunter

more music and had money to pay for it. If it was fresh and fun, MTV put it on the air. Viewers in Dubuque or Denver liked the sound and bought the tape…. Or CD. It was that simple. Video took the power away from the suits who governed radio programming. It was a heady time for this upstart channel.

And the women behind the scenes held power and used their voices. Some put up with sexism and harassment, hoping for a better day. Some stood their ground against racist practices. Last point you should know is that once the channel took off, it had to grow up. In a rapidly changing industry on the cusp of a generational change (the baby boom was graduating from college and Gen X was a different beast altogether) it was sold to Viacom. There was still rampant drug use and partying artists and crews, but production costs and expectations had now raised the stakes of the game. The maturity that came along with music television success also would cause it to change.

Here are some of the women featured in Marks and Tannenbaum’s book.

Carolyn Baker was an early MTV executive. She had come on board before all the funding had been found to actually launch the channel. The premise emerged from a show developed by Monkee Mike Nesmith called “PopClips” It was simply a show, a half hour long hosted by comedians who show music videos. The entrepreneurial MTV team wanted to do that times, ultimately, 48. Baker and Sue Steinberg, another influential woman, were two of the five who developed the prototype and worked out the logistics of how to execute the plan, assuming it could get funded.

PopClips was one of a few attempts to bring music video to TV. Each had generated just enough success to keep the MTV cohort focused on the prize of developing a channel.

The MTV cohort often plucked the best talent from those shows, like  Beth Broday, who is an MTV founding producer, but had produced a syndicated video clips show called Deja View. In the Marks and Tannenbaum book, she recalled,

“Response to the rudimentary clips we played was unbelievable. Station managers would get calls from viewers saying ‘this is fantastic. We’ve never seen anything like this.’ This was before MTV, but I knew it was going to explode.”

Broday would later reflect in the book that women were respected as producers because of their attention to detail and diligence to get a project done. There were very few directors – Mary Lambert and Paula Greif. We’ll talk about Mary in a bit.

With the idealism that music television can and should play performers who are entertaining to watch as well as listen to, Carolyn Baker was in the middle of the racism controversy that would dog MTV through its formative years. On page 168 of the book, she’s quoted:

“I said, ‘We’ve got to play James Brown.’ And Bob [Pittman] said, ‘The research says our audience thinks rock n’ roll started with the Beatles.’ I came through the civil rights movement. I was a member of SNCC. I believe in opening doors. The party line at MTV was that we weren’t playing black music because of the ‘research.’ But the research was based on ignorance. I told Bob that to his face. We were young, we were cutting edge. We didn’t have to be on the cutting edge of racism.”

MTV founders Bob Pittman and John Lack were key to bringing Sue Steinberg into the picture. As Sue tells it,

“John knew I loved music, so he plucked me from Nickelodeon and told me and Bob to work on a music channel. I became the founding executive producer.”

Sue Steinberg led the search for the VJs using established channels of the day – putting ads in Variety and trade papers. Comedians auditioned. Auditions simulated the evolving role of the VJ – introducing videos, providing clever connections with the audience to fill time. Sue did her job quite well, hiring Nina Blackwood first and then the others.

One was Meg Griffin, a veteran radio DJ, who became an original VJ, until she encountered what would be a narrow, prejudiced side of Bob Pittman.

“I went in kind of begrudgingly one day to audition for MTV, and it felt good that they wanted to hire me. I was in an office next to Bob Pittman and I overheard him say, ‘I have my black, my Jew, my WASP, my sex-bomb and now my tomboy.’ I was like, ‘What did he just say? It rubbed me the wrong way.’”

The channel hadn’t launched yet. After a few weeks of development work, Griffin just didn’t show up. Martha Quinn was hired to replace Meg.

One of the two most recognizable faces and names of MTV, VJ Nina Blackwood auditioned while hernina other gig was as a harp player in a hotel. As a working musician, she transferred rock and roll to the harp, but in fact had studied acting at the Lee Strasburg Institute. Big credentials.

“I was working on three different local prototypes for music-video programs, where I’d do interviews or introduce video clips. I sent in my resume and an 8 x 10 photo which I drew on with watercolor pens to make it look punky.”

Steinberg saw promise in Blackwood and flew to NY for the interview..

With Meg Griffin gone but the qualities her replacement needed to have in place as defined by Bob martha-quinnPittman, they interviewed Martha Quinn. “I said, ‘What’s a VJ?’” A couple days later Quinn was hired and became an original VJ.

There was a reason Nina Blackwood had earned the “sex kitten” role. She tells this story in the book.

“In 1978, when I was living in Cleveland, I posed for Playboy. When Playboy got wind of my MTV job, they decided to reprint the photos. I got called into the MTV offices over this. I remember feeling like a scolded little girl, having to go to the principal’s office. They weren’t real thrilled, which I find pretty ludicrous considering what MTV turned into.”

So from August 1, 1981 until 1986 when Blackwood was the first to be let go, the five original VJs were part of the teen and young adult worlds. Trusted faces. They recount that management didn’t want them to become stars, so they were held to restrictive contracts. No outside endorsement or commercial work. No capitalizing on their rising fame at the time. That would change with the second wave of VJs. The second wave would also make considerably more money.

But seriously, who remembers the second wave of VJs – other than Julie Brown and maybe Kurt Loder.

Original VJs Nina and Martha teamed up their male colleagues who are still living, Mark Goodman and Alan Hunter to write a book VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave.

The channel and music videos as an industry proved to launch careers of women who are still working. Their accounts reveal the racism or sexism that was part and parcel of a male-dominated industry which was experiencing a shift in power.

Judy McGrath left her job writing for Glamour Magazine to write on-air promotions at MTV. Think about how important on-air promotions were. The channel had to explain itself and make it seem like the hippest new thing to do was watch music videos. With the radio, you could be in the car or doing something. Music television called for a whole approach to music – focus on a video and enjoy your favorite band.

McGrath would become CEO of MTV and even today is involved in cutting edge branding and social media strategies to advance careers and showcase talent.

Within the record labels, a new position formed called video promotions and they were often filled by women. As executive Susan Silverman put it,

“The record business was a man’s world. But there was an open door for women who had chutzpah. Video was the one area we could take over.”

Video promoters were in a sense like the sales force, coordinating the band side of production so that everything was in place for the video to appeal to MTV.

It was a man’s world at every step though. Siobhan Barron who was an established video producer told the book’s authors the story of being called the “c” word by Boy George because she told him that the two directors he wanted for his “I’ll Tumble For Ya” video weren’t available. Rough and tumble.

Within MTV, executives knew they could improve audience numbers and engagement via contests. To combat the cynicism that most people have that they “never win anything,” Marcy Brafman is credited ultimate fan expwith developing the concept of “People Really Win on MTV.” Contest winners were followed around for some period of time just to show they led everyday lives. Remember these were big contests, not necessarily for physical prizes but experiential ones “A One Night Stand with Journey.” It’s likely that every dorm floor in America housed at least one young woman who sent in to win that contest.

Marks and Tannenbaum’s book details, from many first-hand perspectives, the channel’s reputation of being racist. The matter came to a very high profile head when CBS battled MTV for the airing of the first Michael Jackson video, “Billie Jean.” Jackson was an established performer who CBS knew had break-out talent that would change America. Here are some recounts from women.

Susan Blond was a record executive at CBS Records. “In those days, we usually had a messenger bring a new video to MTV, but in this case, we realized it was special. I brought them this amazing video (Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean) and they said, basically, ‘This doesn’t fit into our network.’ I first met Michael when he was a kid, and he was obsessed with the Osmonds – they were getting more coverage than the Jacksons, because Michael was black. This had been a major thing with Michael – his whole life, he’d been excluded from the media because he was black.”

CBS Records threatened to pull all their videos from MTV if Billie Jean didn’t get aired.

James Brown didn’t fit the research. Executives initially didn’t want anything to do with Michael Jackson. The racism and approaches to cracking it weren’t exclusive to MTV.

Grammy and Oscar nominated producer Sharon Oreck recalled, “When we cast ‘Glamorous Life,’ we Video Sluthired a really handsome black guy to play Sheila E’s love interest. A short while later, we heard back from Simon Fields that Prince’s camp didn’t like him, and we couldn’t hire him. Mary Lambert said, ‘Why don’t they like him? Is he too tall? Too short?’ And finally Simon said, ‘they don’t want a black guy.’ We were like ‘What are you talking about? She’s black!’ We were told they wanted the record to cross over, so there needed to be a white boyfriend. Mary and I were appalled.”

We’ll talk about Mary Lambert in a minute. She’s incredibly influential. But let’s review for a minute the assumptions and challenges that went into that question of who should play Sheila E’s boyfriend in a very memorable video. Although I will say I remember the video more for Sheila E just being phenomenal than for what the boyfriend looked like.

Video is art but it’s also promotion. The audience is mostly white, living in the Midwest. Prince, notable game changer and provocateur, is the biggest name in the room and happens to be from Minnesota. He thinks the boyfriend should be white. Two women who have worked closely with female artists over the years thought the boyfriend should be black, to match Sheila.

Oreck also tells of coordinating the audience for Janet Jackson’s Control video. The event was billed as a free concert – though lip synched – and included multiple takes of just that one song Control. Right before they’re ready to begin shooting in earnest, they’re told by the record company ‘more white audience members closer to the front.’ The audience skewed African-American, since they thought they were attending a free Janet Jackson concert. Oreck and team had to gingerly ask white people to move closer to the front – three times. Oreck lost it and cried. Then she told the guy from A & M Records that if he wanted more people to move, he’d have to go on stage and do it himself.

Imagery is a powerful agent of social change. Hold that thought.

Cable gave us the chance to begin tailoring our viewing habits, movie channels, news channels, talk show formats, children’s programming.  MTV struggled with how to gracefully ease into serving the next generation of young people. The next generation, who could barely remember TV without cable, didn’t look or act like its predecessor. The music and messaging were totally different. Because MTV didn’t necessarily have their next act figured out, they couldn’t effectively collaborate with the record companies to create the next big thing.

But the next big thing happened, and no one was ready for it.

Rapper Kool Moe Dee credits industry execs Ann Carli and Russell Simmons with pushing MTV to a new audience and next phase through rap and hip-hop.

“We were aware that there was one video budget for R & B or hip hop acts and another budget for a pop act. We had to fight to even have a video budget in our contract, the record label would tell us we could do one video, and if our single sold 250,000 copies, we could potentially get a second video. Labels didn’t believe in spending money on hip-hop videos.”

Ann Carli went on to a long and distinguished career advancing the imagery of all sorts of communities of color. In 1999, she earned the Golden Ring Award from the Asian

Ann Carli accepts the 1999 Golden Ring Award

Ann Carli accepts the 1999 Golden Ring Award

American Arts Foundation and here is a clip from her acceptance speech.

Carli clip

The channel’s focus took a strident shift from art and cutting edge music promotion to sheer profit as Viacom bought the network.

MTV’s reputation for being racist or at least non-welcoming to black performers extended into its life beyond the original mid 80s concept. The first Rap-based show debuted in 1988. But during that mid-80s transition, top artists like Sting, U2 and The Pretenders were replaced by racier, more misogynist videos of hair metal bands. Reality shows and specialty shows started to fill the line up. The Spring Break special event series debuted in 1986.

All the while on cable’s TBS, Night Tracks, aired on Friday nights and showcased up and coming rap performers and their videos. Inside the offices of MTV, the fight continued.

Top artists of the later 80s Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart got pressured to steer away from concert style videos and more toward sex-kitten themes. Bikinis and pole dancers were doing so well with selling hair bands, it should work for performers too, right?

Women perfomers – this HAD to have been a hard and confusing time for them. Who made decisions for them? How much control did they have in saying what they would or wouldn’t wear. Who was pressuring them to be what they weren’t, in order to sell more records or get their video picked up on MTV? And if they pushed back or refused, they earned that reputation found in all industries: She’s difficult. A Diva. Other women performers were excluded because the genre and target markets were going right to Mountain Dew drinking young men. It was not about the art any more, it was profit.

This focus also caused the emergence of fashion photographers as videographers. Videos were now selling performers who otherwise would never have  made it on their talent. Except that there were talented performers in the mix. And then there’s Madonna.

Mary Lambert, the woman from the story who really thought Sheila E’s video boyfriend should have madonnabeen black, has been a professional colleague with Madonna since Day One. In the book, she revealed.

“Madonna works with a lot of different stylists and costume designers, but nobody really dresses Madonna except Madonna. The whole trashed-out lingerie street-look – where your dark roots and bra strap are always showing and there’s holes in your stockings – that was all her.”

Mary Lambert hails from the Rhode Island School of Design and worked in special effects. Showing some of her work on videos of emerging artists to Warner Brothers executives, Lambert was hired and assigned to then-unknown Madonna. In her heyday, no one pushed the envelope of standards and decency more than Madonna.

Michelle Vonfeld was head of MTV Standards and Practices. She told the book’s authors “We had four constituents we were trying to please,” She listed the stakeholders of the cable companies and their FCC regulations they needed to comply with, the advertising community which had finally recognized the connection MTV made with key demographics, the creative folks who were looking to invoke their own sense of art onto another artist in the hopes of achieving a music video success and finally, the audience at-large, which had changed since the first days of MTV.

“We devised a two or three page document, our standards document. It wasn’t a list of words you couldn’t say on television. It was more our philosophy. It talked about not glorifying violence, it discussed sexual matters, issues of taste, things that could be hurtful to other people.”

Some were quoted in the book as observing that the more popular the artist, the less the standards applied to his or her video. Madonna was frequently cited.

Hair metal bands – targeted at an audience demographic that was different than the original audience – weighed heavily on the objectification of women. This captured their audience and stroked the egos of the young men watching. Was it misogynistic? Yes. Was it within their First Amendment right? Yes.

When VJs changed, it showed recognition of the cultural shifts occurring in America, subtly that they wanted to see in their audience and that by the early 90s, the music experience had become customized. The internet only made it more so.

Julie Brown and Carolyn Heldman were part of the second wave. Tabitha Soren became the face of MTV News, which covered social issues and provided this new generation of viewer with more information about the industry. MTV had 24 hours a day to fill and the cost of video production caused their demise.

Julie Brown, arrived in the U.S. from London with an attitude and style all her own. She was not going to be molded by MTV, she created the new feel. With ego and edginess, she was known for being difficult to work with. Numerous examples are found in the book.

Carolyn Heldman, who had been hired through the national search for the second wave of VJs having been a real DJ in Colorado, was the antithesis to Downtown Julie Brown. Not urban more hippie. Not all product and high fashion and name brand, but casual, authentic and confident. She appeared once on camera in shorts and was fired shortly thereafter.

As a company, MTV was non-Guild, so the hiring requirements for crew members were less stringent for their projects. Beth McCarthy was an assistant director at the age of 25. Poorly paid, she gained experience that would give her control on shows like MTV Unplugged, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.

The second wave of VJs ushered in more original programming that was as much lifestyle oriented as it was about the music. Club MTV featured new music and dancing- think American Bandstand if you’re old enough for those words to have any meaning for you. And then there was their spring break coverage, beginning in 1986 and each year outdoing itself. Excess.


Channel promotions guru Marcy Brafman observed of the evolution, “MTV’s Spring Break coverage spring breakreally bothered me. I mean, wet t-shirt contests? Even with all the rock n’roll mayhem at the network, we’d never had a sexist outlook. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the fact that there’d been a lot of women running the network. MTV didn’t objectify women back then.”

Still, MTV was, at least according to the book, a real microcosm of 80s feminism. Sexism and sexual harassment existed, you just had to decide whether it was your battle to take on. We were still a few years away from Anita Hill’s testimony at the Senate’s Confirmation Hearings of Clarence Thomas. Whether to speak up or remain quiet varied in degree for a woman based on her status, appearance, age and attitude.

One of the most candid statements in the book comes from Linda Corradina, an MTV executive who went on to lead all sorts of projects,

“Boys are stupid, what can I say? A lot of the guys were known for hitting on girls, especially younger girls. There were men – married men – who didn’t have boundaries, absolutely. But girls can make their own reality. You put up with it, or you don’t. If you’re intimidated by it, you should report it. I can’t say it ever bothered me.”

While it held true to its core mission of music television through the airing of videos, MTV posted powerful imagery that changed America. Behind the scenes, a few good women thrived in the thick of things and contributed to sound decision-making. The snippets of insight contained in the book reveal that women with visibility and power were scrutinized with a different standard, just as they are today. And the channel’s success transformed the recording industry – maybe not in a great way with its tremendous emphasis on looks. But then the internet crushed the old business model entirely. It’s more fractured today. Agility is essential. Yet women are still outnumbered at the highest levels across the entertainment world.

These talented, influential women of MTV have a place in herstory. I hope they’ve applied lessons learned – or courage gained – from their experience, to advance the careers of other women.

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. For a topic set in the 80s, I have to say we exercised A LOT of restraint on the topics of hair and fashion. If you’re looking for a book that teaches you as much about business as it does about illegal substances, put I Want My MTV: the Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution high on your reading list. Audio clips used in this segment both come from YouTube – someone uploaded a short clip of Carolyn Heldman pitching Spring Break coverage and the Asian American Arts Foundation shared its 1999 Golden Ring Awards video on YouTube too.

Find this and past scripts on my website –, where you can also learn how I can bring TV Herstory topics to your conference or leadership training session.

We’re on Facebook – just look for Advanced TV Herstory. Please leave comments or ratings on iTunes or Libsyn. Feedback and ideas for future installments are what keeps this podcast fresh. Contact us at and share your ideas or a project you’re working on that builds a connection. We tweet too and a follow or retweet is always appreciated.

Until next time, all I can say is thanks for listening. Thanks for recommending Advanced TV Herstory to your friends and family. Knowledge really is power. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams saying, “Rock On!”

I Believe Anita Hill

play button

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Oh, the life lessons we, as women, learn from TV. And some days, the greatest challenge of this podcast is identifying the core component of a lesson and presenting it to you in a way that resonates.

Lessons of diligence, courage, teamwork and believing in yourself … this is powerful stuff delivered in the most powerful medium in our country. It needs to be part of our shared experience as women of America.

My Name

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory examines the most basic elements of an event that changed the lives of American women. It captivated millions of viewers; it was talked about by millions more. It was the era before the internet, but came about courtesy of cable TV. I am speaking of Anita Hill and her testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

CBS on Anita

Let’s hope that the writers of herstory include as many paragraphs as possible about the courage and anita-hill-Time magmessage of Anita Hill when she took the stand to testify as a witness in Washington, D.C. In October 1991, Professor Hill appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was televised on C-SPAN. She told her story of being a young lawyer in Washington, in two government offices. Thomas was her boss.

The obvious lesson, and in fact Professor Hill’s legacy, is that sometimes that which is difficult is essential. Truth can be painful, even more so to relive, share on national TV and be scolded and intimidated by a group of powerful, white men seated at a table.

We’ll review Hill’s testimony, exchanges she had with both Democrat and Republican senators and we’ll hear a bit from Hill herself, two decades later, about why it was all worth it.

First, some background.

In July 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals to succeed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall had been the first African-American on the high court. Thomas would be only the second.

A nominee is fully appointed through a majority vote of the United States Senate, which in 1991 held a Democratic majority. Prior to that vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts a hearing, while behind the scenes, the FBI and other agencies vet the nominee.

For a candidate such as Thomas, his earlier appointment to the Court of Appeals, just 18 months earlier, should have made his vetting simpler. But. this was a time though when Supreme Court nominations had hit a particularly contentious reception with the public and the Senate. In 1987, Judge Robert Bork had been nominated to the high court by President Reagan. C-SPAN and cable TV’s 24 hour news cycle was hard at work conducting its own vetting of Judge Bork in the court of public opinion. When your resume includes that you were instrumental in firing the Watergate Special Prosecutor who had requested President Nixon’s tapes, you should know it’s an uphill battle.

Bork’s nomination was defeated by an orchestrated onslaught of telephone calls, letters and Committeedemonstrations. This is a glaring moment in history that revealed the growing power of messaging and political strategists using selected media and constituencies to engage in the political process. So by the time President Bush placed Thomas’ name into nomination, political operatives and the media were in a race to out who he really was.

In the case of Judge Clarence Thomas, Bush, who had been vice president under Reagan, did not want this to turn into another Bork. The Bush operatives weren’t going to play Mr. Nice Guy this time. Decades later, Hill reflects candidly on that point … something I’ll get to in a bit.

So as you’ll hear from her statement, Professor Hill was contacted by a “member of the Judiciary Committee” and asked to provide a statement regarding her experience in working for Thomas nearly a decade earlier. Three months after President Bush announced Thomas as his candidate for the court, the committee convened. The media had become aware of Professor Hill’s statement, so it was with tremendous fanfare that C-SPAN aired the entire testimony that comprised Judge Thomas’ hearing.

Complain about cable TV all you want but without C-SPAN – which is the acronym for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, transparency wouldn’t be what it is today. In the early 80s, the New York Times praised it for its entry into areas once shielded from public view. Sometimes it’s dry. But in 1991, all eyes were on C-SPAN coverage.

Now my disclaimer to you: having watched it in my late 20s, I found re-watching the hours of testimony to be incredibly painful. My respect for Professor Hill, her composure and her morals has only grown in 25 years. My disdain for a table of men, accorded power by the people, to denigrate and intimidate a citizen who didn’t invite this upon herself – my disdain has multiplied exponentially. So I confess I didn’t review all the testimony, Hill’s or Thomas’.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a woman who remembers the testimony and the news who DOESN’T shiver a bit. One listener – who learned I was tackling an Anita Hill segment sent me this note:

In 1991, I was 21.   I was raised in a strange paradox of Republicanism and gender equality (I find those mutually exclusive today).  My dad was a conservative, but was raised by his older sisters after his father died when he was 9.  He taught me to think for myself, which has lead me to being a liberal.  I think my dad was proud of that.  I like to think he was.  As a young woman, I started to question the conservative notion that Hill “asked for it” or that she was lying for her own gain. (what gain?) As an older woman, I look back and wonder “Is this where rape culture became abundantly obvious to anyone who chooses to look at it?”  It grieves me the way that Hill was minimized.  The way Anita Hill is treated in the hearings is a tiny, tiny view into what every rape victim faces.  And why so many of us choose to never say a word.

Watching the testimony was like watching verbal rape

Find excellent montages and entire testimony from Hill and Thomas on You Tube. It’s hard to watch but turn it on while you’re cleaning your oven or fridge and you’ll never have a better shine. I swear.

C-SPAN gave it to us real time, but Hill herself says that enough time has passed that this story needs to be re-told. So here it is, with an attendant amount of sugar to make the medicine go down.

First, the story is best told by Hill herself in her statement, which was ranked as #69 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century – according to Wikipedia.

 Hill 1

What’s not to believe about this woman’s credibility? Following her statement her family was ushered in to the hearing room. Wearing a conservative teal jacket and likely a matching or black skirt, Professor Hill gained confidence in her cadence, but there are moments when you can hear her pause. And her voice quivered.  I so wished I could give her a hug. Her upbringing didn’t prepare her to discuss pornography, oral sex, any man’s endowment, a man’s prowess or sex with animals with anyone, let alone her boss or a table of powerful white men.

Back to Hill

Hill 2

Remember everything your mother told you about your reputation? In itself, for an African American

la-et-anita -- Still from the documentary "Anita." Anita Hill during testimony against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Photo credit - Samuel Goldwyn Films

Still from the documentary “Anita.” Anita Hill during testimony against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Photo credit – Samuel Goldwyn Films

woman of working-class parents to attend college and law school and hold a position as a law professor – in 1991 this was a big deal. She was a role model for women of all colors. She had chosen government work – toiling in policy to create level playing fields for children, teachers and later government employees. This wasn’t reality TV, this was one woman re-telling some of her most unpleasant moments of her early career on a field that was anything but level.

Hill 3

Professor Hill has dotted every I and crossed every T. She has answered in detail the subsequent contact she had with Judge Thomas. Sure she had relegated the past to the past, but the contacts she had with him were professional in nature. Senators had no clue of the continued value she had to place on her professional affiliation with him. What? No woman scorned? No emotional outburst? The lesson here: Anita Hill did not have the luxury not to fear the consequences.  Not as a woman in the 1980s…not as a woman of color and certainly not in relation to sexual harassment.

Hill 4

So there you have it. No motivation to take this to any public level until she was asked to do so, in light of his nomination to the highest court in the United States. She’s an officer of the court and professor to aspiring lawyers. Had she declined to come forward, sexism and sexual harassment would have prevailed. We can only admire both her courage as well as her impeccable resume and delivery as the proverbial well-placed pump that kept the door ajar just long enough for America to sit up, take notice and change.

Okay, now for the hard part. Some of the inquiry conducted by members of the United States Senate. All men. Of course, all men. Professor Hill gave every woman in America the playbook of how to manage an untenable situation when it was happening and how to recount it, years later. Her appearance and testimony literally changed lives, as she recounted in 2014 in an interview with CBS This Morning.

CBS Her Life

To listen to the hearing is to understand that middle aged and old white men, in power, have no way to understand Anita Hill’s experience. Most lawyers. Some were assigned the task of destroying her credibility. They were used to questioning until they got answers which proved they were the smartest ones in the room.

At the table, the only thing that separated the male perspective Republican from Democrat was the aggressiveness. Vice President Joe Biden who chaired the committee as the senator from Delaware was at times very gracious, but also gratuitous, such as, asking her to recite, for the record, Thomas’ graphic comments to her or making a big deal about having her introduce her family. Gratuitous – now you have a working definition.

Biden questions

Next came the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania.  Arlen Specter was a Republican in the Senate until 2009 when the party showed him the door and he became a Democrat. He was also a former district attorney in Philadelphia and he was the very worst. I give Professor Hill all the credit in the world for making it through each of his turns at the microphone without throwing up, walking out or screaming.

Specter Notes Docs

Spector asked numerous questions, often rambling. His statements leading up to sort of questions were in reference to documents that were not fully vetted themselves. His wandering remarks that led up to some sort of question often required Hill’s close attention. Without fail, she’d let him prattle on for a few minutes and then, with a straight face and earnest voice, she would ask, “Could you be more clear? I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

Hill returned each volley with precision. Point Hill. In this clip, Specter attempts to undermine her credibility through a statement provided by the Dean of Oral Roberts University Law School – a white man at a conservative private institution.

Specter Hill

THIS is the fuzzy memory most American women who lived through these long weeks of herstory anita-hill-cbsremember about the hearings. But amazingly, back to the 2014 CBS This Morning interview conducted by Gayle King and Charlie Rose, Rose has the gall to ask perhaps THE most inane question of the year.

CBS Morning 2

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory gives you just enough knowledge about Anita Hill to defend her honor in a hostile conversation. Find the hours of material on YouTube. Read Hill’s works about the hearings, sexual harassment and gender issues. Her 1995 work, Race, Gender and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings, which she co-edited with Emma Coleman Jordan is also a great source.

Through the years, Hill has continued the work she loves and to be a voice for professional women facing steep odds. Her autobiography Speaking Truth to Power came out in 1997 and documents the Clarence Thomas matter, as well as her interest in civil and human rights. She’s among the many who contributed to the 2003 Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan.

Her third book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home came out in 2011. Hill’s currently University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis University. University Professor is one of Brandeis University’s most prestigious academic honors. Brandeis describes the position as a faculty member of surpassing eminence whose work cuts across boundaries. Not far from Boston, Brandeis is a very cool institution, founded by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the high court.

The Brandeis motto, translated to English, is “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” I’m guessing they weren’t thinking those parts would include genitalia.

Hill is quoted as saying “I resent the idea that people would blame the messenger for the message, rather than looking at the content of the message itself.” Through the power of television, the message indeed sunk into the very fabric of our American experience. It changed us. Sexuality, rape culture, victims’ rights, evidence, even the existence of a show like Law & Order SVU… where would we be without Anita Hill and her courage?

CBS This Morning Outcome 3

Thanks for listening to this important segment. There’s a lot to absorb. Audio has been pulled from the CBS This Morning interview of 2014 conducted by Gayle King and Charlie Rose.

This was a topic too emotional and too powerful to just let it fly from my keyboard to my microphone. So I am grateful to good friend Petra, high-powered attorney with memory of steel, endures marathon document editing without breaking a sweat and has a feminist heart of gold. Friendly listeners, it’s you, Petra and so many others who own a piece of Advanced TV Herstory.

If you don’t already, subscribe to Advanced TV Herstory on iTunes or our hosting site, Libsyn. Follow us on Twitter – our handle is AT TVHerstory. This script and past scripts are found at my website,  and is a place you can leave comments or make inquiry for a presentation. Share your thoughts about this installment or ideas for others by shooting an email to advancedtvherstory at

You are a peach for listening and I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

70s Lady Private Eyes: Drew, Columbo & the Angels

Play graphic

Click to play

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Advanced TV Herstory loves its crime drama. True and tested, is there a better way to spend an hour than watching a rerun of Law & Order SVU? The Closer or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with Marg Helgenberger and Jorga Fox? No.

These shows were hits. Dozens more weren’t.

Thinking about the genre of crime drama, differentiate the government-employed detective – today’s Olivia Benson or the original Police Woman Pepper Anderson – from the private investigator. Over the past 50 years, the Jessica Fletchers and Veronica Mars’ characters and shows have had a harder time achieving success.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory looks at the pioneer lady private investigators – the ones from the 1970s. In Herstorical order, we have Charlie’s Angels which premiered in 1976, The Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977-79 and finally, the 13 episode mish mash of Mrs. Columbo which aired under four different titles in 1979.

Were there others? Yes. Short-lived series quite likely as brief as the Mrs. Columbo run. These three had perhaps the most potential for success. Mrs. Columbo and Nancy Drew were known brands. And remember that Baby Boom girls and women ranged in age from 13 to 30. The economy was changing. Social norms were all over the place. It was a time ripe for experimentation and disruption.

We’ll review dialogue and set up, starting first with Nancy Drew. And if you want to know a lot more, you’ll find an entire installment dedicated to the Nancy Drew Mysteries in our podcast inventory. First thing to know and remember, though is that The Nancy Drew Mysteries followed Charlie’s Angels.

Then we’ll revisit the 1979 attempt at Mrs. Columbo, a spin-off from the established Columbo police detective series starring Peter Falk. Kate Mulgrew starred as the title character and was fresh off her departure from ABC soap opera Ryan’s Hope, where she played fan favorite Mary Ryan.

Finally, we’ll take a shot at putting Charlie’s Angels into this context. Volumes have been written and specials produced. Facts, fandom and feminism contribute to the controversial legacy of Charlie’s Angels.

So let’s start with The Nancy Drew Mysteries. Did you hear that CBS is attempting a reboot of this beloved, American literary figure? We wish them well.

Back in the mid-70s, again, with the baby boom having hit their teenage years or older, Nancy Drew was a beloved character to women of all ages. She was the girl-sleuth heroine of more than 40 books written starting in the 1930s and largely finishing as works of the original writers in the 1950s.
During the late 1960s, the publishing house reviewed all the volumes and updated them to reflect the changing norms and language of the baby boom reader.

It was a recipe for success that ABC pair, for Sunday night must-see TV, The Nancy Drew Mysteries hardy_boys_nancy_drew_mysteries-showwith its partner series, The Hardy Boys. Because these books were generational favorites, this pairing had the potential to advance the books with the TV shows and build a whole new brand.
Heartthrobs Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy were cast as The Hardy Boys. Pamela Sue Martin, an actress with limited TV exposure– was cast as Nancy Drew.

The blended series, was it supposed to be 50% Nancy, 50% Hardy Boys? There’s no information readily found to answer that question, though it’s understood that the ratings for the heartthrobs exceeded Nancy Drew’s. By a lot.

Why? Maybe it was the old adage that boys don’t want to watch, read or buy anything with a girl or girls on them. Boys and dads wouldn’t watch Nancy Drew, but girls and moms would watch the Hardy Boys. Remember in late 2015 the hashtag “where’s Rey?” There were no Star Wars movie tie-ins – games, action figures, apparel, that contained the franchise’s newest heroine. It should have come as surprise to NO ONE when it was reported that the male executives had made it a clear directive, based on their knowledge that boys won’t buy things that contain girls in them.


Maybe the Nancy Drew numbers were sluggish because the show was sluggish. They gave Pamela Sue Martin more dialogue than the boys. Nancy uncovers more clues, interviews lots of witnesses and suspects and puts together the pieces – but it’s in a tedious narrated way. Not much action and when there is, it’s awkward.

Maybe the Nancy Drew numbers were sluggish because the character was trapped in a bizarre contract that had been signed decades earlier. When rights were originally signed away for the Nancy Drew movies, stipulations were agreed to about the character’s behavior, standards and even relationships. Little did they know that by putting Baby in the corner, along with sub-par script writing and tight-pantsed competition showing every other week, the show would fall on its face.

However, in viewing the shows I’ll talk about next – the Mrs. Columbo series and Charlie’s Angels – there are a few common features and aspects to know. Actress Pamela Sue Martin wasn’t alone in holding an opinion quite different than her producers’ – about how the image of a smart young woman should be projected in the late 70s. Just after the start of the second season, she walked out on the show, citing the scripts and producers’ dated approach to gender roles.

As a nice young woman, Nancy was always supposed to be humble.

Promotion reward $

Now I fully support Pamela Sue Martin in her disgust. Walking out was her statement. It may have shortened her career… doing so may have given her the reputation of “being difficult” but she did it.

Thirty seven years later we recognize progress and social change occurs from actions that seem small in the great scheme but are life-changers for the woman doing them.

A really disturbing trend I first saw when researching for Advanced TV Herstory’s Nancy Drew installment was the plot construction and antagonists. Invariably, Nancy had to prove herself each week. Prove her trustworthiness, her veracity, her methods, her eyesight – there was always a middle aged man in the scene attempting to undermine her.

This scene with a young John Karlen, who in 7 years would become Harvey Lacey on Cagney & Lacey, provides insight into just how many lines Martin had to utter each week to secure her credibility. It’s hard to make gains when you’re constantly playing defense.

ND proving herself

This same approach and catalog of middle-aged men, with sansa belt polyester pants – often plaid, cheap ties, short sleeve shirts, pork chop side burns and often loud plaid sport coats appear again in the Mrs. Columbo series. They’re balding or have comb overs. They’re bullies. If the point is that a villain is easier to loathe if he is uncouth, ugly, gaudily dressed… is it that they think the audience can’t appreciate a well-dressed villain? It’s just creepy.

So yes, Kate Mulgrew as Mrs. Columbo, was 24 years old when they shot the 13 episodes of the ill-fated series. You’ll recognize this cowering voice as the actress who gives us a much stronger Captain Janeway from Star Trek and Orange is the New Black’s Red Reznikov.


Credits reveal men at pretty much every production and creation role. Mrs. Columbo was at first a KColumbo tv guidespin off as the never before seen wife of Columbo, TV’s popular frumpy police detective. With a few missteps in the writers not knowing what viewers expect of Mrs. Columbo, we end up with one who is 28 or 30 at the youngest, who is saddled with an 8 year old daughter and forever-traveling detective husband.

Viewers found fault with the writing, the premise and on the very surface, the role they waited so long to see – portrayed by a 24 year old actress when Peter Falk, as Columbo, was 52 in 1979 – Kate’s wardrobe was inordinately mature, almost dowdy. Viewers were repulsed.

Kate Mulgrew is a star today. She’s led a fascinating life and her 2015 memoir Born With Teeth is a delightful read. She describes the Mrs. Columbo series this way:

In the beginning, I worked seven days a week. This was an unexpected development, but under the circumstances I felt I needed to comply. As a result, I was never late, I was never unprepared, and I never complained. I was going to show these Hollywood veterans what I was made of, we were all going to have a rollicking good time, and with any luck, we were going to hand Fred Silverman a hit on a silver platter.

Sadly, there aren’t many ways to view the series – to get a feel for whether any aspects improved. Only the pilot, entitled Word Games can be found on YouTube. The plot was somewhat sophisticated but evolved in predictable fashion. Like the Nancy Drew character, Kate’s garnered her clues like a trail of cookie crumbs, obvious only to her.

At one point, the bad guys are concerned Kate will foil their plan. They’ve tried intimidating her… maybe it worked or maybe it didn’t.

Doesn’t believe

The pilot sets the somewhat lackluster premise that Mrs. Columbo gets a job writing for a weekly Kate & Jennifershopper newspaper. She lives in a nice house in a suburb of Los Angeles, raising daughter Jennifer. She never set out to be a private investigator. In fact, she stumbles into this murder mystery as a result of technology. In 1979, tape recorders and speaker phones were finally common in American households. This was sophisticated technology of Watergate and the business world now affordable and able to be used to commit crimes or solve them.

So it’s because Kate Columbo installs a 2 way speaker between her kitchen office and her daughter’s room (this doesn’t seem to be a large house) and the transmission frequency is similar enough to a neighbor’s that she picks up conversations from strangers. Sure enough, the wife of the household mysteriously dies. Kate pieces together the clues. The husband hired an ugly murderer who is also a bully…

Thriller Mrs. C

Along the way, we see how a hand held tape recorder is a plot twist and how a huge computer is used to run a simple client list at a fancy lawyer’s office. Our highly relatable heroine is smart, wears great pumps and deserved better scripts.

Mulgrew recalled in her memoir:

In the fourth month of seven-day workweeks, my nerves began to show. I lived on a diet of coffee and cigarettes and the occasional cheeseburger, which was covertly frowned upon by the producers, who felt that Mrs. Columbo should be as trim and attractive as possible.

It was 1979, still five years away from Murder, She Wrote. Mrs. Columbo had to be different from Charlie’s Angels (even though Mulgrew was younger than the original Angels and Pamela Sue Martin). In the rough and tumble market place where boys and men don’t watch shows about women, Mrs. Columbo just couldn’t catch hold.

As Mulgrew put it:

Well intentioned but misguided, Mrs. Columbo could not survive its many incarnations. Its evolution was evident in its ever-changing titles: from Mrs. Columbo to Kate Columbo to Kate the Detective to, finally and most baffling, Kate Loves a Mystery. I supposed the producers were hoping that if they planted the wilting flower in an altogether new garden, they audience might suddenly regard it as exotic.

It was 13 and done for Kate. Charlie’s Angels, which premiered in 1976 had already changed TV forever though by 1979, however, even the runaway hit, written over the years by 54 men and 5 women, was running out of ideas.

Charlie’s Angels. Let’s look at facts, fandom and feminism to get a sense of the role this show plays in TV Herstory.

Fact: Producer Aaron Spelling intended it as a vehicle for Kate Jackson, who had impressed him in her role on “The Rookies.”

Fact: Jackson claims a role in making solid improvements to the show’s premise before it was ever pitched to ABC executives.

KJackson create

Jackson’s assertions are supported by the audio book of Barney Rosenzweig’s career, which is contained in the Cagney & Lacey full series DVD kit. Rosenzweig navigated that show’s development through rough uncertainties, partly with instincts honed on shows like Charlie’s Angels.

Barney misconceptions

In a field largely dominated by men, Rosenzweig saw that changes to plot development could yield a smarter show. A stronger Charlie’s Angels, featuring smart women private investigators, should pave the way for his eventual show, Cagney & Lacey. The stars hadn’t lined up yet for his show, but you have to give him credit for improving the baseline.

Barney changes

A TV series entitled TV Guide’s: the Truth Behind the Rumors from the early 2000s included an interesting backstory of the show. Here’s how Fred Silverman remembered it:

TBR Silverman

All of this is going on in 1975. The country is fresh out of Watergate and First Lady Betty Ford is walking new ground with candid statements about women’s rights and the ERA. Women’s tennis and Title IX were changing women’s lifestyles. There was momentum. The lead actresses who had been cast as the original angels, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett had been models as well as actresses. They’d attended some college.

In the Truth Behind the Rumors show, Smith talks about the role Robert Wagner, who was an established Hollywood veteran and married to Natalie Wood at the time, played in expecting a higher quality product. Wagner would go on to play Jonathan Hart in TV’s Hart to Hart.

TBR Wagner

In today’s light, this might seem like a no-brainer, but remember, Kate Jackson had improved on a bad idea, which was described by Leonard Goldberg as

Goldberg Alley

Back to fact and then to fandom.

Fact: Farrah Fawcett’s career went through the roof. Historic! Herstoric! By the end of the season, she wanted out of the show to capitalize on acting opportunities.

Fandom plays a role in how these three series from the 70s fared. To hear the backstory of Charlie’s Angels, it sounds like it was one or two bad scripts away from being another short-lived dud. The fact that it featured three knock-outs was no accident. Sometimes you need dynamite to blast through a wall.

While the Farrah Fawcett poster was the top seller with young men, there also were trading cards, 3 with clothesdolls, lunch boxes – promotional tie ins that made Charlie’s Angels approachable for girls and maybe a dozen pre-pubescent boys. Girls who watched the show when it first aired (it really hasn’t had the run in syndication you might have expected) are in their mid-to late 40s today. Many listen to this podcast.

Charlie’s Angels delivered mixed messages in every episode, but it was unlike any other. The antagonists were the same ugly balding thugs from the shows that would later be developed, and die. But our PROtagonists lived a glamorous life using their brains and wits. If one of them was in a scrape, another woman had her back.

That was huge.

Charlie’s Angels’ most successful predecessor, Police Woman, featured a plain clothes detective who invariably was rescued from danger in every episode by a man. Pepper Anderson, the Angels, the Bionic Woman and even Cagney & Lacey all were sent through the usual trope plots – hookers, models, wealthy widows being gaslighted by young men out for their fortunes… By having them solve crimes undercover, it allowed the male writers to continue their fantasies about what professional women in these jobs did.

My guess is that a man coined the term jiggle show. That term went on to define Charlie’s Angels, Baywatch and others shows where skin became as important as plot. It restricts our definition of an immensely popular series, with a demonstrated impact on women, to only that which is valued by men.

So once it became soiled with the term Jiggle Show, Charlie’s Angels became fodder for feminists. That’s why I think context is so important. Charlie’s Angels blazed a trail due to a few smart men realizing that the market was strong for this kind of show. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.
Merely watching the pilot – the series is available on DVD – you get a sense of a sophisticated plot. Sabrina, Jill and Kelly demonstrate agency, they don’t merely observe. In short, its construction was a much higher quality, as least initially, than you’d have with Nancy Drew the following year and the Mrs. Columbo series a few years later.

In the pilot, the clothes are about as conservative as you’d have found in any office in America. By the end of the first season, wardrobe is more casual, skin more prevalent. But on first impression – the pilot – these were women who were in control of details and execution. Any student of Charlie’s Angels knows that the show’s quality was probably never fully realized.

Ratings fueled the edginess, surely success would require retaining the male audience… swim suits and nipples. Substantive scripts? So not necessary. Fame drove Farrah Fawcett from the series. Lack of quality and progress was enough to send Kate Jackson packing after three seasons.

Cheryl Ladd replaced Farrah. Shelley Hack… Tanya Roberts… after only a few seasons the continuity was lost. Women appreciate chemistry and the revolving cast only made the stale scripts and fantasy wardrobe all the more dated. In the days before Viagra, there was Charlie’s Angels.

But as a show, it wasn’t ours to own. It was a vehicle created by men to make money. It just so happened to open the eyes of women of all ages… to see things differently.

The Truth Behind the Rumors show goes into more detail about the show’s seasons, the comings and goings. That’s detail for the real fan. At the ten thousand foot level of herstory, I found this comment by Jaclyn Smith to be honest.

TBR Smith

Rome wasn’t built in a day. And producer Barney Rosenzweig would have to wait years, following the meteoric rise and plateauing of Charlie’s Angels to get Cagney & Lacey on the air – as a pilot. Those efforts are chronicled in two other Advanced TV Herstory installments – Concept to Pilot and the 6 Lost Episodes of Cagney & Lacey.

The lesson we learn from Rosenzweig he clearly states: the role of women as writers, directors – even the feedback from his leading actresses – he embraced.

Listen to the Nancy Drew installment and learn that Pamela Sue Martin, like Kate Jackson, came to realize her show lacked quality. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses and go pose for Playboy. Fan favorite Kate Mulgrew gave it her all, yet the people making the decisions, like “yeah, let’s change the title, that’s what’s standing in the way of our being a runaway hit,” were blind to the changes taking place in America.

Feminists may still get charged up about Charlie’s Angels, but being able to recite context goes a long way to getting everyone to see just how very male the industry and screens were and still are today.
But there’s no question the series empowered women from at least one generation.

See for yourself in a YouTube clip from the 2006 Emmys. The faces of some very important women tell us that there is a magic to the three original actresses, who reunited on stage to deliver Aaron Spelling’s memorial tribute. Kate, Jaclyn and Farrah stood before thousands in the audience for like eight minutes to salute the instincts and career of the late producer.

The camera grabs face shots of Geena Davis, Kyra Sedgwick and Lisa Kudrow, women who make bigLKudrow decisions today and were certainly in the thick of it in 2006. They were awestruck. Kate, Jaclyn and Farrah were part of their teen years, just like yours, just like mine. It was a powerful moment.

It would kind of suck that for all the work I’m doing now – or you’re doing in your job – that another woman will one day criticize it for not being enough. You’ve heard me say with some frequency that knowledge is power. It’s important to know how success and failure came about as people struggled to put shows featuring women on TV in the mid to late 70s.

We can’t relive herstory or we shouldn’t allow men to write it, but we must know it.

So the next time you hear the Charlie’s Angels pixie dust, think of it as glass breaking. It takes a trained ear, but I know you’re good for it.Born W Teeth

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. This installment tackled our pioneer lady private investigators of the 70s, and know that in the coming months, we’ll feature the 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s. There are really only a handful of successes each decade.

Audio contained in this installment comes largely from video found on YouTube, the TV Guide Truth Behind the Rumors segment, a few Nancy Drew episodes, and the Kate Columbo pilot. Barney Rosenzweig’s audio book Cagney and Lacey and Me was produced in 2007 and can be found on the Cagney & Lacey 30th Anniversary DVD set. Finally, let me steer you to a great and uplifting read: Kate Mulgrew’s 2015 memoir Born with Teeth. Her tenacity, character and honesty comes through just as you’d hope it would.

Follow us on Twitter, our handle is AT TVherstory. Leave feedback or suggestions at iTunes or Libsyn, CLadd stickersor send it directly in an email to me at This script and past installment scripts can be found at my website where you’ll get to see a photo of my Charlie’s Angels trading cards. I do have some Cheryl Ladd doubles I’m looking to unload…

Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Patty Duke’s Place in Herstory

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)


player image

Click to listen

April 2016: A link to this segment was shared via social media with Anna “Patty” Duke Pearce on the day it posted. No reply, so no way to know whether she listened. Her death on March 29, 2016 requires to think of her accomplishments in the past tense, but her legacy firmly established in the present.

There was a time when the acting profession was segregated by stature. Broadway and the stage held the aura of Shakespeare. Film and movies were the expensive, extravagance…with the egos to go along with the notion of immortality, via the Silver Screen.

Or, as Norma Desmond proclaimed in Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 Billy Wilder flick about Hollywood…


And then there’s TV, the “small” screen.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory is a profile of an actress recognized for her performances across all those forms, Patty Duke.

Listeners young and old, bear with me. She more starred in the ginchy TV series that bore her name. Though it’s true, there’s no catchier theme on TV ever.

Back to Patty Duke, the woman. It’s a very small club of women whose resumes feature an Oscar, Emmy statues and top billing in a Broadway play for 730 performances.

Patty Duke’s career was as complicated and filled with ups and downs that are important to CMA coverunderstand. This installment features those ups and downs as they were made public by Patty. Her 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna, is an incredibly well-written, accessible read. I recommend it. When her book first came out, the pinnacle of the serious talk show circuit was Phil Donahue. Patty appeared with Phil and fortunately, someone converted their VHS treasure and uploaded it to You Tube.

That video is important because their voices do the storytelling – or in Phil’s case he reads the book out loud. And really, some elements of her youth and teen years are jarring. Patty’s story is about growing up in the entertainment industry at the hands of two surrogate parent-agents who abused her emotionally in wretched ways.

Patty’s career as a child phenom hit a sandbar in the 70s. She began reclaiming her life and career upon her 1980 diagnosis of manic depression. She chronicles the many episodes and acting opportunities in her book as well – perhaps the first and most famous person to do so in such a public fashion. It all makes for a remarkable story.

As a friend, parent, child, boss or colleague, you likely know someone who has a mental health condition. Knowledge is power and I’m hopeful that you come away with new knowledge or perspective in this re-telling of Patty’s story,

Really though, her name is Anna.

Born in 1946 as Anna Marie Duke, we know her as Patty because stage parents, who her own parents surrendered her to when she was 8….


In 1987, when Anna –OK I’m going to make it simpler for all of us and call her Duke – appeared on Phil Donahue, it had to have been a pretty big deal. Phil‘s topics were sometimes very heavy. It was a well-produced fairly intellectual show that was usually an interview plus Q & A format.

As you heard, Phil does his best to get Anna’s foundational story told, so they can get on to the rest of the book.


Keep the word resilient top of mind. As I said, the book is very detailed. Duke’s memory for details, even really really unpleasant ones, is rich. So among the parts of the book that don’t totally get discussed on The Phil Donahue Show are some of her great accomplishments as a young actress.

Her entry into show business came in doing small TV bits, which led the Rosses coaching her for an audition for the role of Helen Keller on Broadway, in the live version of The Miracle Worker. Duke tells of preparing for the role and getting to work with Anne Bancroft, who miracle-worker 1played teacher Annie Sullivan.

Duke’s recollection of the 10 minute fight scene – highly choreographed and filled with real bruises, real broken bones and real emotion – gives us an insight into this legendary run on Broadway. Duke was 12 and went on to play the role of Helen Keller in the movie adaptation. She claims one benefit from the intense fight scene was release of negative energy and frustration she internalized at the hands of the Rosses.

YouTube contains highlight reels and scenes of the 1962 production of The Miracle Worker. Watch them. And then watch the 1979 remake, for TV, in which Anna Marie Duke stars as Annie Sullivan. Melissa Gilbert, at the height of her Little House on the Prairie fame, plays themiracleworker1979-anneandhelenHelen.

These are roles that require acting, real acting. Physical timing, mastery of sounds and facial expressions because the scripts – as you might guess since they are about the education of a girl who could not see or hear – both contain very little dialogue.

But as a 12 year old, Duke was living anything but a normal life.


So throughout her teens, Duke was pulling down real paychecks (which Rosses spent like drunken sailors on luxuries for themselves) as a very famous child star. The 30s had Shirley Temple. The 40s – Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney. In the 50s it was Natalie Wood.

But Duke didn’t earn her stripes just playing any child role. She was Helen Keller – – and Duke recounts in the book actually getting to meet the legend in person. “The Miracle Worker” was a celebrated national hit in the movie theatres. Duke was the youngest performer to ever earn an Oscar (Tatum O’Neal would best her by winning in 1973 for her performance in Paper Moon). Anne Bancroft received an Oscar too, for best actress in a leading role.

That year Duke won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer – Female and a Laurel Award for Top Female Supporting Performance.

Ethel and John Ross had coached her on every aspect of successfully navigating in the public eye. In most cases, the words weren’t her first choice and didn’t bear her feelings, as witnessed in what has to be the shortest acceptance speech in the history of the Oscars.


Yes, two words. You heard it. “Thank you.” In her book, Duke tells us that was part of the humility and “don’t screw it up” pounding the Rosses inflicted on her self-esteem.

Resilient. And all of 5 feet tall.

Having proven her acting chops on the stage and in film, it was only natural that Duke’s appeal to her teenage Baby Boom peers should land her on TV.

You may or may not remember a 1961 movie that featured Hayley Mills as twins. The Parent Trap? It was remade in 1998 starring Lindsay Lohan. The parents are separated, the twins connive to reunite them. They go to camp…

This is light-hearted family fare with one actress playing two parts, with camera work joining them in scenes.

Why not put the incredibly talented Patty – Anna Marie Duke into a sitcom where she PDuke Showplays… identical cousins? America fell in love with Patty Lane and her European cousin Cathy in their home in Brooklyn Heights. Shot in black and white, using the same production techniques each week that had only been scene on the Silver Screen.

Think about it. A series in the mid-60s about two teenage girls? Disruptive. State of the art camera work? Disruptive. This show is a time capsule.

Show quick descrip

In her book Call Me Anna, Duke describes the transition to sitcom production, transition to California and her later teenage years, which included encounters with many older and younger than she.

But America just really wanted its Patty and Cathy. Duke finds a peace and goodness in the whole experience, which a reader might conclude was as disruptive for her as it was for the country.

If it happens to be showing on some obscure cable channel, I stop in my tracks and watch a little slice of made up life, circa 1963 to 1966. Whereas Leave it to Beaver is so male-centric that you can practically smell the Old Spice and hair tonic, The Patty Duke Show was about music, growing up, competing and collaborating and in a sense, seeing two sides of an issue, problem or person…

Show family

Sadly, when we as modern women pound on the stereotypes of womanhood in the early 60s, we focus entirely too much on Donna Reed and Barbara Billingsley – June Cleaver. They were moms. Patty and Cathy were daughters – born in 1946 they’d be the same age as Hillary Rodham Clinton, as Susan Sarandon, a year younger than Debbie Harry. They’d have become identical hellraisers if you ask me!

When we draw parallels, we need to take age and life experience into account, apples to apples, ya know.

Duke discussed a few other aspects of the show and its 105 episodes in an interview with my favorite source, Emmy TV Legends – a product of the Archive of American Television.

There are also a few documentaries on Duke’s life on YouTube. They’ll tell you that her career following her own TV show was somewhat consistent, with short-lived series and guest star roles in well known dramas.

The highs and lows associated with manic depression pepper her life in the 70s. Her love life included a well-documented romance with then-underage Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucille Ball’s equally public disapproval of it. An emotional, highly-charged role in the made-for-TV movie My Sweet Charlie was a struggle for her to complete, which she did. And on Emmy night, at the age of 23, she was up against some of the biggest names of the Silver or Small Screen. Her hair was an early 70s masterpiece, but that was about the only thing Duke had going for her that evening.

1970 Emmy

Well this acceptance speech was more than two words long. Duke has described it as “a 1970 Emmynationally televised nightmare.” Her walk up to the podium was the first sign that something wasn’t right. She strode up the steps, stepped around the presenters Julia Sommars (who will be played in a movie someday by Connie Britton) and Monty Hall, the legend from Let’s Make a Deal. She took the statue, stared into the camera with – it’s hard to say – they seem like lifeless eyes or were they in fact deep and for once, she was standing still and broadcast in living color? The American viewer had seen her deliver such a wide range of dramatic excellence – was this just a moment of genius?

It wasn’t. She was suffering in a big way and unfortunately lived another decade without a concrete diagnosis until her manic depression was discovered through a drug interaction. So literally – by accident. Anna Marie Duke turned a corner toward stable mental health and never looked back.

That’s the lion’s share of what the audience in Chicago, in Phil Donahue’s studio, was soaking up that afternoon in 1987. The room was filled with folks of all ages, many of whom had probably seen every one of Duke’s works. They probably knew all the lyrics to the TV theme song and maybe had bought her LPs when the Rosses told her that music was as lucrative as acting, at this stage in her career. Whether the audience had had the chance to read the book or not, they were there out of respect and admiration for a woman who spoke with honesty and courage.

As we understand mental health and recovery better today, we hear in her words an effort to forgive and move on. Phil asks Duke why she included John and Ethel Ross in her book dedication.


Her body language was open. I don’t know enough about how the Phil Donahue show Donahueprocessed audience questions to know whether they were vetted. Duke answered scores of questions, usually with information contained in the book. Otherwise, they were one or two sentence statements. She kept a swift pace during this part of the show, sharing as much as she felt comfortable sharing, but also demonstrating she owned her life.

Had anyone on TV ever talked about lithium before Patty Duke?


How many entertainers were secretly on lithium? How many of her peers AND regular people, sought help after reading her book?

Audience members asked her questions about her suicide attempts – like which was the worst and her experience in analysis – what we today call talk therapy. They were so eager for information. Watching this is not only a step back in time for hair and fashion, but also where we were, as a nation, in understanding and accepting those with mental illness.

Ways to cope

In this and every interview conducted since, Duke is in control. The book shared her brutal childhood story that a 21st century reader would believe unthinkable today. Positively Dickensian in its cruelty, striding alongside good intentions of the adults.

She wrote the book, went public, starred in regional theater productions and worked occasionally work on TV. Those years are highlighted by a somewhat unexpected two year term of her service to the Screen Actors Guild as its president. In the book, she talks about the importance of union representation. Her term accomplishments as president are detailed at SAG’s website.

America loves the black and white images of the identical cousins of Brooklyn Heights. America may or may not have seen either version of The Miracle Worker. I didn’t. Sure it’s heavy material, but there are so few widely acclaimed movies that feature two strong women leads, it’s a shame TV or the distribution networks have passed it over. Oh and yes, the made-for-TV version of The Miracle Worker, Duke bagged another Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special.

A future installment of Advanced TV Herstory will focus on Duke’s public profile as an advocate for mental health services and education. Her TV presence has shifted from wearing capris and hairbands to providing commentary on mental health topics for national TV networks. Which gets me to wondering if a producer, maybe from CNN, was urgently trying to get a hold of Duke on the evening Brittany Spears had her live meltdown and shaved her head.

Sadly, I have to say that the media interest in women, particularly young women, melting down is far stronger than it is of men and young men. Alec Baldwin? Forgotten. Mel Gibson? Huh? Shia LaBeouf? Who?

Duke has shared her life and gifts with us. If you are unfamiliar with them, the loss is yours. America may only remember her in black and white, as teenage cousins, which was all some clever PR person at the Social Security Administration needed for this set of public service identicalCousinannouncements that recently aired. I just have to believe it was a woman who came up with the idea.


Yes, that last one contained the living actors from the show that aired 50 years ago, including William Shallert who turns 94 this year…

Aren’t we the lucky ones that Anna Marie Duke is resilient? Her strength and conviction has changed lives, something I’m guessing is more important than industry trophies.


You’ve been listening to Advanced TV Herstory, a podcast that studies women and TV and hair and public moments. Audio clips come from video that is all available on YouTube. There are five parts to the Phil Donahue episode that aired in 1987. The Social Security Administration has proudly posted their PSAs to YouTube, along with shorter and longer versions.

Emmy TV Legends audio set the context for Duke’s perspective on the development of her TV series and the clips from the awards shows are simply stunning.

Thanks for tuning in and please, leave comments or feedback at the hosting sites – Libsyn or iTunes. Track the podcast down on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Our handle is at TVHerstory. Patty Duke is on Twitter too and has more followers.

If you prefer to keep your thoughts a bit more private, they’re safe with me via email at advancedtvherstory at Let’s dream up the next groovy installment together! I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

FLOTUS on TV: Roosevelt & Ford

Click to listen

Click to listen

Our topic today draws upon the sparsely populated archive of U.S. first ladies on television. It’s only been a recent trend for Michelle Obama or Laura Bush to appear on TV talk shows. And yes the news has always covered First Ladies, but it’s usually been in conjunction with their official duties or travels.

Two First Ladies stand out with television presence. They rise taller than their peers, leaving a lasting impression which I hope you will find not only inspirational, but also piques your curiosity.

The first is Eleanor Roosevelt. Yes she served as First lady from March 1933 to April 1945 (the period of time in American history before the Constitution was amended to limit the president to two terms). She served as U.S. Delegate to the U.N. General Assembly from 1946 to 1952 and in 1961 and ’62, chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Her term as First Lady transformed the position and literally transformed the nation.

A majority of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life was lived in the public eye. It’s a fascinating and uplifting story. Her life weaves in so much with the major accomplishments of women and the women’s movement that you’re sure to learn much. I recommend Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt Volume One and Two. She’s been working on the third for many years now. The first two volumes take us up to 1938. Cook’s writing flows naturally. Good stuff.

EleanorRoosevelt UN

At the United Nations

Mrs. Roosevelt was a great lady and did much for the women’s movement. She was an educated woman who, by the end of her life, had written thousands of newspaper columns, numerous books and had delivered thousands of speeches in person and via radio. Mrs. Roosevelt leveraged the content of her life into an international presence in newspaper and radio that had never been experienced in American politics by a man or woman.

This is some of the cool stuff of Cook’s two volumes.

So how does TV factor into the icon status of Eleanor Roosevelt? Within the realm of the internet, there’s not much footage of her. That which you find might be of her major speeches, either as First Lady or her U.N. work. News segments are either lost or still in vaults.

The George Washington University’s Department of History has a research center dedicated to Mrs. Roosevelt’s papers. There’s also a deep archive at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library. Truman State University has a collection of her correspondence.

But this little thing called YouTube has perhaps the most moving 4 minutes of video – of this woman whose strength and conviction was so apparent.

In 1959, Frank Sinatra hosted Mrs. Roosevelt on his TV show. This was three years or so before her death. She’s 75 at the time.

Frank intro

Yes, even at the age of 75, this woman remained at the forefront of American consciousness. She had earned all her stripes from a lifetime of public service AND there just weren’t that many other women with whom to compare her.

So in 1959, Frank had just released a song that would become one of his standards “High Hopes.” That song was Frank & Eladopted the following year, 1960 by the John Kennedy for President Campaign. That was back when songs were developed for campaigns. Now, campaigns just try to glom onto a work more famous than the person who is seeking office and hope – usually unsuccessfully – that those who hold the copyrights don’t notice.

In a heavily scripted segment, Frank teases her in the direction of the philosophy or value or observation of the power of hope.

El Hope

This is the part of the little four minute segment, preserved now on the internet forever, where we get the sense that yes, this is a political ploy for JFK via his good friend Frank, but also that these were her words.

El dignity

Okay, these were her words but she read them on cue cards. And remember, she was 75. When you heard this personal, thoughtful message straight from one of America’s most famous, accomplished, respected aren’t you just a bit uplifted?

Set up ant

This is the part where understanding Eleanor’s background comes in handy. Her schooling, her stature that her eleanor at micheight – 6 feet tall held, her coal mine visits – to be the eyes and ears of the president, her strength…

El Ant

Eleanor Roosevelt delivered many eloquent, moving speeches on behalf of causes domestic and international. She advocated for peace, education, housing and all the conditions of living which contribute to environments where children can be healthy and thrive. Those speeches are available in audio and even video format, but they were recorded not necessarily for TV.

This clip may have been a political favor to the Kennedy campaign on the part of both Mrs. Roosevelt AND Frank Sinatra, but I’d say that 57 years later, we continue to benefit from these four minutes of inspiration and strength of spirit, personified.

Now, on to another woman who contributed mightily to public discourse during her brief stint in the White House – so much so that men inside the White House put great pressure on President Gerald Ford to rein. Betty. In.

I will be me

With televisions present in pretty much every household in America – one if not two – but just before cable put the major broadcast networks to the test, there was this moment in time – it was supposed to be eight years long, called the Administration of President Richard Nixon.

This period in American HIStory is important to understand because it’s the full context and path that delivered Betty Ford, mother of four and wife of a congressman from Michigan, to the White House.

When elected in 1968 to be President, Richard Nixon had already served California as a congressman and US Senator. From 1953 until 1961, Nixon was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon ran for president in 1968, this time against Hubert Humphrey. Nixon, with running mate Spiro Agnew, who also had a long record of public service in Maryland.

It was 1968, the baby boom was coming of age. The world of politics felt the winds of change just like every other aspect of American life did.

Eventually, Vice President Agnew’s actions, during his Maryland years, came back to haunt him. As a seated vice president, he was charged with having accepted bribes while in office, in excess of $100,000 and ultimately pleaded no-contest to a lesser charge of unreported income during that time period.

Remember they didn’t get Al Capone for any of his heinous crimes, they put him away for tax evasion.

And behold, Vice President Agnew resigned under a cloud of scandal. Americans expected more ethical behavior from their public servants. President Nixon scanned the horizon and found the perfect replacement – hard working, affable, family man, World War II veteran – Congressman Gerald Ford from Michigan. Ford was sworn in as vice president on October 10, 1973.

He would serve as vice president until August 8, 1974, when he’d be sworn in as president upon Nixon’s resignation.

During this entire time, television news documented it all, the Fords (who presented a contrast in every way from the Nixons) and the brewing scandal of Watergate.

By the time Gerald, Betty and three sons and a daughter moved into the White House, the country was shaken to its core. At the same time, the economy was challenged by runaway inflation and the energy crisis. Change was afoot and this was not the time for national leadership to fail in its duty.

Ford began his first speech as president by saying that he was beholden to no party (Nixon, who would be considered a major league moderate Republican today, had pretty much besmirched the Republican party’s reputation) – he delivered what he called, “straight talk among friends” proclaiming that had not campaign for either the office of president or vice president, that he subscribed to no partisan platform, that he was indebted to no man and to only one woman – Betty.


Betty Ford’s CB radio handle was First Mama.

President Ford and his family had walked through two doors to become the First Family. Americans – happy to have a fresh set of faces to look at – and this group smiled and appeared normal – quickly got to know them and like them, Betty in particular, who at the time was 56 years old.

No one sent Betty Ford a memo saying she had to be all prim like Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson or Jackie Kennedy. They had all gotten the message early on in their husband’s presidential campaigns. Nope, when you you’re raising teenagers in the 70s, no one tells you what to think.

I’m a feminist

So again, just like with the rare video of Mrs. Roosevelt, there’s not a ton of video available on the internet about Betty Ford. The following are short audio clips derived from mainly TV news and interviews. They are almost exclusively found in a longer biographical profile that was produced by PBS upon Mrs. Ford’s passing in 2011.

It’s must see YouTube – for you and every woman in your life, old and young.

So while the selections may not hold great quantity, they hold incredible quality. Betty Ford was a FORCE and over time, quickly became comfortable with stating her own opinion. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired an interview with her conducted by Morley Safer. By then she had already made statements about the women’s movement, Roe Vs. Wade and a host of other social issues of the day.

Morley ‘75

There were only three major TV networks at the time. Needless to say, hip Mrs. Ford quickly faced public opinion that didn’t necessarily agree with her… something she had been spared by never by having been part of a national campaign.

TV reports

But this was a woman who wasn’t going to back down. She and the president had been together too long. They had arrived at the White House as themselves and only saw a nation that clamored for candor and truth.

ERA vote

Again, view the PBS chronicle of Betty Ford’s life, or read any of her memoirs. This clip from the PBS show is from an interview with the Ford’s only daughter Susan, who was 17 when the Fords became First Family.

Voice Susan

Within the world of TV exposure of First Ladies, Betty Ford hit a high mark that probably wasn’t matched again until Hillary Rodham Clinton became a high profile policy expert on health care reform during the first Clinton term. Prior to Betty’s candid interviews, America had heard and seen little of Pat, Lady Bird and Jackie. It was a lot of window-dressing and formality.

But Watergate changed all that. News organizations, both print and TV embarked on even greater investigative reporting. There was a clarion call for transparency that took on a whole new tone when it was reported that Mrs. Ford had been diagnosed with breast cancer. This wasn’t something the president could or should hide from the public.

It was a time when disease and medical details weren’t discussed openly by anyone, let alone a husband talking about his wife’s condition.


It is said that Betty Ford’s public battle with cancer, which she won – and lived to be 93 years old – caused the Bcancerwidespread education about mammograms as the way to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages. At the time, breast cancer was the leading cause of death for women and mammogram technology was still considered relatively new.

In just being Betty Ford, she did what advertising and public service announcements couldn’t do. She called upon women to take responsibility for their health care by getting mammograms. Through this chapter of the Ford Administration, Betty’s approval ratings skyrocketed.

So there she was, a feminist voice, in the form of a mature woman within the establishment, who most Americans liked. The Fords as the breath of fresh air met the rigors of the 1976 presidential campaign trail. Even Betty’s appearance on a January 1976 Mary Tyler Moore Show episode couldn’t shore up the lingering scent of Watergatebettyford-phone and Ford’s pardon of Nixon and tough sledding of high gas prices, inflation and high interest rates.

But for a bit of context, Lou and Mary are in Washington DC for a journalists’ conference. Mary has a date with a low ranking congressman. Lou opts to have a few old friends over to his hotel room. Old friends, he tells Mary after her date, like Hubert (Humphrey and his good friend John Glenn), Eric Sevareid and Ethel Kennedy,who was driven home by the Fords.

Mar’ is not believing one word of this. Until the hotel phone rings.


TV herstory right here, folks. This was surely one of the first time appearances of a First Lady on a TV show that wasn’t the news or White House production.

For all the reasons noted above, Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, Governor of Georgia. Carter ran as a Washington outsider and America opted for that approach to leading the country to better days.

As a matter of fact, a hoarse, larangytic President Ford turned the microphone over to Betty to deliver his concession spconcession speech.


From Washington, the Fords relocated permanently to California. Both remained active and President Ford kept a busy travel schedule. Over those years, Betty grew more dependent on prescription pain killers and alcohol – to relieve arthritic pain and perhaps the sense of loneliness that came after those three crazy years.

A few years from removed the White House’s scrutiny, Betty Ford was about to re-enter the spotlight. This time, for treatment for her addiction. Here’s how she described it to Barbara Walters in an interview that aired around the time of the 1982 opening of The Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California.


Mrs. Ford oversaw the residential treatment center’s development and became perhaps the most recognized face in America to serve as an advocate for treatment programs. Again, she was a national name appearing at conferences and fundraisers to educate, advocate for and help build a better future for those struggling with addiction. In a short period of time, Mrs. Ford helped remove the stigma of treatment and in developing the facility that bears her name, guided research into understanding the different approaches that work for men and women, separately.

Upon her death, presidential and American historians maintain that Betty Ford did more for public health and had a direct positive impact on the lives of more Americans than her husband and perhaps than almost any single lawmaker of recent memory.

There it is. We’ve heard some incredibly powerful statements spoken by two of our country’s most influential First Ladies, made possible by TV. I hope you share my respect for their candor, their hard work and their can-do spirit that they were so willing to share with the public.

These are two voices who gained strength through adversity. TV has left us with their inspiring voices. And within the context of the Women’s Movement, President Nixon can be credited with three gifts.

First, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress and his signature that initiated the ratification process of the states (which fell a few votes short, even with an extension).

Second, the implementation of Title IX, the education reform within his administration that ensured equal access to school programs and facilities, regardless of gender.

And third, by virtue of his vice president being shadier than was accepted in 1973 and Nixon’s own paranoid shortcomings that led to his resignation, the progressive, unfiltered, accessible Ford Family – with all its real life complexities – plunked down on the White House couch.

11 Jul 2007, Washington, DC, USA --- First ladies (from L to R) Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Rosalyn Carter, escorted by two US officers pose at the Bush library in Washington, in this November 6, 1997 file photo. Former U.S. first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, has died in Texas at the age of 94, less than two weeks after leaving hospital, a family spokeswoman said on July 11, 2007. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/Files (UNITED STATES) --- Image by © GARY CAMERON/X00044/Reuters/Corbis

11 Jul 2007, Washington, DC, USA — First ladies (from L to R) Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Rosalyn Carter, escorted by two US officers pose at the Bush library in Washington, in this November 6, 1997 file photo.  Image by © GARY CAMERON/X00044/Reuters/Corbis

Wow! Thanks for hanging in there with me on this important installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Again, let me recommend the most definitive biography on Eleanor Roosevelt – the 2 volume set – with the third in the works – by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Cook tells Eleanor’s story from a woman’s perspective and really did her homework with these two volumes. That’s likely why the third is taking so long to publish. I confess I have never read a Betty Ford memoir or biography. I just like watching her TV clips. Her hair and clothing was impeccable. She’s so unapologetic. Again the PBS segment documenting her life is a great resource. It can be found on YouTube, as can the Frank Sinatra Show which included Eleanor Roosevelt as a special guest.

Drop us a note and let us know what you thought of this installment or have ideas for others – do so at advancedtvherstory at Find us on Twitter at AT TVHerstory. Feedback is important so your comments at either the Libsyn hosting site or iTunes is much appreciated. Finally, find this script and those of past installments at my website, There too you can find out how to contact me for presentations on this or other TV Herstory topics at your training or conference sessions.

Background music you heard was a track called Phoenix from the album The Petrified. A tremendous work of Circus Marcus which can be found at Free Music Archive dot org.

I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening!

Women of Super Bowl Halftimes

Click to listen

Click to listen

This is a special installment of Advanced TV Herstory, a podcast that focuses on Women in and of TV. We’re bringing you another seasonal show, complete with unscripted live-viewing.

Thank you for tuning in! Our listener base keeps getting larger and larger! Our images of women in TV span the wide range of profession, interest and talent that by its very nature, TV attracts. Thus, past installments have examined single events or episodes. Herstory can be THAT powerful.

Today we’re going to view Super Bowl Halftime Shows that featured women performers. Listeners who also hail from a state where the NFL team has lost in all four Super Bowl attempts can appreciate the half time show as the Switzerland moment of a late winter’s evening.

Hmmm. No, I really haven’t been following the game. I’ve been talking with the other women who are in this house awaiting half-time so the next course of carbs and calories can be served. Oh yeah, wow let’s watch one more time how that ball really was caught before the player’s foot, no wait in, out. It’s gonna take another 3 or 4 minutes to really get a good look at this important piece of American history. Tell me when it’s halftime.

That was sarcasm. And this installment features the color commentary of M. Susan Noleen (who can hurl sarcasm with the best of ‘em) who’ll join me in a splendid look at halftimes past and the women featured therein. Due to carol channingtime constraints and the evolution of the halftime show, we are only going to view six halftime shows that are available on Youtube. Also, again in part due to time constraints, we are omitting performances by major artists like Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, Brittany Spears and Carol Channing because they either performed as a medley of talent or in the case of Ms. Channing, the video just isn’t available.

So listeners, if you’ve got an old Super 8 film of the halftime shows from 1970 or ’72, think of it as the Zapruder film. Wouldn’t it be simply fascinating to see Carol Channing, 5’9 inches tall, stage and screen legend, join up with the Southern University Marching Band and U.S. Marine Corps Drill team, respectively, for some old fashioned American entertainment?

If you produce a podcast about this stuff, then yes, it would be fascinating. Please, send me your Zapruder film. Let’s talk.

Alas, Susan and I will start in 1982 with the Up With People performance. Two shows in the 90s featured women in sort of lead roles, 1992 was the salute to the Winter Olympics. Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano skated and toward the end, Gloria Estefan sang – or should I say synched. We’ll talk more about that later. The format became more focused on a single act in 1996 with Diana Ross.

Then we’ll view the 2003 halftime stage that featured Shania Twain and No Doubt, led by Gwen Stefani. If that’s

Gwen Stefani and her group No Doubt entertain during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, Jan. 26, 2003. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Gwen Stefani and her group No Doubt entertain during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, Jan. 26, 2003. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

not an odd enough pairing, Sting also had a piece of that show.

Finally, the shows of the 2010s that featured women that we’ll view – Madonna’s in 2012 and Beyonce and Destiny’s Child in 2013.

With that, I’d like to welcome Susan, an English teacher by day and a highly trained observer of all things pop culture, 24/7. And she’s got tremendous energy that makes me think her next career may just be with Up With People.

Unscripted viewing audio follows

Designing Women 1, Bodyshaming 0

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to play or download

Click to play

Friendly listeners, the tale I am about to tell is one that requires great discipline on my part to tell. It’s about an episode from Designing Women, a series I loved when it aired from 1986 to 1993 and still do when I have the chance. Sometimes a single episode of a series, particularly one as progressive and well-written as Designing Women, changes the American dialogue. You’re maybe nodding in agreement that for THAT series, there were MANY segments that did just that. Hence, my discipline.

On December 11, 1989, – the fourth season of Designing Women aired the episode that finally DVD 3rd seasonspoke to actress Delta Burke’s increasing weight gain. It’s entitled They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? and came about after months and months of tabloid fodder. Yes the tabloids covered Burke’s weight, her marriage to TV star Gerald McRaney, all of her quirks AND all sorts of rumors about Burke being difficult on the set. Again, discipline here.

We’re not going to rehash THAT multi-faceted story, we’re sticking to the importance of this one episode.

Delta Burke was cast as Suzanne Sugarbaker, a role most everyone agrees was written for her, following a similar role she’d done in a short-lived series with Dixie Carter called Filthy Rich. I am pretty sure I not only watched both episodes but penciled it in my little pocket Hallmark calendar weeks in advance of its airing.

Behind the pageant queen profile is a trained actress. She’d studied acting in London and had appeared in guest roles on a host of series in the 70s and early 80s. In a sense, Suzanne Sugarbaker wasn’t THAT too far removed from Delta Burke. Maybe that singular fact made the weight gain all the harder to confront and put into its appropriate context. We are more than the bodies and faces we were born with.

If you’ve been wondering what all the other tabloid kerfuffle was about, I encourage you to read Delta Burke’s autobiography Delta Style, published in 1998. Do so knowing that the book was written about seven years after she left the show and attempted come-backs on TV in the series Delta and Women of the House. And do so knowing that in Googling her now, you’ll learn that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and has achieved a healthy weight.

So from the book, we learn life on the pageant circuit wasn’t all bouquets and sashes. She struggled to manage her weight and curves. As she wrote in her book,

“Even when I was a size 6, I’d hear complaints that my hips were too curvy or my legs too big. And I bought into the whole thing. I’d get up to 123 or 133 pounds and think, ‘I’m such a cow.’ And I look back now and say ‘My God, I was a beautiful, curvy woman and I was never even aware of it.'”

In the first few seasons of Designing Women, her weight gain was gradual. It was also in thoseMcRaney Burke seasons that she met, fell in love with and married Gerald McRaney, an actor she had met when he did a guest role on an episode as one of Suzanne’s ex-husbands.

McRaney is a soft-spoken man who stood beside Delta through it all. In this Barbara Walters interview from 1990, he’s never wavers.


Delta Burke had dieted throughout her time on the show, particularly between seasons one and two. In her book, she lists some of those diets by name. She wrote that at the end of the first season, when she had heard rumors that network executives had given her an ultimatum to lose weight or lose the part, she went to great lengths to limit her food intake.

There’s no mention of nutritionists or trainers or outside help for her, if that’s what your wondering. Here’s how Burke described her self-consciousness on the set, from Day One.

“The ‘weight problem’ was something I couldn’t ignore even if I wanted to. The issue was forced on me. When I was doing the Designing Women pilot, the image that sticks in my mind is me out there in the middle of the stage, with everybody looking at me, moving around me, and judging how I looked in outfits. ‘How,’ they asked, holding up their hands, ‘can we cover up those big old thighs?’ Talking about me like I was a piece of meat who couldn’t hear what they were saying.”

Now that’s not to say that the series, which was a run-away hit, didn’t raise Delta’s awareness of how OTHERS were seeing her. She wrote,

“At the same time, I remember going on a personal appearance tour and hearing some comments that struck me as odd. Large-size women were coming up to me and saying, ‘Your success means a lot to us’ and ‘we finally have someone we can relate to. ‘ That kind of threw me: I didn’t think of myself that way – at least, not yet.”

Something happened heading into the fourth season that finally gave Delta the strength and security to address the issue. In an interview found on YouTube – posted by an account called USA Heartbeat – creator-writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is pretty blunt in describing how the exposure and headlines over many months brought Delta Burke’s weight to the public eye.

USA interview

In her book, Delta made it clear that she wanted the script of this break-through episode entitled They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? to project a certain perspective. She wrote,

“I said, ‘Please let me have the jokes about the weight, rather than be the butt of the jokes. Give me the power.’ It was a way to take control of the issue, no more ‘let’s pretend it’s not there.’”

About the actual taping, Delta’s writing concurred with Bloodworth-Thomason’s interview. She wrote,

“ I hugged Linda and thanked her. I felt empowered. It felt as if my body was freed. Instead of trying to hide and cover up and move as little as possible, I got my physical comedy skills back. “ Burke added, “In turn, the character of Suzanne became empowered. It wasn’t other people making fun of Suzanne. Suzanne made the jokes.”

Burke left Designing Women in 1991. Loyal fans will recognize the episode, They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? as the turning point in how the character interacted with the other three women. Suzanne became even more opinionated.

If you listened to the Advanced TV Herstory installment on the Four Female Theory, you’ll

Click for more info

Click for more info

appreciate the angle I’m about to take here. In that installment, Professor Wendy Burns-Ardolino shared portions of her book TV Female Foursomes and Their Fans. The professor had studied the characters and relationships and tropes and themes of seven sitcoms that all featured four women as lead characters.

In that installment, Burns-Ardolino explained that success is rooted in the writing and acting for the four characters. If they can be foils, they create the conflict and tension to be interesting. As foils with strengths that complement each other, they can come together as a team of equals. It’s all very fascinating.

Designing Women is one of the series the professor studied. So when we spoke recently, we talked a bit about the series and how the four characters meld together. For women coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s, this show was a window to what could be.

WBArdolino 4 chars

Now I’ve never met anyone who has ever wanted to be as high maintenance as Suzanne. Maybe those are women with whom it never occurred to me to bring up the series. The professor puts Suzanne’s weight into the context of the character’s evolution, as an individual and as one-quarter of the team.

WBardolino Suzanne

This gives us something to think about, doesn’t it?

So back to this episode, which was one of the first in history that addressed the issue of weight in American culture, in our relationships and how heavy American women were treated as consumers. It’s a powerful reflective message coming from an actress and character who had risen to her stature and presence through her beauty.

As mentioned previously, the major plot of the episode is Suzanne’s 15th high school class reunion. The minor plot is that Anthony is raising money for famine relief by fasting for 48 hours. Julia and MaryJo join him.

Suzanne initiates the conversation as she enters the Sugarbaker Interior Design office living dressroom.

Suzanne dress

Now remember when the professor explained the importance of foil? Annie Potts as MaryJo, in a single speech, can support Suzanne, bust her chops a little and make a grand statement about society in general. And really, aren’t we glad for that? Love Annie Potts.


The reunion is a two-day event, with Friday night being drinks and dancing. It’s at that gathering that Suzanne experiences body-shaming and slams from her classmates – men as well as women. It’s shallow and yet when you think of high school reunions, somewhat expected. A reunion by its nature spurs reflection and comparison, so Bloodworth-Thomason created a safe environment for Suzanne’s growth, which arises from this exchange with Julia.

Suzanne reflection

That was a pretty powerful statement delivered by a woman who spent her years succeeding in J & Sthe pageant circuit. I don’t know about you but the reference to Elizabeth Taylor sparks a virtual slide show of People Magazine and National Enquirer covers of celebrities who have put on weight.

We call it click-bait today, but back then – were we buying the magazines for the articles? Or was it just salacious schadenfreude, with a touch of “Ha! You’re just like the rest of us!”

Now you know this wouldn’t be a Designing Women episode if Julia didn’t rise to the occasion and deliver a healthy dose of reality and candor, thereby providing Suzanne with the confidence and security to tackle Saturday’s reunion banquet.


Dixie Carter as Julia consistently projected pure strength, alongside femininity. We remember the character for all of her high-horse rants, but regular viewers know too well that she used those big shoulder pads and that big hair to shield, comfort and support Suzanne, Mary Jo, Charlene and Anthony.

Remember, Dixie Carter uttered those words in 1989. Mark Zuckerberg was only five, so his family’s holiday photo wasn’t posted on Facebook that year. Or their ski trip. Or the cute photos of the family dog snuggled up near the family fireplace. For a long time, insecure people have mounted tremendous amounts of creativity to “put up appearances.” Julia just wasn’t having any of it then and her words ring true today. Rest your soul, Dixie Carter.

Back to the plot. Suzanne interacts with Anthony at the conclusion of the fast. Anthony introduces her to an Ethiopian boy who lost his family to famine and is now part of a global organization that raises money for famine relief. With humility, Suzanne notes the irony of a planet where so many can die of starvation, while others are unable to manage with too much to eat. It’s a little corny, but puts it all out there.

So, with her head held high, Suzanne attends the reunion banquet and as the program begins, we see MaryJo and Julia slip into the back of the room.

Reunion speech

Ladies and gentleman, those were transformational minutes. Maybe this was like Nixon goingSuzanne trophy to China. It was always said that only a Republican could normalize relations with China. Well maybe the first brush of the topic of weight, comedic and serious, needed to come from a prima donna like Suzanne.

Because we know this character has such a genuine heart, this speech, much like Julia’s, demonstrates just how important words can be. It’s incredibly well-written.

It won’t come as a surprise to you that Delta was nominated for an Emmy that season for Leading Actress in a Comedy Series. The competition was fierce, with Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown topping a field that included Blair Brown as Molly Dodd in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Betty White as Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls, and Cheers’ Kirstie Alley, for her role as Rebecca Howe.

Designing Women is available on DVD and because someone took the time to also upload most episodes to YouTube, an episode and a pep talk from Julia is always just a few clicks away.
Like the many other tough topics it covered, Designing Women broke the silence on weight, professional and well-designed clothing for larger women and maturity or humility that comes with accepting people for who they are. Decades later, we know there’s still plenty of judgment and shame.

The weight loss industry, pardon the pun, is bigger than ever. Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig sign up a new celebrity each year to help us find the real us. And sadly, the eating disorder industry has to exist at all and is far more sophisticated than it was in 1989.

That’s another topic for another podcast. Today we focused on the talented writing and acting of Designing Women, that took a real-life drama that was unfolding in a most unseemly way and stare it down. Delta Burke dreamed big when she wrote this line that I’ll close this installment with.

“It seems to me that we in the entertainment business and society as a whole have a responsibility to show our daughters and sisters that a world of options is their for the picking.”

I’d like to thank Wendy Burns-Ardolino for helping me find the right approach for this topic. Read more about Designing Women, Living Single and other shows featuring four strong women leads in her book TV Female Foursomes and their Fans. It’s available through McFarland Publishing, just go to

Barbara Walters interview with Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney is found on YouTube. Again, this is helpful if you’re trying to piece together the timeline of Delta Burke’s interesting career. Delta’s book, Delta Style, published in 1998 by St. Martin’s Press is really pretty interesting and includes fashion tips for women of all sizes. If I’m gonna take beauty advice from anyone, I want it to be from someone who’s worn a sash.

Find this script and those from past shows at my website – – where you’ll find photos of me more likely to be wearing shoulder pads than a tiara or sash. Follow the podcast on Twitter, our handle is at TV Herstory. Yes indeed we have a Facebook page too and we keep it real there too.

At the host site Libsyn or iTunes, please drop a comment or idea for a future installment. If you’ve never revealed that you’d rather be Suzanne than Julia, share it privately in an email to AdvancedTVHerstory at Just this once. Your secret’s safe with me.

Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams

4-Female Theory and Living Single (1993-8)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the (podcast)

player image

Click to listen

A few months ago, we started a series that looks at TV shows that feature four strong women characters – sitcoms and dramas. Perhaps you caught recap of Sisters, from the 90s, or found out a little backstory of how Desperate Housewives came to earn so many awards. There are more than a dozen shows that use this formula. It’s simply fascinating!

In this installment, Advanced TV Herstory goes in depth with college professor Dr. Wendy Burns-Ardolino on the construction of the four-women dynamic. Based on her new book, TV Book coverFemale Foursomes and Their Fans, published in fall 2015, we’ll also look at the 90s sitcom, Living Single.

As one of very few shows that depicted African-Americans in all the main roles, Living Single was an audience favorite for five seasons on Fox. The cast consisted of Queen Latifah as Kadijah, Kim Coles as Synclaire, Erika Alexander as Maxine and Kim Fields – of Facts of Life fame (yes, another female foursome sitcom) as Regine. We’ll discuss its aspirational and representational aspects for 20-something Americans of all colors in the mid-90s, and how the four main character construct aided the show’s creator, Yvette Lee Bowser to cast a relevant net for plots.

Listeners, you do make a difference! One of you sent a link to Advanced TV Herstory to Dr. Burns-Ardolino, who then contacted me by email. We had a great visit by phone and recently recorded a more focused interview on Living Single and the four-character framework which is her book’s focus.

Dr. Burns-Ardolino is chair of the Liberal Studies Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Her undergraduate degree is in politics and philosophy, her master’s in English and her PhD in cultural studies. She teaches some excellent classes like American Society and Media, Human Traffic & Trafficking – and a few more.

Prior to publishing her latest work, TV Female Foursomes, Burns-Ardolino published Jiggle: (Re)Shaping American Women. That work explores the relationship between American women and their bodies as mediated by both traditional and contemporary foundation garments.

The professor and I agree on a lot and learned we have a lot in common. We haven’t discussed foundation-wear – well partly because I really don’t discuss foundation wear with anyone.

Okay, back to this book about four main women characters, all strong – on TV. I asked the professor how she developed the idea for her book.


The book TV Female Foursomes really is a work that spans writing theory and construction, sociology, gender studies and media. In explaining the relevance, significance and often brilliance of the seven shows she profiled, Burns-Ardolino encountered others who are similarly fascinated by the use of four strong women characters in storytelling.

4 sides

The professor scoured academic and popular journals for insight. She found terrific value and

Women of Living Single

Women of Living Single

used fan commentary and observation, yes the comments written on YouTube, network sites, fan sites and social media to take the temperature of how Living Single as well as six other shows resonated with the audiences. Burns-Ardolino’s research spans the half-hour sitcoms The Golden Girls, Girlfriends, Designing Women, Sex and the City, Hot in Cleveland and the very short-lived Cashmere Mafia.

Fan data

We all know fan sites where people share more, behind the veil of anonymity, than they ever would in public. Burns-Ardolino asserts that fan sites and forums “address a myriad of social, cultural, political and economic concerns, including the representations of women, gender performativity, sex roles, heteronormativity, abortion, miscarriage, menopause, breast cancer, single parenthood, interracial relationships, AIDS, the right to die, chronic fatigue syndrome, pornography, world hunger, obesity, depression, political participation, free speech, the role of women in the church, death and dying and female friendship – to name a few.”

In her research, Burns-Ardolino built on the work of others and broke out fan commentary and conversations across four themes: “messages of praise, issue-focused discussion, long-term narratives and discussion board culture.” In monitoring conversations about shows long cancelled but still in re-runs or that enjoy strong, loyal followings, the professor never participated or added commentary. She just viewed and took notes that generated both quantitative as well as qualitative data.

Here’s how Burns-Ardolino reflects the values seen across three sitcom standards. A fan-commenter “FS” draws upon her own knowledge and of Living Single, The Golden Girls and Designing Women.

Although thinking about it Kim Fields’ show Living Single is very similar to Designing Women and The Golden Girls in its characters:

• The book-smart, business-minded one: Dorothy on The Golden Girls, Julia on Designing Women and Keedisha on Living Single.

• The Sexy One: Suzanne on Designing Women, Blanche on The Golden Girls and Regine on Living Single.

• The dim-witted one: Rose on The Golden Girls, Charlene on Designing Women, Synclaire on Living Single and then there was the more sarcastic/immature (at times) one: Mary Jo on Designing Women, Sophia on The Golden Girls, Maxine on Living Single.

I took this quote, from page 10 of Burns-Ardolino’s introduction for three reasons.

First, I give the professor a lot of credit for wading through hundreds of sites and cataloging millions of words of fan expression.

Second reason for reciting that early quote from the book is that it reveals just how seriously and closely women viewers watch shows – both current and reruns. Sometimes that creates expectations that are almost impossible to fulfill. But it also has the power to build a loyal fan-base that, armed with social media, has yet to really make a mark.

Third reason why that basic quote is a good example of how much some people think about TV shows is you – the listener of this podcast. Advanced TV Herstory attempts to gather first-hand perspective about women in and of TV. The professor and I share a great interest in TV Herstory. It was an important part of her growing up in Tennessee and my childhood in Minnesota.

Scholar Fan

She researches and writes. I research, get to use audio clips and produce a podcast. So one might conclude, this makes me a Scholar Fan, of sorts. Life is good.

Before we look at the show Living Single and the place it holds in TV herstory, I want to share more with you about the professor’s book. She draws out the societal value of each show – that long list of topics I mentioned earlier – how the plots unfolded or were sustained over time, and how viewers received it. They successfully transformed stereotypes or weighed in on social issues, Burns-Ardolino asserts, through the effective use of four strong main characters.

“For example, The Golden Girls combats ageism through depictions of active female desire of women over the age of fifty, while upward mobility and racism are addressed in virtually every episode of Living Single and Girlfriends. Female sexuality and heterosexist values are challenged by Sex and the City and traditional Southern femininity and contemporary feminism collide in the plotlines of Designing Women. The ways in which these programs employed stereotypical female foursomes to confront and disrupt mainstream cultural ideologies, hierarchies and power relations enables them to contribute to the growth and development of the third-wave feminist movement.”

Relax, the whole book isn’t that intellectual. There are meaty comparisons of the four in The designingwomenGolden Girls to the four in Hot in Cleveland… and to the four in Sex and the City… and so on. But there are legitimate comparisons to make and I am glad Burns-Ardolino has put this work out there. She too is thrilled that it’s been published. From her research, she knows the kinds of readers or groups to which it should or might appeal.


Needless to say I was thrilled that the professor wanted to talk about Living Single, which debuted on the Fox network in 1993. At that time, Fox had a very different outlook on its place in the cable world than it does today. In fact, from 2004 through 2012, it garnered the highest network ratings in the 18-49 year old demographic. In the 2000s, – yes a few years after Living Single aired, Fox was the home to original series like The O.C., House, Bernie Mac, Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development.

Fox started out as a fledgling cable channel in 1986 and grew its programming book bit by bit each year. In January 1993, the year Living Single premiered, Fox had extended its original prime time programming to cover each night of the week. That programming caught the eye of African American and Latino audiences. They saw faces and heard plot lines absent or forgotten on the major networks.

Here’s how the professor explains the formula of four strong women and how Living Single puts it to use.


Here’s the set-up explained another way. Arsenio Hall, a significant African-American on TV cast on arsenio hallduring the late 80s and throughout the 90s invited the Living Single cast to his Fox talk show.

Arsenio Hall intro

Before the four cover a few other topics, Arsenio asks for them to describe a bit about their characters. Kim Fields and Kim Coles chime in. My own memory of The Arsenio Hall Show is that there was always laughter. It seemed like his guests felt at ease. They had fun.

Arsenio chat

In her research on Living Single, the professor quotes an articulate, well-written post by blogger LaToya Peterson, posted in April of 2008 about Living Single. Looking back on the show a decade after it aired, Peterson put great context into how a show about 4 professional, educated, middle-class single women captured a moment in time for her and her peers. Here’s a quote from the Racialacious blog, which Burns-Ardolino quoted on p. 38…

“Their lifestyles look decidedly normal. Though I remember reading criticism somewhere that the kind of brownstone they had in New York would probably be out of reach, watching the show as an adult reinforces to me that the 90s were a time of more realistic TV… Even within the ridiculous comedy setups, the dialogue is gifted in showing how people actually talk and relate to each other.”

Living Single is available on YouTube and the first season has been released on DVD. It was a hit on an emerging network that made a 180 degree turn in its focus. Its audience was largely Gen X. Living Single represented prime time progress, alongside The Cosby Show, A Different World and a host of other sitcoms and dramas.

Yet, because Living Single was one of only two shows of the female foursome construction, they hold more power for social disruption, as the professor points out. Feminists like LaToya Peterson and others in social media contribute in their own way to defining the show’s significance and impact on teens and young adults at the time. And, the pickins’, for young women of color, was somewhat slim.

Good bad

Men as well as women (or boys as well as girls), as it turns out, are loyal followers of Living Single. In 2014, Kim Fields was a guest on Sway’s radio show, which is broadcast on Sirius XM radio. Sway talks candidly about his memory of Living Single.

Kim on Sway

There’s a pride there. Through her acting and career that has been free of incident or scandal, Kim Fields has been a part of people’s lives. She’s made people laugh. She’s a good soul.

On the DVD edition of Season One, Kim Coles and creator Yvette Lee Bowser appear in bonus feature, providing a little backstory about the show’s creation, underscoring Burns-Ardolino’s earlier statements about the show’s focus on sisterhood and breaking out into the big world. There may have been other interviews on talk shows, but in a pre-internet world, no one thought to tape them for future uploading to YouTube.

How Ya

And while there’s no question that Queen Latifah was the best known member of the cast. Her career was on a huge upswing, having made a name for herself as an African-American woman rapper

Latifah’s success and her role as the stable, matriarch Kadijah is mentioned in a book Burns-Ardolino used in her research. The book is Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television by Kristal Brent Zook. Zook’s 1999 book observes, “In looking at Latifah’s various on-screen roles, then, we see that her feminist and lesbian characterizations represent an integral part of her persona as a popular icon among African American audiences. Moreover, because she is situated within a community of hip-hop artists, a whole body of narrative possibilities is to her characterizations – possibilities that both challenge patriarchal contexts and affirm traditional notions of mythical matriarchal Africanity with a contemporary womanist twist.”

Is Queen Latifah a transformational figure who stands to have a long, high profile career? It’s queen-latifah-variety-cover-smallquite likely. It’s just a shame she hasn’t worn a five-year span of her life as more of a badge of honor than she has.

Since Living Single’s last episode, Kim Fields has acted some and directed occasionally. Kim Coles has appeared in TV shows and has directed and written. And Erika Alexander has a long list of series that she’s had a recurring or single performance in.

It’s interesting to put Living Single into the context of the times – the early 90s – and compare them with today. Audience behaviors are changing as more households pull the plug on cable. But, there’s a spike in shows with increasingly diverse casts. Last year skeptics weighed in with the question of whether this is a permanent development or a spike. It was noted that quote – upstart networks like Fox and the WB went hard after diverse audiences with shows like Living Single, Martin, Moesha and The Jamie Foxx Show. A network merger between UPN and the WB in the late 90s revealed the audience segregation made better social sense than it did business sense. The surviving network’s format morphed toward integration, with increasing focus on reality shows. Fox shifted its focus to young men.

Knowing the business side of television networks is important to the degree that, we understand precisely the opportunity Yvette Lee Bowser refers to, when she says she was asked to develop a show. It was cast with grade-A talent, the writing was solid and it resonated with audiences for five seasons. Had the sand not shifted under its feet, the show might have gone on further or spun off to develop a whole new set of characters. Instead, it’s kept alive in memories and textbooks as a time in American and TV herstory when a show gave voice to realistic aspiration and representation of young African American women.

Geez, I really don’t want to end this on a downer. So here are a few take-aways from the interview with the professor and what we know now about Living Single.

One, we are of like mind – you, me and Wendy Burns-Ardolino. There’s a blend of optimism for the future but also a recognition that there’s more work to be done, understanding the lessons of old shows, veteran directors, showrunners and writers.

Two, it pays to forward a link of this show to someone you know. Before I started this podcast, I never would have had the occasion to know the professor. Now we’re practically buds so much that she’s all but invited me to flop on her couch the next time I’m in Michigan. Seriously though, connections are powerful. Women who get that do better, particularly when we are so united in our focus and goals.

Three, it’s rewarding to know that if you’re a participant on a fan site or message board, your commentary might be considered data by someone conducting research.

Fourth and lastly, we need to remember that just as in TV female foursomes, when we surround ourselves with others who have different strengths, we all grow and are better positioned for success. It’s certainly more interesting. And we also have learned that no single person – real or made up – is exclusively one type. We’re each hold a hint of the naif, shades of matriarch or maybe aspire to be a little more femme fatale.

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. I am pleased to have had the chance to introduce you to the very thoughtful Professor Wendy Burns-Ardolino, PhD. Her book is described and available for purchase at Because her book documents a wide range of data gathering techniques, she presents yet more resources for someone who has an interest in media, representations and feminism. And, Wendy is happy to have you contact her directly.

While there are no direct audio clips from Living Single in this installment, know that the first season is available on DVD and most of the seasons can be found on YouTube. YouTube was also the source for the Arsenio Hall Show clip with the cast and someone’s upload of the DVD bonus feature.

If you’ve got an idea or theory or moment in TV herstory that needs a thorough scrubbing, send it along! Our email is Find us on Twitter through our handle, @TVHerstory. Feedback is a good thing, so please leave comments at the host site, Libsyn or iTunes, however it is that you came up on this podcast.

Scripts for this and past episodes are housed at, which is also where you can find more information about my public speaking. I’ve presented a host of topics to rooms of up to 100 people and eschew the concept of reading from a powerpoint. You won’t be disappointed.

It’s been my pleasure to be your host, I’m Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Lucille Ball’s Humility & Pride

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

player image

Click to listen

Lucille Ball. Yes, we all love Lucy in black & white or maybe rich 60s color. Together with her husband Desi Arnaz, a Cuban-born musician, they leveraged all their drive, creativity, business acumen and occasionally life savings, to set high standards and create processes for the budding television industry. Without Lucy and Desi and their company DesiLu Studios, TV may not have taken as many risks in the early days.

Lucille Ball was born in 1911 and died in 1989. When the show I Love Lucy hit its high mark in the mid-50s, Lucy was north of 40. This installment of Advanced TV Herstory is a brief look into how this woman handled her fame, via the rare video clips housed online. It’s not a biography, though there’s one I’ve relied on to frame the context of some of these clips I highly recommend.

Stefan Kanfer’s Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life & Comic Art of Lucille Ball, published in Kanfer book2003 is very well written and thoroughly researched. As a pioneer in the television industry who rose quickly to a high profile, Lucille Ball’s TV appearances reveal a little more than the game face she honed to perfection over the years. We will listen to clips from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s that remind us that she successfully navigated the scrutiny applied to celebrities. She came from a hardscrabble background and worked very hard to achieve success. Women of that generation tended to keep their private lives and emotions, private.

By the time of her death in 1989, Lucy knew she was loved. She had received every recognition and award within the television industry and American culture. Here’s part of a tribute paid to her in 1986 when she was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. This clip is available on YouTube.

Kennedy Song Tribute

What make this Kennedy Center Honors tribute so important? A few things. First, it’s long been a practice that the President of the United States attends this Washington D.C. based night of Kennedy Reaganentertainment. So we see cut-aways to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, whom Lucy had known for decades from Hollywood.

If you read any Lucille Ball biographies, you learn about her rocky marriage to Desi and how even upon their divorce, their lives intertwined running DesiLu Studios and raising their children.

In his book, Kanfer gives ample coverage to the period, after Lucy had become a national icon, when the waning days of the House Un-American Activities Committee chewed on a fact that at one point, she registered in a California election as a Communist. Her public statements at the time do not deny the fact and she offered the explanation that she did so to appease her grandfather. As her father had died at a young age, her grandfather, whom she transplanted along with the rest of her family from upstate New York to California once she had established her career in Hollywood, was an important figure in her life up until his death.

Lucille Ball knew just how grave these allegations could become. Similar charges waged by conservative Washington politicians, based in far less truth than what Lucy readily admitted, had ruined Hollywood careers. This dark cloud hung over her head off and on for years but eventually passed quietly. She was an All-American star at that point and the claim was too small and discreet for anything more to be made of it.

But I am sure that when Lucille Ball was escorted into the reception room to visit with President and Mrs. Reagan, not a word was said about his role in blacklisting and feeding the anti-Communist fervor that threatened the creativity and independence of the motion picture and television industry. Lucy had more on her mind.

Five days before the Kennedy Center Honors event, Desi Arnaz had passed away from lung cancer. Following their divorce, they had collaborated on projects and stayed in touch. But the divorce, chronicled in Kanfer’s book, revealed the worst side of fame and success. Desi’s bad habits became worse. Lucy struggled to begin learning the business side of DesiLu as his judgment faltered. They had built a major Hollywood powerhouse together – it was split 50/50. A few years after the divorce, she bought out his share.

The Kennedy Center Honors producers had received a statement from Desi before his death Kennedy 2which was read at the event by actor Robert Stack. It’s respectful, filled with admiration and love. Cut-aways to Lucy – in the public eye at such a public event – show her doing all she can, seated next to husband Gary Morton, to maintain composure.

So, when Bea Arthur, Valerie Harper and Pam Dawber (remember, this was the mid-80s) come out singing Lucy’s praises, she must have welcomed the relief and release.
While there are many women in comedy who credit Lucy with inspiring them, by virtue of timing and the form Lucy’s late career took, few actually had the opportunity to work with her Kennedy 1or even meet her. Her second and third major series, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy aired from 1962 to 1974. Those shows readily featured big name guests enjoying a cameo appearance with the First Lady of Television – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Tallulah Bankhead. One of the few young performers to emerge from a little Lucy exposure was Carol Burnett.

A legend in her own right and 22 years younger than Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett in my view delivered a respectful but candid recollection of her time working with Lucy.

Carol Burnett 1

When Carol said Lucy said they put an “s” on her name, that was her way of saying that the crew had given her the nickname Lucille Balls – now that Desi was out of the picture.

It’s pretty cool to think of the overlap of these shows on prime time, since the Carol Burnett Show premiered in 1967 and pressed on for more than a decade and that Carol had Lucy on as a Cavett 74guest. Carol’s read of Lucy’s frankness can readily be found in Lucy’s guest appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. By the way, she’s wearing a big brown coat with trim that looks like poodle fur on the neck, cuffs and down the front.

Based on how cranky she sounds – it’s 1974 so she’s only 63 years old, you get the feeling she’s waiting for someone to ask her better questions. If not, she’ll do the probing.

Dick Cavett

As much as no one would’ve considered Dick Cavett or his writers fools, you get the impression from Lucy’s tone that she – as the saying goes – didn’t suffer fools gladly.

The professionalism of which Burnett speaks is a theme throughout later Lucy biographies. You also learn from those books that she was deliberate, strategic and serious about her craft – acting – and the business side of the industry – DesiLu Studios.

It’s just that when given the opportunity to dig deeply into those areas, either the interviewer was told not to go there or didn’t think the audience would be interested — I don’t know. My point is that even Barbara Walters, in a big fancy Barbara Walters 1977 interview, couldn’t extract more from Lucy than the sort of canned, cursory reflection one might call “guarded.”

Barbara Walters

It’s just sort of “game face” – telling only as much as is necessary and not getting too personal – that Kanfer alludes to in his extensive bibliography of his book Ball of Fire. I appreciate Kanfer listing and providing a brief comment about the books written about this famous couple. Lucy and Desi both wrote autobiographies and there are nine biographies written throughout the decades.

About Lucille Ball’s autobiography, published in 1996 – seven years after her death – Kanfer observed “A posthumously published, less-than-frank exercise in nostalgia. The tone is clearly that of a woman who would rather not bear any grudges – in print – but who is withholding a lot from the reader. Nonetheless, a valuable item because Lucy wrote so little about herself.”
Fortunately for us, YouTube offers up video – apart from all the TV series – that helps us see a little more inside Lucy than she was willing to write.

She was, however, incredibly consistent in giving credit to her shows’ writers, producers, directors and Desi over the years. In answering Barbara Walter’s question, she immediately credited the writers for their brilliance and groundbreaking approach to TV comedy. One was a woman – Madelyn Pugh Davis, who along with Bob Carrol Jr. – wrote episodes for all of Lucy’s series and others that were DesiLu products. Late in her life Madelyn Pugh Davis wrote her own autobiography – Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy. I haven’t read it yet, but I bet Treva Silverman, the first woman writer of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and profiled in an installment of Advanced TV Herstory did – the minute it hit the bookstores!

Laughing with Lucy was published in 2005 and Madelyn Pugh Davis passed away in 2011. There is also a great interview of her online at Emmy TV Legends.

Okay, why is it important that we know about Madelyn Pugh Davis? Well first of all, Lucille Ball gives Madelyn and this core team SO much credit for her success. Lucy maintained her brain didn’t think funny, but she could “do” funny if it was given to her. Living a career in the spotlight and celebrated as Lucy was, THAT’S the definition of humility.

In fact, it goes clear back to 1953, when I Love Lucy won its first Emmy as Best Situation1953 Emmy

Comedy. The show had premiered only two years earlier.

53 Emmy

Lo and behold, in 1954, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences debuted the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. THAT, ladies and gentleman, is power exercised for good.

Did you hear how earnest Lucy was in her remarks? Some of her most revealing moments came when she had no time or expectation to prepare. In 1967, she emerged from her seat stunned and unprepared to accept one of her four career Emmys.

1967 Emmy

This was the real Lucille Ball. Classy, humble, delivering a heartfelt thank you to her peers.
But Lucy was as decorated a TV hero and veteran of rubber chicken dinners. In this clip from a 1969 Johnny Carson Tonight Show appearance, you get the sense she knew a good awards show when she saw one – or had to sit through one.

Carson Ladies Room

Who’s idea was it to have continuous spotlight? Telling this story on national TV may have been Lucy’s way of providing feedback to the event planners at the Academy.

Like Carol Burnett tells us, Lucy’s commitment to quality was her hallmark.

Burnett Lucy craft

Lucille Ball lived an incredible life and had a tremendous sense of humor. She surrounded herself by hard working people who were hugely successful at making others laugh. It’s just that there are so few people left to tell those stories.

Call us fortunate and turn the channel back to YouTube, where you can find a 1975 episode of Dinah’s Place, hosted by Dinah Shore. Lucy and her long-time co-star Vivian Vance were reunited for what would turn out to be one of their last public appearances together. In her later years, Vance suffered strokes and passed away in 1979.

But in 1975, she’s got stories to tell and Dinah’s place was the haven for women storytellers. Dinah Shore, celebrated singer from the 40s and 50s ran her talk shows through the 70s. Fashion (think bright red slacks – they were slacks back then not pants – and a white blouse with a white v-neck vest that might have a red v on it ), lively banter among women, Dinah was always so nice and bubbly…

Anyway, Vivian brought her A-game with these two stories. Lucy didn’t say much throughout Viv’s bit, she nodded occasionally, added some color commentary and laughed. This is a rare appearance when Lucy was in her natural hair color phase – a scary blend of white/gray in the L Viv on Dinahfront and otherwise black/gray toward the back. It’s important you know that because Vivian mentions it, as well as Lucy’s trademark henna treatments.

Lucy Viv Contract

It’s hard to tell who else was sitting on Dinah’s couch that day. It looks like Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucy and Desi, maybe is seated to Dinah’s left. But Vivian came loaded for laughs.

Lucy Viv King

Lucy, Viv, Jack Benny. They were all just hanging out, all just a bit surprised that they had made it in their chosen profession. In the early days of TV, you brought your best act and prayed for a break. In this clip from that same Johnny Carson tonight show where she complained about the awards show, Lucy revealed that she too could be awed by genius, by “presence.”

JCarson Mae

That bit is cool and fun. So imagine my delight when, digging a little deeper on the interwebs, I found this exchange between Oprah and Bette Midler. Come to think of it, there’s something – almost therapeutic – about the TV talk show couch. Dinah, Johnny, Oprah…


The much celebrated, successful Divine Ms. M had her moment of awe as well. Storytelling is a skill we as women are losing all too quickly. Our weekends aren’t filled with highlight reels of great things other women did all week and the number of talk shows – I think we’re down to counting on one hand only. Late night sort of counts, but I’ll feel better once we have a late night show hosted by a woman.

So we can feel good that more information has been shared about Lucille Ball than she was willing to reveal in her own biography or to Barbara Walters. But there are still some questions that only Lucy could have answered, as a woman, as a pioneer in the TV industry.
Here’s what I’d ask Lucy: Shortly after your divorce from Desi, you bought out his share of DesiLu. As CEO, reviewing potential TV shows in development, you were presented with Star Trek. What was it about Star Trek that caused you to pull it out of the waste basket and green light it?

Or to set up this question, I’d quote Kanfer’s book, page 126, about some early decisions to film I Love Lucy before a studio audience (it had never been done before) and how to get it distributed nation-wide. Kanfer wrote:

In 1951, when only 8 million Americans owned TV sets, shows were carried city to city via coaxial cable. It failed to reach even halfway across the country. Some 85 percent of viewers were located in the East and Midwest. Instead of seeing I Love Lucy live, they would be forced to see a kinescope made earlier – a blurred and indeed cheesy version of the show.

So I’d ask, Lucy, you and Desi were assuming daunting risk to shoot the episodes before a live audience and put it on 35 mm film (this is why it was so well preserved for reruns). What were those conversations like? Was there ever a moment when either one of you wanted to back out?

Or, about a hundred other questions. The quality of the film product IS what made I Love Lucy the first and most venerable sitcom in reruns. Those reruns are as responsible for building Lucille Ball’s legacy as anything.

Quality through and through – from the writing to the production process. Lucille Ball was a fairly humble, detail-oriented professional. What’s not to love?

As we roll the credits on this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, I’ll recommend Stefan Kanfer’s book Ball of Fire from 2003 as a real good read about Lucy. If you’re more interested in DesiLu’s pioneering role in the TV industry, I’d suggest Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert’s DesiLu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz from 1993.

Shoot me a line with ideas for future installments – or moments in TV herstory that inspire or frustrate you. Our Twitter handle is TVHerstory, email is I’d be mighty grateful if you recommend this podcast to your friends. Your endorsement means a lot to me.

If you don’t already, you can subscribe to the show at either the main hosting site, Libsyn or iTunes. I’m happy to help you navigate that if you think you’d like to but are not sure how.
Find this and scripts of past installments at my website, If you’d like to have me speak to your group about any of these great topics or podcasting or Dinah Shore’s closet… you’ll find more contact information there as well.

Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams

Off Script Viewing: Judy Garland Christmas Show 1963

There is no detailed script for this podcast, just a simple introduction and conclusion.

player image

Click to listen


Welcome to a special installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Regular listeners be warned, we’re going off script. It’s the holidays and some things are just meant to be enjoyed.

For those of us of a certain age, Christmas variety shows were very much a part of growing up. judy-garland-christmasAdvanced TV Herstory has looked where women stand in the category. With special in-studio guest Kelli Johnson, we’re going to watch the 1963 Judy Garland Christmas Special. No category more American than Christmas variety shows. No entertainer more accomplished giving her all on TV in 1963-64 than Judy Garland. That makes this show, which airs annually on various cable channels, a true time capsule.

Throw out Norman Rockwell. Judy Garland, in her only Christmas show, helped set a formula that remained a staple on TV for 30 years.

Before we jump right into the show, here’s a little background on Kelli. She knows her TV. Her memory for TV is uncanny, which is really helpful to me sometimes when I’m looking for details or information not found on the Internet. Kelli’s got the grasp of American History that makes you want to have her on your bar trivia team. And, she’s got an eye for detail that I am confident will help bring this show to life.

Kelli grew up in a small, homogeneous Scandinavia-themed town in southern Minnesota. I grew up in a Minneapolis suburb and our church didn’t have a basement. That’s pretty much the story.

One of the many things we share is the appreciation – okay call it love – of TV and how it represents America at the moment.


Before I roll the credits for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, it’s important that I share a few notes. First, the primary ingredients in Contac Cold Medicine in 1963 would have been Phenylephrine, a decongestant and acetaminophen or aspirin maybe, as a pain reliever. Second, Kathie Lee’s maiden name is Epstein. With her first marriage to Paul Johnson, she was known on Name That Tune as Kathie Lee Johnson.

Third, we actually had more to share about Lorna Luft than time permitted. Lorna went on to perform in a few movies and TV guest roles, but made her greatest impression in TV as producer of the 2001 mini-series, Judy Garland: Me and My Shadow. It was based on her

Lorna Luft (2011)

Lorna Luft (2011)

family memoir of the same name, published in 1998. The mini-series was nominated for an Emmy in 2001.

As is often the case however, the memoir reopened old wounds between Liza and Lorna. Until recent diagnosis of, treatment for, remission and re-emergence of breast cancer, Lorna had toured the United Kingdom headlining a Judy Garland Tribute Show. There is real talent there and we wish Lorna only the best in 2016.

Which brings me to a final thought Kelli shared with me, regarding the expectations we place on women performers to not only perform, but project a perfect life with perfect children. It was a different standard to uphold – male entertainers, just as their counterparts in politics, business or sports, were expected to give their all to career, craft or the people.

So as we close out 2015, let’s remember that our women performers are only human. This Christmas episode is as much a walk into the past as it is an understanding of how much smarter we are today and how we can all stand to become a little more compassionate.

Thanks for listening today. The Judy Garland Christmas Special, complete with original color covercommercials, can be found on YouTube. Thank you to Kelli Johnson for a a fast paced, insightful viewing session. Follow Advanced TV Herstory on Twitter, look for the handle TVHerstory.

Please, post a comment or suggestion for a future show at our hosting site Libsyn, or at iTunes. Wanna keep your name out of it? Shoot me an email at Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Diana Ross’ 1983 Concert in Central Park

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Welcome back loyal listeners! You’re in for a treat today. The subject matter before us is indeed a hybrid of sociology, history, pop culture, leadership and even science!

It’s an event developed for television yet was hardly viewed by anyone – worldwide – when it aired in 1983 and has sat in the film can until 2012, when it was released on DVD.

Most importantly, this IS TV herstory. So it doesn’t matter if you were alive or old enough to watch the news, or had the paid subscription to Showtime when it first set out to compete with HBO. Listen up. And if you already have an opinion of Diana Ross, whose brilliant career in show business has exceeded 50 years, suspend it for the length of this podcast.

I want to talk to you about one event, one woman, one team of technical personnel and the miracle that eight hundred thousand concert-goers filed into and out of women in audienceNew York’s Central Park largely without incident. And that egress part, it was in the dark and pouring rain. Oh and there was a second miracle – it just happened to be captured on film.

The performance took place on July 21st, 1983 and again on July 22nd. Torrential rain brought an early end to the first concert. Ross was perhaps at the pinnacle of her solo career. Her start with the Supremes, her work in the movies and a string of pop hits had kept her in the public eye, at this point, for roughly 20 years. Talk about reinvention.

And with every reinvention, she set records, she broke race barriers, she was often the only woman in the room, or for certain, the most powerful woman in the room.

I give Diana Ross an incredible amount of credit for drive and determination. That’s why I look to this concert footage, which I encourage you to buy – it’s available on DVD from the great people at The Shout Factory – for a consummate lesson in professionalism and leadership.

How much of a lesson? I am not venturing into hyperbole when I make this comparison. In the undergraduate class I taught last year, we discussed at length the famous airplane landing in the Hudson River.

You remember it well, of course, because it was so well documented on TV, and because even in

Chesley Sullenberger, veteran pilot, guided this plane to a safe landing in the Hudson River. None of the 155 on board were harmed.

Chesley Sullenberger, veteran pilot, guided this plane to a safe landing in the Hudson River. None of the 155 on board were harmed.

2009, people’s cell phones had video capability. So think back to January 2009, a calm and collected veteran pilot named Chesley Sullenberger and his crew made an emergency water landing in the Hudson River off Manhattan, New York City. A flock of geese had gotten mangled in the engines upon take off. All of the 155 passengers and crew exited the plane safely.

Does this concert performed in the rain compare, in terms of risk, execution and leadership to a safe water landing? Absolutely!

Okay, so Diana Ross near the top of her career, agrees to do a concert in Central Park in 1983. It would be simulcast worldwide on Showtime, which was new to the pay cable channel market. It was packaged as a TV concert, so the lighting, sound, and cameras were state of the art. Given the choreography of her patter, Diana and her orchestra must have recently concluded a tour.

Let’s understand just how significant this concert was. It was a free concert, performed as a Riverfrontfundraiser for the park’s improvement campaign. Held in the middle of a steamy July in 1983, a little more than three and a half years after the sold out concert for the The Who, held at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, resulted in the deaths of 11 attendees. The cause? Stampeding concert-goers who were scrambling to grab one of the 14,000 plus unassigned, general admission seats.

If you want to know why so few concerts today are general admission, the answer is, The Who, 1979. Steve Binder, who directed the performance for TV, provides a commentary on the DVD – Love, love, love those bonus features! His insight extends not just from his role as director of this concert, but his own – then – 20 year business relationship with Diana Ross. Here he shares his memory of concerns about the size and potential behavior of the crowd.

Crowd size

There seems to be a difference in reporting of the actual crowd size. As you heard Binder say, he estimated the two days of audience to be near 1.3 million. News reports included on the DVD

Estimated crowd of 800,000 people gather on the Great Lawn of Central Park

Estimated crowd of 800,000 people gather on the Great Lawn of Central Park

indicate an estimate of 800,000 for the first night. The DVD package cites “over 400,000.” When you watch the video, you see that it’s truly standing room only on the Great Lawn of Central Park. It’s a huge space in a huge park.

So, because home movie cameras in the day were big VHS units that required battery packs slung from your shoulder, it’s unlikely much footage was shot from the crowd. Binder talks about the importance of Shout Factory bringing the concert to DVD.

Binder footage

I arrived at this podcasting endeavor via a career in public relations. It’s included crisis communications, messaging, event management, executive handholding and strategizing at every turn. This is a piece of history that shows us how to prevent chaos and how important it is to trust a team of professionals. In a few minutes, we’ll hear how Ross managed the crowd from the stage, keeping them calm while they were assembled and directing them with exit information. As much as audio tells the story, it really is a video moment – a great gift for any Ross fan or event coordinator in your life.

The video shows the luck and character that presses on in order to entertain the crowd that turned out to see her.

With such a long tenure with Ross, Binder commented some on a piece of video that shows a close up of Ross. Soaked to the bone due to the 20 minutes or so of driving rain, Ross bridges her list of hits with audience chatter. Binder offered his two cents…

Reading a mind

Binder admits everything we see on the video, he saw from the control truck. My read on what Ross was thinking and was she was looking at in the audience, is a bit more built out. First, she’s been performing live for more than 20 years. The audience before her is very diverse, but there is a strong police presence. Before the rain started, she in fact thanks the police – “my guys in blue” as she calls them. Later, as the rain starts, she asks them to not get too rough with members of the audience. But I am guessing there were key uniforms on both sides of the stage whom she monitored.

She was likely watching the scaffolding that framed the remaining spotlights – was it swaying in

And now we know where Oprah got the idea for her signature connection with the camera

And now we know where Oprah got the idea for her signature connection with the camera

the wind? The cordless microphone Binder mentions is just that, a handheld wireless microphone. She didn’t have an ear piece at all to communicate with anyone off stage. Twice her wardrobe person assisted her on stage and twice a soaking wet Barry Diller, who has since gone on to lead major motion picture studios and TV networks, came out to relay information from police.

How did she do it? How did she remain calm and keep her crowd of 800,000 under control. Well first, there was her friendly, somewhat campy, somewhat flirty patter, well-honed through the years. This clip was from an early number of the set list – before the rain.

Mae West patter

Her audience loved it when she played with them. Relating to an audience (or your followers) is an art-form and requires people skills that don’t necessarily come with your professional training. She was – and is – a consummate public relations expert. The same skills that guided her to maintain a gentle hold on the audience led her to realize that – with each passing minute of deluge – the world was watching and you just can’t PAY for this kind of publicity. As long as it’s not screwed up. Here’s Binder’s take.

Binder on history

So remember, this was a telecast that included technology in the sky – satellites and such – that was promised to subscribers around the world. Who was calling shots on the ground, literally, in Central Park? What was the network saying? In hindsight, the contingency plan seems so lame it’s no wonder those on the ground pressed on…

Binder contingency

Let’s tally up all the risk involved. Electricity, concentrated most intensively around the stage. Rain creating puddles of water that appeared instantly. Because the skies got so dark so quickly, much of the audience was in darkness. Central Park is intentionally only lit along the walkways to begin with and who knows what it was like in 1983? That was probably one of the things they had hoped to buy with the proceeds from this concert!

Electricity. Water. Darkness. Thunder and a crowd just short of a million people who are being held together by one woman. Hmmm, where WERE the lawyers? Here is the first time Ross provides direction to the crowd, done during a song she had sung so many times that it came naturally..

First crowd dispersal

Automatic pilot, as it were, enabling her to think and process on her feet – which, by the way, she wore 3 inch heels the entire time. So yeah, add to the list of real risks Diana wiping out onstage due to a heel gliding across a wet stage. About 10 more minutes later, it’s raining harder. Her bright red sparkly body suit is soaked through and through.

Second direction

Calling audibles and ratcheting down the energy for two reasons. By shifting to Endless Love, she calmed people down. The musicians were able to accompany her on Endless Love because those required for the song still had functional microphones. This clip gives you the vibe that there was a lot of improvising, a lot of mind-reading going on. At one point, Diana’s costume supervisor, Diana Eden, offers her a plastic clear rain poncho. She declines it.

Third crowd

As much as I feel like I am spoiling the video for you, believe me. Only the DVD tells the full story, certainly not the skimpy compilation some folks have posted on You Tube. It’s like riding shotgun on someone’s hardest day at work. But you’re amazed that through it all, she’s still smiling and the crew that is still hooked up to electricity is on post.

With more information relayed from the soaked Barry Diller (otherwise known as Mr. Diane

Media mogul Barry Diller relays information

Media mogul Barry Diller relays information

Von Furstenberg), Ross tells everyone she’s calling it for the night. Without any assurances from Showtime, the Central Park people or her technical folks, she puts forth the notion that maybe they will be able to perform the concert tomorrow.

At that moment, in telling the audience to calmly proceed to the exits, she had held out as long as she could. Up until the rain began, the show had been tightly scripted and the camera direction a masterful moment of Binder’s own career.

Tech ad lib

They threw out the book that contained camera cues and cuts. They improvised, following Diana Ross’ lead on song selection. Little did any of the technical people know that it too would become an evening that has served as a highlight to their careers.

Sound & lighting

Task your people to deliver their very best, for a world-wide audience and take them to the brink, fueled only by adrenaline generated by the fact that about half of the 800,000 people were still hanging around, sharing the moment.

That’s a Type A personality or a whole bunch of them. There’s ego there. But people who want to achieve and push themselves are attracted to that environment and they’re willing to push to deliver something extraordinary. Binder marveled at what the entire team behind the event accomplished.

Work non-stop

Binder knows leadership and his commentary speaks volumes to the success he has had. If the event had looked good on the surface but been a disaster behind the scenes, I can’t imagine they could have paid him enough to do this commentary. Rather, we learn that since 1983, he and Ross have collaborated on all sorts of projects. With regard to how Ross handled herself that night, all I hear in his voice is sincerity and respect.

DR control

Beyond guiding the audience to a safe landing, of sorts, that night, Binder also reflected on Ross’ leadership of her staffs over the years.

DR team lead

You heard director Steve Binder touch on all the extensive crew that was assembled to work on this project. Who are they and where are they now, I wondered. Did they share Binder’s enthusiasm for the collegiality.

In our second installment about this concert, we’re going to hear from entertainment writer Dustin Fitzharris. Fitzharris has conducted extensive research on the concert. He’s interviewed some of those people who helped make it such a magical and memorable evening. And he’s arrived at some conclusions about how this event fits into the timeline of entertainment and American social history.

There is much to be learned and celebrated from becoming more educated on this important , though rather unknown event. That’s why the DVD and Binder’s commentary represents the first building block to understanding and seeing what happened.

In 1983, an African American woman who had pioneered her own place in American music held court in an iconic American location. New York was on the upswing, but still pretty gritty, worn and in need of some TLC. Long before walk-through metal detectors and cops in military style riot gear, 800,000 people, of all colors and ages, peacefully filed into the park, enjoyed the event and left.

For so many reasons, this will never happen again. That fact alone makes for incredible viewing.

Audio clips from this installment of Advanced TV Herstory come from the Shout Factory DVD,Shout_Factory_logo which contains the rained out concert on the 21st and the full – dry concert – performed on the 22nd. It also includes the Steve Binder commentary.

Thanks for listening to this installment. It’s been a real pleasure to elevate this story to your attention. It’s worthy of so much more, so please, share with your friends. If you have memories of the concert or attended it, please send them along via email to or post them as a comment at iTunes or my hosting site libsyn.

Follow the podcast on Twitter, our handle is @TVHerstory. Whether it’s leadership or tales of courage, I can bring TV Herstory to life for your organization, training or conference. Shoot me a line and let’s figure out how to customize a session that fits your event goals. At my website,, you’ll find this script and those from past shows.

You’ve been a terrific audience and I’m glad we’ve both stayed dry throughout. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Women of MTM Pt 3 (Treva Silverman)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

Welcome to the third and final segment in a series that profiles the many talented, funny women who played such a huge role in the making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This segment focuses on the creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns’ first woman writer, TrevaTreva from IMDB Silverman.

Now there will be some who say that it’s counter-productive or lacks self-esteem or something to perpetuate the distinction between a woman in the profession and simply the profession. Haven’t we past that milepost yet? As one who was a teenager during the formative years of the ERA and Title IX’s application to the school environment, that would have been my expectation too.

But forty years later, to be the sole woman in the room, struggling perhaps to frame your voice in a culture that possibly dismisses or talks over it, is to know that our progress for equality and opportunity across professions is inconsistent at best.

And if you are currently the only woman in the board room, the squad room, the engineering division or otherwise at the dais, featured as an attractive token of your profession or organization’s progressivism, you’re acutely aware of the situation. You don’t need to talk about it. You don’t want to talk about it.

But you do want to DO something about it.

That’s because this movement for equality has now been going on for 40+ years. Comedy writer Treva Silverman was brought in to write, partly for her perspective on how to frame a woman’s voice realistically in a script. And because she was a funny, talented person. We see that in how some of the best plots and character development involve male characters – LoArmstrong book (2)u, Ted and Murray.

Today’s movement for equal opportunity, equitable pay and even character roles that aren’t gender specific in order that they be cast with the best performer, is the mission of organizations worldwide. Their effort sare supported by even more, who dedicate themselves to women’s issues across professions, across geographic and political concerns, across socio-economic strata.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. The goal of Advanced TV Herstory is to imbue you with a little knowledge or perspective and celebrate the work of talented women. You learn better when you’re having fun. We are renewed and inspired when we hear the stories of others, like us, who gave it all they had and succeeded.

So let’s meet Treva Silverman.

Actually, we’ll do so hearing from Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, whose 2013 book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, has served as the framework for these podcasts. Armstrong’s book weaves the formative years of Silverman’s career through The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s seven years on the air.

Treva as resource

In addition to Armstrong’s reflections about Silverman, we’re also going to hear from her first hand. Silverman sat for a 2007 interview with Allan Neuwirth and Emmy TV Legends, the video archive of the American Television Academy and the American Television Foundation.

Treva Silverman in Emmy TV Legends interview

Treva Silverman in Emmy TV Legends interview

Silverman’s Emmy distinction is her selection as the first woman, without a male writing partner, to be honored as best writing in comedy – and writer of the year. That year, 1974.

Silverman grew up on Long Island in a household that supported her creative exploration and her gift, which was recognized when Silverman was a young girl, for music. She studied music and pursued songwriting as a career. To pay the bills, she had a job as a singing pianist in a Manhattan restaurant. That’s where James L. Brooks started up a conversation with her.

In addition to piano though, Silverman’s youth and early adult years were spent immersed in theatre, books, magazines and listening to the radio. From early in her childhood she knew she could find humor in situations, particularly those that she considered cliché, as she recounts in the Emmy TV Legends interview. It’s in that interview that she also cites one of her early influences.

Steve Allen

So, loaded with talent she made her way to Hollywood. Remember, the 60s blend of comedy was pretty mild. Amid the tremors of the Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations and the Vietnam War, CBS soothed a jittery nation with, as we see it today, campy humor of Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and the like.
Silverman found work on The Monkees and in this clip, talks about what it was like to pitch a story idea to an executive of That Girl, an early sitcom centered on a single woman.

That Girl pitch

She was fortunate to find a pair, in Brooks and Allan, who appreciated her for her ideas and knew her humor and perspective would be instrumental in the show they were preparing. As the first woman hired, Silverman set a tone and functioned a bit as a filter. I get the sense she had to use great diplomacy and patience, discussing ideas and details down to words and phrases, with men who are now considered masters of the sitcom craft too.

Treva filter

In her book, Armstrong recounts the disastrous taping of the first MTM episode. From a number of people who were there, each reflected on how Murphy’s Law surfaced– camera placement, air conditioning faltering– all sorts of factors that shake the confidence of a newly formed team – dampening everyone’s enthusiasm. The audience didn’t laugh.

Part of the disconnect with that audience may have been too that they were the first to receive a sitcom about a single woman reliant on no man, working in a profession in which she was not a secretary or housekeeper. She was respected by her male co-workers and contributed constructively at work. The comedy wasn’t about her shortcomings. The comedy was about her life situations.

Part of that comedy was the woman neighbor Rhoda, who would become her best friend in that first episode, and who would become a model for American women. Silverman’s fingerprints are all over Rhoda.


Silverman admits to having altered the trajectory of Rhoda. In this softened character, women Hempel sashenjoyed the progressive yet totally believable approach the character took in managing life’s challenges. Coming from a more worldly, diverse vantage point, Rhoda Morgenstern caused Mary Richards to see other ways of advancing her life.

Mary may never have grown in her confidence and owned her decisions had her neighbor been a dumpy, self-deprecating load. Valerie Harper, as an early feminist, contributed to that trajectory in her timing, her energy and of course, the wardrobe. Beyond softening and changing that important character’s world view and impact on Mary, Silverman brought a human side to Lou Grant and Ted Baxter. She did so by telling of their relationships with their women, Edie and Georgette.

Treva Lou

How does a respected sitcom writer develop the confidence to be able to tell the team, “Hey, let’s take our gruff, teddy bear character to a point of pain?” She knew Asner would be capable of handling the story, as his dramatic acting credentials were well known. Rather, that position of strength came from the leadership of the organization – both the show’s leaders as well as MTM Productions’.

Before we talk about the Ted/Georgette chapter, listen to how Silverman describes how Mary Tyler Moore’s humility contributed to a writer’s ability to take risk.

Treva MTM

So when your boss, and your boss’ boss – they all trust you and the growing team of writers with the lives, loves and losses of these beloved main characters – that’s a cool thing. It’s also a little intimidating, it seems to me. They had no idea that day in and day out, what they were creating would become an American classic.

In the two earlier segments of this podcast series, Armstrong talked about the importance of

Ethel Winant, CBS executive & MTM casting director

Ethel Winant, CBS executive & MTM casting director

Ethel Winant’s work in casting. No single character was minimized. Each performer stuck with the show until such time as she was ready for a spin-off, namely Rhoda and Phyllis.

Rounding out the core team of characters that performed through the show’s seven seasons is Ted Knight, who played anchorman Ted Baxter. Like Silverman’s treatment of Lou’s divorce, it took a serious romantic influence to advance another side of Ted.

Georgette’s path to becoming Ted’s wife was not pre-ordained in the writers’ room. The episode that would serve as the send-off of Rhoda to New York required writing and casting a few co-workers. Silverman had to develop a character who would have contrasted Rhoda, doing windows at Hempel’s department store all these years.

Treva Georgette

Once Georgette was in the fold for deeper character development, they found her to be the yinGeorgia Engel And Betty Whiteto Ted’s yang, with a sensitivity and sensibility he lacked. And, up until spring of 2015, Georgia Engel was a regular sidekick to Betty White in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, as a character not too far removed from Georgette.

Silverman continues to serve as a resource and role model for women across many fields of creative and non-creative work. Moreoever, as I hear it in her storytelling, she credits the fundamentals of leadership, as it is taught and trained today, as essential elements of the series’ success.

Between Tinker, Moore, Brooks and Burns, there was a vision for the show. They brought on a talented cast and crew and enabled them to stretch, take risks and give it their all.

When researching for her book, Armstrong felt that empowerment statement in many of her interviews – a humility that was praised for prevented obstacles otherwise found in an ego-driven industry – assured each team member that credit would be given for work performed. That credit took the form of Emmy trophies and long lasting relationships.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was exciting to work for because it challenged TV’s norms of the day. Some might say that it did so for only a short period of time, as All in the Family and Maude quickly rose to take more risk with more controversial issues and a grittier style of messaging and acting. As Armstrong points out, they all advanced the American conversation, just with different approaches.

From Armstrong’s book and interview clips heard on this segment and the two previous, there’s a consistent message that MTM Productions was a unique organization and presented a once-in-a-lifetime workplace. Tinker, Moore, Brooks and Burns modeled the culture that created that success: humility, hard-work, creativity and diversity.

Across any industry, organization or basic plan, those are the ingredients of success.

Thanks for tuning into this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Hey, put an M on your wall or a WJM patch on your blazer for having completed all three segments. MTM and the many people associated with it, who so enthusiastically want to share their stories, are an important chapter in TV herstory. And 45 years later, they still inspire.

My idea for this string of podcasts evolved when I was looking at my office bookshelf one day and saw Armstrong’s book – Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. To do a podcast about MTM would require a definite A-game and Armstrong, it felt, had already written the book. Literally.

So as I roll these credits one more time, I want to extend a big thank you to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong for generously agreeing to an interview. Learn more about what she’s up to at The other source of clips for this segment is the invaluable Emmy TV Legends website and an interview conducted with Treva Silverman in 2007.
Please send feedback or ideas or comments to or leave them as public comments at iTunes or my hosting site Libsyn.

This script and past scripts can be found at my website

Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Women of MTM (words, casting, fashion) Pt 2

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

MTM 2 player image

Click to listen

Thanks for tuning into this second in a series of three podcasts about the women of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This segment will focus on the women writers & women assigned other duties – and how they all influenced one of America’s most beloved TV series.

Just as we did in the first segment, we’re going to apply the framework of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong book (2)Armstrong’s book to learn more about these fantastic women. Armstrong’s book, entitled Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, was published in 2013 by Simon and Shuster. It’s a must-have and a must-read, with a lot of application to life’s challenges and today’s TV industry.

I interviewed Armstrong a few weeks ago. Because her book contains elements of interviews she’s conducted with both women and men associated with the show, I knew she was the right person to bring this important chapter to Advanced TV Herstory.

While we covered a lot of ground in our chat, I was impressed by the degree to which she sought out and obtained interviews with the writers. In the first podcast of this series, she alludes to the fact that they were all so willing to share their stories and their perspective with her. Many years have gone by since the show left prime time. Maybe the writers thought there wasn’t anything more to say.

Well there is and Armstrong nailed it. It’s the perspective of the women writers and other women who saw the power and the potential of this 30 minute show – and gave it their all. Armstrong also underscored at least a few times in the interview that they really had no idea that what they were doing was collaborating to make a classic. She had heard that same blend of humility and work ethic repeated in her interviews with crew AND cast.

Which brings me to the lesson that is written between the lines of the show and Armstrong’s book – and that is, if everyone contributes their very best, day in and day out, you might just make it after all. That culture of empowerment and professionalism was set by creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. It was modeled by the cast, the woman who secured the cast to contracts of the series that was launched without a pilot episode and the writers and crew members who created memorable TV.

So, whether it’s caring for your kids while also checking in on your parents or showing up for work every day with a team that works as hard as you do, it all matters. People ARE watching. And while you’ll never be on stage holding an award (or maybe you will), you never really know heading into a project or phase of life just how you’re going to handle the challenges. You just accept them and do your best.

The women writers mentioned in Armstrong’s book wrote some of the most innovative, relatable content that had ever landed on TV. We’ll learn from Armstrong, however, they didn’t look at it that way. They were simply drawing on their own experiences, weaving it into scripts as content and finding out that it resonated with American women and girls. – – And was even well-received by American male viewers – which we know isn’t always the case with women-centric TV and film.

In addition to writers, we’ll learn more about the woman who assembled the talented, award-winning cast and two women who oversaw the evolution of fashion for the two most visible characters. I don’t expect you to recognize these women writers’ names. But I do hope you’ll celebrate their accomplishments and encourage any women you know who are funny or clever to develop that gift further… in some way.

You’ll learn a bit about Susan Silver, Jenna McMahon, Gail Parent, Marilyn Miller, Monica Johnson, Sybil Adelman, Charlotte Brown, Gloria Banta and Pat Nardo. Armstrong’s enthusiasm for their talent is infectious.

We’ll get profile of the casting director whose wand contained pixie dust – Ethel Winant and the lady responsible for Mare’s wash and wear, mix and match working woman’s wardrobe, Leslie Hall. Finally, we’ll learn why Mimi Kirk can claim credit for developing an American fashion trend as powerful as Jackie O’s Chanel suit and pearls.

Susan Silver, born and raised in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, started as a sitcom writer in 1970, with a Love, American Style episode. She wrote five episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1971 and 1972, during the years when characters of Mary and Rhoda were still evolving – finding their respective voices and strengths.

Silver also wrote a single or only a few episodes for The Bob Newhart Show, Maude and The susan silverPartridge Family. She wrote for and story edited Square Pegs, that single season gem from 1982-1983 that featured a young Sarah Jessica Parker. In this clip of my interview with Armstrong, she refers to Treva Silverman, the first woman writer on MTM and who will be the subject of the third installment in this podcast series.

Perhaps Silver, raised in the Midwest, could relate to the character of Mary in ways that many of the writers, New York or New Jersey natives, couldn’t.

Susan Silver

Silver has kept her hand in the TV and entertainment world. She’s offers commentary and smart TV talk on through her show Susan Says – Susan Silver on TV available on Silver used the occasion of Armstrong’s book to write a blog post for the Huffington Post entitled “Mary Richards and I might just make it after all.

In it, she draws this important distinction, which Armstrong also bears out in her book.

I think back to those days and how Mary Richards and I were just living our lives and not “making a statement.” The results of those lives paved the way for women who needed a role model in media, among them Oprah and Katie Couric. At the time, the producers wanted women’s stories which were inherently different than men’s; the references, the fact that women don’t “go get cleaned up,” as one of the guys said, before I corrected him: We take a bath or a shower. These little nuances that put women’s lives up on TV and gave birth to the women of today, be they Tina Fey or any other woman who created a sitcom and can trace their ambition to Mary.

One of the most rewarding aspects of presenting Advanced TV Herstory to you is to be able to connect dots of influence that otherwise go unnoticed.

On to Jenna McMahon, another writer originally from the Midwest. I have to give credit to

Dick Clair & Jenna McMahon

Dick Clair & Jenna McMahon

Armstrong for her in-depth research in hunting down information about writers who we, even as advanced students of TV, might consider obscure. Jenna McMahon is one such writer, whose credentials included Emmy Award winning writing for The Carol Burnett Show, a longer writing influence on The Facts of Life and recurring work on Soap. There’s a bit more about McMahon’s career and her work as a writing team with Dick Clair on Wikipedia.

Armstrong shines light on perhaps one of only a few shows for McMahon wrote for MTM – Season 5, episode 18. But it was one that caused the show to step outside its safe, conservative lines – not so much intentionally, as naturally. Armstrong goes on to describe McMahon’s episode, entitled My Brother’s Keeper that introduced us to Phyllis Lindstrom’s brother.

Ben comes to town. Phyllis arranges 4 tickets to a Mozart concert, thinking she and Lars and Mary and Ben would attend together. At the last minute, Ben takes Rhoda.

What’s the worst

Armstrong recounts the significance of the entire episode and how it was that MTM Production’s culture of inclusion and diversity quite likely fed this relaxed approach to a break through episode.

Jenna McMahon

Gail Parent was another writer who was shared across CBS projects, having also written on The

Gail Parent (photo cred. Alex Berliner)

Gail Parent (photo cred. Alex Berliner)

Carol Burnett Show with her partner Kenny Solms. As you’ll hear from Armstrong, Parent’s reach extended beyond Carol and Mary and bore a direct impact on Rhoda.

Gail Parent

With two Emmy statues and a Cable ACE Award on her mantle, Gail Parent’s work spans books, film scripts (Barbra Streisand’s 1979 The Main Event, co-starring Ryan O’Neal) and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Beyond the shows already mentioned, Parent wrote for Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes On and The Golden Girls.

Notice the trend of comedy writing done in teams. Going back a long way, those teams were usually pairs of men. Gail Parent and Jenna McMahon teamed up with men. And it was in the writers’ room of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that a pair of women, Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Monica Johnson, became key contributors.

Marilyn Monica

Marilyn Suzanne Miller has writer’s credits for Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Maude and Marilyn suzanne MillerWelcome Back Kotter. Then she landed squarely in the world of Saturday Night Live, writing on more than 130 episodes as well as creating material for tribute productions of the show’s early years and cast. She also produced 23 episodes of the very funny Tracey Ullman Show from 1990.

Monica McGowan Johnson leveraged her three episodes of writing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to write for TV’s Laverne & Shirley and on the big screen, a strong contributor to Albert Brooks movies: Lost in America from 1985, The Scout, Mother and The Muse.

A second pair of women came together to contribute first to MTM and went on write on Rhoda,

Gloria Banta and Patricia Nardo. In 1974 they won the Writers Guild Award for Writing of a single episode for Rhoda.

As Armstrong recounts the interesting turn of events that brought Gloria and Pat to collaborate, you get the feeling it would make its own great throw-back TV show today.

1 Gloria Pat

Their legacy may be one of influence, particularly with James L. Brooks who went on to develop so many more shows that told stories with realism.

2 Gloria Pat

Brooks tipped his hat to these two talented women by bestowing their surnames onto Taxi’s main characters, Tony Banta, played by Tony Danza and Elaine Nardo played by Marilu Henner.

There are two more women who hold writing credits on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sybil Adelman and Charlotte Brown.

Adelman, originally from Winnipeg Ontario, lists MTM has one of her first writing credits in 1973. Season 4, episode 9 is Love Blooms at Hempels. Here’s Adelman and her writing partner Barbara Gallagher serving up some classic Mary Rho banter.

Mary Rhoda

Armstrong recounts Adelman’s comments about writing for Norman Lear’s woman-centric sybil adelmanshow Maude. If you’ve been keeping score, you’re seeing a well-worn path of writers that wrote a few for both shows. Susan Silver, Jenna McMahon and Marilyn Suzanne Miller are three, in addition to Adelman. Also, it’s cool to note that Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, the women co-creators and screenplay writers of Cagney & Lacey wrote a Maude episode in 1974. Sorry, I just had to get that in and tease the fact that someday soon, Advanced TV Herstory will ratchet up it’s a-game and do an few podcasts on the show Maude.

In this clip, Armstrong draws comparisons and contrasts to the working environments and plot development of the two shows. One could start by saying Norman Lear’s pace and vision was very different from the world of Grant Tinker, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. Then take the distinct contrasts of the leading ladies…


Charlotte Brown round out our list of writers profiled in this segment. Brown went on to a prolific career in TV, as a writer, director and producer. Armstrong describes how MTM Productions served as the launching point for Brown’s talent and energies.

Charlotte Brown

Writer Charlotte Brown lists as one of her first credits a single MTM episode in 1972. She Charlotte Brown from WHOA interviewcontributed to The Sandy Duncan Show and The Doris Day Show, then wrote a number of episodes for Love, American Style. Between 1972 and 1978 she wrote for 38 episodes of Rhoda and The Bob Newhart Show.

Director Brown found work on a number of shows throughout the 70s and 80s, most notably Rhoda, Archie Bunker’s Place, Cagney & Lacey and The Tortellis.

The series Rhoda became the home base for Brown between 1975 and 1978, during which she produced or executive produced 85 episodes.

If you’ve had the good fortune to tune into a Rhoda episode lately, I hope you arrived at the same conclusion as I did. It’s timeless. It forged a path different than Mary’s, but the two are complimentary. Rhoda evolved through major life moments at a much faster pace than Mary did. Okay, yes, this is leading me to pledge that an Advanced TV Herstory podcast on Rhoda is essential. There’s just so much there. – And that’s BEFORE you get to the fashion aspect.

In an interview found on the WHOA Network on YouTube, Charlotte Brown shared a bit about what life was like working for MTM productions and how the experience affected her career.


These writers were hired largely by Brooks and Burns, who set out to create a series that contained realism. The cast was assembled not by a casting director, but rather by CBS’s casting guru Ethel Winant. Again, we need to learn more about this amazing woman, who wielded a casting wand fully loaded with pixie dust. In this clip and also in her book Armstrong gives us a feel of Winant’s role in the show’s development.


Hmmm, who needs Mad Men for a retro series about male advertising executives when you have stories of the fabulous women behind the scenes of the creation and making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? – or MTM productions? Or CBS, the Tiffany Network?ethel winant

In addition to or leading up to her executive role at CBS, Winant was casting director for episodes from these shows from the 60s: Playhouse 90, which actually was 1958 to 1960; 21 episodes of The Twilight Zone (1960 and 61), The Wild Wild West – 15 epsiodes that aired from 1966 to 1968 and then The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ethel knew her stuff.

Ethel’s husband was in show business and her three sons have careers in music, the theater or TV. In 1979 Ethel was awarded the Crystal Award by the organization Women in Film. The Crystal Award, initiated two years prior, honors outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry. Ethel Winant was a worthy, early honoree.

Okay, so had you been on the phone with Jennifer Armstrong and me, it’s likely you wouldn’t have gotten a word in, edgewise. With her book serving as a guide, I knew we had to pay full tribute to the writers, including Treva Silverman who is profiled in the last series installment, as well as those gift women who kept an eye on the show and its needs, from their vantage point.

To know and love the characters is to appreciate the performers, thank you Ethel Winant; the words, so capably assembled by a deep and talented stable of writers and finally, if you’ve got two eyes and like this show – you love the fashion.

So without further ado, let’s tip our tam to costume designer Leslie Hall, whose gift to America is the look that emerged from MTM via shows like MTM, Rhoda (or I should say, the two episodes of Rhoda’s wedding, the drama spinoff Lou Grant and Newhart (yes, we now know who was responsible for Joanna’s fuzzy sweaters).

Leslie Hall. Even her name sounds high fashion.

Leslie H

It’s a real treat when you have someone in your life with fashion sense and style confidence. As a gathering place for creative women who were at the forefront of the women’s movement, the series was fortunate to have Hall setting the tone for Mary’s look., To hear Armstrong tell the story, Mimi Kirk was as important to Rhoda’s metamorphosis as Valerie Harper was. Who, you ask, is Mimi Kirk?

Mimi Kirk

Armstrong’s right. Learn more about the effervescent, age-defying Mimi Kirk at her website Mimi On her bio page, Mimi shares with us that she’s been named the Sexiest Vegetarian over the Age of 50. She’s 75 now and shows no sign of letting up.

And now you know…

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. It’s been a lot of fun and a terrific learning experience bringing snips of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book to an audio presentation. MTM Productions was a workplace like none other. Its story merits telling and re-telling.

We have one more story to tell and that involves the biographical sketch of Treva Silverman that Armstrong weaves through her book. Silverman was the first writer for the show, drafted to the team at the very outset. Stay tuned for the third installment in this series and we’ll learn from Armstrong and other sources what it was like and what it took to succeed.

Audio clips for this podcast are from an interview with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and pulled from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, season 4 episode 9 and season 5, episode 18, both available online. Go to WHOA network on YouTube to track down a brief but powerful interview with Charlotte Brown. More information on Armstrong and her book can be found at

Do you have feedback or memories to share? Please shoot a line to Find this script and past show scripts at my website Subscribe to Advanced TV Herstory at my hosting site, libsyn or iTunes. Comments and reviews are appreciated. And if you know how to tie a headscarf like Rhoda, leave your contact info there as well.

I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening.

Women of MTM (1970-77) Part 1

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

Forty five years ago, The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered. While that fact, in itself, merits a podcast of celebration, Advanced TV Herstory considers MTM to be a major chapter of study. Even a cursory look into the show’s development and award-winning run reveals that there’s a lot to learn from this show, its cast and crew.

So, this podcast represents a different approach to bringing the show into historical context. Namely, we’re going to hear from author and entertainment expert Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Armstrong, a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Journalism is a seasoned writer with pretty excellent contacts honed through years of writing in the entertainment industry.

In 2013, Simon & Schuster published Armstrong’s book about the writers and crew of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s called Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted – and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic.

My interview with Armstrong will form three podcasts in all. We covered A LOT of ground and you’ll not only learn a lot from Armstrong and her first-hand accounts of conversations with talented writers and living legends like Betty White, but I am quite sure her infectious enthusiasm will cause you to fall in love with Mary and the gang all over again.

In this installment, we’re going to get to know Armstrong and her take on the women writers and what life was like for them in a male-dominated history. For fun, Armstrong and I revisited what many believe is the single best episode of TV comedy ever, Why yes, it WAS directed by a woman.

Subsequent podcasts will focus specifically on the team of women writers, many of whom often worked in pairs and a special woman, named Treva Silverman, a pioneer woman in the all-male writers’ room.

So, grab your tam and head to 7th Street & Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. All too often in TV Herstory, we focus on the conflict and strife that led to change and successes. This time…. Love is all around.

Let’s jump right into Armstrong’s book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. My copy currently Armstrong book (2)has post it tabs throughout the book because it really is a comprehensive look at the people who brought us this seminal show. Yes there are other books that have been written about the show – episode guides and the like, as well as bios and autobiographies of the stars themselves. Armstrong has done her homework and it shows. I asked her why, with a broad background and network in the entertainment industry, she chose to write this book.

Work background

From the perspective of women writers for TV, Armstrong heard over and over that The Mary Tyler Moore Show held great influence. It was well-written, the plot themes were relevant to a time of rapid change for American women and the characters were very well developed, given it was a 30 minute show. What was in the secret sauce at MTM? Could it have anything to do with the incredible number of women writers who worked on the show during its seven year run?

Telling their story

If you work from the premise – the wonders of hindsight – that The Mary Tyler Moore Show transformed American culture, then the women writers had a lot to do with it. Armstrong came to realize that with women in the room, the style changed, but so did the approach to plots.

Writers Talk

Today we call it content. But in an industry stocked with male writers, premium was placed on experience. When you read her book, Armstrong recounts the story, that’s been retold in countless other formats from many others closely associated with the show, that even getting the show developed was no small feat. Actress Mary Tyler Moore was best known as Laura Petrie, Dick Van Dyke’s TV wife from The Dick Van Dyke Show which aired from 1961 to 1965.

That show was about a married couple, but the show largely revolved around men. Van Dyke’s

Mary Tyler Moore & Grant Tinker

Mary Tyler Moore & Grant Tinker

physical humor carried the day. It was a herculean effort by TV executive Grant Tinker (who at the time was married to Mary Tyler Moore in real life) and the show’s creators to launch a show – in 1970 – about a single, professional woman who lived in Minneapolis.

Need more proof? Listen closely to the aspirational paternalism contained in the opening lines of the original theme song.

Opening orig

The end of that original opening posited “you might just make it after all.” This was two years before Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment united women in their quest for equal access to education, job opportunities and independence. I give Armstrong credit for calling out in her book the evolution of the opening line lyrics over the years. Words matter. The show wasn’t that far off from any young woman’s real experience, as Armstrong explains.

Hiring Mentoring

So, two years before the U.S. Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment as an addition to the American Constitution, subject to ratification by a majority of states, a Hollywood studio door opened to women and a significant task was handed to them.

Resume Gold

In her book, Armstrong tells the stories straight from the storytellers. We’ll get into the full list of women writers who wrote consistently for the show and the impact each had on it. But as writers, they were just one ingredient of the secret sauce. It can be said that assembling a cast of actors known for their commitment to the craft was another. Getting the written word to flow from the cast is a director’s job. Women directors contributed to some of the series’ most prominent episodes. But it all takes leadership and a culture that allows people to feel empowered to contribute. Armstrong spoke to the ambience.


Look a little closer at the women’s roles that appear throughout the course of the show. They were like nothing you had ever seen before. And each represented a sector of the burgeoning women’s movement that needed a little face time. Mary Richards’ journey toward confidence is the clear backbone of the show.

Rhoda’s early metamorphosis and the role her character plays in Mary’s evolution is the work of women. We’ll get into that later. Why is it important? First, because the show featured a woman, so the primary audience was nearly half of a constituency that previously had only seen itself relegated to supporting roles. In 1970 and 1971, Mary was the only game in town whether you were middle-aged or 14. In 1971, All in the Family came along. Hmmm, am I more an Edith or a Gloria?

In 1971, the Emmy Award nominations say it all. Here’s what folks were watching and what the industry thought was the best on TV.

In its first season on the air, All in the Family earned the award for Outstanding Comedy Series. Its competition: Arnie, Mary Tyler Moore, Love, American Style and The Odd Couple.

For leading actress in a comedy series, Jean Stapleton took home the trophy for Edith Bunker on All in the Family. That year she bested Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards and Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie on That Girl.

For supporting actress in a comedy, Valerie Harper scored as Rhoda Morgenstern, beating out the delightful and accomplished Agnes Moorehead who played Endora on Bewitched and Karen

The cast of Room 222. Karen Valentine (L) & Denise Nichols (R)

The cast of Room 222. Karen Valentine (L) & Denise Nichols (R)

Valentine for her role as teacher Alice Johnson on Room 222.

In 1971, realism was starting to kick in. It was the last year of That Girl. Bewitched would sunset in 1972. Room 222, which was created by James L. Brooks a few years before he launched The Mary Tyler Moore Show, lasted until 1974 and with its high school teen focus, served as a voice for issues of the day.

The next time you watch a single episode or binge a season of Mary Tyler Moore, think beyond the plot. Shine a feminist light on Sue Ann Nivens, the character from 1973 to the series end who was the older working woman. Sue Ann was the most sexually honest and aggressive. Sue Ann had made it on her own (or at least in her own way) and her sharp tongue was antithetical to everything that was Mary.

We’ll learn in the next podcast about how Georgette came to be – yes, from the mind of a woman. But in watching how others work with Georgette and how the writers built out her character – seriously, they never wasted a single line – you may see a glimpse of someone you know or someone you once worked with.

Mary, Rhoda, Sue Ann, Georgette – that leaves us with Phyllis, played by Cloris Leachman. Phyllis appeared in 38 episodes and spun off into her own show. She was more than the wacky neighbor, which is a standard trope used in TV comedy long before 1970. As a married woman, sometimes happily, sometimes not happily, Phyllis served as the other side of the fence when Mary pondered just how badly she wanted to be married. She was the other end of the spectrum to Rhoda’s happiness and independence as a single woman.

And as a married woman, Phyllis brought another relationship to TV that caused women viewers to take note. Phyllis and her teenage daughter Bess addressed story lines that stretched beyond single life or workplace situations. Armstrong and I discussed just how fresh and timeless Phyllis and Bess are.


Bess, played by Lisa Gerritsen, only appeared in 10 episodes before transferring in 1975 over to

Bess & Phyllis Lindstrom

Bess & Phyllis Lindstrom

her same role in the spin-off Phyllis. In this scene from a first season episode, Phyllis believes her husband the dermatologist, Lars, has chicken pox. To protect Bess from exposure, Mary takes in Bess for a few days. And it’s in that time period that Bess too gets to experience the distinct difference between Mary’s youth and independence versus her own mother’s somewhat sharp, overbearing, eager-to-please personality.

Bess Wants to Stay

Did Phyllis get the feeling like the women’s movement was leaving her behind? That too is an evolution, for which the spinoff TV show Phyllis serves as one woman’s break out.

So yes, some of us could talk about the Phyllis show as kindred spirits who appreciate well-written comedy. If four men in suits can sit at a desk all Sunday afternoon dissecting football plays, there’s room for feminists, historians, writers and funny people to poke around the edges of any character Cloris Leachman has brought to life. At 89, the woman is still delivering.

Armstrong and I lament that both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda have not been20151105_153820 (2) released in full series boxed DVD set. Rather, seasons are available, each on its own. Phyllis is not available, except maybe in a pirated format. Beware on that. Hour-long drama Lou Grant is similarly not available on DVD. My greatest lasting impression of that show was the episode when CRTs were introduced into the Tribune’s newsroom. CRT, an acronym of cathode ray tube, was the initial word used for what we know to be a monitor today. Lou always did have a hard time coping with change.

My conversation with Armstrong ran the gamut and the next podcast, about the women writers and writing teams, crosses themes of style of humor, how their own personal experiences fed plot lines and the degree to which the MTM pedigree affected their careers.

But before we get to that in-depth look at the writing talent, I want to share Armstrong’s insight into the famous episode Chuckles Bites the Dust. It aired in 1975, season 6, episode 7 and is available on YouTube. I wouldn’t blame you one bit if, after listening to this podcast, you pull it up and enjoy it in a whole new way.

The episode was directed by a woman, Joan Darling. Actually it turned out to be her first

Joan Darling (L), a regular in TV's Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law

Joan Darling (L), a regular in TV’s Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law

directing assignment with the show. And while we go on to discuss the genius who developed the Mary Tyler Moore Show cast, Ethel Winant, Armstrong describes the Chuckles episode as an example of excellence in all categories.

Chuckles casting

For anyone who hasn’t seen the episode, the premise is very basic. Chuckles the Clown was a local children’s TV character, part of the WJM team. The episode begins with Ted Baxter absolutely giddy that he’s been asked to be in the circus parade. Lou bats him down and tells him he can’t. They send Chuckles instead.

Chuckles News

Ted Baxter is not known for his ability to ad lib on the news. That would require more knowledge about something than he had. So he does his best.

Ted on Chuckles

If you listen closely, you can appreciate the sense of timing that each performer brings to the funeralscene. You can also hear laughter. Every episode was produced before a live audience. Armstrong discussed with me how Joan Darling landed the opportunity to direct the show and goes into greater detail, in her book, about the actual taping.


For Darling, the challenge came in delivering the funeral scene. Here’s how Armstrong describes a mission that required everyone to be at their very best.

J Darling 2

Joan Darling has a robust IMDB page, which chronicles her work as an actress going all the way back to the early 60s. Following her inaugural shot at directing – how seriously can you ever expect to do better than Chuckles Bites the Dust? – she directed episodes in Rhoda, Doogie Howser, M.D., MASH, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and a bunch more.

Forty-five years after it first aired, the Mary Tyler Moore show is a testament to the power of opportunity. It was the belief by the show’s creators, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns that women writers would make the show real and relevant. Joan Darling, presented with the opportunity to direct a quirky episode about the death of a clown, delivered a masterpiece.

We’ll learn how other women took their roles seriously, utilizing all they had learned from the industry, or from life to make their mark on the show.

Right now, buy the book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted written by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, published in 2013 by Simon and Shuster. Advanced TV Herstory is grateful that this book tells the story in such rich detail.

What’s Armstrong’s next project?

Interview close

My thanks to Jennifer for agreeing to an interview. Show clips are taken from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, either DVD format or in the case of the Chuckles episode, from YouTube.

Stay tuned for more MTM and the fantastic women writers who made it so successful. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

6 Lost Episodes of Cagney & Lacey

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

It’s reassuring to know that so MANY followers of Advanced TV Herstory know and like their Cagney & Lacey. The podcast posted six weeks ago, entitled Concept to Pilot: Cagney & Lacey traced the show’s origins.

This installment takes us from where we left off. The pilot. What follows is a drama in its own right and it’s all essential knowledge for listeners who track women in TV. Here’s why – this interim period which creator Barney Rosenzweig labeled “the 6 lost episodes” when he included them in the fancy boxed DVD set of the series – serves as the stage where the show was tested, fine-tuned, nearly lost and in the end, re-positioned for success.

Cagney & Lacey was no normal show. Originally conceived, in the 70s, Cagney and Lacey’s first objective was as a “buddy movie” – a story that finally put two women in the main buddy roles like Robert Redford and Paul Newman were in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

As told in the previous podcast, the concept was shopped to studios and investors. It was presented in all sorts of formats – from silver screen movie to movie of the week, a TV series. Crickets. For all sorts of reasons, there was little enthusiasm for – as the concept emerged – women cops who were cops first, then women.

But eventually, tenacity of the core team of creators – Barney Rosenzweig, Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon paid off. The script that they had honed over the years was finally given the green light as a Movie of the Week. It starred Tyne Daly and Loretta Swit. Actually, Loretta Swit was the more known commodity to TV viewers. She was still under contract for her role as Margaret Houlihan in MASH, but was cast as Christine Cagney for the Movie of the Week, which was also being talked up within the industry as a pilot for a potential series.

Those who produced, directed and promoted the pilot knew that it was almost impossible for Swit to continue in the role as Chris Cagney. That would just have to be a bridge they crossed when the time came.

This podcast episode explores what happened next, the time leading up to the 6 shows and after them, when it looked for sure that the series was cancelled.

We’ll look at the changes that were made during those shows that further developed what would become the Cagney and Lacey standard.

Then we’ll explore how and why ratings put the show on death watch and why its timeslot mattered so much.

Finally, with the entire project in limbo, we’ll hear from Creator Barney Rosenzweig how it was resuscitated and what significant action was necessary to bring it back to life

The entire saga of the making of Cagney & Lacey is told by Barney Rosenzweig in his audio book contained in the deluxe DVD series boxed set, entitled An Inside Hollywood Story Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blonde.  Rosenzweig recounts the vote of confidence that was given to him and his team following the pilot that foremost required him to assemble a cast and crew that could produce 6 hour-long episodes in fairly short order – for spring and early summer viewing.

He had to find writers to begin work as soon as possible on scripts. While the entire concept had been written with a lot of detail by Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon, the pair was not in a position to carry on in those roles. Corday had gone on to a vice president’s position at ABC. Avedon had attempted to take on the role as main writer but caved under the pressure of the tight timelines coming as the same time as a family medical emergency.

The movie had been shot on location in Toronto, with footage from New York to set the stage. With six episodes to create on a limited budget, Rosenzweig needed to create a number of sets, fast. His location person eventually found an empty warehouse in a gritty part of early 80s LA. It was large enough and inexpensive enough to fill all their set needs and just happened to be located on Lacy Street.

Casting also represented a carryover, in terms of budget, chemistry and availability.

The character of MaryBeth’s husband Harvey would be played by John Karlen, replacing the actor who struggled with the role in the movie. Martin Kove was hired to be Detective Isbecki. No casting changes were needed for Detectives Petrie and LaGuardia or Lieutenant Samuels.

Tyne Daly’s contract remained in place and the search was on for the next Christine Cagney. Swit was simply not week

Cagney & Lacey was Daly’s big break into TV, following a successful stage career. The six lost episodes hold all sorts of gems for a fan. We’ll get to the hiring of Meg Foster to fill the Cagney role in a minute. First, it’s important to distinguish the skills and confidence that Daly brought to the role.

She changed the format of her acting from a stage to a sound stage, and assumed, during the lost episodes, the role of senior lead actress. She rose to the occasion, carrying the heavier load with this extraordinary performance.

To set this scene from the third episode, Christine and Mary Beth are undercover. Chris is working in a diner and Mary Beth as a Hispanic garment worker. Illegal alien women who are known to have worked in this factory are now targets for murder. Here’s Mary Beth fine-tuning her Spanish, then agitating the other workers in order to become the next target for murder.

Daly Espanol

In that scene, Daly shows off her Broadway chops. She’s confident, she projects her voice and the 50 extras in that scene must have thought she was going to break out in song. Daly’s role in bringing a quality and professional feel to the acting is important down the road, as the ratings drop and network executives decide that the only way the show will see the Fall Line Up is if the role of Christine Cagney is re-cast one – more – time.

In the early 1980s, the search for a major actress to play a true lead role in a TV series was unusual. The parts hardly existed. Movie stars rarely crossed over to TV. And while long before the pilot had been cast, Barbara Corday had proclaimed Sharon Gless to be the one true Cagney, Gless hadn’t been available for the pilot and now, was tied up in a show called Housecalls filling in as the lead female role that Lynn Redgrave had just left. Rosenzweig recounts just how slim the pickings were.

Experienced women

Meg Foster’s body of work in both movies and TV had been consistent for a decade leading up to her reads with Tyne Daly. Rosenzweig received Daly’s favorable impressions of their chemistry and felt that Foster delivered the physical qualities of the Christine Cagney character that had been in the works all these years.

Foster yes

But the network wanted Rosenzweig and Daly to do one last look over, this time with the seasoned actress Susan Clark. I s_susan_clarkknow, you’re squinting and saying, “who?” Clark had appeared in movies and TV, but for this role, was not willing to do a reading with Daly. With the clock ticking and this final casting decision the last piece of the puzzle, Rosenzweig brought Daly and Clark together for a social visit. The hour-long visit filled his ammunition to take back to the network that while Clark was a more recognized actress than Foster, she didn’t have the energy, presence or physical stature to be Chris Cagney. She was too… suburban. Clark would emerge a year later as the mom in Webster co-starring with her real-life husband Alex Karras and child actor Emmanuel Lewis.

With Meg Foster in the role, production moved along nicely. Due to the nature of the show – two women in a male-dominated workplace – and storytelling from a woman’s point of view – there were numerous run-ins with the standards office. Rosenzweig learned to pick his battles. These two main characters, however, were unlike any other two on TV.


Rosenzweig’s continuity through the entire process gives him a sense of ownership and pride that is truly admirable. And his memory of how the vision for the show came about and how they crafted 43 minutes of plot for each episode, is astounding. Did male shows like Starsky and Hutch have this kind of methodical approach?

The formula

For a glimpse into how the two women were developing, as characters, I’ve found two short scenes. We know from the pilot that Cagney, as a woman in her mid-30s had men friends and was sexually active – heck, the first we see of Loretta Swit as Chris Cagney is her bare back, in bed with a guy she picked up. Foster doesn’t seem comfortable with this dialogue. There’s not a lot of range of emotion. Is she angry, disappointed, confused, insulted?

Date recount

Minutes later in the show we learn this guy’s married – which is a line Christine Cagney consistently will not cross throughout the show’s run.

MaryBeth Lacey, we learn in the sixth episode, has been married to Harvey for 12 years. In fact, the Lacey storyline is what shetyne-daly-cagney-lacey-1981 will get Harvey for their anniversary. Does Daly just know how to serve it up (this time wearing Harv’s anniversary present to her, a black negligee) – or what? And, what you should know is that she’s in their bedroom with a lit cigarette. Bette Davis would have been proud of how Daly used cigarettes as props through the six episodes, but in this case, Harvey calls in her anniversary present to him.

Happy anniversary

This is the last scene of the last episode. It gives the viewer the sense of hope that we’re going to be a part of their marriage for years to come.

So we see now how the writers are evolving the personal lives of our heroines. How do they, as a team, fare through these episodes? Remember there’s a conflict that’s familiar to all Cagney & Lacey fans. It’s in the pilot and occurs every once in a while throughout the series. It involves Christine’s ambition, contrasted with MaryBeth’s work/life balance.

This conflict that made the show real, striking a chord with women viewers who wrestled with their own ambition and finding fulfillment with work versus the obligations they may have at home.

Here’s the scene. Pieces of solving the murders are coming together, only following a number of days in plain clothes detail byFoster as street the entire squad of detectives. Cagney & Lacey, as had been the pattern in these early episodes, were again assigned roles as prostitutes. After a long day and having just busted a john who it turns out works in the mayor’s office, Mary Beth heads home thinking that Chris and Detectives Petrie and Isbecki would do so as well. Instead, they head out for one last stake out, which results in the collar, but not before Chris nearly has her throat slit. MaryBeth gets a call, jumps out of bed and marches into the precinct.

Ep1 Teamwork 1

Themes of risk-taking, reliability, trust, integrity – they are at the heart of the professional and personal mountains these two climb together – as women, as partners and as police detectives. The ebb and flow of their relationship, over the show’s many seasons, made it believable and distinguished it from traditional male-lead cop shows.

Ep1 Teamwork 2

In the six lost episodes, we saw Meg Foster’s Cagney rattle her saber in otherwise intimidating situations. She scratched the surface of the Chris’ relationship with her retired cop father. Foster stared down Al Waxman, in his role as Lt. Samuels in such a way that his character’s animosity eases up. He and all the men in the precinct appear more comfortable with women on the team by the sixth episode.

But while the six shows were good, they didn’t have the promotion or Ms. Magazine cover story momentum that the pilot did. Also, the network’s original time slot may have actually thrown water on what otherwise could have been a great introduction

Tom Selleck

Tom Selleck

to a regular viewing audience. Did anyone actually think this was a good idea?

Thursdays at 9pm. – which meant it followed Magnum P.I.

And the network hollered when it drew a paltry share for the first episode. Magnum P.I. was at the top of the ratings. It was a beloved, familiar, colorful, eye-candy show with an eye-candy star, Tom Selleck. It was set in Hawaii.

So yeah, you’d get up for your 8:57 pm Thursday night brewski, sit back down and you’re on the mean streets of New York with two women who seem intent on proving themselves to all male Americans.

Cagney and Lacey lived and wilted in that slot for the first two episodes. Rosenzweig demanded that the network let the show be its own attraction, preferably one in a time slot that was stronger with their known demographic – working age women.

By the third and fourth episodes, aired not on Thursdays, there was no momentum to work with. Rosenzweig volleyed with the network with ideas to regain the public eye. He was convinced that the Thursday night poor showings didn’t reflect the true value of the show.

He offered up his stars to visit affiliates around the country on a promotional tour. Earned media, interviews with local morning talk shows, photo opps with lady cops, whatever it took. Initially the network said no. Then Rosenzweig said he himself would cover the costs. Daly and Foster agreed to be good sports, and with the fifth and sixth episodes not aired, like shoes waiting to drop, there was nothing more anyone could do.

Rosenzweig was sure the show was cancelled. He hadn’t received anything official, but his instincts were spot on as he assembled with other producers during the network fall line-ip meetings. Rosenzweig tells his hunch, based on his read that there was no big love for Cagney and Lacey and no real dislike for it either. It was more a case of ambivalence.

CBS execs ponder

Regardless of how the decision was made, it was conveyed to Rosenzweig by phone the following morning, along with the condition that the role of Cagney be re-cast. Once Rosenzweig knew they were in, he also had to find out about Housecalls, the show that had prevented Sharon Gless from realizing her one true role as Christine Cagney.

Meg is out

It was a tough break for Foster, but a lifesaver for the show. Network executives met with Rosenzweig to determine whether this was going to turn into another search for Scarlett O’Hara.

Only Gless


Eddie Albert, Robert Wagner & Sharon Gless in Switch

Gless didn’t sign on readily and Daly was prickly for some time about the Foster departure. As Gless’ team negotiated her contract, she would make the higher scale she’d been making in her 15 episodes of Housecalls. Her earlier TV work had included 7 episodes in a one season show called Turnabout, 5 episodes of the mini-series Centennial, and in 71 episodes of the show Switch which aired from 1975 to 1978. Gless was a bigger name in TV than newcomer Daly.

However, Daly had done everything Rosenzweig had asked of her, so Rosenzweig increased her salary to match Gless’.

Rosenzweig delivered the 13 episodes to kick off the 1982 season and never looked back.

So the total show’s run was 126 episodes in all, if you include the pilot and the six lost episodes. Gless and Daly would go on to take the Emmy for Leading Actress in a Drama Series in each year of their pairing. John Karlen won the Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 1986. Behind the scenes, Rosenzweig and Steve Brown won Emmys for production.

As it launched into its first legitimate season, Cagney & Lacey became home to a number of women behind the scenes who would achieve acclaim.

Patricia Green earned Emmys in 1985 and 1986 for Outstanding Writer in a Drama Series.

Georgia Jeffries was nominated for writing Emmys in 1987 – one for the show overall and one for a specific episode.

Supervising producer Liz Coe earned an Emmy in 1986.

Director Sharron Miller earned an Emmy nomination in 1987 for a single episode, and won 2 Lillian Gish Awards for Directing at the Los Angeles Women in Film Festival in 1988.

Writer Shelley List earned an Emmy nomination in 1987, won the Best Writing in a Quality Drama Series at the Viewers for Quality Television Awards in 1987 and was nominated for the Humanitas Prize in 1987 – these were largely due to an episode that itself earned the show and other crew members recognition, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn.

Cagney & Lacey fills a lengthy chapter in TV Herstory’s textbook. Rosenzweig tells of how his own experience on Charlie’s Angels prepared him to lead a respectable show that featured women leads. Passages can be found in Advanced TV Herstory’s earlier podcast “Concept to Pilot.”

What shows from the 90s, 2000s or today can claim lineage to Rosenzweig’s formula, or the high quality writing and acting that features a strong woman or women? Law & Order SVU for sure. The Closer.

A pair of women? Are there more? What am I missing? I welcome your feedback on this because we all know that there have been really great shows featuring women – well written, brilliantly acted – that were given the crappy time slot and didn’t have a Barney Rosenzweig storming into an office to demand a better one.

Which only underscores the frustration we need to accept and overcome – that those who control the schedule wield great power. Are the posts held by men or women?

There are 119 episodes that feature Gless and Daly. In future podcasts, we’ll explore story arcs and groundbreaking social issues brilliantly written according to Rosenzweig’s formula.

If your cable package includes the channel Heroes &Icons – we have a chance to bring Cagney & Lacey to a whole new generation of viewers. It’s a channel dedicated to heroes AND icons.

There is no primary website for the station, just cable systems incorporating its schedule into their channel line up. Heroes and Icons is a division of Weigel Broadcasting, which according to its Wikipedia page has a direct relationship with CBS and its archives.

While we all like Hulu, I’ll be the first to say that one of the most important, well-crafted series in TV Herstory belongs on TV, not to be watched on my phone while I’m waiting to catch a plane.

Let’s do this together. 312-705-2600 is the number that gets you to Weigel Broadcasting’s switchboard, right there in downtown Chicago. You could also go old school and send a postcard to 26 North Halsted Street – Chicago, IL 60661. Or start something on Twitter.

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Audio clips came from the six lost episodes that are found in the deluxed DVD series boxed set. That set also contains the audio book written and narrated by Cagney & Lacey creator and producer Barney Rosenzwieg.

Find scripts of this and past podcasts at As of today, you’ll also be able to download future podcasts there as well. Background music by Daizie Mae, found at Free Music Archive. Org.

There are all sorts of great topics in the works so please, send me your ideas for shows or performers or characters who mean a lot to you or have helped you sort through leadership issues. Email me at advancedtvherstory@gmail. Com or leave a comment at the downloads page at iTunes, hosting site Libsyn or my website.

This is our herstory to claim, write, research and celebrate. Join me. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams

The Closer Part 2 (Seasons 5-7)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

Welcome to Advanced TV Herstory’s conclusion to the excellent series The Closer which aired on cable TV’s TNT channel from 2005 to 2012. You may recall that a few months back, I posted a podcast that took a long hard look at the show’s first four seasons.

Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off and examine the last three seasons of life in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes Division. The seven season show enjoyed a tremendous consistency of characters, so the formula of actors and roles remains almost the same. Instead, the latter half takes advantage of the stability that comes with a high-performing team and brings the viewer to situations that involve trust, ethics and the drive we all find in ourselves to advance our careers.

The Closer stars Kyra Sedgwick and a host of fine actors including J.K. Simmons as Chief Pope, Corey Reynolds asthe-closer-cast
Sergeant Gabriel, Robert Gossett as Commander Taylor, G.W. Bailey as Lieutenant Provenza , Michael Paul Chan as Lieutenant Tao, Raymond Cruz as Detective Sanchez and Tony Denison as Detective Flynn.

In seasons five, six and seven, other characters take on greater importance: Brenda’s husband, FBI agent and later FBI liaison to the LAPD Fritz Howard played by Jon Tenney. We enjoy the return of her parents, played by Frances Sternhagen and Barry Corbin. We also get a chance to meet Kyra Sedgwick’s daughter in real life, Sosie Bacon, who guests in four episodes as Brenda Leigh’s niece Charlie.

The biggest addition to the series emerged in the second half, in the form of Captain Sharon Raydor, played by Mary

McDonnell. McDonnell is an accomplished actress with credits on the silver screen, TV and the stage. She received two Academy Award nominations – one for Dances with Wolves and one for Passion Fish, and was nominated for an Emmy for a guest role on ER.

By the end of the series run, Captain Sharon Raydor’s role in a total of only one quarter of the episodes has a profound impact on Deputy Chief Johnson’s career and her outlook on life. McDonnell consistently delivered a middle-aged, accomplished police captain line for line, scene for scene to Sedgwick’s.


After their first encounter, when we are first introduced to Captain Raydor who has to play an adversarial role (most of the time) to the Major Crimes Division, the viewer is left to wonder where the larger story arc is going for these two Alpha Women. Is the LAPD big enough for both of them?

Following the complex, high profile cases of the Major Crimes Division and its tenacious leader, we’ll take a look at the relationships and challenges that ultimately result in Brenda leaving her post for another opportunity. The series The Closer is spun off to Major Crimes, so there’s more good drama with light comic relief on TV even today.

Look upon the first four seasons as the Good Old Days. We were introduced to Deputy Chief Johnson and witnessed her team of seasoned detectives storm, norm and perform under her leadership. Johnson modeled team-based communications, delegation of responsibility, accountability and diligence through the entire series.

Real life, real world surveys show that there are certain traits employees look for in the person who leads them. The top ones are honesty, ability to cooperate, dependability, and competence. Deputy Chief Johnson scores well in 3 out of the 4 and is known to cooperate well so long as she’s got a voice at the table for strategy and execution.

It’s a great show, so it’s difficult to NOT get too deep into the plot lines that carry over, even as minor plots, without spoiling the experience for a viewer. So instead, let’s look at how season 5 takes us home with Brenda more frequently than we’d gone in the first seasons. We’re also taken a bit more into her mindset. The frequent themes of trust, ethics and drive pop up in both places.

Well into her 40s, Sedgwick as the show’s producers and the writers take us on the fast-paced, long days of Deputy Chief Johnson, who has shown no sign of letting up, in terms of her tenacity or appetite for investigating major… and sometimes minor crimes.

Brenda is still happily married to Fritz. While the marriage seems strong in spite of them having to work so closely together in high-stress situations, there is a healthy give and take from both of them – which is usually Brenda taking and Fritz giving.

However, the last few seasons also delve into Fritz’s alcoholism and his commitment to sobriety. This requires Brenda to trust something she can’t see and also accept him for his word and storytelling of the man he was and how he behaved prior to his seeking help. Detective Flynn’s admission of alcoholism and 15 years of sobriety also gives Brenda the opportunity to continue learning about something that seemingly had never touched her life before she met Fritz.

It’s pretty standard for police dramas to refer to alcoholism and in fact feature a prominent character who struggles to maintain sobriety within a law enforcement career.

Introduced early on in the series, Brenda’s parents WillyRae and Clay from Atlanta continue to provide a little seasonal comic relief as well as the subtle symbolism that Major Crimes is a family. Most moments it seems the only trait Brenda shares with her parents is an accent. They are chatty, unfocused and absorbed in their retirement. Other women might be embarrassed. Not Brenda. In front of her team, she accepts and shares her parents’ love and support.

When her niece Charlie comes to stay, we feel the purpose may be for the writers put to bed any notion Brenda had of having a baby. Her maternal instincts are tested and she passes. Her time with Charlie helps her role play in a way that makes her a more compassionate in the interview rooms.

Charlie, a teenager with an attitude who has tested Brenda and Fritz’s patience to the limit, is in Brenda’s car getting dropped off at a high school she’s temporarily attending. A shooting erupts and Brenda is rattled by the added responsibility she feels for Charlie’s well-being. She doesn’t know or trust Charlie well enough to be able to anticipate her actions. But Brenda sees it as a convenient opportunity to find out.

Charlie assigned

With the assignment to remain with Jake at the hospital, Charlie is left up to her own devices and forms a bond with him.

You 2

Charlie leaves the hospital with Fritz and the boy’s parents still haven’t arrived. The boy’s condition crashes and Brenda finds herself in an unusual position.


Brenda experiences responsibility across the generations and also managing her own expectations of who her niece is. Initially pretty judgmental, Brenda settles down with Charlie enough to provide a safe and memorable stay in LA, but not a permanent one.

Second chances

Brenda and Fritz send Charlie back to Atlanta, to Brenda’s brother and his wife.

Over time, we see Brenda’s maturing judgment at play in how she handles cases, witnesses, suspects and victims. The writers prepare plots that play into that a bit – homeless youth, gangs, chronic poverty, illegal immigrants who work domestic jobs in LA and various aspects of the entertainment industry that bring out the worst in people.

Unlike Law and Order SVU, The Closer features no prosecutor from the district attorney’s office as a recurring character in plots. Such a professional, focused on the end-game of courtroom based justice, would have been another layer of conflict to Brenda and Major Crimes getting the job done.

Presumably, one of the reasons Brenda was hired into the LAPD was to pre-empt cases going to court by garnering more confessions. This puts incredible pressure on Brenda to follow the rules of evidence, know constitutional law and develop a logic path toward achieving an iron-clad confession.

For the LAPD, it might be more economical to put away confessed criminals, however it’s enough of a specialty that the viewer begins to understand it comes at its own cost – questionable ethics and justice.

The show hit the jackpot and took on the subjects of ethics and justice when they brought on veteran actress Mary McDonnell to serve first as foil then as trustworthy colleague to Deputy Chief Johnson.

McDonnell plays Captain Sharon Raydor who is the ranking officer in the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Department.

Breathalyzer Raydor

Her job is to investigate any incident involving an officer who has shot or killed someone, an officer who is the subject of litigation or criminal charges or an officer who has been accused of a lapse in professional conduct. For Major Crimes and its fast-paced handling of high profile cases, Raydor has practically been assigned her own desk.

Let’s revisit the formula that was necessary for the success of Cagney & Lacey. Okay yes, it’s important to say the obvious, that Cagney and Lacey were partners and were supposed to collaborate, from Day One, to get the job done. The two characters needed to contrast in as many ways as could be realistic. One was sloppier with procedure, one more detailed. One was married, one wasn’t. One was blonde, the other brunette. One took risks, the other was more measured. One was interested in advancing her career, the other was satisfied with her status today, but was perhaps interested in moving up in the future.

Was I describing Cagney and Lacey or Deputy Chief Johnson and Captain Raydor? Both and that’s precisely why, with great acting, we rooted for both pairs to prevail.

In 2008, it was reported in a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that large local police departments such as the LAPD were comprised of only 15 percent women, but that’s the largest percentage among police departments. If you’re looking for women in law enforcement, you’ll find higher numbers in the U.S. Forest Service – nearly 16%, the FBI – 19% or the Office of the Inspector General – 25%.

Over the seven seasons, we only see Deputy Chief Johnson in her uniform a few times, Captain Raydor maybe once. It may never been known whether this show, featuring strong women characters, proved aspirational for teenage girl or young women viewers, thereby resulting in their choosing careers in law enforcement. I’m guessing the answer to that question can be found in the two actresses’ fan mail.

There’s not a lot of bond visible between the women – less than we’ve seen with other lead women on cop shows. But in spite of the low level conflict that underscores their encounters, they control their behavior pretty well. That’s a departure from a lot of what is on TV today. Particularly with the advent of reality shows, we’re totally accustomed to seeing women who are competitive with each other resolve their differences or salve their aggressions with verbal volleys of insults, threats and ugly language.

Now remember, throughout the entire show’s entire 7 season run, few women ever appeared as victims, witnesses or suspects who really tested Brenda’s mettle. They usually weren’t as clever or educated and more disposed to some level of irrational (or at least signaling weakness in Brenda’s eyes) behavior – acting on virtue, honor, tradition, religion, pride or an ill-conceived shot at getting rich quick.

So among her all-male team and mostly male stable of people to interview, Brenda Leigh Johnson had her persona nailed down and it has yielded success.

But by Season 7, Raydor is tasked with overseeing activities in Johnson’s division to ensure the work meets professional standards and does not take on more risk for future litigation or complaint.

Sharon Raydor, as a career peer with a rank just below Brenda’s, brings the powers of observation and logic to her job.

McDonnell on Raydor

Brenda is about the detail, Sharon is about the big-picture.

So no, even in Season 7 when Sedgwick and McDonnell share more screen time than in earlier seasons, they are not partners like Cagney and Lacey. But their relationship – being on the same team and all – requires a level of trust comparable to what we’d expect police personnel to require of each other.

Paley Center McDonnell

Now remember, Assistant Chief Pope had brought Deputy Chief Johnson to LA to lead the Major Crimes Division from Atlanta, partly to get Johnson out of her department’s ethics investigation. LA represented a fresh start for Brenda Leigh Johnson. However, between sheer volume of the caseloads and the interwoven cases that accrue in six year’s time among gangs and known criminals, she’s learned the culture of the streets and mastered how to incur confessions that send a criminal directly to sentencing.

For a results-driven organization, Brenda Leigh Johnson’s Major Crimes Division is unmatched. However, the ethical edge sedgwick mcdonnellgets pushed more after each major case. Shortcuts are assessed for their risk, favors get called in and Deputy Chief Johnson’s reputation for interrogations that deliver confessions is now legend in LA.

Captain Raydor is a fly in that ointment. And she’s a soft-spoken fly who delivers her point or order with a measured pace. She dresses more conservatively than Brenda does, but they both have longish hair, fit body shapes and similar choices in pantsuits. Perhaps the most key difference is that Raydor’s interest in keeping Brenda out of hot water exceeds any interest Brenda Leigh has in Raydor’s career.

It takes an outpouring of honesty by Sharon Raydor to Brenda for her to get that point. There’s an opening for the post of Chief of the LAPD and it becomes clear that Assistant Chief Pope isn’t the only person studying the application.

Chief app

Brenda is not too interested in navigating the internal politics necessary to think about how her day to day performance might impact her candidacy. Pope learns of her application and initially isn’t supportive. Then he reveals his own insecurities about the process.

Million to 1

When the shortlist for police chief is announced, it contains Brenda’s name and not Pope’s. Raydor goes into overdrive to help Brenda prepare.

Raydor pep talk

Of course Brenda is too involved with all of her casework to care much about preparing, at least not to the standards Raydor expects. This conversation, right before the final interview, reveals that the two women may never be competitors – they don’t have the same goals.

Final prep talk

This is as close as we get to a chat in the women’s room ala Cagney & Lacey. Otherwise, Deputy Chief Johnson and Captain Raydor’s relationship isn’t like that.

Back in the squad room, it’s Captain Raydor’s job to audit the work of the entire Major Crimes Division, the all-male detective team view her initially with the same skepticism they did Brenda. They return to a condescending, sarcastic tone, not convinced for a minute that Raydor understands their work.

She earns the team’s respect over time. Raydor reminds them of her role, which is to uphold department standards and investigate police actions when necessary. Over time, she uses those special powers to aid their investigative work or represent their actions to higher ups. She also earns their respect with her willingness to step up to a challenge.

Raydor interview

Yet it’s precisely the diversity that both women among a field of men, bring to their jobs within high level law enforcement leadership – that make them effective. Raydor’s thought processes are similar to Brenda’s – though a bit more conservative. Raydor studies Brenda’s interrogation techniques and performs capably on her own. It makes you wonder whether Brenda was a phenomenon because of her distinct skills and training or from sheer novelty, as a woman in a male-dominated profession with CIA training on her resume.

Raydor stands with Brenda throughout the uncertainty of department leadership and succession. In the last season, Chief Pope is named Interim Chief of the LAPD, which prompts him to act more conservatively and demand higher scrutiny of the high profile actions of Major Crimes. This would be his second chance at becoming police chief and he isn’t going to let it slip through his hands.

S7 E19 unsigned complaint

Brenda struggles to perform and lead in an environment where she is required to follow every rule to the letter and as well as navigate the political whims of a large bureaucracy. Raydor, with an eye on the big picture, counsels Brenda more than once.

S7 E11 Unorthodox

Chief Pope’s demeanor leads the viewer to think that at any moment, he’s going to throw Brenda under the bus. After seven seasons, we begin to learn just how much trusting her team has become a key element in Brenda’s success. She thinks of Pope as a member of her team, but his actions and criticism of her causes her to question their shared loyalty.

This is heightened as the story arc reveals that the division likely contains a person who is leaking information to adversaries. The leak is referenced throughout many episodes and Brenda denies the possibility, then procrastinates on acting on it and can’t really bring herself to even have a plan by which she isolates and assesses each member of her team. Anything short of full loyalty and trust is unthinkable.

She begins to recognize situations where leaked information would be particularly harmful and utilizes Fritz’s FBI position as a work-around. Ultimately, it is Captain Raydor who uncovers the leak. It’s revealed late in the last season and leaves Brenda with a sense of relief that her unshakable trust was not in error.

These last three seasons are a slow walk through the elements of professional relationships that make a workplace memorable and successful. Her leadership is affirmed through her team’s performance and their outright commitment to the positions they hold. They are united and versed in their mission and even Buzz, the media specialist on the team who is not a police officer, saves Brenda’s life. A suspect makes it through a number of body searches yet is still able to get a gun inside the interview room. Buzz sees the suspect on the room’s video feed brandishing the gun, waiting for Brenda to return.

By the series final episode, writers have wrapped up every loose end with a brilliant pink bow. There certainly was ample time pink coatto do so, as it was Sedgwick who said during the filming of season 6 that she wanted the show to end with the contract.

So writers had the time to lay the foundations of a psychological thriller plot line, yet they still delivered comic fun. Moreover, they brought the sometimes heartless, driven character of Brenda Leigh Johnson to the epiphany that life is short and we spend far more time with our co-workers than with our family members.

Also by The Closer’s last episode, it was clear that the show had developed a loyal following. On YouTube today, there are all sorts of video compilations – the work of fans, most of whom are women, where clips involving Brenda and Raydor together or individually, are set to music. In most cases, the music is a pop song of women’s strength, sung by a woman. Followers have found the empowerment in the subtle relationship of two fictional characters.

Some people spend hours strategizing their fantasy football team, others compile video and put it to music as a tribute to two breakthrough women characters. The emerging generation of feminists get it. Eye contact, fashion or even Brenda’s ready stash of candy and ding dongs in her desk drawer – the importance of these details, developed and polished over seven years – is received loud and clear by the female … and likely male, fan base.

In both real life and in character – Kyra Sedgwick and Brenda Leigh Johnson were heading for burnout by the last season. Sedgwick lamented the demands of the job heading into the final season. In that time, McDonnell became even more accessible to the media for promotions of The Closer. Her character and the conflict it brought to the show was the news hook and she consistently delivered the deeper analysis of how the show fits into TV Herstory and mirrors to some degree women’s experience in the workplace.

Indeed, the police detective genre featuring strong women on the force remains alive and well. We’ve just traced its DNA to

The cast of TNT's Major Crimes... familiar & a few new faces.

The cast of TNT’s Major Crimes… familiar & a few new faces.

Cagney & Lacey and identified a new standard on which future shows can and should build.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory uses audio from the show, of which all seven seasons are available on DVD. The poor quality sound interview with Mary McDonnell was a quick interview at the Paley Center in LA, done as part of the show’s big tribute event at the center. Great content, poor quality. Background music is by Daizie Mae and comes from the excellent source Free Music Archive.

Let me know what you’re thinking about content and quality or ideas for future topics by posting comments at iTunes or the Libsyn hosting site or by emailing me at Find the podcast on Twitter, the handle is TVHerstory.

Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

4 Women of Sisters (1991-1996)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

To list memorable, favorite shows in television… shows that feature women, it doesn’t take long before a trend emerges. That’s the formula of four women as lead characters. While Advanced TV Herstory has found no exhaustive list of the forgotten or super-short lived series, there are at least a good dozen that succeeded with 4 lead women characters.

Through different approaches to the characters or indeed unpredictable situations that occur within the show’s tenure, no two episodes are the same – or come anywhere near being the same. But there is some DNA at work.

Today we will revisit Winnetka, the suburban community where four sisters lived for 6 seasons of the show, Sisters. It aired orig 4from 1991 to 1996 and like the show profiled in an earlier podcast, Desperate Housewives, used the stability of its suburban setting as a launching pad for over-the top stories and twists.

In this installment, you’ll learn a bit about the characters and actresses who played them. Then we’ll examine the list of over-the-top stories to better understand how this show, clearly targeted at women, wove in headlines of the day. In other arcs, the writers dug deep into the female or family experience, to offer up one of life’s many challenges. They would then skillfully paint the role relationships play in managing through or resolving the situation.

Sisters, as a show from only 20 years ago, has fallen into such obscurity. Only recently have seasons one and two been released on DVD. You can find episodes on YouTube, or maybe accidently stored on a VHS in your basement. Mine have been there intentionally for 20 years.

But at the time Sisters aired, it garnered the nominations at the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globe Awards and Emmy Awards for on-screen talent – Swoosie Kurtz and Sela Ward in their roles as Alex and Teddy. In 1993, behind the camera, Nancy Malone was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing in a Drama Series and Susanne Stinson Malles was also nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement In Editing For a Series – Single-Camera Production.

And finally, for a show known for its fashion and hair, Rachael Stanley was nominated in 1996 for an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design in a Series.

It’s important also to note that not much has been written about this show. No interviews about the show, with the actresses, can be found online. Seasons One and Two on DVD contains interviews with the show’s creators – reminiscing about casting decisions and challenges. Having not viewed those interviews, this is my original analysis.

The story of the Reed sisters, – Alex, Georgie, Frankie and Teddy capably holds down the fort of the 4-lead construction. Just like in The Golden Girls and Sex and the City, you’ll come to appreciate that Frankie is the smart one – a “career gal.” Alex leads a pampered life. Teddy is the creative one and tends to make impetuous decisions when it comes to all the men in her life and Georgie is the stable one – the nexus of the foursome.

As an hour-long show, it was a bit of a serial. Characters and plots fed into future episodes. It was an hour of suspended belief. These were real women who just happened to have outrageous occurrences in their lives. And they managed to tend the distressed, resolve conflict and celebrate accomplishments surrounded by hooded sweatshirts, mom jeans, fuzzy sweaters, suits with great shoulder pads and dinners with good to fine china.

Improbable if not impossible, yes. But they looked like real people and by the end of the show, each had really great 90s hair. The show was created by men. This is a rare 2004 Emmy TV Legends clip of Robert Butler, who was a veteran director by the time he worked on the show. It serves as a reminder that there was a mindset then that it was perfectly fine to think that men were the most capable ones to present a show about women, largely for women. How much has changed since 2004?

1 Rbt Butlr clip

When I first viewed the interview, my chief thought was, if even one or two women had been a part of the show’s conception and creation, would it have been cast differently, plotted differently and become a more celebrated and remembered show than it is today?

So let’s look at what WAS produced. Who were the sisters?

Going not in alphabetical or age order, but rather by name ID and post-Sisters career activity, we start with Teddy, played by Sela Ward. Sela Ward emerged from Sisters with the strongest career. She’s had small roles in movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. On TV she starred in and earned an Emmy for Once & Again. She was also a late series addition to CSI: New York. Sela Ward played Teddy, the creative, divorced sister who we see return with her teenage daughter to Winnetka in the pilot episode.

Swoosie Kurtz was Alex and is a veteran of the stage, TV and the big screen. She currently plays Melissa McCarthy’s mother on Mike & Molly. She had a recurring role in Pushing Daisies, ER and Nurse Jackie. Her TV career and all sorts of award nominations go all the way back to the early 80s. In Sister’s first season, viewers see Alex’s pampered life as the wife of a plastic surgeon begins to unravel. She can be judgmental and doesn’t mince words. Scandal forces her to accept a new economic reality for her and her daughter. This pilot scene establishes her relationship with their mother, who isn’t do well adjusting to all the changes that come with being a widow.kalember

S1 E1 police st

Georgie, who some would consider to be the show’s focus sister, was played by Patricia Kalember, who continues to pop up all the time in shows that feature strong women. She was Judge Taten on Law & Order SVU. She’s a senator in Madame Secretary. Joyce in Olive Kitteridge and Marka in Orange is the New Black. Kalember was Georgie, the second who was most responsible, perceived as the most stable. The show begins with viewers learning she is the one with the most suburban, middle-class life – house, dog, two sons and a husband. This clip from the pilot provides a glimpse of how Teddy and Georgie get along.

S1 E1 What about

Lastly, sort of, there was Frankie. Julianne Phillips is the actress who seemingly dropped out after the show ended – actually sort of before the show ended. Her career was busy during the show’s run – made for TV movie that were dramas, not just fluffy rom coms. By the 5th season, the character of Frankie, the smart one had been moved off to Julianne PhillipsNew York and Japan as an entrepreneur. Frankie took her son, Thomas George with her. Thomas George of course is the son of Teddy’s first husband Mitch. In the first season, the courtship of Mitch and Frankie is a story arc that is aided by flashbacks, involving teenage actresses, of the sisters’ teen years. Frankie only returns to Winnetka in the series finale.

What do writers (and indeed there were many women writers who contributed over the years) do when a quarter of the 4 part formula wants out? They invent a stand-in. Even in the first season, viewers learn that the sisters’ recently widowed mother, Beatrice, was a patient woman while her husband cheated on her with his secretary. To fill the void of Frankie, we learn that indeed the secretary gave a daughter up for adoption – Charlie.

In and out of foster homes but with resources provided by her father, Charlie became a doctor. Charlie was played by two actresses – Jo Anderson introduced the character and played her in 15 episodes. Anderson has had a busy career doing one-time roles in TV dramas. Sheila Kelley took over for the remaining 22 episodes. Kelley has also had recurring roles in TV’s Lost, Gossip Girl, MDs and ER.

Just as Desperate Housewives’ plots involved the four main women characters on Wisteria Lane, but also had Nicollette Sheridan as Edie as a minor role foil, so too did Sisters have a fifth – a recurring minor role.

Mother to the four daughters and willing to serve as adopted mother to Charlie, Beatrice Reed was capably played by ElizabethEHoffman Hoffman. Prior to the show, Hoffman had a recurring role in Thirtysomething (alongside Patricia Kalember), Matlock and L.A. Law. Back when epic mini-series of major literary works were common, Elizabeth Hoffman was a big somebody. Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance featured big names from the silver screen as well as TV. Look for Elizabeth Hoffman in both as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

These capable women formed the core of all sorts of escapades, maladies and challenges that made the lives of viewers seem dull. Ordinary. The writing kept the show from the doldrums, though, by clever writing and twisting. The casting team delivered strong recurring character talent as well – Nora Dunn, Robert Klein and a guy named George Clooney, who had ward clooneyjust hung up his tool belt as the handy man on The Facts of Life.

So the humor was clever, not ha ha. And just when I thought the plot was so far-fetched and I wondered why I was still watching – guilty pleasure and all – a character would utter a line that was something I would have said, if in the same situation.

One such outrageous, highly unlikely in my literal mind’s thinking is when Teddy gets asked to design a gown for then First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Alongside Teddy’s new opportunity, Georgie is stressed because the child she carried for 9 months for sister Frankie has now become the prize in a custody hearing during which both Frankie and Mitch are at their worst. Teddy has other things on her mind.

Divorce chatter

There’s a point in every episode where you just have to suspend reality. It’s gone. Yes, we’ve all heard mothers admonish their offspring about finding humor in other’s misfortune. We’ve just never been on a deadline to design the First Lady’s dress in 2 days. How does a talented designer rise to the occasion? With a pep talk from her big sister.

Hem it zip it

Sure enough, Georgie is able to vacuum and spruce up her house in time for a visit from the First Lady. The entire family is on hand, a little John Phillips Sousa music sets the scene as an actress playing Hillary emerges from a limo. We get the sense of the extended family’s disappointment that the entire visit lasted 5 minutes.

With concept sketches approved by the First Lady in hand, Teddy gets industrious and asks a favor from a former employee from her earlier fashion business. Teddy and McKinley present the dress and mannequin to Secret Service Agents and begin arranging for a final fitting.

Dress leverage

Sure, stand on principle and hold the First Lady’s dress hostage. But don’t you admire Teddy just a bit for her chutzpah?sela ward

Final fitting

Corny, campy and fun.

But the situations did serve up a sort of table-top exercise of life’s rites of passage. And yes, some of the plot threads were just plain implausible. But the relationships were the constant and the show’s legacy the reminder that while it takes work to maintain family relationships, but there are benefits as well. By virtue of the 4 lead women formula, you might say that Desperate Housewives took Sisters to the dark sexy side. If you view Sisters as a family drama, it’s an all-woman, grown up suburban version of The Waltons.

So while these plots themes sound serious, the show was not nearly as grim as this list would have you believe. But the five women named for men, which is explained in the pilot has having been their father’s decision in lieu of them having not been born sons, took on these issues with confidence, humor and occasionally outrage.

Interracial marriage
Christian-Jewish marriage
Three – count ‘em THREE plane crashes
Foster parenting son of deceased patient
Surviving a coma that was the result of a car jacking
Settling a municipal union contract while her husband recovers from a major heart attack
Repressed memory therapy that turns out to be a ruse from a quack therapist
Suffering blindness, losing a spouse from one of the above mentioned plane crashes
One of the sisters contemplates suicide
Becoming a newspaper advice columnist
Becoming a TV talk show host
Having a successful career as an international fashion designer and businesswoman
Having a singing career takes off, mid-life, from its humble origins of bathrobe karaoke
Run for the school board
HIV positive teacher in a public school
Sexual harassment in workplace
End of life and the execution of a living will
Censorship in art
Remarrying late in life
Breast cancer
Pregnancy that may be a baby with Down’s Syndrome
Infidelity and staying in a marriage
Surrogate birth, which later is produced as a movie of the week
Depression due to job loss
Post partum depression
Alcoholism and rehab
Marriages and divorces, including a sister’s ex

So with all these opportunities to grow, it’s no wonder that each character acts differently by the end of the series. In particular, Swoosie Kurtz’s physical comedy helps take the edge off Alex’s many challenges. In the last season, Alex mistakes pregnancy for what turns out to be the start of menopause.

Menopause rarely drives a TV plot, in part because it requires an actress or actresses of a certain age, and viewers need to have a level of personal knowledge with the character that makes it approachable. By the show’s final season, we know Alex. Alex, Georgie and Teddy enjoy coffee and the paper, which for Alex lately includes the obituaries.

S6 E7 obits

So Alex puts on her best black and attends the funeral, only to find herself seated next to a distinguished older woman.

S6 E7 Marjorie

So Alex buys the book and finds it most fascinating.

S6 E7 Wisdom

So in fulfilling the requirements, Alex uses the challenges and obstacles found in her own environment. She climbs the tallest tree in the neighborhood, its highest leaf her trophy. With Marjorie’s ghostly guidance, she takes on the second challenge. Swoosie Kurtz’s mastery of physical comedy makes each segment fun.

S6 E7 Beast

The third challenge involves physical endurance. According to the book, Marjorie swam the English Channel. Alex appears to cross a skimpy shallow pond of some sort. And with her three acts performed, she’s soaking in her bathtub when Marjorie returns for a recap.

S6 E7 Renaissance

Can you think of any other TV show past or present that eased the viewers into reflection of life’s mileposts more than this one? Affirming. Inspiring. Aspiring. Sadly, the only version of this episode found on the internet doesn’t contain the one second of tape that provides writer credits. I really have to believe this episode could ONLY have been written by a woman or team of women.

Sure, other shows featuring 4 women as lead characters have come along, leaving us to remember vaguely and perhaps fondly six seasons of Sisters.

Should you embark on re-watching the whole series online, you’ll see how deftly the pilot and series finale connect. The writers series finalebrought us full circle, giving us confidence that the sisters will remain bonded even as Bea has just passed away.

By the first half of the 1990s, older baby boom women, born in the late 1940s and early 50s, were in their 40s and they were everywhere, including a very visible one bringing a new job description to the role of First Lady.

Prime time soaps Dynasty and Knots Landing were gone by the early 90s. Sisters proved to us that escapism can take on many forms and even be set in suburbia, with zip up hoodie sweat shirts. That the character of Teddy can still reach the pinnacle of the fashion industry yet return to Winnetka in her black jeep wearing the maroon and black baseball jacket that was her character trademark is a testament to the show’s light comedic realism.

Throughout traditional daytime soap operas, viewers establish a connection to the family – usually the good family – which remained the constant for years if not decades. For 6 years, women connected with the Reed family and marveled at how good their hair evolved over the years. Characters rarely ate and usually TALKED about getting things done more than ever really doing it. But that’s what made it a guilty pleasure. More importantly, we saw how others view and value family bonds, reliance, loyalty, candor and how important it is to support those around you.

In the leadership curriculum that I teach and train from, it’s called “inspiring the heart.” As a leader, it’s important to value people for what and how they bring themselves to the team. They are humans, in need of praise and guidance. One might conclude that women are stronger leaders of teams because of the hours we spent not on the golf course, but instead watching our daytime or primetime serial dramas.

Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Audio clips have been pulled Sisters episodes found on YouTube. Robert Butler’s interview can be found at You heard background music by Big Mean Sound Machine which is available at Free Music A big thanks to Advanced TV Herstory guest editrix Judy Mans, who is no stranger to storytelling.

If the mood strikes you, please rate the show or post comments or questions on iTunes or the Libsyn host page. If you’re shy, email your thoughts to This script and past show scripts can be found at my website

Follow the podcast on Twitter – handle TVHerstory.

Thanks for tuning in. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

4 Women of Desperate Housewives

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

Thanks for tuning in to another installment of Advanced TV Herstory, a podcast that studies, analyzes and celebrates women in television. Today we begin a series that over time will review the fascinating construct of the women who comprise four main characters in a sitcom or drama. We’ll look at trends and deviations. We’ll trace themes where they exist and examine why some shows didn’t garner the recognition they deserved.

Put four women on a stage as talented equals and with the right people behind the scenes, you get magic. If you have opinions about a show or shows that featured 4 women as leads, please send them via comment sections at Libsyn or iTunes or directly as an email to

This installment looks at the women of Desperate Housewives – Felicity Huffman, Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria and Marcia Cross. Wearing stilettos and Sperry’s, evening wear, suits and short shorts, they became famous for their roles and fashionable styles. Advanced TV Herstory also explores where their fame fits into the show’s legacy.

Don’t let the suburban façade fool you. Desperate Housewives brings a dark, comedic side to the story of four women, 5 if you count their neighbor who is usually their foil. It’s well written and campy – as over the top in its plotlines as a predecessor, Sisters, s show set in Winnetka which aired in the early 90s was, only with a greater eye toward matters of morbidity – heart attacks caused, houses burned down and people dying, well, mysteriously.

Desperate Housewives and the comings and goings on Wisteria Lane in the fictional town of opening seqFairview aired from 2004 to 2012 and became an immediate success. From the moment you saw the opening credits, you knew the show has been thought through, a fresh look on domestic life. This is the musical score as the show begins, but the artistic renderings illustrated a story that harkens back to the ages. Believe it or not there is a website devoted to using the Desperate Housewives opening sequence for literary and artistic interpretation exercises.

While some never took the show seriously, it was a success in many ways. Thirty-three different organizations recognized the show with nominations for awards. This array shows the diversity and quality of the show in terms of directing, design, casting, acting, production and writing. As to the big awards, Felicity Huffman won the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Her competition? Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross.

NAACP vanessa-williams-620x345-1

Vanessa Williams

Emmy recognized guest star Kathryn Joosten, who played Karen McCluskey with two awards for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2005 and 2008 and she was nominated a few more times. In 2013, Vanessa Williams was recognized by the NAACP Image Awards winning the Outstanding Supporting Actress – Comedy Series.

By the end of the series, all four leading actresses had won major hardware and the show, great acclaim both in the US and abroad. In 2011 ABC announced cancellation early enough in the last season so as to give the writers every opportunity to wind down the plots and bring an appropriate closure to the viewers.

To follow the show through its seasons is to keep track with an incredibly fast-pasted series of continuous plot lines and a huge cast of extras. Storytelling that advanced the obvious plot also sometimes planted a clue that would come in handy later in that episode or in the season.

The pilot and initial plot revolves around the death of neighbor Mary Alice Young. Like a vine, the stories quickly spread out in many directions. The late Mary Alice’s voice is narrator throughout the seasons. By learning early of her suicide in an otherwise idyllic neighborhood, the audience begins to perceive the dark side of the question posed within the show’s advertising, “How much do we want to know about our neighbors?”

Creator and writer Marc Cherry deftly uses Mary Alice’s voice – that of Brenda Strong – to provide all the necessary backstory to transition to the “action” on Wisteria Lane. Using the old device from soap operas to synopsize past plot lines, Mary Alice starts off Season 2 by bringing us up to speed, reminding us where we left off.

Season 2 narration

That clip is simply a sample of how serial-like this production was. The four main characters (and a large diverse cast) brought the story to life.

In a fan book published at the end of the first season – that always a good sign of a runaway hit – creator Marc Cherry recounts and describes the four primary women.

Teri Hatcher, who some may remember played Lois Lane in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, from the mid-90s, is Susan Mayer. Susan is the first of our circle on Wisteria Lane toHatcher be divorced. We know her situation, we see her heart and Teri Hatcher is an ace at physical comedy. With each bit that includes a pratfall or physical challenge, the show’s wardrobe designers use their powers to contribute to the comedic effect.

Through her adult life, Hatcher had come to grips with the fact that she had been sexually molested as a young girl by an uncle. Using her 15 seconds of fame, which we at Advanced TV Herstory believe may be doled out annually to people in wildly popular TV shows, she wrote a memoir and became active with organizations and campaigns around sexual assault. In this 2014 clip, Hatcher introduces herself to representatives of the United Nations.

Hatcher testimony 1

With this testimony available on YouTube, it’s fascinating to watch Hatcher, white American successful woman recount to a roomful of women from all over the world what led her to reveal her story publicly.

Hatcher testimony 2

And with this testimony, Hatcher has made the most of her profile and. We haven’t heard or seen the last of Teri Hatcher – in her role as advocate.

Testimony 3

On to Felicity Huffman as former successful executive who gave up her career for motherhood – Lynette Scavo. Huffman earned great acclaim for her role as Dana Whitaker in the short-lived series by Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night, which aired for two seasons beginning in 1998.

Marc Cherry has consistently said that the character of Lynette is patterned after his mother during his family’s younger years.

“I wanted to write a career woman who had given up her career so she could raise kids because she wanted to do right by them., and now she’s not happy. I thought that was, in its own little way, groundbreaking. … For a woman to say, ‘No, this is hard, and I don’t really like it,” I thought that was a brave choice.”

This clip from Season 2 is a little piece of domestic insight into the Scavo home when husband Tom is between jobs and they decide it’s his turn to be the at-home parent. Lynette attempts to re-enter the workforce after 7 years.

Prep for interview

Like Hatcher, Huffman, who won the lead actress Emmy in the show’s first year, used the stage Huffmancreated by her character to reach out to real women. As a mother of two herself, Huffman relates well to Lynette’s struggle with parenting young children.

Huffman Flicka impetus

Had the internet been around when Donna Reed or June Cleever were America’s most known mothers, aspirations to project perfection would have prevented those actresses from creating a resource dedicated to the challenges and questions of motherhood. Huffman gave us which is not a vanity platform for Huffman, but is in fact a network hub for mothers to contribute written pieces or video on a host of topics.

Huffman Flicka 2

Creator Marc Cherry maintains Lynette’s character was his mother from his youth. He adds that Bree Van De Kamp is the mother of his teenage and adult years. Very dry. Very composed, while marcia_crossraising his siblings in Orange County. His imagination takes over from reality in the character played by Marcia Cross. Before Desperate Housewives, Cross had significant roles in Melrose Place, Knots Landing, TV soap One Life to Live and the single season series Everwood.

Says Cherry, “Over the course of the season, Bree has suffered perhaps more than any other character, finding her idyllic, plastic existence challenged by a series of new domestic dramas. In each of her travails, she surprises the audience in new ways – revealing that she loves sex, is open to S & M and wants real intimacy, despite seeming incapable of feeling.”

From that first season fan book, Marcia Cross says about her character,

“The interesting thing about Bree is that there’s what she wants and what she thinks she wants. She thinks she wants everything to be status quo. But actually she wants to be happier.”

In the final season, writers who had overseen Bree’s evolution provided some analysis in a DVD bonus. Cross’ character stood out among the four women for her emotional growth and shift in perspective.

Bree’s journey

Over the 8 seasons the writers really did send Bree through great challenges. In a few cases, the writers were able to take the edge off of dark situations with the comedic quips, delivered quite capably to or at Bree by Longoria or Nicollette Sheridan. Shame, men, alcoholism – by the end of the series Bree’s world looked nothing like it did on Day One.

This clip from the 8th season reveals Bree at her most vulnerable. The scene a seedy motel room. No make up, looking weary… a Bree Van De Kamp modeling a new flavor of desperate. Late season antagonist Renee Perry is hunting her down thinking Bree has taken up with her man. Vanessa Williams as Renee Perry kicks down the motel room door rocking a leather dress that presents her as nothing short of an action figure.

Bree & Renee

Humor and situational comedy will keep Desperate Housewives among viewers who missed it the first time and now want to power through season after season. The evolution of Bree is perhaps the show’s unintended legacy. Marcia Cross shattered the pearly perfection of Donna Reed and June Cleaver.

Gabrielle Solis “Gabby” is played by Eva Longoria, born in Texas to Mexican-American parents. Longoria’s previous noteworthy work include two years on soap Young & the Restless and a recurring character in the 2003 one-season TV remake of Dragnet.

Creator Marc Cherry thought it was important to depict the suburban experience of his youth.

“Growing up in Southern California, my family had many Mexican families around us and I noticed that in the suburbs, race doesn’t matter nearly as much as class. …no one cared what color you were. They just wanted to make sure that you took care of your lawn.”

Gabby publicly balances emotional and material fulfillment and comedy serves to highlight her character’s vanity and sense of entitlement. Early on, Gabby identifies with Mary Alice’s longoriadesperation – that which drove that character to suicide.

In this clip, Gabby’s successful husband lands in trouble with the FBI and Gabby visits him while he awaits his court date. The scandal devastates them financially, ultimately sends Gabrielle back to modeling.

Gabrielle to Carlos

In the fan book from the first season, before the show was able to traverse paths along race, class and health, Eva Longoria reflected on her role as the only non-white desperate housewife.

“The Solises are very pioneering in the way that the Cosbys were. We’re the richest couple on the block and we have a white gardener, which is unheard of in our society. It’s a great thing to see Latinos portrayed in a positive way. I’m a huge activist for Latino rights and it’s a fact that Latinos are still severely underrepresented in television and film, so any time any Latino is cast, I think that it’s great.”

Thirteen years later – three after the end of the series, Longoria is busier than ever as a voice in Hollywood and the nation, for greater representation of Latinos. In light of growing anti-immigration sentiment and racism in national political dialogue, she launched an effort called Latino Victory. It focuses on social engagement and political participation at the grassroots level as well as voter registration that is targeted at having its first major impact in the 2016 presidential election. It’s part of Longoria’s activist work under the umbrella theme of The Firsts.

In an age of highly targeted internet presence for news, entertainment and advocacy, Longoria is leveraging her international profile as a Mexican American.

Eva Firsts

Apart from the programmatic work, Longoria herself is increasingly become a spokesperson or resource on immigration, education and other policy questions that involve immigrants and first generation Americans.

Longoria is by no means the first celebrity to dip her pedicured toe into politics and political debate. Desperate Housewives’ tremendous popularity and Marc Cherry’s certain conviction that a character like Gabrielle Solis fit into a story that otherwise could very easily have been about four white women, has given Longoria room to run.


Nicollette Sheridan

Now some might say that Desperate Housewives is really a show about five women. Nicollette Sheridan as Edie was the fifth. That may be true, but from the outside, the show’s primary photographic representation was of four women.

Cherry asserts that the role of Edie definitely grew over time, in part due to Sheridan’s over-the-top portrayal. Edie is an outsider to the group of four. She’s self-made having lived a tough life and earned her own way as a realtor to reside on Wisteria lane. Her boot straps story is the tip-off that she’s resourceful and driven.

Nicollette Sheridan, a veteran of prime time soaps Knots Landing and Paper Dolls as well as voice work, originally read for the role of Bree but she saw the role as too uptight for something she may have to keep doing for years and years. Following her reading of Bree, they asked her to read for Edie. She had the part before she left the room.

Sheridan, even in a minor role as resourceful, driven Edie, brought her own amount of controversy or free publicity to the show.

In November 2004, Sheridan appeared in a cross-over TV commercial that bridged Monday Night Football and Desperate Housewives. It appeared right before kickoff and stirred quite a controversy.


2004 Monday Night Football commercial featuring Philadelphia Eagle Terrell Owens and Nicollette Sheridan.

Staying in character as Edie, Sheridan comes on to Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens in the locker room, just minutes before kickoff – wearing nothing, for a time, but a towel.

Monday Night Football

What you, the listener, can’t tell from the audio clip of the video is that she drops her towel, Owens gets a big smile on his face and Sheridan jumps into his arms, straddling his waist.

It’s no surprise the next day’s chatter was about whether that was appropriate, given that that the Disney Corporation owns ABC (the network of both programs featured in the commercial). The football team initially stood by their decision to be a part of it. Terrell Owens in a press conference later in the week called it a “clean skit.” The Eagles backpedaled a bit, professing perhaps that it wasn’t the best way to feature the team.

Another controversy simmered. Owens is African-American and Sheridan is white, blonde and blue eyed. Then Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, an African American, questioned whether anyone would have even thought twice had the football player been white.

Just as they did with the Janet Jackson Super Bowl Halftime Show Wardrobe Malfunction, the Federal Communications Commission investigated the advertisement and the media salivated throughout November and into December. In March 2005 the FCC concluded that the ad didn’t violate the law.

It concluded the skit, “although sexually suggestive, is not graphic or explicit.” Lisa de Moraes, a TV columnist for the Washington Post chronicled the closure on the saucy controversy. In a March 15, 2005 column available online de Moraes writes, FCC Chairman Powell observed “that while broadcasters complain about the FCC’s ‘indecency enforcement,’ they like to ‘keep it hot and steamy in order to get financial gains and the free advertising it provides.’”

Hot and steamy is exactly how women of Wisteria Lane was promoted, played and celebrated through the show’s run. Through the mysterious and not-so-mysterious deaths to the affairs to the profiles of addiction, writers pulled in the viewer, got you comfortable and then offered you a clever, often dark, twist.

With solid and consistent talent of the regular performers to the long list of A-list cameos, the acting definitely kept up with the writing. As a result, risks could be taken and most times, they paid off.

Remember, we’ve come a long way from the traditional soap opera. Daytime television’s heyday was in the 60s and 70s, when audiences tracked multiple shows in the TV viewing lounge on college campuses, at home or via their VCR.

Serials found new life in prime time in the 80s, with Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty as standouts of highly skilled acting, sophisticated plot development and show longevity. These shows provided the serial plot continuity for the working woman who deserved an hour at the end of a day to herself. To escape.

And we might have left the serial behind and fully embraced reality shows had it not been for a few lines exchanged between creator Marc Cherry and his mother. This clip was from a Paley Center interview with cast and writers early in the show’s run.

M Cherry origin

From the outset, Cherry and his writers didn’t follow guidelines of how four women should be characterized. Lynette, Susan, Gabby and Bree are rarely compared to the women of Sex &
The City or The Golden Girls. The show is as much about the plots and how they resolve unthinkable situations as it is about the women or their lifestyles. Each woman is juggling multiple relationships every day.

For suburban viewers, this show was relatable, complete with familiar conflicts and reactions and numerous outrageous ways to resolve them that would put most of us behind bars.

As we will learn in an upcoming installment of Advanced TV Herstory, the show Sisters which aired from 1991 to 1996 writers also optimized suburban stability and predictability so they could suspend belief and take story lines over the top. After a day of work outside or inside the home, that’s the kind of mind candy many women want and need.

Another big difference between Sisters and Desperate Housewives, rests within the context of the internet, the economy, politics and the advance of the women’s movement. It’s in how Desperate Housewives stars have chosen to use their celebrity for larger causes.

In that respect, in this stage of their seasoned careers, Longoria, Hatcher and Huffman in particular are leveraging their visibility and resources to right the wrongs they parodied on Wisteria Lane.

Desperate Housewives is available on Hulu and on DVD.

While there are hundreds of blogs, websites and fan sites devoted to the show, my goal with this installment, within the context of shows featuring four strong main women characters, was to put the show and women in the light of history. Send me your feedback and interpretation about Desperate Housewives or other ideas.

If you never saw a single episode of Desperate Housewives but like well-crafted shows, give it a shot. Remember, it earned recognition from 33 different entities.

In researching the show I found Marc Cherry’s book published in 2005 season, Desperate Housewives: Behind Closed Doors by Downtown Books to be very insightful.

On YouTube, find Teri Hatcher’s November 25, 2014 testimony at the United Nations’ Commemoration of the International Day to End Violence against Women.

Paley Center for Media session with the cast and crew of Desperate Housewives moderated by Carrie Fisher. It’s not the one dated 2009, it’s the other one. Marcia Cross is wearing is shiny red dress and Eva Longoria is wearing a cream colored winter coat over what looks to be a lacy dress which almost anywhere else in America would pass for lingerie.

I also pulled audio from an unattributed professional video of Felicity Huffman explaining the impetus for her website WhattheFlicka on YouTube as well.

Music you’ve heard in the background is by Big Mean Sound Machine and is found on Free Music

While there is plenty of material for future podcasts, I’m certain you as a listener have a favorite show or story arc that needs its story told. Shoot me a line on Twitter at TVHerstory or an email at

This and scripts from past installments can be found at my website Scripts include embedded resource links whenever appropriate.

Thanks for listening to Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams

Concept to Pilot: Cagney & Lacey

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

To have any basic understanding of the evolution of women in TV is to know just how important the show Cagney & Lacey, which aired from 1981 to 1988, was and is. This installment of Advanced TV Herstory focuses on the show’s pilot, which in one evening, changed TV for women. Forever.

It gave women opportunities behind the camera. Its quality was such that the two female leads, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, captured the leading actress in a drama Emmy for six consecutive years. Daly one year, Gless the next – back and forth. Year in and year out even during a very strong time for women in TV, no other show gave women room to run like this one did.

So the story of the pilot – actually the long slog of developing the premise and selling the idea – is one of resilience, vision, commitment, patience and moxie. It was a time in Hollywood and television when white males dominated every level of decision-making. A few were looking at trends, reading the papers and getting an earful from their wives, mothers or daughters, but most weren’t.

Barney Rosenzweig, the producer and quarterback for the show had become aware of the stark sexism in film when he was on a date in the mid- 70s with Barbara Corday, whom he would ultimately marry. They saw the original Italian version of the movie Scent of a Woman and in the conversation that followed, Corday lambasted it for all the stereotypes and assumptions, within the plot, within the direction, that marginalized women and perpetuates discrimination. This was 1975, three years into the campaign to ratify the ERA and the first years of impact for Title IX.

Rosenzweig has put all the stories of Cagney & Lacey’s development, as well as the highlights and low lights of his Hollywood career into an audio book which is available in the 30th Anniversary boxed set of the series. He packs a lot into his memoir. With candor reveals how that movie date with Corday moved his mindset. From then on, he was determined to blow open the doors of film and TV for stories and realistic roles for women.

Or, as he goes on to tell, Corday came to realize that with the popularity of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there was no buddy movie that featured women. There was nothing that came that close to depicting a positive, supportive, good natured relationship between two women.

Barbara Corday is a force in her own right and will indeed be profiled in a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory.

At that time, Rosenzweig was a TV producer, not permanently attached to a series. Rather, he stepped in to Daniel Boone, a series that ran from 1964 to 1970 and produced many episodes. Also, he brought his eye for feminism and the appropriate, accurate portrayal of women to Charlie’s Angels, in 1976.

Throughout his storytelling, Rosenzweig frames the chasm between shows produced only by men, or by men’s men, as perpetuating the male mythology. Rosenzweig had originally been in the running to produce Charlie’s Angels, but hadn’t gotten it. However, the position opened up again just as the first episodes were actually going on the air. To hear Rosenzweig tell it, Charlie’s Angels was filled with glaringly sexist details and tone, but viewers glommed on to it immediately. His hunch was affirmed not long into the show’s run, too, that the audience really did consist primarily of young women who were hungry for shows about women.

His tenure didn’t last long, but in his memoir, Rosenzweig illustrates a few key changes to production and plot development that took the show to a higher level of control for the women characters. In doing so, the Sabrina, Jill and Kelly are more believable and stronger in their roles as private detectives.

If that sounds subtle or trivial, Rosenzweig’s recounts these stories with a sense that he was shunned on many occasions for being too critical of the male mythology – that he was forcing change where it wasn’t needed. In those days of broadcast TV, the audiences were already captured. There was no competition.

For five years, he, Barbara Corday and a seasoned writer whom Rosenzweig asked to team up with Corday, Barbara Avedon, worked to develop the premise for the woman’s buddy movie that would compare to Newman and Redford.

In those years, each was involved in writing, producing and development work as so to ensure their continued incomes. They pitched and presented iterations to all the major networks. It was at one point a film, a made-for-TV movie and a series. Each time, the suits were interested, but another project always won out.

<The club>

It was finally given the green light in 1980. The pilot was made under the auspices of being a made-for-TV movie though many close to it knew that there was enough plot development to make it be a successful dramatic episodic series.

With a budget of about $2 million, they stretched their dollars by shooting most of the movie in Toronto.

You can imagine that when you’ve been incubating a break-through premise like Cagney and Lacey for as long as these three had, it gives you time to develop a vision. The characters become more real, even though the project itself is stalled.

While the project sat on the shelf, Corday had concluded that Sharon Gless was the definitive Christine Cagney. After a while, Rosenzweig agreed. They had never identified their Mary Beth Lacey. The Cagney preference would only come into play once the made-for-TV movie had finally been accepted for production.

Rosenzweig attempted to secure Gless for the role, but she was already committed to the sitcom House Calls, in which she had succeeded Lynn Redgrave as the lead actress. The network sort of tyne-daly 1gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

<Network says>
For the role of Mary Beth, Loretta Swit had a say in the decision too, and pushed hard for Tyne Daly.

<Tyne pick>

Swit put a lot into helping develop the character of Christine Cagney, well beyond the character sketch that had been put forth by Avedon and Corday. There’s no doubt Swit’s homework paid off.

Cagney background

Swit’s stories line up with Rosenzweig’s about how the director had more interest in understanding the mindset of the villain – who never had a speaking role – than he did in developing a breakthrough character like Cagney.

<Real details 1>

When you think about it, holding her legendary role on MASH had to have made Swit feel obligatedloretta-swit to deliver as realistic portrayal as possible. She was doing this for the sisterhood of police women, which had to have been small and highly critical. By the time she had been hired for this role, she had the navigated this swamp of the male domain once before. She put those skills to good use – perhaps better than an actress whose experience was not so immersed in an all-male military environment.

<Real details 2>

Ultimately, it was Swit who was the first face of Cagney, depicted by far to be more of a groundbreaker than married-with-children Lacey.

<Taking liberty>

Okay, so the pilot, originally framed as a made-for-TV movie is shot and edited. Again, Rosenzweig rants in his memoirs about the many compromises that, at least for this first attempt, resulted in a product that he considered inferior.

As a matter of fact, after airing the first cut, Corday was in tears. Head in hands. The director had put Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan into a police uniform, brusque and unlikable.

Male mentality

The director had little interest in developing the Redford and Newman sort of bond that had been part of the vision.

And, as I’ll describe within the plot, it was shot with so much emphasis on Christine Cagney, that the buddy theme is sort of lost. Once the director had completed his contract, Rosenzweig tells of many long days in the editing room, trying to re-orient certain scenes with available footage so as to minimize Cagney’s edginess and loop in Lacey, the buddy and partner.

A movie that had originally been presented as too long had been trimmed. No scenes were struck, but rather there was no room for pause. Dialogue chased from one line to the next. This is where Rosenzweig began incorporating his approach to storytelling, which is to make use of the moves of the actors and actresses, subtle facial expressions or even pauses, for effect. No words, a more effective moment in the story and more efficient with time.

And now, about the pilot itself.

I am a huge Cagney & Lacey fan for many reasons. Primarily, it’s because the show is SO significant in the timeline of women characters on television. It represents a hand off of the baton from Charlie’s Angels and a long, hard run achieving recognition, breaking new ground with story lines and just as important, presenting the memorable, genuine chemistry between Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly over the course of the show’s run. It took that much power to, in turn, hand the baton to Law and Order: SVU.

To the 2015 viewer, the 2-hour movie pilot feels like the writers and producers loaded up as much as they could into the plot, hoping that enough would appeal to enough viewers to be seen as something bold.

Listening to Rosenzweig recount the many years and concessions he committed to in order to get Cagney & Lacey to production, I can appreciate the amount of energy and provocative storytelling Avedon and Corday used to make the splash it would need to become a series.

They loaded up the story with a sophisticated, fairly intricate plot that crossed cultural boundaries. As our heroines crossed those boundaries and conducted their work among residents of cultures other than their own, they brought an accessibility, trust and result otherwise unachievable by men.


It’s been many years since Cagney and Lacey reruns aired and chances are slim that many listeners ever saw the pilot. Unless you own the 30th anniversary boxed set, I am here to refresh your memory and tell you how the show improved from this pilot-movie.

Carry-overs from the pilot to the show were Tyne Daly, Al Waxman, who played Lt. Bert Samuels, Carl Lumbly as Detective Marcus Petrie and Harvey Atkin who was Desk Sergeant Coleman.

As stated earlier, Loretta Swit was cast as Christine. I would expect this was a bit of a mind-meld to have seen at the time, as Swit had really only been known to audiences as an Army nurse in a setting 20 years earlier.

Character of Harvey was very different. In addition to being played by an actor who presented a bit more macho and defensive about the condition for which he could not be employed in the trades, there wasn’t much warmth between him and Mary Beth. Watching this you’d think they were on the brink of divorce, or that maybe he takes out his anger on her or their sons.

There was no Detective LaGuardia and no Detective Victor Isbecki. When Cagney and Lacey walked into the 14th Precinct, the yucks came at their expense, the sexism was palpable and they seemed incapable of change.

From the pilot to the series’ start, the production team took huge steps forward in terms of character exposition and plot development.

The character of Christine Cagney comes across as much more of a hot dog, one-woman-show than she did eventually in the series. Presumably, Rosenzweig’s work in trying to mitigate this took an unacceptable product and made it palatable. In the end, buddies don’t ditch buddies to collar the perp solo.

In the first 20 minutes of the pilot is out getting to see a bit of the personal lives of these two women police officers. Driving to work in her own car, MaryBeth happens to have picked up Christine en route to work. They are in uniforms, when they see a burglar running across the street with pillow cases full of loot. They set off on foot to chase the guy, eventually cornering him on the roof of a building. With guns drawn, there’s a certain cat and mouse drama unfolding when MaryBeth looks down into the skylight and spies a heroin operation. They apprehend the suspect on the roof, handcuff him to a drainpipe and proceed to bust the 10 person heroin operation just the two of them. No back up, no communication, nothing.

Bold. Realistic? I have no idea. It seemed a bit ambitious, but it was a moment of suspended belief that was necessary in order for the end result to have its effect. The huge drug bust earned MaryBeth and Christine the rank of detective.

I have to say it is believable that it could have taken an accomplishment of that stature in order to move women officers up the ranks… in 1982.

As newly-minted detectives, they are out of the uniforms. Their first assignment?

<Vice detail>

While this is no documentary, you get the feeling it couldn’t have been too far from the truth.

So going undercover as hookers, they become acquainted with the other women on the street. Theyb w daly swit see and hear about the violence that comes at the hands of the pimps and the feeling of powerlessness.

As viewers, we’re not quite sure where all this is going but it had to have been a bit of a novelty to have the call to “clear the streets of those women” be answered with “this is a bigger social problem than getting these women off the streets.”

While Cagney and Lacey are working undercover with the prostitutes, Detective Samuels is nursing a murder case that is growing colder by the day. A Jewish diamond broker was murdered a year ago and a second one just a few days earlier. Diamonds vanish both times. Samuels has nothing, yet is highly territorial about it.

Chris is intrigued by it and stays late one night going through the files related to it. Petrie discovers her and expresses a disapproving stare. The following is a totally believable Cagney and Lacey exchange – not in the ladies room, but rather, the practice range.

<Shooting range>
Here’s how the rest unfolds and I am pretty sure this is safe to share because you’d rather have it in shooting rangefive minutes than think about sitting through a two hour made-for-TV movie.

Chris goes to the recently murdered Jew’s home for shiva. She visits briefly with his wife and learns that both of them had been interned at Auschwitz. Meanwhile, one of their hooker-contacts has given them a lot of information about her pimp, Sugar. Cagney and Lacey need to return to ask their contact, Female, a few more questions when it’s discovered that Sugar the Pimp has been knifed in her apartment.

Female describes the John who she had intended to meet as an observant older Jewish man. Chris rifles through the apartment looking for clues and finds a vest that quite possible isn’t adorned with rhinestones, they’re really diamonds.

Chris goes all out to put together the pieces. MaryBeth goes home to her family for the night, though she has brought along with her Female’s son. Female is considered the number one suspect in Sugar’s death, though Cagney and Lacey do not believe she did it.

Chris combs the Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods looking for clues. She’s determined that the Jewish john killed Sugar because Sugar was too close to Female. If the Jewish john also killed the two diamond guys, why? Chris sends the vest adorned with diamonds to a dry cleaners for safe keeping.

She consults the widow of the first deceased diamond guy. They talk about the Jewish community. They talk about the camps. The widow takes Chris to see a colleague of her husband. Chris gets more intel. Chris probes the widow some more. What kind of a Jew, an observant Jew would kill other Jews for diamonds? If the person isn’t a real Jew, what sort of person assumes that identity?

The widow quakes in her pumps, shudders and recalls the name Shirmer. Shirmer was a Nazi guard at Auschwitz who all the internees knew climbed into prison garb as the camp was being liberated and assumed a Jewish identity. He escaped discovery during the liberation and it had long been rumored in the community that he had assimilated right there in New York.

Seriously, this is how Cagney and sort of by association, Lacey earned their stripes in the 14th Precinct detective room.

Chris then hunts through the neighborhoods, Shirmer overhears her. He grabs her and puts a knife to her throat, ordering her to drive to the dry cleaners so that they can retrieve the vest that has the diamonds on it.

This is all during the night. MaryBeth and Harvey are at home having a spat and taking care of Female’s son. MaryBeth gets a call from Chris just moments before Shirmer grabs her. Sensing that Chris is in danger or at least needs assistance, MaryBeth calls in for back up. She’s in for a hard sell, trying to convince these men to believe in Chris’ detective work and instincts.

Chris drives the car to the dry cleaners while Shirmer holds a knife to her throat. They break into the dry cleaners and once in, Chris is able to break away – cat and mouse with one of those rotating hanging contraptions mounted near the ceiling. MaryBeth has retraced clues from Chris and remembers the dry cleaners.

The rest of the team shows up and descends on Shirmer. But it is Chris, having recovered her revolver, who puts two shots in him. Dead.

So let’s add up all the big themes in this plot. Women in the police force. Hookers and the danger they risk everyday with their pimps. Jews in the garment and diamond districts in New York who had survived the concentration camps and lastly, the outlier rogue Nazi who is murdering the survivors.

As a result of this big bust, it would seem, Samuels got promoted to Lieutenant and Chris and MaryBeth were welcomed as equals into the 14th Precinct’s Detective Fraternity.

This was crime fighting, clue collecting and witness interviewing through the eyes of women. Perhaps it was the depth of resolve from Corday and Avedon that cast the plot so strong that even misguided direction couldn’t spoil it.

From a ratings and interest standpoint, the pilot did its job. CBS picked up the show to begin in fall 1981. At the beginning of this episode, I used the following words to describe the long, arduous effort of getting this show from the germination of an idea – that of creating a woman’s version of Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy – to the screen. These are words that likely accompany many who are attempting a big breakthrough, in whatever field or industry applies. Resilience, vision, commitment, patience and moxie – from Rosenzweig’s many years selling the story, to Avedon and Corday developing a script without much in the way of guideposts – to Loretta Swit spending days with women police officers so that she could drop the “realistic” card when and where she needed to.

This story fits the Hunter S. Thompson quote “anything that is worth doing is worth doing right.” History was made when so many grew to see that Cagney & Lacey was worthwhile on many counts.

In a future episode of the Cagney & Lacey Chronicles, we’ll track the six lost episodes, which assigned the role of Chris Cagney to Meg Foster. A lot got ironed out in those shows that ultimately brought us to a more sophisticated, developed show that became the runaway hit.

Resources for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory include a great interview with Loretta Swit that appears courtesy of the American Archive of Television on YouTube’s EmmyLegends channel. Also, Barney Rosenzweig tells all in his memoir Cagney and Lacey and Me. That audio book and the pilot are contained on the 30th Anniversary DVD set.

Music you hear in the background is by Jared Balogh, found at

My final thought is this: A year ago, our cable service added the channel Heroes & Icons, which is owned by Weigel Broadcasting of Chicago. Can you think of a show that better fits the category Heroes and Icons? Me neither. The website for Weigel is and Cheryl Esken is the director of strategic sales and marketing. Best we all write Ms. Esken a note and let her know an audience is waiting.

This has been Advanced TV Herstory, raising a ruckus and drawing connections on behalf of women in TV. We’ve got more excellent shows in the hopper and yes, I am keeping track of all those that I’ve said we’ll cover, at some point. In the meantime, send in your ideas about a show or theme. You can do that by sending an email to AdvancedTVHerstory@gmail or finding us on Twitter at TVHerstory. Find this and past scripts at my website

It’s my pleasure to be your host. I am Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening.

The Powerpuff Girls: Essential knowledge for new and seasoned viewers

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

There’s something special about the shows you watched when you were a kid. Maybe they hold such fond memories because you could sit on the couch for hours on end just watching… and petting the cat. They become the shared experience that starts in elementary school and crystalizes into credibility when you hit college.

“Oh, you watched Bionic Woman too! Well then you must be OK!”

Yes, Bionic Woman may have been the cue for kids who grew up in the 70s. And for those born in the early 1990s, they have the Powerpuff Girls.

Because we hope that there are listeners of all ages loyally downloading podcasts, regardless of just how much they know about the topic, this installment of Advanced TV Herstory examines the show from a broad view. In other words, for anyone unfamiliar, I’ll go slowly enough to explain the premise, the enormous popularity and some of the chatter that took place in the background, when the show was at its height.

For those who wore flannel PPG pajamas and still have them in a box somewhere, well, consider this PPG PJsthe jumpstart to receiving the next wave of Powerpuff Girls. The relaunch, complete with new vocal talent and a somewhat muted color palette, takes place next year.

These three characters and this show – okay together they form a phenomenon – are indeed worthy of study here in Advanced TV Herstory. So don’t touch that dial!

In the late 1990s, the Powerpuff Girls took America by storm. The premise is good vs. evil. They are crime fighters right out of a comic book factory, but for the fact that they’re in kindergarten, don’t really have hands, feet or pupils to speak of but two of the three do hold super powers.


As three girls, they complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Their imperfections fall right into line with that of any kindergartener, so frequent viewers appreciate the attention to teeth brushing rituals, temper tantrums, icky food and matter and appearance of animals and bugs.

Now about the girls

Blonde with hair in pigtails, Bubbles is the kindest of the three and can communicate in foreign languages and with animals. Her super power is her vocal ability to emit supersonic waves. But she can be strong and defiant. Emmy-nominated vocal talent Tara Strong voiced Bubbles as well as the Dylan Pickles character in the Rugrats – though we aren’t sure whether she was paid extra for the supersonic waves.

Buttercup is the black-haired one. She’s a doer, not a planner. She loves a good confrontation. She doesn’t possess any super power, but is a tomboy who frequently starts the fight, or gets dirty or takes on physical risk. Elizabeth Daily is the voice of Buttercup is an actress and stand-up comic who also voices Tommy Pickles on the Rugrats. On the Powerpuff Girls first CD, the Japanese band Shonen Knife performed the incredibly infectious tribute to Buttercup entitled

Super Girl. Listen for a clip shortly.

Blossom, the redhead, fashions herself the leader of the group. She’s the least volatile of the group,

coming across with a bit more maturity. Her super power is her breath’s capacity to freeze objects. Cathy Cavadini, who voiced Blossom has an extensive list of voice roles on her resume, including that of Tanya Mousekewitz from An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

The three actresses are hot property, even today, at Comic Cons and other festivals that celebrate animation. In examining video posted online from those events, they don’t talk much about the plots and themes, but rather jump in and out of voice and recount past shows.

Tara Strong told Robert Lloyd of the LA Weekly, “I think all children love to watch cartoons because it’s a fantasy world where anything can happen. If someone gets made at someone else, they throw them off a cliff or pull of their head or whatever.”

Advanced TV Herstory agrees with Ms. Strong and sometimes relates to the desire to throw someone off an animated cliff.

The girls are the work of Craig McCracken, a cartoonist.

McCracken’s childhood is totally responsible for the creation of the Powerpuff Girls. In interviews, he talks openly about his interest in drawing at an early age. McCracken tracked all sorts of comic book characters and super heroes, coming to master the styles and plot developments of the most popular ones in American culture.

His passion for drawing and portfolio met the high standards of CalArt, one of the country’s most prestigious art schools. While at CalArt, he roomed with Genndy Tartakovsky, who created Dexter’s Lab and other Cartoon Network hits.

In fulfilling assignments at CalArt, McCracken tells, he developed a full story board for a set of three superheroes he had been mulling for a long time. Modeled somewhat off the “big eyes” whoopass stewchildren of artist Margaret Keane’s work, McCracken developed their backstory and their methods of interacting with villains. At the time of his student work, right up until he pitched the project to Cartoon Network they were known as the Whoopass Girls.

Whoopass Girls intro

The secret ingredient that granted the girls super powers was a can of Whoopass. The first short was called Whoopass Stew and can be found online. The characters and animation strongly resemble the cartoons of today.


It was classic comic book styling, as McCracken told Emru Summer is Frames Per Second Magazine back in 1995, “That was the thing I liked about Powerpuff Girls, because of its comic book sensibility, of being able to pick apart the things that you find in comic books and play with them. Because this idea, the criminal saying ‘Well the way to establish myself is to beat such and such good guy,’ that’s straight out of old superhero comics.”

A few years later, McCracken told LA Weekly, “I wanted to do a superhero show, where you really felt these characters being strong and tough and heroes and kicking ass. And what better contrast than to have them be three cute little innocent-looking things? That’s basically the heart of the show, this cute little girl punching a bad guy and his teeth flying out. That’s the visual soul of the show.”

This interview from the Season One DVD’s bonus gives you a sense of how playful, yet thoughtful, McCracken has been in his development of the girls.

<Intro McCracken>

Even in early drawings, McCracken created a set of standards that contribute to the focus of each character and the overall modern look of the show. Hands have never come to formation because they aren’t necessary. Animators even today are instructed on body, leg and arm features and to make sure their feet look like “socks filled with wet sand.” The girls are colorful, whereas Professor Utonium, their creator who mishandled the Chemical X, is depicted as with a strong black and white rendering.

Cartoon Network was founded in 1992. It came about following a series of major media business transactions that resulted in a single company holding a treasure trove of classic animated entertainment. Ted Turner had bought out Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists but sold back part of those holdings. Turner retained the MGM TV and film library, which included vintage animated cartoons. Two years later, Turner bought Hanna-Barbera productions.

Cartoon Network encountered many challenges in its early years. Original programming like the CARTOON-NETWORKPowerpuff Girls only came about after a new division, Cartoon Network Studios was developed. Other titles from those creative years, with McCracken and his school chums at the drafting tables of Cartoon Network studios: Cow and Chicken, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Johnny Bravo.

Competing in the field of animated shows, the team behind the Powerpuff Girls was recognized for excellence in many fields. From 1999 to 2005, they were nominated for Emmy Awards Annie Awards and Kids’ Choice Awards across many categories.

If you follow Advanced TV Herstory you’re familiar with the Emmy Awards. And now you’ll know that the Annie Awards are recognition from the LA branch of the International Animated Film Association and the Kids’ Choice Award is an annual Nikelodeon Network effort.

In 2000 Don Shank won an Emmy and Annie for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation. James Venable, Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker won an Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Musical Score on an Animated TV Production. The episode, entitled Meat the Beat Alls which contains all sorts of Beatles allusions. And Frank Gardner won an Emmy in 2005 for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation.

It’s a show that appeals to audiences of all ages, who can readily find something to like – the music, its visual simplicity, or pop culture references.

Between the novelty of it being a show featuring girls and that it’s one of the first original cartoon series to be produced in a long, long time, the Powerpuff Girls became a hit in America and throughout the world.

Back in 2000, then-Cartoon Network VP for animation Linda Simensky speculated to LA Weekly reporter Robert Lloyd, “the official breakdown is two-thirds kids, one-third adults. But since there are no Nielsen homes in college dorms, I figure there’s another percentage of college students watching.”

Without question, the lightening rise of series put Cartoon Network on the map as a production house and TV channel. It is available in more than 14 languages across 145 countries. As the series was converted into other languages, their names of Bubbles, Buttercup and Blossom gave way to names that drew upon positive images within the culture. For instance, the Latin American names translate to Chocolate, Bubble and Acorn.

Throughout its six seasons, the Powerpuff Girls had strong rating, set merchandising and landed on 2002 TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time – #17.

In addition to the many Beatles references in the episode Meat the Beat Alls, episodes contain pop culture references such as to School House Rock, Toys R Us (with an episode entitled Ploys R Us) and clever plays on words such as Hot Air Buffoon, Something’s a Ms and Cootie Gras.

If you look closely at the mayor’s office, you’ll see it bears a striking resemblance to Commissioner Gordon’s from the 1960s live-action TV show Batman. While some of this may be lost on the very young viewer, these cultural tie-ins offer an opportunity for parent and child to discuss the show.

Another reason for adults to appreciate the show was the exposure to new bands and performers who provided the theme song and action music. The Scottish trio Bis, largely an unknown commodity in the U.S., was asked by Hanna-Barbera producers to develop a theme song for the girls. They wrote and performed the ending theme song that plays while credits roll.

As Bis bandmember Manda Rin told MTV News in 1998, “I think it’s a good thing for us to do. It shows that we can do these kind of things when asked. Like, not many bands could you say ‘Right, you’ve got a week to do a cartoon theme tune. Can you do it?’ Not many probably could, but we turned it around and they’re so happy with it. They just say, ‘Oh, it’s the best chorus you’ve ever written,’ and stuff.”

<PPG theme>

I get the sense there wasn’t a lot of ego or expectation going into the show’s launch.

It’s clear through his thoughtfulness that McCracken wants the girls to generate joy for viewers of all ages, erring on the side of simplicity and allowing the viewer full use of his or her imagination.

McCracken told Lloyd of the LA Weekly back in 2000, “People have asked if we’re ever going to do a live-action Powerpuff Girls. But I wouldn’t want to because then you’re defining them. They’ll have fingers and they’ll have noses and they’ll be real little girls and it just won’t be the same. But as cartoons, they’re kind of this catchall.”

Lessons contained within episodes are universal, really not even age specific. In the episode Insect Inside, cockroaches threaten to overtake Townsville. The girls have to get a grip in order to foil Roach Coach’s plan.

In Tough Love, a gas is emitted throughout Townsville, turning the residents who love them against the girls. They have to handle the hate while clearing the air of the town.

Other plots? Bubbles wants to be taken more seriously. Broccoli aliens have to be conquered. The Sandman’s scheme to get sleep educates about the time zones of the world. The formula is always a little Good vs. Bad with a kindergarten appeal and clever language or twists for older viewers. The girls battled animals – most frequently the ape MoJo JoJo, aliens, men, boys, women and girls, including variations on themselves who took the form of the Rowdyruff Boys.

This is a string of audio that charts MoJo JoJo’s plan to devise his own superheroes to destroy the girls

MoJo JoJo plan

His plan is to get a hold of Professor Utonium and attempt to recreate the experiment that resulted in the Powerpuff Girls.

<Girls made of>

The writers set MoJo JoJo to thinking about a substance that could be as powerful and bad as Chemical X. Remember, the real audience of this show is kids, so naturally, MoJo JoJo, in his jail old-rowdyruff-boyscell, has few resources, but a toilet is one of them. You can use your imagination for the rest.

<Boys ingred>

And thus, the Rowdyruff Boys are born. As you might expect, the girls duke it out with the boys and ultimately prevail.


The show is treasured today by women and I’m guessing even a few men, of all ages. As it reached its pinnacle of popularity, critics hammered it for all sorts of shortcomings. It’s hard to imagine any cartoon with strong male characters garnering the kind of shots and snarks the Powerpuff Girls endured.

Is it jealousy or what that causes someone to have to examine so closely so as to find something wrong with another’s work? If these critics had worked as hard dissecting boy-oriented cartoons, Garfield the cat would have been put on a permanent diet and Bam Bam from the Flintstones would be called… errrr. Spike.

An immediate and relentless criticism was about the violent nature of the girls’ problem solving.Like to fight Yes, they punched, kicked, threw, tipped things over and in general went toe to toe with the villains in their way. Critics evidently were upset that they didn’t just “use their words.”

Sadly, most of these critics were women, like Paula Nechak who reviewed the Powerpuff Girls movie for the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2002.

From her perfect perch and Selectric typerwriter of the early 1970s, Nechak describes the movie’s plot and concludes: “You have to wonder, no matter how enjoyable and innocuous the movie may be to adults capable of processing the images and subliminal message, how much constant, chronic intensity and overstimulation a small brain can handle.

I can’t help but worry that the film’s positive message – that people fear and despise the very things that make someone special and that girls are as capable of saving the world as boys – will be overshadowed by the overwhelming way in which that message is visually delivered.”

Thank you Paula Nechak for taking the time to worry about how this movie, most likely mainly attended by girls, would harm their brains. You evidently hadn’t looked around at video games in 2002. Well in 2015, through the interweb, a series of tubes, I can go back and look at the list of the top 10, which rank Metoid Prime, Grand Theft Auto 3, Battlefield 1942 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City among the top 6. No subliminal messaging in any of those experiences.

This criticism of the girls’ violence hits particularly close to home. One Halloween daughter Alison halloween costumeselected the green Powerpuff girl (actually, it might have been the PPG costume at the store). There must have been a check in at her elementary school where kids had to say what their costume would be. She was told by the principal – who shall remain nameless – that the Powerpuff Girls were too violent. She had to be something else, at least for the party at school.

The principal who shall remain nameless doled out all sorts of judgment about Halloween costumes, telling one of our son’s friends, a boy, that he couldn’t be a pumpkin because the stem could hurt someone. What fifth grade boy isn’t going to ponder that visual for a long time to come?

Okay, back to other criticisms. Now that the girls have been with us for 18 years and are about to return, they bring with them all sorts of social meaning created by others. Even the response by the generation for whom the show was originally intended, has been studied by academics, for signs of how the show has contributed or eroded feminism.

Advanced TV Herstory has plenty to do to mine the backstories and celebrate the good work of women who work hard in TV. Buttercup, Bubbles and Blossom and their plots have women in their writers’ room. And some bloggers believe that McCracken had to have been influenced by the Riot Grrrrl music of the early 90s.

Here we are in 2015 and it still feels like we can’t leave a real live strong woman alone, to simply be strong. We aren’t doing much better with our fictional ones either.

So in conducting research into the Powerpuff Girls as viewed through the feminist lens, I found two articles. I will always say that scholarly work of our TV shows and women characters is important. Usually written by women, they bring a professional or scientific understanding to the show that establishes a whole new level.

Article number one is entitled Powerpuff Girls: Fighting Evil Gender Messages or Postmodern Paradox, written by Carole Baroody Corcoran and Judith Parker. It was published in the 2004 book The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination, edited by Jean Lau Chin. One of the authors recounts the exposure of her daughter to the show and the sessions in which they viewed episodes together.

The authors discuss the Chemical X accident that served as the girls’ origin and how it relates to their underlying lack of control “Real power cannot be found in packaged products. Instead, it demands a sense of agency, as in a mode of exerting power and, in doing so, an instrumentality that confers control. Thus, Powerpuff Girls lack agency and they don’t even know it! Their ‘girl power’ exists as a quirk that derives from the needs of an external agent: their creator, a man.”

Now maybe we at Advanced TV Herstory just tend to look only at the big picture – or in the case of women characters on TV and behind the scenes in production – the fact that you have to be in the game in order to have any agency.

The authors take issue with the fact that the girls occasionally get rescued or assisted by Professor Utonium. They wonder how the show would have looked had the girls been black instead of white.

“For one thing,” they write, they wouldn’t have been named Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles. No, they would have boisterous names like Tawanna, Laquisha and Shamika. Instead of keeping the town of Townsville free of danger, the would be the danger – baaaad-ass female gangstas on a crime spree in New Jill City.”

I won’t go any further, because we wander into a distinction of generational feminism. Pragmatists, idealists, pioneers, doers, thinkers all losing sight of the big picture. But to lose that sight requires there to be a shared vision.

The other article I found online and found interesting was Evie Kendal’s There’s No One Perfect Girl: Third Wave Feminism and the Powerpuff Girls, which appeared in the Colloquy Magazine published in 2012 by Monash University.

In her introduction, Kendal contends “The Powerpuff girls embraces third-wave feminist ideology, with its focus on ‘Girl Power” and consumerism, while also abandoning the more individualistic aspects of this brand of feminism by exploring the meaning of sisterhood and female empowerment through community.”

Kendal advances detail within the context of feminism about the girls’ superhero status, the tools they use, how adult women are depicted in the show and even the importance of them not having secret identities.

It’s well researched and worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing. Evie Kendal is a researcher and teacher at Monash University, which has 5 campuses in Australia. It just goes to show you that the Powerpuff Girl – Third Wave Feminism conversation has stretched across the planet.

So, as we head into PPG the second generation, it will be interesting to see how the writers position the girls and the plots. Surely the time tested conflicts of good vs. evil haven’t changed. But there will be those who look to the innocence of a children’s show (actually a brand that is known for its cleverness and complex thinking) and see something wrong.

With the industry challenges faced by women to be on screen and behind the camera, we surely have bigger mountains to climb on behalf of our sisters, daughters and granddaughters – sort of saving the world before bedtime – as it were.

It’s time to build and defend, not tear down.

You’ve been listening to Advanced TV Herstory. Audio clips came from the series episode entitled Rowdyruff Boys and bonus features of season one’s DVD set. You can find online a very thorough article written by Robert Lloyd for LA Weekly, dated November 22, 2000.

It’s always good to hear from listeners, so please send us your ideas for future installments of this podcast. Find us on Twitter at TVHerstory or on Facebook at Advanced TV Herstory. This script and past shows are available at my website,

And I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

Hill Street Blues’ Davenport & Bates

Note: This script contains resource links but no audio excerpts included in the podcast.

Click to listen

Click to listen

If this is your first listen to Advanced TV Herstory, welcome. If you’re a regular listener, thank you. This podcast is gaining momentum in all sorts of ways. The most important, you ask? Feedback from listeners.

Selecting a theme or topic for an installment is no small feat. But a longtime favorite TV show, that mainly featured HillStreetBlues_S4men, was voiced by one listener as significant to her and her law school classmates.

Last month a listener wrote in about Hill Street Blues, “the show was on when I was in law school. Veronica Hamel’s character had a major influence on many of us. She was attractive, professional, witty, in control. This was one of the first times I recall seeing an older woman who was seriously attractive and sensual. Hamel I think served as the role model for later attorneys on shows like Law and Order. Where the idea of female lawyers who dressed as tarts came from, I have no idea.

Advanced TV Herstory loves to take a second look at an ensemble show and showcase the women characters, if indeed they are showcase-worthy. Hill Street Blues, considered one of the which in its first season garnered shows was a quality, groundbreaking series developed by Steven Bochco and hatched out the Mary Tyler Moore TV empire.

What, you ask, Mary Tyler Moore had or has a TV empire? Yes, of sorts. It’s a very cool story that helps explain so much about TV programming for that important decade between the mid-70s and mid-80s. We’re talking shows like the obvious ones, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant and Phyllis, as well as Bob Newhart, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and more. MTM, the business enterprise as well as the actress, will be the subject of a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory.

I digress. Back to Hill Street Blues, a series that aired on NBC from 1981 and 1987. Set in neighborhood police precinct – urban, diverse. It featured an ensemble of actors who were accomplished, but none were stars in their own right. But, by the end of the show’s run, they needed to dedicate a room for award trophies. Across all sorts of categories, the show, its crew and cast were recognized for outstanding work.

Hill Street Blues holds some significant Emmy records, including sharing the number of wins for a outstandingemmys-trophy drama series – 4 – with Mad Men, LA Law and The West Wing. It holds the most nominations for supporting actor and actress in a drama series – 16 for the men and 13 for the women. That’s a powerful statement about the acting caliber of the women, given the fact that actors outnumbered actresses at least 4 to 1 on the series.

Of those Emmy nominations for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series, Betty Thomas was the only member of the cast to be nominated in every season of the show. Thomas won the award in 1985 for her portrayal of Lucy Bates. Though nominated a number of times, Veronica Hamel never won for her lead actress work as Joyce Davenport.

This was a show unlike any other to have aired. Yes, there had been cop shows, but the production, pace and camera work approached storytelling style in a precinct the same way the makers of ER brought a new look to the medical drama.

And, in 1981, contained within this large ensemble cast that tackled issues of race, poverty, police work pressures and politics, two women stood out as role models. Joyce Davenport, public defender, was played by Veronica Hamel. Officer and later Sergeant Lucy Bates, played by Betty Thomas.

The show is lauded as one of the first to use a hand-held camera to enhance the realism of the set. Among women of a certain age, it is remembered and treasured as presenting the first serious woman lawyer in a regular role – Joyce Davenport and a uniformed, competent police officer, Lucy Bates.

How important were these performances that stretched over 146 episodes?

According to the Russell Sage Foundation, the number of women annually graduating with degrees in medicine, dentistry and law reached the 13,000 mark in 1979 and 1980. That capped rapid growth of the 1970s. The National Center for Education Statistics data, as presented by the Russell Sage Foundation, shows that even through the mid-2000s, the annual number of graduates seems to have tapered off around 20,000.

Can one attribute the momentum of women enrolling in and completing professional degrees to the women’s movement and TV characters? Sure, since there is no right answer as to the cause and effect. The students of these advanced degree programs would have been in grade school and junior high when Title IX was enacted. In a sense, they were the first beneficiaries of the educational opportunities created and protected by that landmark legislation.

So in 2015, when longitudinal statistics point to a paucity in credible female role models in professions on TV, should we be concerned? Yes we should.

Some would argue that 2015 isn’t 1985. TV and its leading shows don’t have nearly the impact on teenagers as it did 30 years ago. Young people today, young women of today seek out their entertainment from all sorts of sources.

Well yes, but young women are also smart enough to know that the show Two Broke Girls isn’t intended to be aspirational for young women in any way.

It’s slim pickings these days among network dramas, comedies and especially reality shows that contain credible, believable, aspirational roles for young women.

So, getting back to Hill Street Blues, which ALSO was a show largely written, directed and produced by men, the characters of Joyce Davenport and Lucy Bates were huge and deserve more attention.

There’s one more woman character in the show who merits honorable mention. Actress Barbara Bosson played Fay Furillo, the ex-wife of precinct captain Frank Furillo. In the context of the 70s, the character of Fay represented the sand shifting below the feet of so many women.

A stay-at-home mother of one who generally relied on her over-worked husband for problem solving and emotional support, Fay’s timing for entering the precinct was remarkable. Most episodes contained at least an appearance by Fay. Her crises and dilemmas generally seemed trivial compared to the gritty drama unfolding in the precinct or on the streets, but they did serve to present a fuller picture of police families’ work-life balance.

Nominated for an Emmy for her efforts, Bosson played the vulnerable-but-honest Fay impeccably throughout the series run, and was able to evolve the character to one who contributed to the victim side of crimes investigated by the police officers.

Bosson’s character of Fay also provided the perfect set up for Frank’s mid-life wanderings. From the first episode, Davenport Furilloviewers understand there’s a quiet romance brewing between Frank and Joyce. Hill Street Blues didn’t “go home” with many of the characters. Frank and Joyce were the saucy exception.

But in the 20 years of prime time programming that preceded Hill Street Blues, there had never been a woman lawyer as consistently powerful as Joyce Davenport. Many powerful lady lawyers followed her – Ann Kelsey played by Jill Eikenberry, Grace Van Owen played by Susan Dey , Michele Greene as Abby Perkins and Amanda Donohoe’s CJ Lamb from L.A. Law, that aired from 1986 to 1994.

Think of the progress from Veronica Hamel being a well-heeled public defender among a sea of men in gritty urban precinct, to the upscale, private sector, well-paid salaries pulled down by these equally intelligent, hard working women.

Other shows that featured memorable women lawyers followed, including Damages, Boston Legal, and Law & Order of all flavors.

While it’s reported that the role of Joyce was originally written as a blonde with strong physical endowments, by the time Veronica Hamel auditioned, they got a look at a strength and calm that fit the side of the show that was serious, not light workplace humor side.

<DVD Bonus 1>

With striking black hair pulled back, Hamel delivered style of professionalism that elevated her public defender role above the grittiness of being a public employee. Her wardrobe, manners and vocabulary revealed a breeding and socio-economic background that told the viewer she was there because she wanted to serve the indigent and defend those wrongly accused, not because she HAD to.

<DVD Bonus 2>

Joyce voices ethical and moral questions of the day as she serves the very people the police officers we follow arrest and charge. Brutality, evidence, transparency – this was headline fodder in real life and public defenders upheld the standards applied to the middle class defendants for their own.

In fact, Michigan State University law professor Joan Howarth provides an extensive study of women defense attorneys on TV. Her article “Women Defenders on Television: Representing Suspects and the Racial Politics of Retribution” analyzes character traits of the fictional lawyers with women attorneys she surveyed. Howarth looks in depth across a number of shows and characters to reveal motivation for serving as a public defender or criminal defense and acts of heroism or advocacy that are part of representing that which is unpopular. To aid those accused takes a certain strength and conviction, as well as intelligence that requires her to act in a way that a heinous or brutal character – so unworthy – should not be locked up for a crime. This is not a popularity contest.

Howarth’s scholarly work from 2000 was published in the Journal of Gender, Race and Justice. As she asserts, “television is important because culture is important. We understand ourselves and our world through the images and concepts available to use through out culture.”

We all know a bit about the law, medicine, TV news production and running ocean liners, hotels, vineyards and ranches from watching TV.

Apart from Joyce Davenport’s professional side, Hamel projected a sophisticated sensual aura that reminded viewers she was not all business. Falling into bed with Furillo after a hard day in court, her sleepwear was as classy Hamelas her sharp red bow ties, dark suits, trench coat, mink coat and white blouses. Watch for one episode in Season 6 where she’s even glamorous wearing a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants and her hair is up in a pink towel.

Because Hill Street Blues was a large ensemble show and the character of Joyce Davenport is an outlier to the major story lines, the only way to glean any information about her is by viewing the episodes. This is one of her exchanges with the district attorney, which reminds you of just how novel – and lonely – it must have been to be a woman doing business in the precinct.

<DA hit on Joyce>

Joyce is definitely considered an influential leader among the public defenders. She is a member of her union’s negotiating team in season 7, when the public defenders go on strike. That episode provides a glimpse of what she finds satisfying from her work.

<Vote to Settle>

Midway through the show’s run, Joyce becomes an assistant district attorney but that new gig doesn’t last long. By season 6, she’s back among the public defenders. In this exchange with Judge Wachtel, whom Joyce slapped across the face after he insulted her from the bench. She appears in the courtroom as the union vote is taking place and is asked by Wachtel to approach the bench.

<my house>

And here’s how else we can think of Joyce Davenport. If she indeed was supposed to be the same age as Hamel, who was born in 1943, Joyce today would be 72, long retired from her position. In context, she’s 3 years older than Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Would Joyce have gone on to politics? Might she have been appointed to a judge’s seat somewhere? In the 80s, seasoned women lawyers WERE finally appointed to judicial slots at the county, state and federal level.

And from the way I see it, there’s one tip of the hat NBC owes to Joyce Davenport and her legions of lady lawyer followers. Someone at Law & Order SVU should sign Hamel on to be a cameo judge – you know, the way we look up at the bench and see Patricia Kalember, Marlo Thomas or Swoosie Kurtz in robe, with gavel. We at Advanced TV Herstory think that is LONG over due.

Joyce Davenport and Hill Street Blues stands out as the pinnacle of Veronica Hamel’s career. Once the show ended, Hamel went on to appear and direct a handful of made-for-TV movies.

Her IMDB page is interesting too in that her trivia section is longer than her filmography.

Of note: Veronica Hamel starred in the last cigarette commercial to appear on TV. One minute before midnight on January 1, 1971, the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson last commercial was for Virginia Slims and featured Hamel.

<Hill Street Music>

The character of Lucy Bates is no less groundbreaking or award winning. At just over 6 feet tall, Betty Thomas owned, without question, the role of a uniformed police officer in a hardscrabble part of New York City.

Over the course of the series, Officer Bates is takes the Sergeant’s exam and passes. She takes over as Roll Call Sergeant twice, with a return to motor patrol occurring in seasons 5 and 6.

Throughout the show’s run, Betty Thomas as Lucy Bates provided compassion when it was needed, restored order to a chaotic squad room on many occasions, held dying victims of all ages in her arms and was a role model of respect. Thomas is the first to say that only when writers and directors saw her range did they build her character around her.

<BThomas on Lucy>

Thomas has degrees in art and education. Her path to television comes via waitressing at a Second City club in the early 80s while also student teaching. As a waitress, she was able to take a Second City comedy workshop and eventually was invited to join the troupe.

Thomas’ timing and ownership of the character of Lucy Bates makes her memorable, as does her 6 foot height andBThomas and EdM on-camera ease with Ed Marinaro. Sergeant Lucy Bates was a good egg. According to an article entitled Women in Law Enforcement published in a 2002 edition of Discover Policing, in 1987, women made up only 7.6% of law enforcement’s workforce. The FBI reports that in 2011, about 12% of the workforce is women.

So with women so scare in the courts and precincts, you might think that there were women’s restroom conversations between Joyce and Lucy. You know, like Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey had on a regular basis in Cagney & Lacey. Nope. In keeping with the traditional segmentation of blue collar and white collar protocol, there was no sisterhood between the public defender and police officer.

That was made no more pronounced than in Lucy Bates’ first time testifying in court. It’s an interesting look into the lives of working women, circa the mid- 80s.

Court 1

Now there will be some people who say that in 1984, women should have been more supportive of each other. But this was also a time when they were still proving their own chops among men in their own field.

Court 2

Because the show largely focused on male characters and a myriad of victims, both women had precious little screen time. Almost none of it was together. It is impossible to point to any moment of outright support or sisterhood between the two. However, from their carriage and command through the series, Joyce and Lucy respected each other’s turf. And perhaps modeled for each other skills, sensibilities or sensitivities that helped the other grow.

<Court 3>

Betty Thomas has gone on to direct TV and movies and won an Emmy directing HBO’s Dream On.bthomas director

Hill Street Blues placed two strong women characters into work environments dominated by men. Brilliant writing and storytelling gave Joyce Davenport and Lucy Bates the opportunity to open doors for women. That actresses Hamel and Thomas seized the day and gave it their all resulted not just in an award-winning, beloved series, but also, as we learned from one Advanced TV Herstory listener, but in delivering role models in professions previously untouched by women on TV.

Any show created since 1987 that features women in the courtroom or uniformed police women stands on their shoulders.

Advanced TV Herstory wants to hear from you! If you’ve got ideas about themes, women or shows that should be profiled please send them to Find us on Twitter or Facebook and send it along that way.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory includes audio from a Season One DVD bonus feature and a 1991 interview by Lilyan Chauvin with Betty Thomas.

I am delighted that there’s a law professor named Joan Howarth at Michigan State University Law School who cares so much about women lawyers on TV. Her article called Women Defenders on Television: Representing Suspects and the Racial Politics of Retribution appeared in the Journal of Gender, Race and Justice in 2000 and can be found online.

Also, there’s a great article at – the American Bar Association’s Perspective Magazine, Fall issue from 2005 in which Stephanie Goldberg dissects a long list of women lawyers. It’s entitled Women Lawyers on TV Moving Closer to Reality. A thanks goes out too to Alison Abrams for proofreading and context discussion.

Please spread the word about Advanced TV Herstory – which can be found on iTunes or at the hosting site, This script and all others can be found at my website

I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening.

Monied Matriarchs: Profiles of Ellie Ewing & Angela Channing

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

We can run, but we just can’t hide from the 80s. It’s not hard to find sitcoms from the 60s, 70s and 80s on TV. But it is nearly impossible to find a drama, unless maybe you get Hill Street Blues.

In the late 70s and well into the 80s, the legacy broadcast networks still ruled. A majority of the baby boom was now well into adulthood. With a sputtering economy, energy crisis and ongoing tensions in the Middle East, we were a nation at peace. Ronald Reagan had taken the helm as president from Jimmy Carter.

Each year set new records of women graduating from college. Everywhere, there were aspirations that this would be a period of prosperity. America was a world leader to be feared. We invented, manufactured, marketed and consumed better than any country in the world.

Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler, gives us his hard sell on his latest fleet. During those dark days of the America auto industry, 82 Chr CordobaChrysler had declared bankruptcy. This 1982 ad precedes the advent of the vehicle that would save Chrysler and change mothers’ lives forever.

<1982 Chrysler ad>

Chrysler, thank you for giving us the most thoughtful, durable mini-van on the market.

For these reasons, and the fact that I was a teenager in this era the TV shows Dallas and Falcon Crest are eerie time capsules. While they were never intended to be documentaries of society life, this was an indicator of how Americans thought the tremendously wealthy lived, houses, cars, car phones and butlers.

It should come as no coincidence that producers for both Dallas and Falcon Crest, launching adult themed soap opera dramas, both sought out accomplished actresses to anchor their shows. Barbara Bel Geddes and Jane Wyman, respectively, were movie stars. Blue chip stock for viewers over 40 .

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory takes a look at these two women, the two shows and the two characters of Miss Ellie and Angela Channing. Show business – TV in particular – is an industry skews young. The voices and messaging that accompanied these two actress’ performance struck notes that could only have been delivered from women who were 60 and 67 respectively.

First you’ll learn a bit about Barbara Bel Geddes and Jane Wyman. I’ll give you a run-down of the shows. They aren’t readily available online. Most seasons of Dallas are available on DVD, but only the first two seasons of Falcon Crest were released.

Then we’ll get a good understanding of the two characters – these women strong enough in any episode to change minds with a single statement. However, they were strong in very different ways, which may well have reflected the evolving expectations of women in the workplace and family setting.

So put on your Pendleton cashmere turtleneck or St. John suit and return to a time when the sky was the limit. This clip tells you a bit about Barbara Bel Geddes’ acting chops.

<BBG family sticks>

vertigo BBG JStewart

Barbara Bel Geddes & Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

By the time the producers of Dallas called her to star in their show, Barbara Bel Geddes was an acclaimed stage and movie actress, earning Oscar and Tony nominations for her work in the 40s and 50s. She’s most remembered for her role as Midge, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Pearls, cardigans, A-line skirts… her look defined preppy – down to the navy blue pumps.

Hitting middle-age, she’d made guest appearances on shows throughout the 60s, but TV was not interested in a woman of Barbara’s age or acting caliber. Then in 1977 she performed in a made-for-TV production of Our Town, opposite Hal Holbrook.

Larry Hagman maintains that the signing of Barbara Bel Geddes as the first casting for Dallas established the show’s aspirations for quality.


Now about Jane Wyman. Jane Wyman started out her career as a dancer and during the busy Hollywood days of the mid-’30s, was discovered by agent William Demerest (yes, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) and invited to screen test. From just one test and no formal training or credentials, Wyman was signed to a six month contract with Warner Brothers.

JW with Oscar

Jane Wyman with Oscar

Wyman is known for her challenging, mostly serious roles. She was nominated for an Oscar twice and took the honor in 1948 for her role as Belinda McDonald, a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda.

She transitioned over to TV with ease in the 50s, including the offering Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre which lasted for 3 seasons. She took on guest roles and acted in the occasional made-for-TV movie.

In 1979 Wyman was again a household name, by virtue of the fact that her ex-husband, Ronald Reagan, had declared his presidential candidacy. She had already endured the additional attention accorded her, his visible, successful ex, when he ran for and served as governor of California.

Wyman exercised good judgment in keeping her remarks and reflections on her husband to a minimum – a positive, respectful minimum. She had a pretty healthy opinion of herself and in all sincerity, likely wanted to keep the focus of any interview on her.

It’s reported that Barbara Stanwyck got the first offer to be Falcon Crest’s Angela Channing, but declined. Wyman, perhaps hungry for all sorts of legacy-career reasons, sunk her teeth in and gave it her all.

Now for a closer look at the Dallas the show and Miss Ellie the matriarch.

Dallas was America’s longest running primetime soap opera. It’s focused on the Ewing family and their Texas oil interests. Miss Ellie, played by Bel Geddes, has been married to Jock for 40+ years.

We know from a 1986 made-for-TV movie prequel that Miss Ellie was a childhood friend of Digger Barnes. Digger’s life, even in 1978, is a series of bad choices, so back in the 30s, Miss Ellie took up with Jock just as his first oil contract came in. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Her family owned and operated SouthFork as a cattle ranch, but the Depression and disease to the herd had put the ranch in dire straights. As an innocent teen, Miss Ellie married Jock to ensure the livelihood of SouthFork.

That marriage would also launch a decades-long squabble between the Ewings and the Barnes, which would carry into the next generation.

Jock and Miss Ellie have three sons, J.R., Gary and Bobby. Yes, Gary is part of the Knots Landing spin-off, but that’s another story. J. R. and Bobby carry most of the testerone plot lines. This includes the animosity towards Digger and his son Cliff. But Bobby goes and changes the equation when he marries Pamela Barnes, played by Victoria Principal.

Yes, it was all very soapy, you’ve got your share of infidelities, business maneuvers, jealousies, health crises and natural disasters. Miss Ellie, for all 2 minutes of screen time she averages in most episodes, is the conscience of the family.

Bel Geddes appeared in all but one season of the show, from 1978 to 1990. Following triple bypass heart surgery, she left the show due to health reasons. They didn’t write her character out of the show. In 1984, producers signed Donna Reed – yes, donnareedTV’s Donna Reed, to a three year contract to become the new Miss Ellie. It didn’t go well. This video clip contains statements from Reed and her husband, and also two unnamed Dallas crewmembers.

<BBG comes back>

Bel Geddes returned in the 9th season and completed the run with the distinction of being the only original member of the cast to have won an Emmy.

Year in and year out, Miss Ellie is the Ewing famiy moral compass.

She was happily married to Jock Ewing until her co-star, Jim Davis, died unexpectedly in 1981. They cover his death as a real event in the TV family, which ran with the emotion of a team in mourning. Rather than replace his character with another actor, they made Miss Ellie a widow. Three years later she married Clayton Farlow.

Throughout the show’s run, Miss Ellie reconnected with her long lost brother and restored her relationship with Gary, who up and left SouthFork after getting a girl pregnant in his teen years. That pregnancy resulted in Lucy (played by Charlene Tilton), who is a challenge to Ellie and was not the daughter surrogate Ellie had hoped she would be. As Ellie says early in season one, Lucy is spoiled and the Ewing men can’t say no to her.

Imagine the signal it sent to all sorts of widows when Miss Ellie, determined but by no means glamorous in her wealth, marries barbara-bel-geddesClayton. Miss Ellie wears sweaters with blouses and turtle necks underneath them. Her hair is sensible and natural. Her make-up – positively minimal. The openness of her facial expression exudes honesty. American women saw themselves in her.

But the guilty pleasure of soap operas give you the distraction, escapism and vicarious living you need to make it through your week.

Early in the show’s run, writers have Miss Ellie battle breast cancer and a mastectomy. She also helps countless characters through their own challenges, including Sue Ellen’s alcoholism (memorably performed by Linda Gray).

The arc of Bobby and JR battling for control of the company brings Miss Ellie to deliver some of her most compelling lines. This is 1987. Americans love to loathe JR as much as any nefarious enemy, real or fictional. Consummate actress Bel Geddes delivers a speech of conscience and values that every mother has, at some point. THIS is quality.

<Miss E>

If you were a Dallas regular, you know the amount of time Miss Ellie appears on screen is pretty paltry. But in TV hertory, she plays an extraordinary and memorable role – Miss Ellie is an icon of stability and goodness. Her breast cancer arc caught the attention of former First Lady Betty Ford, herself a cancer survivor. Mrs. Ford lauded Barbara for her moving portrayal. That year Time magazine named Barbara one of the 10 Most Respected Women in America.

Bel Geddes was so trusted, that in 1986, Campbell’s soup company enlisted her to pitch their new line of Home Cooking Soup.


Still as preppy and old money-looking at she was in Vertigo, Barbara carried that look to Dallas and again in a canned soup commercial. No-nonsense, approachable, humble and caring.

Which is kind of funny, because in an interview with People Magazine, she said of her career, “They’re always making me play well-bred ladies. I’m not very well bred and I’m not much of a lady.”

Oh Ms. Bel Geddes, verbal slayer of JR Ewing and other evil-doers, we respectfully disagree.


Falcon Crest was similar to Dallas, and to a show that would soon become its rival, Dynasty, in at least a few ways. They were set in medium-sized American cities – Dallas, San Francisco/Napa wine country and Denver.

They involved family run, privately owned enterprises that were spread across multiple generations or branches of a family.

In Falcon Crest, Angela Channing and her brother had shared ownership of land on which the vineyard and estate stood. Angela’s brother dies accidentally, but Angela rigs the body to be discovered at the bottom of a canyon, in the driver’s seat, so that authorities will assume it was a drunk driving accident. Such conclusion would bode better for her in terms of her brother’s will.


Jane Wyman with Lorenzo Lamas

Angela Channing has been grooming her handsome grandson Lance, played by Lorenzo Lamas, to eventually take over the business.When what to our wondering eyes should appear but Angela’s brother’s heir and his wife, played Robert Foxworth and Susan Sullivan. According to the will, these two are entitled to the original family property, which is a portion of the larger estate Angela has built.

Angela attempts to buy and intimidate them out, fearing she will lose control.

From there, it blossoms into a soap opera of epic proportions with medical maladies, shady business wranglings, infidelities, and Angela’s disapproval of the romance between grandson Lance and Apollonia – the leading lady of the movie Purple Rain.

Perhaps with an eye to demographics or inexpensive contracts for big name studio talent from Hollywood’s heyday, the eight seasons unfold to include Cliff Robertson, Gina Lollobrigida, Cesar Romero, Celeste Holm, Lana Turner and Mel Ferrer.

Now, on to Jane Wyman as Angela Channing. This clip from the 1984 Golden Globes sort of sums up the field Wyman competed against for best actress and what was on everyone’s minds about the character she played.

<JW GGlobe>

As a veteran of the silver screen, Wyman had a hand in all sorts of decisions behind the scenes of Falcon Crest.

In a 1986 biography, author Lawrence Quirk quotes Wyman about her original impression of the character of Angela Channing:

“After I told them I was plenty old enough and had enough gray hair without putting on that dreadful wig,” she told an interviewer, “I decided to do something about Angela. Not only was she too mean and vicious, she was just plain boring. I wanted Angie to be an interesting character. She’s a tough-as-nails businesswoman in every sense of the word, but the trouble with the pilot was that she was just too nasty.”

The book goes on… “She had no intention of letting Angela Channing become a sort of J. R. Ewing of the wine business. Said Wyman,‘I feel I’m representing all women in business. I may come off as a hard, tough character, but I want Angie to show she’s also capable of love.”

Ok, wow. TV had never experienced a woman character, let alone a mature woman character, who came across so cold, so driven.

With her extensive film experience, Wyman brought a certain eye to Channing’s look. She made wardrobe decisions throughout the show. Again, from the book,

“I like sexy and very female clothes. I’m not a stranger in this business. I really don’t want to get involved in all the production junk, but I do. I think everyone should. To get a good show, everything you’ve got must go into it, but you can’t spread yourself too thin or everything suffers.”

If you get the chance to even watch the opening credits, you see red suits buttoned right up to her throat, shoulder pads and a hair style that is well, not relaxed. Now some might say that at that point, she was vying for fashion icon status against Nancy Reagan, who had already been trend setting first lady for a few years.

While many describe the entire show of Falcon Crest as simply “campy,” Wyman took her role and character very seriously. As well she should. She pulled down $3 million for the show’s last season, while Nancy Reagan had to hold fundraisers to pay for red china and renovations for the White House.

<JW Dimensions>

As the show launched its 5th season, Wyman revealed to Entertainment Tonight how close her personality is to Angela’s.

<FC 5th season>

Jane Wyman with Lana Turner

In the 8 seasons, Angela is ruthless against any person or organization that would take even a sliver of her empire. Remember the storyline about her brother’s suspicious death being the catalyst for her having full control of the estate? Here’s the verbal volley between Wyman and the brother’s widow, played by Lana Turner.


As we know in 2015, outsized egos are sometimes very necessary. They provide an armor to break new ground and a sense of confidence that others can only envy. Wyman rode the Angela Channing character hard, delivering an edginess that American women knew they needed to acquire, at least a little bit, in order to compete.

When the careers of these two fine actresses began, most American women listened to daytime dramas on the radio and later watched them on TV. Plot lines of betrayal, infidelity and romance filled the hours in between diaper changing, cookie baking and getting dinner ready for the family.

By the late 70s and early 80s, fewer women were home watching daytime TV. They were at their jobs, classes or doing community work that served their interest. Thus, the desire for daytime drama plot lines, glitzed up a bit with high stakes wheeling and dealing, was still there. With their shoulder pads, tuxedos, fancy cars, big hair and beautiful people, Dallas,

Knot’s Landing, Falcon Crest and Dynasty eased the transition for millions of women.

Within that transition, we examined how our values carry over from our personal or family expectations to that of our workplace and colleagues. Within the plot constructions of just these two shows, Dallas and Falcon Crest, two excellent actresses could take on very different styles, deliver sharp, well-written lines and hold their own in a man’s world.

We’ll close with this Dallas scene, breakfast at the pool. Sue Ellen joins Miss Ellie, Donna Krebs, played by Susan Howard and Jenna Wade, played by Priscilla Presley before her plastic surgery. While we don’t all live this lifestyle, we’ve all been a part of this conversation.

<spoiled day>

Falcon Crest, Dallas. Watch them with a new sense of appreciation, if you ever get the chance.

Sources for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory are Lawrence Quirk’s 1986 book, Jane Wyman: The Actress and the Woman.

Even though both women have been dead now for close to a decade, both have official websites. Find out more about their award winning careers at and

There is a 5 part interview of Jane Wyman conducted by Carole Langer, found online. Entertainment Weekly clips found online covered the season previews and details of the Miss Ellie actress drama. Larry Hagman and Charlene Tilton comments about Barbara were part of a commentary voice over feature of Season One Dallas episode in the DVD set. Both shows have numerous sites managed by fans.

Remember to register your comments or ideas at Advanced TV Herstory’s iTunes page or at Libsyn, wherever you go to listen to these episodes. Follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter.

Many thanks to Alison Abrams for assistance with the script. As she heads into her senior year with Northwestern University’s Radio, TV and Film program, it’s only a matter of time before she’s making TV herstory.

Thanks for listening.

Ms. Magazine Online profiles Advanced TV Herstory

Interest in women in TV and all media is at a record high. Or maybe it’s because statistics show women aren’t in TV and media as much as sheer proportion, interest and talent merits.

In July, Ms. Magazine Online interviewed me to learn more about the impetus for this podcast project and a preview of some of my themes. For more than an hour, Carter Sherman and I volleyed back and forth about shows, social issues, messaging, plots and terrific minutiae about “the necessity for shows that feature self-absorbed women.”

Ms. Magazine’s Take a Class in Advanced TV Herstory, by Carter Sherman.

Ms Mag

Debbie Allen (Early Career & Fame TV)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

With four decades of experience wearing many, many hats in show business, Debbie Allen’s career is wholly worthy of study and understanding. Her early years on TV and the stage truly have affected TV Herstory, as we know it to be today.

She is a dancer, writer, a choreographer, businesswoman, director, producer, speaker and actress. And at 65 years of age, she’s shown no signs of slowing down.

A full accounting of Debbie Allen’s career would take us right up to today. In the past year, she’s directed episodes of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy. She acts a recurring role in Grey’s Anatomy.

Her business, LA’s Debbie Allen Dance Academy is now in its second decade of operation.

So, because she is such a prolific and active leader across so many fields, her full story will need to be told in an autobiography, on her timetable.

Advanced TV Herstory however knows that her roles in the 6 year TV show Fame gave her the confidence and experience to be where she is today. The show, which aired 1982 to 1987 was transformative in many ways, largely due to Allen’s drive for excellence.

So this installment is a celebration of Allen’s humble beginnings and upbringing. We’ll learn how she led Fame to become a high quality TV show and how Fame opened doors for her – and closed a few.

We’d love to dabble in the Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World, and how she influenced all aspects of that show. Let me know if you’d like that topic & terrific show explored in a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory.

If, after a few minutes, you’re still fuzzy about who Debbie Allen is…

Fame theme

When many of us think of Debbie Allen, we think first of her as a dancer and choreographer, because that’s how we met her, quite likely by seeing the movie Fame in 1980..

She recounts her initial fascination with dancing going all the way back to her early grade school years. She says she was always being called upon by her family to entertain as she and her siblings grew up insisters Houston, Texas. This is a family of achievers and from an interview that appears online at the Emmy TV Legends website, it’s clear that Debbie’s mother in particular played a huge role in her work ethic, how she manages her own expectations and her career.

Growing up in a segregated South, Debbie describes her father Andrew Allen as a successful and gregarious dentist. Her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, was an accomplished poet and artist.

<D Allen’s Mother>

Vivian was intent on helping guide her children to maximize their potential in whatever filled their hearts.

<Mom helped direct us>

Debbie’s siblings all went on to great achievements too as business or artistic professionals – and that includes her older sister, Phylicia Allen Rashad. As she tells the story of her childhood, Debbie has to remind us all that the 50s was a time of segregation. When the 1961 movie of West Side Story played in theaters in Houston, it was only shown for white audiences.

To minimize the disruption in her children’s development and confidence, Vivian Ayers Allen moved her family to Mexico City, Mexico. The children attended school, were exposed to all sorts of arts and sporting opportunities and learned a new language. They learned how diverse cultures could co-exist and collaborate for a more beautiful outcome.

A few years later, the family returned to Texas and Debbie pursued her passion for dance and theater.Debbie Allen young She admits that attending Howard University, from which she would ultimately graduate with a degree in speech and theater, was not her first choice. She had applied to a national dance academy and been rejected.

However, she is the first to credit the diversity of her learning opportunities at Howard for giving her the foundation for success in TV, film and business.

<Howard University>

While she learned lighting, directing and choreography to be used on the stage, it wasn’t too many years later that she discovered those skills and attention to detail crossed over to TV nicely.

Upon graduating from Howard, she moved to New York City and lived with Phylicia and struggled for working gigs in theater or TV. Her first TV role was on Good Times as JJ’s junkie fiancée. Getting that role was a matter of really good timing.

<JJ’s junky fiancée>

At age 30, 1980 was Debbie Allen’s breakthrough year. She had scored the role of Anita in a Broadway production of West Side Story, and her portrayal of Lydia Grant, the task master dance teacher in the movie Fame gave her one of Hollywood’s most memorable motivational lectures.

<Motivational clip>

The movie Fame’s impact was felt worldwide. You may recall those were the years of big movie musicals, the soundtracks of which then served as backdrops for summer radio – Grease in 1978, Fame in 1980, Flashdance in 1983, Footloose the year later, and Dirty Dancing in 1987 – blockbusters at the box office and soundtracks that sold records.

In 1982 Debbie was approached about signing on to be a main adult character in a TV version of Fame. She recounts the how the opportunity was presented.

<Fame 1>

The show was highly ambitious and managed to do an awful lot with a relatively untested cast, each fame cast stillweek. Grateful for the opportunity to work, Allen and others were up for the challenge. Allen describes her character, Lydia Grant’s central role in the school community.

<Fame Lydia>

Who remembers Fame, the TV show? You had to have either seen it when it was first aired or maybe caught it in syndication not long after it aired, because it seems to have been banished from reruns for the better part of 25 years.

Seasons one and two of the total of six have been issued on DVD. A few episodes are available free online, the entire series may be available through a subscription service. Why would it be worth paying for? Many of these scenes could have occurred in any high school in America in the mid-80s. Leotard clad and sweaty, Debbie Allen as Lydia Grant helps Bruno Martelli, played by Lee Curreri, work through casting the next big school musical theater production.

Fame scene

Adults treated young people with respect and let them learn by doing, learn by making mistakes. This was quality TV, so let the honor roll of award nominations and wins speak for themselves:

Debbie Allen won a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a comedy/musical TV series in 1983, 1985 and was nominated in 1984.

The show won Golden Globes for Best TV series comedy or musical in 1983 and 1984, and was nominated in 1985.

Over the years, crew members won Primetime Emmies for costuming, choreography, art direction, cinematography, directing, individual achievement, video editing. Emmy nominations by cast and crew in those categories and others were earned in every season starting in 1982.With 16 wins and 33 nominations in all, the show demonstrated quality among a very intense and competitive period of prime time TV.

As the show that was more artistic, however, Allen and others gave it their all. From the first episode Fame creditsAllen served as choreographer as well as her acting in her role as Lydia Grant. She soon took on more responsibility.

<On set of Fame>

Plots for Fame ran the gamut of urban life situations and ventured in to the lives of the adults as much as the teen characters. Production was non-stop, allowing only 2 days, over the weekend, for dance sequences to be developed, taught and practiced.

Allen rose to the occasion, using all she learned at Howard University to make the most of this opportunity to be part of something special.

<Gave myself>

In a recent interview, Allen spoke of her work on A Different World as the vehicle for the voice of young people.

<Importance of young>

Remember, this was a woman whose mother so wanted her to be exposed to the real world and embrace opportunities for learning that she lived in Mexico City for a few years. So, when Debbie Allen speaks with such certainty, passion and conviction, you realize full well she has carried the torch of tolerance and education handed to her by Vivian Allen.

And being an educated black woman in Hollywood in the mid 80s wasn’t easy, Allen revealed in her Emmy TV Legends interview. With a diverse cast doing a show set in an urban high school, the writers offered up all sorts of opportunity for controversy.

<Othello episode>

She speaks openly of the sexism she has encountered over the years. Yet she doesn’t let it overshadow the stories she tells of being recognized in many foreign countries, of how the TV series Fame salvaged arts programming in the schools across the world. Beyond the fulfillment she receives from sharing art and dance with young people, these interviews reveal her energy because she knows her work is relevant.

She shares her encounters of the past as a way of inspiring anyone who faces discrimination or harassment.

<No fear>

Fame lasted for six years and finally ran out of plots. By the late 80s, the world of music and TV had changed just enough that Fame couldn’t keep up. But she admits it gave her a full experience of TV production which would serve her well. Just a few years later, Allen was again in the middle of a cast of young actors this time as director and recurring character in A Different World. Maintaining her worldwide artistic network, she’s been prolific in dance as well as TV and film.

So without Fame and Debbie Allen’s leadership, A Different World may never have embarked on the story lines it did, or retained the quality cast and crew that made it such a memorable series. And without Fame, would we ever have had Glee?

At 65, she’s a force behind the scenes of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy D Allen Grey's Anatomy– three of prime time’s most quality dramas. Yet her humility and drive keep her focused on her goals, not on any notion of fame.

<fame today, fame then>

Audio for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory comes from Debbie Allen’s interviews on the Oprah: Where are They Now? segment about A Different World in 2014, an in-studio interview with Good Day New York which aired in December 2014 and a 2013 in-studio interview at a Dallas TV station.

Please, post comments about this or other topics at my Libsyn hosting site or iTunes. The script for this and past shows can be found at my website:

Debbie Allen’s early career and Fame’s role in TV Herstory is worthy knowing and re-telling. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.

The Women of My So-Called Life (1994-5)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast)

Click to listen

Click to listen

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory provides you a fascinating look into a short-lived series from the mid 1990s that focused on teenagers. In the context of generations, the young people who comprised the core group of My So-Called Life were the first Millennials or the last Gen Xers.

It’s a bit of a time capsule of what teen years were like before cell phones and the internet. My title coverSo-Called Life was a drama set in Pittsburgh that focused on the lives of a group of sophomores from Liberty High School.

Advanced TV Herstorians will appreciate My So-Called Life for a few reasons.

The main string of relationships featured in the 19 episodes that aired focuses on daughters and their moms. The main character is one of those daughters, a 14 year old Claire Danes who walked away with a few trophies for her portrayal of Angela Chase.

Another reason to value this show is the depth of the storytelling. There’s no condescension in addressing the earthly crises of coming of age. In fact, the writers create numerous parallels between the young women and their mothers, as all confront emotional or ethical dilemmas. In its brief life, this show tackled weighty issues and examined universal questions.

Finally, we all need to know what producer, writer and actress Winnie Holzman has brought to TV. In addition to her work on My So-Called Life, take a look at her influence on the story lines of other shows, primarily through the 90s and early 2000s.

In this clip from the Paley Center interview, Claire Danes and Bess Armstrong discuss the mother-daughter vanity involved in the episode entitled “Zit.”

<Paley Center>

So quick, grab that plaid flannel shirt, or if you identify more with the mother figures, your favorite pair of high-waisted pleated pants, and let’s get into storytelling, 90s style.

From the very first episode, viewers know through narration that the show is seen through the eyes of Angela Chase and told largely in her voice. Danes delivers her narration in a deliberate and paced tone, turning sentences into rhetorical questions and observations into priceless teen philosophy.

<Angela narration episode 12>

On the continuum of high school girl personality styles, she’s fairly middle class, bright, stable and cautious. She’s the center to the other two young women – Rayann Graf, played by A.J. Langer on the less stable side and Sharon Cherski portrayed by Devon Odessa, on the more traditional end. Sharon and Angela have been friends their whole lives, as their mothers attended high school and college together, while Rayann is new to Angela’s social circle.

In a parallel construction, Angela’s mother Patty, played by Bess Armstrong, is at the center of the Mom spectrum. Patty has taken over the family printing business from her father and works long hours. Her old friend Camille, played by a warm Mary Kay Place, is married with one daughter and an unacknowledged job status. She seems fairly well off and traditional. New to Patty’s scene is Amber, played by Patty D’Arbanville, the mother to Rayann. Amber is a single, a radiologic technician who works the evening shift and shifts from being street smart to fragile in short order.

Each episode unfolds a few story lines across the young people and one that features the parents, with a certain degree of cross over. We’re talking 15 year olds here, so of course parents factor into plots.

<Parent/youth story lines>

Because television rarely singles out grown women characters and their responsibilities to teenage girls, My So-Called Life, as what might initially be perceived as a teen drama, is in fact timeless and an inter-generational must-watch.

With only 19 episodes, it’s tempting to examine each one in depth. I leave that to you, as the DVD set is widely available and episodes are accessible online. Instead, I will focus on how some of the relationships and windows into life’s lessons unfold throughout the series.

So think of it this way. Rayann and Amber represent an opportunity for growth to both Angela and Patty, and sometimes Angela and Patty cause Rayann and Amber to grow as individuals and within their own relationship.

Angela seeks out Rayann’s assistance on all sorts of matters, eventually declaring Rayann to be her PDarbanvillebest friend. Angela is enchanted by Amber’s loose approach to parenting, her knowledge of Tarot cards and her reasoning that if kids are going to drink, they do it under her roof.

Patty sees in Rayann a ghost of a college roommate, who died from reckless choices. Patty initially views Amber’s relaxed parenting as irresponsible, but later witnesses that mother daughter love is not necessarily packaged in over-sized sweaters from the Gap.

When the show starts, we get the sense that the relationships that Angela and Patty have with the other mother daughter pair, Sharon and Camille, represent a somewhat stale and predictable status quo. Over time, Angela and Patty grow to the find new value in their old friends. Conversations become deeper, much more relevant to trust, instincts and caring about the well-being of the other. Supportive rather than competitive.

With Angela in the middle, many plots involve competitive tensions between Rayann and Sharon. Rayann drinks, even on school property. Rayann earns distinction in a gag poll by sophomore boys for being the girl most likely to become a slut.

In that same poll, Sharon is credited with having the biggest boobs. Sharon’s traditional upbringing leaves her with even fewer skills to cope with the realities of high school. She’s involved in extra curricular activities like yearbook and begins a relationship with Kyle as her relationship with Angela begins to fade.

Patty sees Sharon as a model daughter. In fact, with Sharon’s poise, make up and wardrobe, Patty may think Sharon is on the path to becoming the popular beauty she was in high school and college. On the other hand, we learn through an exchange with Patty that Camille struggled with her weight throughout high school and college. Even Camille, as the resident conventional mother, has a few moments as the cool mom.

On the matter of boys, all three young women can be competitive and judgmental, yet occasionally stand to defend the honor or safety of their friend. Had the final three episodes of season one aired, or had the show continued onto season 2, viewers may well have seen all three become more confident in themselves and supportive of each other.

Let’s face it, at 15, most emotions and thoughts are raw. Since teenagers first hit the small screen, we have seen how important clothes, cars, music and attitudes toward school can be in defining characters. Rayann blends punk with grunge style, experiments with her hair and regularly skips class.

With her figure still a work in progress and a style that emphasizes neutrality over attention, Angela’s Angela-s-Wardrobewardrobe combines tomboy aesthetic with plaid jumpers, tights, and Doc Martins. She skips classes once her own social life picks up, but never embarks on risky behavior with alcohol or drugs. The pilot episode partly focuses on Angela’s bold move of dying her hair a bright red, without her mother’s permission. While this might not seem like a strident step of independence, the narrative voice of Claire Danes provides rationale and background to the decision. Symbolizing her first step of independence, he narrative voice of Claire Danes provides rationale and background to the decision.

<Angela quote>

And never missing a beat to tie in the growth of mother to the growth of daughter – to be 15 or 40 is to be examining your dreams and progressing toward fulfilling them – Patty gets a dramatic hair cut early in episode 2.

In contrast to Angela’s experimentation, Sharon’s look remains pretty traditional, mostly consisting of a suburban mall style with a hint of feminine sophistication that Angela has yet to acquire. Nearly every episode features a disagreement or consultation in the school girls’ bathroom between Sharon and Rayann. Each is smart enough to recognize that the other knows things that they don’t, but the competition for Angela’s friendship overshadows their progress toward mutual trust.

Yes, there are men on the show in case you’re wondering at this point. Graham Chase, Patty’s husband and Angela’s dad, is played by Tom Irwin, and three young men fill out the core group of teens who grow so much during the 19 episodes- Wilson Cruz as Rickie Vasquez, Jared Leto as Jordan Catelano and Devon Gummersall as Brian Krakow. Each has gone on to further roles in acting, producing and directing.

My So-Called Life is great and timeless in part due to solid acting by Bess Armstrong, Claire Danes,cast and title Jared Leto and really, the entire cast. Wow! Each is able to deliver solid performances consistently because of the well-written scripts and story lines that boldly go where few dramas have gone. The range of identities among characters allows viewers of many different backgrounds to see pieces of themselves onscreen in ways that are not always possible on network television.

Assisting young people through the difficult teenage years is a lesson in knowing your own character, as much as it is the development of their characters. These very real themes emerge from the very first episode and continue over time, with various characters immersed in the experience.

If you have any recall of your own high school years, these may sound familiar:

  • Envy & Jealousy
  • Betrayal or the use of another person to advance your own desires
  • Integrity
  • Realizing your place in the world
  • Peering into another’s life that serves to help you value your own
  • Justice and fairness that aids in you in finding your voice.

<Holzman quote>

Let’s start with envy, which goes hand in hand with jealousy. Envy we know to be longing to possess or achieve something that another person has. It’s a two part deal, as envy is deployed by one person in relation to another person’s situation.

In a show filled with love triangles and unrequited, unspoken crushes, jealousy acts as an unfortunate companion to young people as they gain their own confidence and self-esteem.

Envy is also at the heart of the girls’ interest in each other’s living situations. Angela finds Rayann’s house to be filled with laughter and just the two of them – Rayann and her mom. Rayann envies the life Angela lives – a large house, two educated parents who care and earn enough money to take care of Angela’s necessities.

At one point, we have to assume that her 30 days of sobriety is partly due to her desire to live up to the higher standards of Angela and Patty.

Here’s how Rayann’s mom Amber describes the girls’ relationship to Patty, whom she meets for the first time at school

<Amber talking about Rayann’s interest in Angela – episode 3>

Jealousy forms the core of the Rayann, Angela and Sharon’s triangle. And the Brian, Angela, Jordan triangle. And the Delia, Brian, Angela triangle. Each character handles his or her jealousy differently. Sharon’s jealousy erupts in direct confrontation with Angela.

<Sharon clip – episode 1>

A bedrock teen-age feeling is definitely betrayal. With already highly sensitized feelings and an emerging sense of self within the context of others, these young women encounter betrayal in every episode. Some of that is tied to NOBODY being able to keep a secret. To keep score through the 19 episodes, a viewer would likely find that Angela, Rayann and Sharon are all guilty on this count. Angela feels particularly betrayed in one episode where Rayann and Jordan have sex in Jordan’s car.

As it turns out, Patty admits to having stolen, albeit briefly, one of Camille’s boyfriends back in college.

<Betrayal bathroom scene Rayann & Sharon – episode 16>

Perhaps to simplify things, being used by another person to advance your own desires is a fault that falls more to Angela than anyone else. And in doing so, largely unintentionally, Angela gives us a teachable moment regarding our own selfishness. Angela uses her neighbor and long-time friend Brian. She uses his possessions, his intellect and time in pretty much every episode. Sharon perceives this early on and attempts to set him straight.

<Sharon on using people– episode 2>

Sharon, perhaps more than any other, is the voice of truth and integrity – wise in ways of people that make her a stabilizing influence for Angela, Brian, Rickie and even Rayann.

Because integrity and truthfulness are key to living in adult life, it was smart of the show writers to avoid a subplot around any one of the teen characters “fudging the truth.” Instead, through Angela’s eyes we witness her father Graham having an intense, close contact conversation in the street with another woman. We watch the high school principal attempt to subvert students’ freedom of speech when he confiscates the literary magazine.

And, we watch Patty grow, even in middle age, when handling the IRS audit of the company she took over from her father. She finds out he didn’t always act truthfully. There are questions regarding his claim of expenses during the last year he led the printing firm.


No doubt that the parent/child relationship is complex at any age. Holzman does a great job of putting Patty in clear-thinking role-model mode. Her reaction to her father’s behavior is believable and totally consistent with her moral standards.

With all these relationships, I believe Holzman purposely puts the characters at a fence to peer into the other’s world. From that view, each woman may appreciate her own situation a bit more.

So when given the opportunity to help others through a challenge, do our women rise to the occasion? Yes, and in both stark and subtle ways, the writers provide us insight into their thinking.

For instance, one episode focuses on Sharon’s father’s heart attack. It occurs during a period when Sharon and Angela’s friendship is strained. Out of Patty’s concern for Sharon’s well-being and to lighten the load of her own friend Camille, Patty arranges for Sharon to stay at the Chase’s house.

Angela acts awkwardly through the entire event. Even Rayann goes out of her way to help Sharon by helping her get a ride to the hospital. But when it’s apparent Sharon’s father is out of the woods, Sharon and Angela rediscover the importance of their friendship.

<Importance of Friendship – episode 8>

And in one of the most memorable scenes in the whole series and a sure finalist for Coolest Mom on TV – sorry Phylicia Rashad, this is a drama, Patty rises to an occasion that could happen to anyone.

In episode 10, entitled Other People’s Mothers, Rayann’s father sends her money for her birthday. This is during the period where her drinking has surged and she decides a massive party at the apartment she shares with her mother is in order. Angela, realizing that Rayann’s party conflicts with her grandparents’ anniversary party that will be held at the Chase’s home, disappoints Patty by choosing to attend Rayann’s.

Rayann starts drinking early that day and passes out as the apartment is filled with strangers and acquaintances. Angela and Rickie confer and Angela calls Patty.

<Being there – episode 9>

It took nine episodes for Patty to transform from a fairly self-centered middle-aged woman to one who recognizes that her daughter has a circle of decent friends who are human. Her transformation comes from reflecting on her own teen and college years. And while viewers also see her marriage to Graham through Patty’s eyes, you get the sense Patty is stronger for having taken stock in her own value.

Like so many parents, Patty walks the fine line of getting too involved in the problems and issues her Angela Pattydaughter’s friends are experiencing. She has evolved to a point of welcoming them and understanding that they come from homes of lesser means and attention than what she and Graham are able to provide for Angela and her sister.

Episode 14 is entitled Grace of God. It’s Christmas themed and is probably one of the most memorable Christmas episodes I’ve ever seen. As the family readies the house for Christmas, Patty announces it would be nice for them to go to church. This is an important moral bookmark, for the plot unfolds to bring the major characters to a better understanding of faith, hope and charity.

Christmas Eve shows Sharon and Rayann working a teen hotline shift and finding new things in common and new strengths each other finds admirable (discovering common ground and mutual respect). By Christmas eve, Rickie’s homelessness is approaching crisis stage. The school counselor has him on a shelter wait list that is a month long. The English teacher, who we discover is gay, is also very concerned about him.

Patty and Angela have a fight when Angela realizes Rickie is out on the streets, likely staying in an abandoned warehouse. Patty, concerned for Angela’s well-being, goes in search of Angela. Remember, this all took place before everyone had a phone in their pocket.

<Grace of God episode 14>

The episode ends with the Chase family in a church, with Rickie, who regularly wears a crucifix.

Finally, as it happens for many teenagers, it is through Angela’s continued search for justice and fairness that she begins to gaining confidence. Her voice as narrator becomes stronger and holds more conviction that it does early in the series. And it’s this progress, so worthy of discussion and celebration that makes the show’s cancellation all the more tragic. Wrestling with justice and fairness is part and parcel of an American teen experience.

Because many of the plots revolve around school and academic activities, we get the sense that Angela is an above average student when she applies herself. A substitute English teacher captivates her attention and opens her eyes beyond the realm of Liberty High. She responds with a whole heart. In the process, Patty is forced to flash back to coming of age in the 60s and how important she thought it was to speak out and stand up for what she believed in.

The school’s principal has confiscated the student literary magazine (printed by Patty’s printing 4 ensemblescompany) because one poem is sexually suggestive. Angela recognizes this restriction as censorship, using her new appreciation of self-expression and art gained from the substitute teacher.

After the printed magazines have disappeared, Angela keeps fighting the fight by producing copies on the school copier. She gets called in to the principal’s office.

<Magazine – episode 6>

My So-Called Life is remembered for not sugar-coating the many ethical and moral questions. In that sense, the show is nearly timeless. There aren’t many distractions or deviations from the growth curve set for each major character.

Much of that is due to the experience of writer and producer Winnie Holzman. Holzman had previously worked on the TV show thirtysomething, which also was a production of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. They all went on to work on Once and Again, which starred Sela Ward.

Wikipedia paints Holzman’s road to Hollywood as one of poet, sketch comic and musical theater writer.

In a 2014 interview for Vulture Online Magazine about My So-Called Life’s plotlines, Holzman said this:

Series television is kind of intensive in terms of time. You fall hard for TV writing, but it’s almost love-hate. You’re under pressure all the time, but that pressure gets interesting things out of you that are, you know, mysterious. The whole idea of a dream, to me, is a mystery plane. Things are operating there that tell us the real truth. The stuff going on inside us that we don’t express or even know about pours out in our dreams. In a funny way, it was a way for me to instantly get to a deeper psychological place.

These three dramas – thirtysomething, My So-Called Life and Once and Again are highly regarded for their thoughtful approaches to real life situations.

Holzman delivered this ground-breaking show that brought real teen issues to life with respect and dignity. She spoke openly at the 2013 ATX Television Festival about teamwork and support that went into the show.

<“You can do it”>

Advanced TV Herstory holds this show, and all the people associated with it, in high regard. Unfortunately, for all sorts of reasons, it lasted only 19 of the first seasons 22 episodes. It was cancelled without fanfare, mid-story arc. MTV news coverage of the campaign to save My So –Called Life is available online as a video archive. In it, a young Claire Danes speaks to the show’s risk taking and honesty.

In other interviews, both Danes and Holzman assert that maybe it was all just too real to attract the significant audience size a TV show needs to sustain itself. It was deep. Thoughtful.

Advanced TV Herstory wants to posit one more reason for the show’s abrupt cancellation in 1995.

In the last episode, viewers followed the on-going romantic entanglements of Jordan and Angela, Graham and Hallie, Brian and his feelings for Angela, and were introduced to a new one when minor character Delia Fisher revealed her feelings for Rickie.


In 1995, that was still a pretty big statement on primetime network TV. Just two years earlier, Congress called for an investigation on PBS over its airing of an adaptation of Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City, which featured a gay character. Gay characters – mostly adult men – had been shown in more comedies than dramas.

But in 1995, I have to wonder if between the network execs and the irate sponsors, the idea of a Puerto Rican teenage boy declaring he’s gay was just too much. And such declaration, from a character who regularly worships in the Catholic Church and wears a crucifix, would only lead to more complex and controversial story lines. Would those story lines include Ricky’s temporary stay with the gay English teacher and his partner?

So Advanced TV Herstory has researched extensively and not been able to answer this question:

Did Winnie Holzman know this was truly the last segment and put all her eggs of controversy – namely that of Rickie’s sexual preference – into that one final basket? Or was Holzman plodding along thinking she had three more episodes in which she could bring closure to the many storylines – but – the content of Episode 19 brought it all to an abrupt halt?

Since there’s no evidence pointing in any direction, Advanced TV Herstory appreciates Winnie Holzman for her profound capacity to tell a story and tell it like it is through the eyes of women. We applaud her leading the team right up to the brink of a breakthrough moment in TV.

Everyone associated with the show has stuck to the talking points of low ratings and intense storylines. But producers Herskovitz and Zwick were established commodities and this was another example of their quality work. It just seems so… odd.

The show ends with a thousand questions and open story arcs all over the place. Kind of fitting given the jaded narration of teenage Claire Danes.


Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. All 19 episodes of My So-Called Life can be found on Hulu and DVD.

Background music you’ve heard is by Ian Alex Mac entitled “Let Her Go” and can be found at

Audio clips of the actors and Winnie Holzman were pulled from 2013 interviews that were from the ATX Television Festival, Season 2 and a Paley Center interview from 2008.

I am grateful for the editing and content assistance from Molly Henderson, a senior at Northwestern University majoring in American Studies and Urban Studies. We might just as well say she’s worthy of a minor in My So-Called Life. I appreciate all she contributed to this script and show.

If you download this and other episodes on iTunes, please take time to rate and review Advanced TV Herstory. Thank you!

Battle of the Sexes: King vs. Riggs 1973

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast).

player image

Click to listen

A big deal in TV herstory went down on September 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome.

We at Advanced TV Herstory are not asking you to cause a family kerfuffle at Thanksgiving. But if you wanted to… and talking about politics and religion is verboten… here’s a little background that’ll putbattle-of-the-sexes-poster you on a level playing field with, well, the older generation of women.

Who knows what kind of answer you’ll get when you ask the question, “So what did you think of the Battle of the Sexes?”

If you like your holidays quiet, then enjoy this installment merely for its educational value.

Or, think of it as something you should know about the power of TV, assessing risk and maintaining composure.

To understand the significance of the Battle of the Sexes is to realize that big events demand story telling in order to stay alive. If no one talks about it, how do we really know the impact… even 42 years later?

<BJKing Postmatch>

The Battle of the Sexes “was the most watched, best-attended tennis match in history.” It was a spectacle in many respects and proved to the be turning point in the Women’s Movement when Billie Jean King transformed into “Mother Freedom.”

She was a woman unlike all the others associated with the movement, most notably Gloria Steinem. Billie Jean had no connections to Vietnam protests or bra burnings.

The airing of the Battle of the Sexes placed Billie Jean King at a pulpit for equality she would use time and again, literally through every decade ‘til now. Whether that was fighting to retain the core of Title IX, which has come under attack by higher education as well as policymakers or advocating for equal pay for professional women athletes.

Here’s the story. Not a history of woman’s tennis, as much as the factors that led up to a televised sports spectacle

Actually, Billie Jean King was the second woman tennis player Bobby Riggs cajoled into playing him on national TV. It didn’t turn out well for Team Woman.

Margaret Court, a reigning tennis star had traditional upbringing and lived a traditional, conservative

Margaret Court

Margaret Court

life, married with a child. She differed in opinion with Billie Jean about equity issues in women’s tennis and did not apply herself to the commercial side of women’s athletics – spending time with fans and sponsors.

Bobby Riggs had been a big name at Wimbledon in 1939, having risen up through the men’s tennis ranks as a bit of an outcast. His size, his look, his athletic awkwardness was not embraced by the most influential tennis promoters of the day. Riggs found tennis to be and intellectual challenge as much as physical. It also fit nicely with his penchant for gambling.

In her book A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match that Leveled the Game, by Crown Publishing, New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts does a great job of describing the lengths Riggs would go to to hustle people, bet on events and come across as a total huckster.

In the spring of 1973, well past 50 years old and two decades past his tennis prime, Riggs decided to attempt a Big Event Comeback. It was spurred in part by his wanting to redirect a claim for bigger winnings for women over to bigger winnings for senior men of the tennis circuit. As Roberts documents throughout the book, he genuinely believed he was a better tennis player than any woman.

So when Riggs and his promoters dangled in front of Margaret Court, she took the bait, having given Selena Roberts "Spectacle"little thought, according to King’s recount in the book, to the larger context of women’s athletics, the women’s movement and what a loss would mean.

“I’ve beaten better men than Bobby in practice matches,” Court announced to reporters. (p.18)

For women from earlier generations, the accepted sports available to them were golf and tennis. More than ever, TVs were not only commonplace in the homes of America’s baby boom teenagers, they were also in color. Technology was making it possible to broadcast games live, or at least package them for a taped broadcast.

As a result, fresh from President Nixon’s signing of Title IX, tennis was all the rage. Margaret Court was recognized at that time at the best woman player with Billie Jean King a close second.

Bobby trained seriously, playing daily with his son, but also living a pretty unhealthy lifestyle. In the days and weeks leading up to this first big match, which would take place on Mother’s Day, Riggs established a patter of taunting, trash-talk that not only focused on his opponent, but women athletes and women as a gender.

King knew upon learning of the match that Court was nowhere near the inner circle of feminism or promotion. She had no context for Riggs’ antics. For a whole host of reasons including Riggs’ having successfully psyched out Margaret Court, who some could easily be thrown, mentally, during a game, the entire match lasted 57 minutes.

On national TV on Mother’s Day, Riggs handed Court a bouquet of flowers and told her she was a beautiful mother. She curtsied. Less than an hour later, Riggs had trounced Margaret Court in 2 sets. From the moment after he beat Court, Riggs was putting out the public call to Billie Jean King for a match.

Billie Jean King, with her own healthy ego and place in the Women’s Movement and a husband who was becoming a consummate promoter, realized the only thing she could do was take him on.

<BJKing Press conference>

While Riggs’ trash talking and media antics got the better of Margaret Court, King got a handle on her game and game plan for her off-court and on-court preparation. In a sense, this was something she knew had been in her path her entire life. As Roberts accounts in her book, Billie told her mother at the age of 5 that she was “going to do something great with [her] life.”

Her number had just been called by a 55 year old loud-mouth.

<Riggs talks trash>

Billie’s rise through the tennis ranks started in her teen years. She had paid her dues to get to where she was, world-ranked. She had played her first match at Wimbledon in 1961. By 1973, Billie Jean King was a tested veteran of the road, media and industry. The business end of tournaments, as they were open to amateurs and professionals had changed in the last 5 years. All of this activity was coming at a time when women were taking their rightful place in athletics and physical fitness, all because of Title IX.

Billie Jean King’s acceptance of the match with Riggs meant reclaiming the progress and rightful place highly trained women athletes held across all sorts of sports. It would also serve to put women tennis players on more equal footing for pay, venues, product endorsements, tournament sponsorships and media exposure. There was everything to gain and everything to lose.

At this point in her career, she had attained much of what was available. And since 1970, the presence of teen superstar Chris Evert was changing the exposure equation and the game itself. Billie Jean’s role in the Women’s Movement was becoming one of veteran with a voice.

<Pre-match press conference>

So in 1973, with Court’s loss to Riggs in May, Billie Jean waited until June to give Riggs the answer he sought. She was scheduled to be at Wimbledon in July, so promoters set the date for September. This Wimbledon ultimately featured Billie Jean King against Chris Evert in the final.


Houston Astrodome hosting the largest live audience for tennis ever in a match watched by millions around the world.

As Roberts describes the deal, “The contract called for a best-of-five sets match, at Billie’s request and at ABC’s need to fill time, with a $100,000 winner-take-all purse, plus $150,000 in ancillary rights.

There were no grand assurances Billie Jean King would win. In fact, her peers on the tennis circuit questioned her ability to beat Riggs. The betting world was posting all sorts of odds, generally in Riggs’ favor.

Effect on people

It’s hard today to imagine an athlete as crucial to a sport and movement as Billie Jean was. There were more women’s voices her age in music and Hollywood. By virtue of age and experience, she was at the top, with few peers. Women’s tennis and golf today has broadened its base internationally. Venus and Serena are important. They sell tickets and merchandise when they are in a tournament, but it won’t be cancelled without them.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Riggs did not maintain his practice and conditioning regimen for his match with King, as he had done for Court. He focused on promotions and making the most of endorsement opportunities that would come at the match and after he won. The hustle seemed to become his number one priority.

Billie Jean knew this would be an historic day. She planned details of her schedule and diet, her hair, tennis dress and shoes. She also battled for three weeks to ensure that an aging tennis star, Jack Kramer, who was heavily biased toward Bobby Riggs, would not be part of the on-air commentary team.

<Like the Super Bowl>

Commentators, athletes and celebrities all had some airtime to weigh in with who they thought would

 Billie Jean King bends down low to send the ball back over the net during the match with Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas on Sept. 20, 1973. Ms. King beat Riggs 6-4; 6-3; 6-3. (AP Photo) 11017971

Billie Jean King bends down low to send the ball back over the net during the match with Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas on Sept. 20, 1973. Ms. King beat Riggs 6-4; 6-3; 6-3. (AP Photo) 11017971

win. The majority favored Riggs. With production quality worthy of a Super Bowl half-time, King and Riggs camped it up as they entered the Astrodome. King was carried in on a litter, like Cleopatra, Riggs was pulled in in a rickshaw.

The match was more than Riggs ever expected. King’s training and conditioning paid off. Her attention to maintaining an even mental keel kept her focused while his antics and frustrations posed distractions. She faltered occasionally, only to regain her footing and overpower him in every aspect of the game. Even Howard Cosell, who had begun the broadcast quite dismissive of her tennis skills and prowess, articulated respect for Billie Jean King increasingly as the match wore on.

The final score in the best-of-five was 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Riggs wasn’t close in any of the sets.

<Cosell coverage>

King maintained her class after the win and went on to become one of the highest profile women heroes of the 20th century.

Riggs’ career as a tennis player and hustler dried up after the match. Chris Evert had no interest in playing him at a third circus.

At least in the world of tennis, one woman had fought the battle. And won.

<About social change>

** ** **

Roberts, Selena (2005). A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis match that leveled the game. NY: Crown Publishing.

Audio pulled from video available on YouTube by Graham Bensinger. Learn more about Graham’s work interviewing important people at

Also, we pulled a little audio of the Cosell commentary from the audio compilation of historic sporting events narrated by Bob Costas called And the Crowd Goes Wild.

Betty White’s Career in TV

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast).

Click to listen

Click to listen

Betty White is 93 years old and has been in show business since the late 1940s. Radio first, then television. Along the way, she’s even made it to the silver screen.

So when Betty White makes this statement, she does so from experience:

The audience today has heard every joke. They know every plot. They know where you’re going before you even start. That’s a tough audience to surprise and a tough audience for whom to write. It’s much more competitive now, because the audience is so much more…sophisticated.

In this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’re going to examine the Betty White Approach to Success, Longevity and Role Modeling Comic Genius through every decade TV Life with Elizabethhas been in existence.

What are Betty White’s secrets to success? Raised in the Depression, she is from the first generation of TV celebrities. She’s ridden a wave of solid, steady roles over the years. Her reputation of being hardworking and upbeat became her brand.

We’re also going to take a deep look into how Betty White’s career has influenced other women characters and actresses.

So, a little background from her childhood and personal life:

< Project 5am’s Wet Ashtray >

Betty was born suburban Chicago in January 1922, an only child to parents Tess and Horace White. She credits her parents with being excellent storytellers, and as we listen to clips from shows through the years, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for her sense of timing within her comic delivery.Life w Elizabeth wink

While Betty was young, the family moved to Los Angeles to advance Horace’s career. Picture Betty, who admits her girlhood interests were in writing, animals and forestry, also starting to hang out with children of people who were building the motion picture industry. While in grammar school, radio had become a staple in every home, film had transitioned from silent to talkies and even early color movies.

Betty was a student leader of theater productions, often writing the script AND acting a lead role.

<Show biz bug clip>

Following her graduation from Beverly Hills High, Betty served in the WAV Corps, married a serviceman, moved to Ohio, divorced the serviceman, moved back to LA, and fell in love with an theatrical agent at about the same time she was taking acting lessons. She married the agent but ultimately divorced him over the matter of whether she wanted to have children.

<Clip Betty: want a career, having a child…>

That sums up her personal life, now about Betty’s Early Career

Through the late 40s, she helped produce a radio show that was transitioning over to TV, ultimately to be named Hollywood on Television. She was responsible for the show behind and in front of the camera for 5 hour show that aired 6 days a week and spawned a variety show in the evenings. She learned all the tools and tricks of this emerging communications forum from the ground up, with the most sophisticated technology in America. Her show—yes produced by Betty White—Life with Elizabeth was a spin-off from Hollywood on Television.

<Life With Elizabeth clip, Introduction>

It lasted only a few years, but her comic stylings had already made her a household name across the country. Following Life with Elizabeth, she starred in Date with the Angels.

Both shows were in a sense rom-coms, featuring White and a male co-star with whom she plays a newlywed couple complete with wacky neighbors. These shows, which can be viewed as time capsules of post World War II American economics, domestic life and morals, serve up comedy via verbal sparring and physical gags.

Watching these shows is a lot like watching Burns and Allen, which migrated from radio too or Father Knows Best, which first aired in 1954. There’s a big difference, though, Life with Elizabeth starred Betty White. And she carried a presence in every scene.

Young and at the top of her craft, this show put a date stamp on how women were viewed, how they dressed and how clever they could really be. After all, Americjulia-louis-dreyfusan women had just fulfilled a myriad of duties during World War II, only to be laid off or relegated to lesser roles with lesser pay. We were still years away from Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique.

<Life With Elizabeth Distraction 1>

In Life With Elizabeth, Betty looks like she’s having great fun. Part of the gag is that she laughs at her own jokes or just smiles a huge smile, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus does. Big teeth, big smile, pronounced jawline.

<Life With Elizabeth Distraction Closure>

National sitcoms mirrored the national psyche, the man’s voice always got the last word. In fact, the last line of Life With Elizabeth was the man’s, though the facial expressions were all Betty’s.

Watching Life With Elizabeth 60 years after it aired is painful for the acceptability of gender stereotypes from the era. But Betty uses her exuberant confidence to make each

Dec. 03, 2009 - BETTY WHITE.Supplied b Photos, inc.(Credit: © g49/Globe-ZUMA

Dec. 03, 2009 – BETTY WHITE.Supplied b Photos, inc.(Credit: © g49/Globe-ZUMA

episode memorable and in a sense, you know she’s making history with her work. At any point in her career, Betty could have called it quits, but for her, work was fun. We can look at her body of work (and not just her body) in awe.

From Life With Elizabeth, she embarked on Date with the Angels, in which the dialogue was more sophisticated and the production quality was better than Life With Elizabeth, but it ran for less than a year. White was recognized for her on-camera presence and by then, a decade of industry experience.

Of course they thought she should get her own variety show in 1958.

Or, as we might ask, How many The Betty White Show versions are too many?

Actually, in the course of her entire career, there have been THREE Betty White Shows. All were very short lived. The two in the 50s were talk show-variety based. In 1977, the geniuses behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show launched the third Betty White Show which lasted only 14 episodes. Failed TV series descriptions sometimes make me wonder, what the hell were they thinking? Here’s how Wikipedia synopsized it: Seriously, no actress could carry this story line:

Joyce Whitman, played by Betty White, is a middle-aged actress who lands the lead in a fictitious police series: Undercover Woman, a parody of Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman. Joyce is thrilled with the show, but less pleased to learn that the director is her ex-husband, played by John Hillerman.

What we’ve learned is that now into her mid-90s, Betty will likely veto ANY notion of there being a 4th shot at a Betty White Show.

Okay, we’ve tracked her through the late 50s, rising up through the business side of the industry that established her as the head of a production company. What did she do in the 60s and early 70s, before she got the offer of Sue Ann Nivens?

She did what every TV comic that didn’t do stand up ended up doing at some point.

<Matchgame Introduction clip>

With syndicated TV shows in short supply, TV schedules needed to fill time between the daytime dramas. Game shows filled that void, and TV comics and personalities filled the password 1963seats.

Betty’s presence on game shows was partly due to her evolving relationship with game show host and developer Allen Ludden, whom she married in 1963. In California’s TV social circuit, they were royalty right up until Ludden died of cancer in 1983. Betty was a regular panelist on Password, which Ludden hosted for 19 years.

Celebrities with comic experience had better mastery of timing and ad libbing their roles than serious actors. In the 60s and early 70s, when so much social change throughout America made airing comedy shows more difficult – remember we started the 60s with The Beverly Hillbillies and ended it with Julia, starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother working as a nurse. – dozens of talented actors and actresses kept their skills and timing sharp on game shows.

Few of those game show alumni are alive today. Ruth Buzzi is.

At a time in her career where Betty hit the dearth of good roles for middle-aged women—proven so well with the Betty White Show of 1977—Betty took the work where she could get it. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the 6th Best Written Series of All Time, was a landmark in Betty’s career. The role of Sue Ann Nivens earned Betty two Emmys. And those on The Mary Tyler Moore Show knew that they wanted a Betty Wsue ann nivens pink bed clip on YouTubehite kind of actress for TV’s first cougar.

<clip of MTM Intimate Portrait 2000>

Betty White, no stranger to live TV, stepped into a well-written show, performed with a team of professionals, and brought comic timing that catapulted Sue Ann from a one-time character to a regular, filling the fashion boots left by Valerie Harper’s Rhoda.

So yeah, Cougar Town may just owe some DNA to Sue Ann Nivens.

<Sue Ann Nivens Pink Bed>

Since this is Advanced TV Herstory, we already know Betty went on to play in two more ensemble shows, both focused on inter-generational living experienced by women. Golden Girls was cast with award-winning actresses Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, of Maude fame and Estelle Getty, who was actually younger than Betty but played Bea Arthur’s mother.

Four strong, accomplished actresses showing up for work each day. That must have been quite a set. Golden Girls mopped up a roomful of Emmys over its seven years. These women were easy to relate to. The writing was sharp, and the timing of these actresses was spot on. Reportedly, show ratings indicated strength in the under 30 demographic, which gives an interesting perspective to comedy transcending generations..

Those involved with Golden Girls’ development sought out Betty for the role of Blanche – another cougar role. Betty thought differently, as did Rue.

<Rue McClanahan Paley casting clip>

Hmm, successful series that feature relationships of four women… How many can you name?

<UltraTech Burn it Down girl clip>living-single

  • Living Single
  • Sex and the City
  • Girlfriends
  • Sisters
  • Hot in Cleveland
  • Girls

Designing Women gets partial credit because it was workplace-based, though it sure seemed like they were friends who didn’t have friends outside of work.

Have I missed any?

Did Golden Girls pave the way for women to talk freely about things that interest the audience largely comprised of women? From Sue Ann to Rose and then to Elke Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland, Betty’s timing and confidence brings out the best in her ensemble, offering up sarcasm and sauciness that appeals to audiences of all ages.

<Hot in Cleveland first bit>

Advanced TV Herstory may endeavor to analyze this entire show model in another episode. Eight well-written shows with eight talented casts broke through all sorts of taboo topics and have made women 16 to 100 laugh and cry, call and text best friends, mothers, daughters.

Remember too that Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Betty White – as TV stars of a certain age, were never viewed under the same spotlight as actresses who came just a few years after them. We really know little about their personal lives and as a result, our impressions of them, even those who have passed on, remain quite high. These were hard-working women who earned the right to performing into their 60s and 70s.

Betty White and Koko

Betty White & one of her memorable visits with Koko, the gorilla (2011)

Betty White has been smiling for the camera since 1950 and has a reputation for her positive attitude. She is very well-known for her interest in animals, their health and safety. She once told CNN’s Piers Morgan that her most treasured moment in her public life was spending time with Koko the Gorilla.

Her humor has certainly evolved with the times, but she’s noted in her own writings that she’s turned down many opportunities. She’s also taken on a few dramatic roles, when the quality of the writing or storyline met her standards. Take the 2009 Sandra Bullock rom com, The Proposal, Betty White’s memorable appearances are precious.

Even after a distinguished career in comedy, Betty proves that she is an actress of wide range. Simply watch her touching scene in the 2011 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Lost Valentine as a reminder.

Let’s review of some of the secrets to Betty White’s long career:

  • She wasn’t afraid, even in high school, to assert herself.
  • She wasn’t afraid to tell her first two husbands that her desire for a career would not be compromised by having a child or children. She had made up her mind.
  • She has a passion outside of her work, animals. In that respect, she joins a handful of other Hollywood women like Tippi Hedren, Stefanie Powers and Doris Day in putting their time and money where their hearts are. Morris Animal Foundation and the LA Zoo are just two of many organizations she’s supported.
  • SHE IS OVER 90 and Betty is still putting humor to the test. While maintaining her role as Elka Ostrovsky on Hot In Cleveland, Betty also began producing a reality show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. It aired for two seasons on NBC and was picked up by cable’s Lifetime for its third. The show’s premise is a group of seniors playing tricks on people from younger generations, proving true the bumper sticker adage: “Old age and trickery will overcome youth and skill every time.”
  • Hard work and her love of crosswords and domestic and wild animals seems to have kept her mind as vibrant as any 93 year old’s. Impish and still delivering.

To put her age in context, here are names of actresses long passed, who if they were alive today, would STILL be younger than Betty:

  • Judy Garland was 6 months younger than Betty.
  • Marilyn Monroe was 4 ½ years younger than Betty
  • Jean Stapleton of Edith Bunker fame – a year younger
  • Jayne Meadows – who led a TV career very comparable to Betty’s up through the 70s live to the age of 96– passing just this year.
  • Barbara Bel Geddes who had a brilliant career on the silver screen & TV, born the same year as Betty, passed in 2005
  • Brett Somers, game show circuit regular with an earlier career in comedy, born 1924-passed in 2007
  • And another Hollywood townie, Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame, born 11 years after Betty, 1933, passed in 1995.

So many careers cut short, lost to cancer or the demons of show business.

But wait, Betty is still in good company. These octagenarians and septagenarians appear from time to time on the big and small screen. It’s such a sign of respect for significance and tradition that casting decisions include these names:

  • Carol Burnett is 82
  • Angela Lansbury is 89
  • Marion Ross is 87
  • Cloris Leachman, who holds a record for Emmy nominations with Betty, is 89
  • Ruth Buzzi is 78
  • Joan Collins is 82
  • Maggie Smith – Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey is 80
  • Shirley MacLaine – occasional foil for Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey is 81- or at least she is in this life.
  • Debbie Reynolds is 83
  • Shirley Jones is 81
  • Doris Day is 90.

In 2013, Betty White earned the title in The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest career in television. She says she’s the lucky one, for having had the chance to do the work she loves over the course of an entire lifetime.

Advanced TV Herstory says we’re the lucky ones. Betty stepped up when few women wrote and produced TV. At the age of 93, she may lament that audiences have gotten more sophisticated. They’ve seen it all and can deliver the line before she can. Writing is vital to the success of any performance, but with tears of laughter streaming down our faces – Betty’s delivery of so many great lines – as Sue Ann Nivens, Rose Nilund or Elka Ostrovsky, reminds that timing is everything.Life with Elizabeth close

Thank you Betty White.

<Thank you Life with Elizabeth clip >

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory uses interviews found in the 43 minute TV from the year 2000, Betty White, an Intimate Portrait available on YouTube and a 2006 Paley Center interview with Rue McClanahan, Betty White and others from the Golden Girls.

Music you’ve heard comes from – specifically Project 5am’s Wet Ashtray and Ultratech’s Burn It Down Girl

Script editing by Liz Erdmann.

The Closer, Part 1 (Seasons 1-4)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast).

Click to listeln

Click to listen

May I have your attention. Before you go another minute further in this lesson, which I think of as Brenda Leigh Johnson, Evolution of a Leader, PLEASE NOTE this episode will contain spoilers. The evolution of a character, particularly a leader character and LEAD role is just that – the change in demeanor, style and approach that comes through experience.

So, if you aren’t freaked out by spoilers, or are already familiar with the first four seasons of this excellent series, please listen. Critically acclaimed and VERY well written, acted and produced, The Closer is TOTALLY worth viewing.

This installment of Advanced TV Herstory focuses on The Closer’s first four of its seven seasons of production.

Brenda Leigh Johnson is a rare female character in that the series BEGINS with her assuming a leadership role – that of deputy chief within a division of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Throughout TV Herstory, women police personnel – which is to say government employees in a male-dominated field – rarely lead.

We’ll take a look at just what TV glass ceilings “The Closer” broke and how Kyra Sedgwick’s character is as accomplished a role model as TV has ever seen.

Before we can understand Brenda Leigh Johnson’s leadership traits, we need to know a bit about her background. Interesting circumstances and a unique resume bring her to the LAPD. We learn in the first season how her foibles play into her leadership growth. Some seem a little inconsistent and some reveal just a hint of real life, but they all serve as mechanisms to add color to the main plots, which are focused on high-profile crimes.

With that background, we’ll put Deputy Chief Johnson’s record of leading the Priority Homicide Division up to a leadership test, using the standards set forth in The Leadership Challenge. The Leadership Challenge is a popular leadership curriculum developed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner more than 20 years ago, and focuses on five timeless leadership principles. TNT-logoI’ll explain them as we go.

So first, a bit about the show – From 2005 to 2012 cable network TNT aired an original drama entitled “The Closer” which was a reference to the abilities of the main character, Brenda Leigh Johnson – to close a case through interrogation and confession. It aired in 2005, so it’s interesting to note American TV’s fascination with interrogation and suspect handling. We were fresh off 2003’s international Abu Ghraib, in which American Army torture and abuses were revealed. We were beginning to realize the vast skills developed during this long period of international conflict, were now being used by American law enforcement.

The show was standard cable’s highest rated drama. It garnered 66 nominations for recognition of actors, the show itself and production categories. Sedgwick was nominated more than 40 times by major award groups like the Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes and the Emmys. She won:

  • the 2006 Gracie Award for Outstanding Lead in a Drama Series;
  • a 2007 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV Series Drama;
  • 2009’s People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV Drama Diva;
  • an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2010.Kyra-Sedgwick-Emmy

The Closer was written mostly by men and occasionally directed by women. Lead star Sedgwick was also an executive producer of 81 of the total 109 episodes across the seven seasons.

Brenda Leigh Johnson is smart, tough, irascible – and in her 40s. She doesn’t suffer fools lightly. For women across the country who begin feeling invisible at this stage of life, regardless of their qualifications = Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson carries their torch.

Brenda’s flame may have inadvertently lit a fire clear over at a competing show on one of the major broadcast networks. Here’s an interesting timeline:

As The Closer premiered in 2005, Law & Order SVU was entering its 6th Season on NBC. At that time, SVU’s primary character Detective Olivia Benson, played by the phenomenal Mariska Hargitay was still processing cases with her partner and team. Little mention was ever made of her interest in promotion.

By the FINAL episode of “The Closer” in 2013, SVU’s Detective Benson was still a detective – a highly decorated, occasionally admonished risk-taker. It wasn’t until the middle of the 2013-14 season that her own boss, Captain Cragun, played by Dann Florek, announced his retirement, creating the vacancy which ultimately resulted in Benson’s promotion.

Some say that women have a hard time aspiring to and actively pursuing promotion. In her book Lean In (page 63), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes, “Women are more reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing that good job performance will naturally lead to jobs.” She goes on to write that experts in the field call this a ‘Tiara Syndrome’ – where women “’expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.’”

Did Detective Benson suffer from Tiara Syndrome? Did The Closer’s success pressure writers of Law & Order SVU to finally place the highly qualified, hardworking Benson in a leadership role?

If there is ANY connection, then the impact of “The Closer” really DOES cross over from the progressive shows that we’ve come to expect from cable network productions – to male-dominated broadcast networks which in recent years, have minimized the role and promotion of smart women.

<sound effect of breaking glass>

Let’s explore the character of Brenda Leigh Johnson – who at the very least, IS a character.  The

The Closer TV series (2005-2012) starring Kyra Sedgwick -

The Closer TV series (2005-2012) starring Kyra Sedgwick –

resume she brings from Atlanta to the LAPD is that of a CIA-trained interrogator and former detective with the Atlanta Police Department. We learn early on that she’s had a prior relationship with Assistant Chief Will Pope, played by the even-keeled J.K. Simmons.

After what we understand to be a spate of failures involving the LAPD’s handling of high-profile cases (think white Ford Bronco and questions around the chain of custody of a certain former football player’s size 12 ugly ass Bruno Magli shoes) Assistant Chief Pope lobbies for the creation of the Priority Homicide Division with Johnson in mind. The series begins with Johnson walking into the predominantly male though – relatively diverse -workplace known for its internal politics.
<protocol clip>

Brenda Leigh Johnson is a focused professional. That same level of focus and discipline is used to keep the show pointed at the crime-solving plots. Plots don’t delve much into the private lives of the secondary characters. And the few bits we see of Brenda’s personal life are designed to help us understand the origins of her real and perceived shortcomings.

Like so many professional women, she has a difficult time striking a work-life balance. Early in the series when she’s living alone, she talks by phone with her parents who live in Atlanta. Brenda usually winds up rattled, saying something wrong that she later thinks has displeased them. The viewer wonders if the unfulfilled expectations of Brenda come from her parents or herself.

Over time, her wardrobe transitions from mainly sweaters and skirts to a more varied array of suits KSedgwick office setaccented by brightly colored accessories. Early in the series, her shoes appear sensible. By the fourth season she’s in the field in high heels. Slingbacks even. Since the first show featuring the first woman police detective, we’ve always judged their clothing choices for practicality. In an interview, Sedgwick attributes the wardrobe to a conscious choice that Brenda Leigh present as a feminine Southern Belle, a woman from the South in a position of responsibility. Brenda Leigh gets high marks, but I’m skeptical about who made the call about the heels.

Whether as cat owner, girlfriend, fiancée, or wife, Brenda struggles …

<Russ Mitchell Interview, Flaws>

She’s in the prime of her career. Urgent suspect interviews, meetings with the informants, and scouring a crime scene are THE priorities of her life. Fortunately for her, the cat and her boyfriend/fiancée/husband Fritz are both very patient. And, because Fritz is an FBI agent, he not only understands her drive, but occasionally is confronted by the same questions of priorities.

Within what otherwise can be tense, gruesome episodes, light relief occasionally comes at Brenda’s expense and she takes it in stride. In Season One, she’s working hard to get information from a witness – a teen who we know to be autistic.

<Custody of Keith>

Each episode usually holds an ironic, sardonic or quirky bit. Season One treats the viewer to ongoing riff on how difficult it is for someone new to town to navigate in LA without a GPS. As a result, when time is a factor and she needs to be somewhere, she’s either likely to get lost, need explicit directions, or ask someone more familiar with the roadways to drive.

Brenda seems to have an odd relationship with food. < Kyra on eating.> Sedgwick savors every biteKsedgwick desk drawer with the moans of a porn star. Seriously, you can TASTE the chocolate.

One more point about gender, however – in season one she is assaulted by a murder – rape suspect. It’s a reality check in many ways. This IS serious a drama, not a light comedy about a lady with a southern accent. Sedgwick IS on the small side, very fit and yes, appears capable with a gun. But at NO point do we get the sense that she works out much, lifts weights or knows martial arts. This drama’s action is more mental than physical.

It’s refreshing that the writers embedded these quirks and nuances into the character of Brenda Leigh Johnson. They maintain the show’s pace without becoming a distraction from the real plot – much like how we get to know any of our own co-workers. These attributes also mellow her edginess while in – the mode.

As a leadership consultant and adjunct professor on the subject, I’m always on the lookout for real-life examples of people from all walks of life who lead – capably.

Check any bookstore’s business or management section and you’ll find a raft of books on leadership. The Leadership Challenge, written by Robert Kouzes and Barry Posner more than 20 years ago, goes deep into these five basic principles which leaders need to get really good at in order to bring out the best in their team.

First, they must model the way. Yes, be a role model in their personal as well as professional lives.

Second, leaders must inspire a shared vision. In other words, a leader may initiate a vision, but it’s only through the entire team having a stake in it and seeing it as their own work, that the vision becomes a unifying bond.

Third, a leader has to challenge the process – in a sense, see the status quo and opportunities for improvement that will lead the team closer to the goal.

The fourth principle is empowering others to act. Leaders don’t micro-manage, but rather have their followers’ trust, respect the work and knowledge of their followers and are certain that the plan or vision has been communicated to the team.

Finally, according to Kouzes and Posner, a leader must encourage the heart. We do our best when we feel understood, listened to and valued. It’s nice to receive credit when it’s due.

Yes, I realize that strong women characters in TV aren’t REAL-LIFE examples, but every once in a the-closer technology roomwhile, a TV or movie character presents a teachable moment. With a seven-year series like “The Closer,” we’re able to see Deputy Chief Johnson’s character and leadership tested time and again. When viewed through the lens of leadership principles, Brenda’s handling of every episode’s big challenge or situation provides us a really well-executed, teachable moment.

A leadership analysis of The Closer – specifically Brenda Leigh Johnson’s performance – shows growth in team building, assigning work, setting expectations and ultimately winning each seasoned detective over – and all the while?? Improving the division’s performance!

Or, as was said of Ginger Rogers…. She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards – and in high heels.

So, while she’s not a real-life male CEO or Wall Street pariah, Brenda Leigh Johnson of the LAPD measures up well as a leader. Remember, even in TV’s fictionland, she is one of very few women at that level of management. The proof of her success is in the stability and professional performance of her team, while adhering to a bare-bones government budget.

So about those principles of leadership, let’s look at the first, Brenda Leigh as a Role Model.

At this very busy division of the LAPD, Brenda Leigh Johnson works as hard as any of her peers or direct reports. Her team learns of her reputation and record in Atlanta through a Google search of Atlanta news sites.  <Online Atlanta>
Brenda was challenged early to declare her ethical run-ins a thing of the past, yet also model incredible talent. To achieve that, there are many points in her script where she asserts things must be done according to procedure, or she quotes procedure chapter and verse. <video review>

In her role as a strong-willed woman, however, she sometimes knowingly sometimes not, steps over the line of authority, sensitivity or protocol. When she seethes, cornered, accepting criticism from her boss and learning of what constitutes corrective measures, women viewers may share in her frustration, her isolation.

Viewers MUST wonder whether Assistant Chief Pope has given her nine lives in her role as deputy chief. There’s something a bit unrealistic about the lengths to which he goes – to preserve her command – relative to the internal pressures he feels. From the very first episode, we sense from her direct reports and superiors – that her style is counter to the LAPD’s way.

Two, Brenda Leigh, does she have a leader’s vision? In many episodes, she questions Pope or her direct reports about why the Priority Homicide Division has been brought in on a matter. Viewers who work for the government can relate to the constant and unpleasant aspects of budget cuts. She’s conscious of the work load borne by her team, leading them to work smarter for short bursts in order to close cases more rapidly than was done under the old structure.

Brenda’s been made very aware of how expensive overtime is, and she uses it to her benefit to keep the division’s work focused on crimes that fit its service description. However, her expectations for performance are high and for service provided by other county units, timely. Her energy in doing her work speaks to how important, worthwhile, and rewarding she believes it to be.

Because she sets high expectations among her team and holds them accountable to details and closer in uniformstandards, she really garners their trust through the first painful season. <Toast to the Chief>

She returns that trust through celebration and commendation and reminds them that they are a unique unit within a community – Los Angeles – that knows high profile cases and the media’s appetite for them like none other.

Third leadership principle – Brenda Leigh Johnson is a challenger of processes – and it is this strength that I think Pope saw most when he recruited her out of her situation in Atlanta.

First, she brought a CIA-trained interrogation ability to the LAPD. Her team observes her blending of art and science on camera while she’s in the interview room, learns how their work fits into this exercise and has grown more savvy to her thought processes.

She’s taught them over time that an interrogation is not a fishing expedition. Instead, it’s theatre during which – with all your details and assumptions in order – you methodically play your cards to the subject. As Sedgwick told Tavis Smiley in an interview, the Southern accent is its own tool. <Southern accent clip.>

Few suspects can match wits and nerve with Deputy Chief Johnson. They usually confess or disclose without or before the presence of a lawyer, often believing she knows more than she really does. Confession delivered. Case closed – you get the picture.

Few women characters on TV have ever held such strategic and intuitive skills.

Brenda is a thorough listener. She is brought in to the LAPD to change the culture and starts by listening to what her detectives say and how they say it.

She stumbles her way a bit through the first season, but makes the effort every good leader should – to get to know and value – each detective on her team. The most significant outcome of each relationship? Trust. That first season IS hard to watch. I know I certainly cringed every time her style clashed with the team or its existing ways and was amazed that the higher-ups didn’t clamor harder to get rid of her.

Brenda Leigh Johnson’s experience builds her backbone to challenge and change the ways in which her division of the LAPD performs its duties. She tries hard to keep her team out of department politics. She boasts of their success rate and greater community influence when presenting her budget. Whether through creative tactics or new technology, Brenda champions process improvement.

Brenda Leigh Johnson energizes her team for more productivity by empowering them to act and think, which is the fourth leadership principle we’re discussing. In changing a culture that might have previously been competitive, Brenda’s think-out-loud meetings in their squad room builds the team-as-equals approach. By keeping each detective informed about the significant elements of a case, she helps them to see connections and learn from each other. Under Brenda’s leadership style, they rise to a higher proficiency helping solve cases.

Here, Detective Tau collaborates with the chief on unraveling the significance of numbers that were anxiously repeated, over and over, by the autistic teen. <GPS Tracking>Closer-squad-room

But know this! Brenda Leigh Johnson’s no micro-manager! No sir! There’s too much work to be done and it all must be done right the first time, almost immediately. It is important! They as a team – are important! And because she’s assembling the puzzle sometimes in her head and often on the squad room white board, she holds them accountable for their missing pieces. At times they report obstacles to her that result in delays. She praises them for their work-around problem solving and endorses their creative or alternative avenues.

So, over the seven years, we see Brenda grow in leading her team as she’s mastered the fifth leadership principle, valuing them as people,. Similarly, she’s come to value herself as a person, not just the occupant of her job.

Having borne no children and residing now thousands of miles away from her parents, her personal life is fairly private, solitary. That changes over time as her relationship with Fritz intensifies. Further, as she works through trust issues with her detectives and builds the team to a point of high function, she’s also seen them through personal or professional challenges that make these characters real.

She comes to value Provenza’s contributions, his deliberate pace of action, his history in the department. She does everything she can to thwart his talk of retirement… in part by appreciating him and tolerating his sometimes sophomoric remarks.

Brenda encourages the development of Detective Irene Daniels – a subordinate who appears in the first four seasons. Detective Daniels gains greater confidence and asserts herselCloser familyf increasingly over the years. There’s never much overt celebration of sisterhood between them, but rather the camera catches through glance and the body language that Brenda believes in Irene.

Like in so many other long-running procedurals, they DO become a bit of a workplace family. Brenda rises to the role as matriarch in a very emotional scene during which Sanchez is shot by a sniper while protecting Provenza. Detectives fan out to capture the sniper while others, awaiting a police helicopter, provide first aid for Sanchez, who is bleeding badly and is having trouble breathing. We see the three bullets level him. With blood everywhere and Sanchez losing consciousness, Brenda accompanies him to the hospital.

Uff! I get chills just thinking about the energy, the acting…. This is the reason this show is so highly thought of and received SO many awards from a whole host of organizations.

As the show was completing its final season in August of 2012, Sedgwick was interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter.

When asked what she will take away from having played Brenda for so long, Sedgwick responded:

I admire her a great deal. I admire her tenacity. I admire her number-one focus being the people that are gone and who can no longer speak for themselves.

Asked about the notion that The Closer is a breakthrough show for middle-aged women, Sedgwick observed:

I was 39 when The Closer started. It certainly wasn’t intentional for me to have a groundbreaking show. It just happened to be. The idea that I can have anything to do with the possibility of more opportunities for women is wonderful. At the time, I didn’t think big-picture that much. I went where my gut tells me, whether the character seems interesting and where the writing seems good. You take it a day at a time. That’s what we did. Then it became a phenomenon, but you never know that going in.

Kyra Sedgwick, Advanced TV Herstory thanks you for taking it one day at a time and bringing Brenda Leigh Johnson to life. Thank you for surrounding yourself with hundreds of progressive men and women who made the show and Brenda Leigh Johnson so memorable and successful.

The American TV detective show will never be the same.

In a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’ll look at the final three seasons, which contain storylines and challenges more fitting a leader who has evolved to a level of high performance. And in true fashion, Brenda rises to every occasion! Stay tuned!

You’ve heard clips from interviews with Kyra Sedgwick found on YouTube featuring. They include one with Russ Mitchell of CBS News in 2008, Tavis Smiley of the Tavis Smiley Show in 2013 and a 2011 interview at The Paley Center.

Background music is found at You’ve heard Allister Thompson’s The Northern Song and Frozen House’s Listen. Thank you to Grant Abrams for editing assistance. Thanks for listening.

Sports Night (1998-2000)

(Note: This script references, but does not contain audio clips used in the podcast).

Click to listen

Click to listen

TV Herstory is filled with workplace shows that depict women characters at their smart, competent best. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the first to come to mind, but in reality, the show is Mary’s personal life blended with her role as Associate Producer at WJM. At work, Mary is definitely part of an ensemble.

For women characters to stand out in ensemble shows, they need to hit a very high mark. Is she a leader or perhaps the title character? Does the actress bring a knock-out resume or Hollywood credibility that provides those behind the camera, the confidence that golden performances will follow?

For two seasons, from 1998 to 2000, an early Aaron Sorkin show – Sports Night – was a prime time highlight – an intelligent, well-written, occasionally preachy comedy intended as “quality TV.”

It is a show conceived and largely written and produced by men, mostly about men and the sports they cover for a nightly cable sports show also titled Sports Night. BUT, it has an important place in TV Herstory worth exploring.

Three characters – actually three characters who represent the minority of Sports Night’s staff and audience – reveal a 3 part mentor/mentee relationship that is unparalleled in TV.

In this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’re going to look at the special workplace relationships of Isaac Jafee, Dana Whitaker and Natalie Hurley. I’ll provide enough background so you’ll appreciate the full lesson, even if you’ve never seen a single episode.

Sure, we hear a lot about mentoring from our employers and professional associations. In her book, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg goes to great lengths to qualify her definition of the mentor/mentee commitment.

Mentees want mentors so they may gain an edge and learn more. Busy in their own jobs, mentors are not so quick to jump into any extra commitment, the benefits of which are likely intangible.

So while we look at how these three characters managed through 45 episodes, numerous scrapes, corporate challenges and personal dramas, Isaac, Dana and Natalie – a truly unique trio in TV Herstory, capably demonstrate what we know today to be best practices of regular employees who work for companies a bit less high profile than Facebook.

1. So first, a bit of background about these characters and the show.

2. Then, basic tenets of mentor/mentee programs, like what they’re supposed to achieve and why they’re important.

3. Finally, with those standards in mind, we’ll look at how our Sports Night trio showed this in ways otherwise not seen among women in a workplace comedy.


Sports Night’s short life makes it a time capsule show like few others. Its most obvious date stamp? Perhaps the B-roll prominently featuring the Twin Towers at dusk. It was off the air well before September 11, 2001.

1998 depicted the high energy of technological and entertainment thinking that led to the dot com bubble, which eventually burst in the early 2000s. It’s hard not to notice the internet and cell phones with antennas are a novelty in many episodes. Sports Night, the fictional show, was just three years old – the nightly sports highlight show sitting third in the ratings behind similar shows on ESPN and Fox. All the main characters seem to have been hired at the show’s beginning, so we know that the core team was built somewhat by invitation.

But none of them are satisfied with third place.

Isaac Jaffee, played by the incomparable and accomplished Robert Guillaume, is the show’s leader – its managingrobert_guillaume_091214 editor. Isaac brings a 40 year career in reporting in print and TV and was brought in to build the show. He’s almost 30 years older than Dana –which makes him part of the Traditionals Generation. He’s lived through all the advancements in technology that comprise today’s news room and maintains high ethics and journalistic integrity.

Over the 2 seasons, viewers grow to appreciate Isaac’s wisdom, his confidence in taking a stand on the right issue and the role he plays in helping the staff work through personal issues during their long, unpredictable, stressful days.

During the real show’s run, actor Robert Guillaume suffered a mild stroke. Sorkin wrote that event for Isaac into the story arc and it became a turning point for the self-absorbed characters who were forced to grow up a bit. In returning to the show with mild impairment, Guillaume became a national voice for stroke awareness.

Portrayed by actress Felicity Huffman, Dana Whitaker, the fictional show’s producer, filled the role as interim leader when it wasn’t clear Isaac would return to work. Dana entered a period of growth and stress – funny how those two usually go hand in hand. From this breakout role, Huffman, who went on to become a Desperate Housewife.

As executive producer, Dana is responsible for day-to-day operations, with workdays starting at Noon and ending at felicity-huffman_87393Midnight. She’s 33 years old and has a Masters degree in Broadcast Production.

Her vast sports knowledge comes from being raised in a family with six brothers, one of whom now plays pro football. Dana Whitaker is competitive and likely among the first women in her extended family to be living a professional life.

She recounts her hiring at Sports Night as Isaac taking a chance on her and consistently works hard to not only meet Isaac’s expectations, but also her own. In modeling these standards, she keeps the crew pointed toward excellence.

Dana is so committed to her job and its intensity that she sabotages a relationship with Gordon and denies herself one with Casey. Despite this, she intimates at one point that she fears never getting married.

She doesn’t have much contact with her family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and worries that she cannot live up to her mother’s expectations of cooking her first big Thanksgiving meal when her family plans a visit to Manhattan.

Dana is a complex, competitive woman who represents the tail end of the Baby Boom. She knows first hand the mechanics of her industry, dictating precise orders, changing plans on the fly and trying hard to maintain her professionalism.

Though it’s never really articulated or formalized, Natalie Hurley, age 27 played by Sabrina Lloyd, is Dana Whitaker’s mentee. This relationship is at a different career stage than the mentor/mentee connection Isaac and Dana share, but together, they represent advancement toward next goals and opportunities.

Natalie has been hired as Sports Night’s Senior Associate Producer. She manages a few direct reports and each Sabrina_lloydtaping of Sports Night she’s in the control room next to Dana, highly capable in handling her responsibilities and taking on more as Dana directs them.

Natalie is smart and talented. She’s hard working and direct. As a Gen Xer, that directness is partly the desire to get the job done so she can have a life outside of work. In the first episode, she interviews and hires Jeremy as an associate producer. Their romantic relationship lasts through most of the show’s run and provides challenges and lessons for personal growth she’s otherwise not getting from work.

As a graduate of the prestigious Northwestern University Journalism program, Natalie tries in one episode to guide her career toward being on-camera talent. After being told she’s not ready for that yet, she continues to garner high marks in her current role. At the start of season 2, we learn Natalie was offered an on-camera job in Galveston, Texas but turned it down, in part out of consideration for her relationship with Jeremy.

Talented? Marketable? Yes. Conflicted about work-life balance? Yes, and when there’s handwriting on the wall that the show may be cancelled, Natalie applies for a studio producer job with Saturday Night Live. She nails the interview and declines a job offer that includes more pay. It seems a bit out of character that she wouldn’t have jumped at that job. If I recall, SNL in 2000 was finally on the upswing as Tina Fey was not only writing but also doing sketch work.

Jeremy’s supportive words and Natalie’s response demonstrate a strong, trusting relationship. From this, Natalie weighs her own ambition, with sacrifices necessary to build a life with Jeremy.

Natalie loves her job. Dana loves her job. Isaac treasures every day in his role, which he views with an eye to all the history he’s lived and will never see unfold.

Mentor/Mentee Programs

So, ask someone the question, “what was the best part about your best job?” and you SHOULD get people in the answer.

And while the workplace is filled with formal and informal relationships, the special connection between a mentor and mentee can be life-changing. Yes, it’s more work to take someone under your wing, but most who commit to the effort will say that they receive as much as they give.

These relationships are about personal growth. A mentor guides, trains, advises, and promotes the career development of her mentee – though this can take place within an organization, within a field, or among people who have nothing professional in common but are willing to work through growth.

In selecting a mentee, a mentor generally looks for someone whose values and performance standards align with her own. From there, as advisor, a mentor may present challenges to spur growth or mastery, may coach so as to improve problem solving and strategic visioning, may serve as a promoter of the up and comer – opening up her network as an extension of her own confidence.

Along the way, a mentor looks for teachable moments in important growth areas of role modeling, ethics, interpersonal skills and boundaries.

Successful mentees live up to a commitment of sustained energy and focus. The efforts that results in their progress need to be recognized. When the journalistic code of ethics enters into a few Sports Night plots, the characters unite to a professional standard and common bond. At those moments, we the audience witness the moral and ethical maturity of our main characters.

Sports Night relationships are not so much a part of a formal program, as they are apprenticing. There was no application and selection process to bring each pair together. But in knowing the learning curve and amount of hard work necessary to build a successful show on a new network, Isaac hired Dana and Dana hired Natalie. They knew this team could be competitive.

It’s impossible to watch this show and NOT appreciate the incredibly fast paced, complex layering that goes into live broadcast production. Forget your own industry acronyms, this team has full knowledge of operational shorthand that’s contained in orders barked out with expectation of full and immediate attention.

Sports Night’s Examples

So, with Dana in the role of mentor AND mentee, we relate to her as she grows in these areas:

  • leading people,
  • handling technical issues of production,
  • staying abreast of the increasing amount of sports information
  • maintaining high standards around time management and daily deadlines
  • managing a budget
  • and navigating office and network politics – a tremendous challenge for new managers and leaders.

With all this on Dana’s shoulders, it’s in Isaac’s best interest to stay close to her, guide her development, serve as a resource.

Actually, there was a moment when Isaac’s intentions about Dana’s growth came to the conversation. In Episode 12, a few months before Guillaume’s real life stroke, Isaac tells Dana he wants to start grooming her. He’s worried that he might be swept up in budget cuts and encourages her to start attending monthly luncheons and budget meetings.

Similarly, Natalie’s growth is best tended by Dana, even if that means melding her mentor role with close friendship. That’s a reality with 12 hour workdays, and Natalie doesn’t have much of a life beyond work. More importantly, Natalie is next-in-command and needs to be ready to assume that role on short notice.

Here are a few examples of how these mentoring moments played out.

When someone from the crew is called into Isaac’s office, Dana is there either by instinct or invitation. She keeps herself at the center of things and Isaac facilitates that.

Episode 5 is a poses the moral question of doing the right thing with doing what’s best for the show. Dana lands a big interview with pro football player who has been convicted of sexual assault. She sends Natalie to conduct the pre-interview in the stadium locker room the day before he’s scheduled to be on the show.

The football player exposes himself and physically gets rough with Natalie. There’s an ongoing drama about filing charges, not filing charges, leveraging the act of not filing charges as a way to improve the boundaries of the interview – all in the name of achieving better ratings.

Dana wrestles with the options, later admitting …

Natalie is upset that decisions are being made without her input, that she’s just a pawn. Initially Dana throws Natalie under the bus but in the 11th hour, changes course and supports Natalie in her belief that for all of women in sports broadcasting, she should file charges against the football player.

Yes, this IS a comedy.

There are a number of story arcs in which trust is a big factor. They include a love square – that’s right – one pointSports Night DVD box bigger than a love triangle featuring Dana, SportsNight anchor and old friend Casey McCall, Dana’s boyfriend Gordon and the producer of the west coast update, Sally Sasser. Dana and Sally, to say the least, are competitors.

Trust, truth telling, squaring up with the truth – there’s a lot of ethical consideration into maintaining integrity in this workplace.

On numerous occasions, information Isaac shares with Dana is immediately revealed to Natalie once Dana steps into the hallway. Is this a judgment call about why maintaining secrecy is or isn’t important? Is Dana at a more competitive point in her career (and safe enough in her own role) that the information holds a value that needs to be acted upon?

Natalie, we learn, is an inexperienced leak and her judgment never improves.

Natalie and Dana share many personal details and prop each other up through numerous love spats and moments of anger or confusion. However, Natalie is much more forthcoming and transparent. She’ll share and doesn’t question whether it’s professional or not. We can imagine that Dana’s first jobs were in environments with older staff members who would have labeled her unprofessional.

On occasion Natalie shines brilliantly, running the show in Dana’s absence. The episode “Small Town” was nominated for a host of awards.

The plot: On the eve of the Major League baseball trading deadline and the newsroom was filled with interest about last minute moves. Natalie uses street smarts and brings the best out of the team in gaining an exclusive about a 7-player trade. She does so while running the control room and getting the trade news officially confirmed. Dana sees it on a TV and beams with pride.

Dana’s focus on “what’s good for the show” is revealed in her getting more savvy in her relations with the network. With Isaac on leave, the network wants her to delegate some of her responsibilities to Sally Sasser, not Natalie. Dana initially resists but decides that’s not a fight to wage. Even as a mentor, she recognized that there may be times when NOT promoting her protégé is in the best interest of the network.

In season 2, when Natalie pressures Jeremy to fire a writer’s assistant who is only employed because he’s related to someone high up in the network, Jeremy resists. He asserts it’s not worth making things worse with the network. Natalie stresses that the assistant’s poor performance reflects poorly on the crew and show. She goes on to proclaim that the decisions she makes are out of loyalty to Isaac, loyalty to Dana and loyalty to the show.

Episode 23 represents one of the most stressful days in Dana’s career. Her personal life is in a shambles. To distract herself, Dana decides to buy an expensive, sophisticated camera equipment package and learn photography. She’s embarrassed when she can’t get the components and timer synched to take a staff photo.

Turns out the film was in upside down.

Moments later, when she yells in frustration that she just wants one thing to go right, Isaac walks into office for the first time since his stroke. It’s one of Sports Night’s most emotional moments, in real life as well as on screen.

Advanced TV Herstory seeks out any good performance when a woman character vents about personal or professional frustrations or, perhaps more importantly, speak passionately of how much they really love their jobs.

ABC dropped Sports Night after two seasons. In the final episode, viewers are led to believe the fictional show will go on, in the hands of new network ownership.

For all the mentoring and succession planning, the show ends only with a plan for tomorrow, not the long term. We don’t know when Isaac retires from full time work. Dana is in the prime of her career and seems thrilled that the new owner is as competitive as she is – and finds her to be highly competent.

And Natalie? How long would she serve as Dana’s right hand?

This crew was on the wave of great change, some coming from an industry ripe for disruption from technology and realties caused by mergers and acquisitions. In the fall of 2001, the world changed … and the dot com bubble brought a new landscape. Investors were incredibly business savvy and required better business plans from every new venture.

In 2015, we can look at this time capsule show and appreciate how far we’ve come in recent herstory.

Dana would be 50, Natalie 45 – they should be leading more good teams. Wouldn’t it be great to see the fruits of these memorable mentoring relationships borne out in a whole new show? A show that proves hard work, intelligence and integrity still mean something? A show that plugs another generation into the front line of producing today’s daily TV show, emboldens Dana and Natalie to leverage their best “for the good of the show…”


Allister Thompson’s The Northern Song
Frozen House’s Listen

Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-79)

(Note, this script contains references, but not links, to audio clips contained in the podcast.)

Click to listen

Click to listen

Where would women in TV be today without our lady detectives?

Today we’re going to look at Nancy Drew and her enigmatic mystery – you know the one of why Dead body on bricks color smallthe TV show from 1977 to 1979 was so BAD and forgettable. Because 50+ Nancy Drew mysteries books were written before the advent & availability of television, our favorite girl sleuth set the stage for so many memorable characters – – like Pepper Anderson of Police Woman, Christine Cagney & MaryBeth Lacey & Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher.

We’ll explore what went wrong by looking at these factors:

  • A main legendary character who didn’t transfer well to the screen;
  • Writing and plot development that should have caused the writers to be fired;
  • And finally, a poorly timed entry into a TV environment that celebrated women’s independence, risk taking and intelligence.

Why didn’t a character as well developed as the inimitable, beloved Nancy Drew come alive?

Compared with Hardy Boys plots, Nancy Drew episodes were – in a word – painful. They were overly simplistic and didn’t relate AT ALL to its target audience – teen girls. It was that criticism that prompted star Pamela Sue Martin to quit the show in the middle of Season Two. Replaced for the show’s final three episodes by Janet Louise Johnson, Martin got the last word, of sorts, by posing for Playboy, trenchcoat and fedora – in hand and revealing her – uh – story.

Sure Hardy Boys stars Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy measuring HOT on the Hearthrob meter in 1977. Nancy Drew’s target audience – 13 year old girls – wasn’t exactly fluent in critical thinking – as feminists. Some may have wanted to match wits with Nancy Drew and maybe had their moms beside them on the couch. Others only tuned in for Shaun Cassidy, tight pants and all, and this week’s edition of Tiger Beat come alive on the small screen. Nielsen ratings show that when given the choice, more viewers were watching Frank & Joe Hardy. The Hardy Boys were renewed for a third season. Nancy Drew stopped at two.

About those limits Pamela Sue referred to…

It’s difficult for the Nancy Drew Mysteries to fit into the timeline of strong women roles in TV. This one is disappointing because a title character series with great content DNA from well-known book plots feels like it never made it out of the gate. In that respect, it suffered – almost to a T – the same fate as the movies from the late 30s which starred Bonita Granville as Nancy.

The backstory of the women and man behind the collection of books is its own drama.

We can wring our hands about how Nancy has never been successfully brought to the screen, but what does that get us? Instead, it’s important to understand that Nancy the Brand, the Series as Franchise – was nursed and nurtured through the years.

Read Melanie Rehak’s 2005 history of this publishing legend entitled Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. It’s published by Harcourt.

In her book, Author Melanie Rehak tells the grand story of the series origins, the syndicate of ghostwriters who consistently churned out content and were paid per manuscript. To be a writer for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, perhaps the most successful ever, meant that a writer like Mildred Augustine Wirt waived any credit or public rights of authorship, as well as compensation that was only limited to the per-manuscript fee… no royalties. Who knew what a cash cow the Nancy Drew AND Hardy Boys series would become for more than 50 years, spanning the middle of the 20th century!

The Nancy Drew Brand parameters emerged early on, from her founders:

  • Nancy Drew would never marry.
  • She would never get involved in a serious romantic relationship.
  • Her plots would also lack a strong mother figure in order to feature her problem solving more prominently and; LOVE THIS ONE…
  • She would never be faced with money worries.

In 1938 Warner Brothers purchased Nancy Drew’s movie rights (ALL rights – with no time limits) from the Stratemeyer syndicate. Bonita Granville starred in the film, entitled Nancy Drew: Detective. As you can imagine, critics paid close attention to the transfer of this hot property to the silver screen. They found flaws. The films never matched the book series’ popularity.

Rehak in her book writes “In general, everyone talks down to Nancy.” Amazingly, that same criticism could be made of the characters in the TV series, some 40 years later.

Given the brand parameters, it just proved too difficult to fast-forward Nancy 40 years & parachute her into the mid-1970s.

In the books’ time period that precedes Title IX, the ERA and Vietnam, Nancy Drew’s self-confidence was developed from within, not from society. That is a powerful message that should NOT be lost on today’s young woman or TV show runner. It has to be a great challenge to depict that confidence within – celebrated and understood by every reader – onto the screen. Maybe this is why the character never succeeded beyond the limits of the imagination

So in hindsight, maybe Nancy should have stayed frozen in time – in the 30s – as a period series set in the 30s with all the attendant plots, fashion and visuals… similar to how the Wonder Woman Series starring Lynda Carter was set in World War 2.

** **
Ingredient for failure Number Two:
It takes pretty bad writers and producers to develop inane plots and dialogue, particularly when delivered the Nancy Drew adventures on a silver platter. The popularity and expanse of the book series drove great expectation when the show aired from 1977 to 1979. The much anticipated show disappointed in many ways – so much so that it prompted the star Pamela Sue Martin to quit the show.

Let’s review the details. The year was 1977. If you were a girl looking for a TV show you could relate to – that wasn’t a western or about war or a male homicide detective – then you probably waited patiently each week for the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries to come on.

But for girls looking for exploits of their peer Nancy Drew, they had to wait patiently another week, for while the shows were billed as parity The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries really was about two-thirds Hardy Boys, and the remaining shows were either Nancy Drew Shows or featured them all together. In season 2, they met for the first time in Paris and traveled to Transylvania to find Mr. Hardy. So this is an example where 2-part segment was billed as a Hardy Boys Mystery with Pamela Sue Martin guest starring as Nancy Drew.

Well into the modern women’s movement, the Nancy Drew series should have been the logical springboard to her 21st century peer – namely Veronica Mars. Nancy’s name comes up every once in a while in Veronica’s dialogue.

Nancy Drew, in all her books and Veronica, in her many seasons, hold their own as teen detectives against a host of bad guys and dangerous situations. They’re forces of good! And positive! And polite!

That’s why it’s so frustrating that the renowned, respected and popular Nancy Drew series never got a fighting chance. One look at Nancy Drew Season Two plot summaries reveals a certain lightness in plot and setting. The first was Nancy crossing paths with an old High School classmate played by Maureen McCormick. Yes, Marcia, Marcia, Marcia. In this episode, Maureen plays an emerging tennis star who is known by her father and coach to be a kleptomaniac. Nancy ends up shadowing Maureen, at Maureen’s father’s request, to keep her out of trouble and return stolen goods.

This is why I don’t read fiction.

Nancy’s initial cover is blown right out of the gate. Under cover as a sports writer, Nancy was supposed to hang out at the Las Vegas hotel and track the tennis tournament, in which Maureen McCormick’s character was a player. BUT, Nancy is introduced to a man who just happens to claim to know pretty much every sports writer in the market. So when she is asked the reason of her Las Vegas stay, she makes up that she’s the girlfriend of tennis player Sandy Castelli.

The plot of Nancy Drew’s Love Match – yes, that’s the title – never really gets off the ground. The mystery draws to a close and the guy originally hired to track Maureen’s character is revealed to be a thief as well. Imagine the lessons a gullible teenage girl of the day might read into this epilogue! Maureen confesses that while she won the tennis trophy she also has a problem – kleptomania. Nope, a woman character can’t just walk away a winner, there HAS to be something wrong with her.

The authorities give Nancy modest credit for unraveling all the details. But, just as they are celebrating the tennis tournament win, tennis player Sandy Castelli approaches Nancy and asks her out to dinner. Oh yes, we giddily shift from Nancy’s strength as a sleuth to her needing to prepare to dine with an older man. Isn’t the dinner date REALLY what’s more important?

The second plot from the second season – and I won’t go any further because I think we’re all smart enough to see a trend – is the episode called Will the Real Santa Claus… Rick Springfield is a Heart Throb guest star who makes it clear he’s looking out for Nancy.
By 1978, female detectives were not being saved by would-be boyfriends who just happen to be lingering. That held true in the days of the Mod Squad, which aired 1968-73 and positioned Julie Barnes, played by Peggy Lipton alongside Linc Hayes, played by Clarence Williams the Third and Michael Cole’s Pete Cochran.

In the late 60s TV and into the early 70s, a woman in danger was likely to be saved by a man. When did that change? Oh, in about 1976 when a trio of trained police officers turned private detectives emerged on the scene, Jill Monroe could count on Sabrina Duncan and Kelly Garrett to have her back. Charlie’s Angels demonstrated that in numbers, women can watch out for each other. As the saying goes, there’s no “I” in team, but in the case of Charlie’s Angels, there’s always good hair.

I digress.

Back to Rick Springfield saving Nancy’s life in the clip – well not really because the police were about 5 seconds behind him. Seriously, did the Nancy Drew production team bother to read the trade magazines or watch a few of the shows that were consistently in the Top 10?

This was EXACTLY the plot & character laziness Martin lamented in her July 1978 Playboy PSMartin mag coverMagazine interview.

I don’t consider the series a particular achievement. Obviously it has certain limitations. Nancy Drew never cried or experienced an inordinate amount of pain. There was never any tragedy or extreme emotion. Never a kissing scene or any sign that she would indulge with the opposite sex. – Pamela Sue Martin went on to recall… A big moment for her was coming across an old skeleton in a dungeon and screaming. Or being attacked by a bat in Transylvania. Some of it was so bad, I found myself cringing.

But for all its shortcomings, it’s still worth watching if you ever get a chance… Here’s why.

A few redeeming points to the show come in the form of Nancy Drew herself.

Remember in the books how she drove a blue convertible? True to form, TV Nancy drives a light blue Mustang. Not a convertible, but pretty snappy.

So yeah, girls and moms were probably traumatized by the plots too. But, Pamela Sue Martin’s wardrobe and hair is a fashion time capsule – no doubt the best part of watching the DVDs today. Nancy had an outfit for every occasion and really looked the part of a professional woman of the day, even 23 years old. Dresses, skirts, jackets and scarves, winter coats, trench coats. HMMM! Nancy Drew appears credible and well organized in every scene.

In her appearance in Transylvania with the Hardy Boys, Nancy shared more details, made more phone calls and put more clues together than the Hardy Boys did. Considering they supposed to be sleuths too, Nancy definitely was over-achieving.

Which maybe is why it’s so AMAZING that most of the characters in the Nancy Drew Mysteries are men who come across as threatened, arrogant and short tempered. And the lion’s share of speaking-role characters from both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew shows were men.

Ranging in ages from 35 to 55, these male characters usually wore suits, except for the REAL characters who wore large-print shirts with plaid sport coats. There was a preponderance of receding hairlines, comb-overs and toupees. Were these characters supposed to be this simplistic? Or was this just B-grade creep talent from central casting.

Maybe, just maybe, some sick writer thought it important to subvert the emerging power of womanhood with a reminder of who REALLY controls things in real life. What is this, a meritocracy? Look for clues and be prepared? Poise from a young woman that achieves the goal without ever having to raise her voice? HA! We must stop that girl before she’s onto us! – or maybe the writers weren’t smart enough to embed subliminal messages in the script. They were just sexist and scared.

One wonderful contrast to those jokers though, was Nancy’s dad, Mr. Carson Drew. Mr Drew was an attorney who relied on Nancy to investigate for his cases and was played by William Schallert. Nancy’s relationship with her father was grounded in respect, HE treated her like an adult.

Insert FILES clip

If that voice and calm demeanor seems familiar, you may recognize William Schallert from his PSMartin, WSchallertrole as as Martin Lane – Patty’s dad and Cathy’s uncle on the Patty Duke Show. Love, love, love William Schallert – in addition to his father duties on Patty Duke) he was dad to the New Gidget the 1986 to 1988 TV show by the same name. Schallert just seemed to be the kind of dad who had the good sense to let his daughter be herself and test her limits.

The third ingredient in this sad story we’ll just title Nancy Drew and the Love Hate Relationship with the Women’s Movement

Some say that Nancy’s power for the reader is founded in the reader’s imagination. Everyone has a different idea of what she looks like, how she sounds – perhaps with an uncanny resemblance to the reader herself.

We could devote hours to the post mortem of the TV show. Author Rehak asserts it maybe just couldn’t compete alongside Charlie’s Angels. Even the tamer Mary Tyler Moore was bringing her own 30 minute show to a close. Women were evolving at a pretty good clip and the Nancy Brand – 5 decades in the making – presented a thick cloak.

And within the context of pop culture of the day, I am not sure that the Nancy Brand and conservative rules about boys and money could have succeeded even with new writers and better hair for the male supporting actors.

Think back to 1978 – The Eagles released Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album – the Baby Boom was formatting 5 x 5 floppy disks of our life – – literally changing the world with everything it touched. Late teens and early 20-somethings were buying, which meant that younger teens were listening. With few options for radio and TV, we all were entertained and informed from the same sources.

Young Americans were more sophisticated than the Nancy Drew Series writers expected them to be. They had lived through Watergate, the first test-tube baby was born in London and on the tennis court, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert showed the world that women could compete and win – with no caveat of weakness.

It just seems nearly impossible, thinking back to that year, to have come up with a series that would have done justice to the Nancy Drew that your mom and grandma read faithfully in the books, who could also hold her own in the windswept 70s.

Yet in the absence of Nancy Drew, do we ever get Jessica Fletcher? Even for women & men who never read a single chapter, Nancy Drew, the girl sleuth, is a shared American experience. She embraced her own confidence and belief in right & wrong. She set a high bar for our fictional TV detectives, and their imaginative creators who followed. Maybe it’s a good thing the show is nearly forgotten.

Now here’s my postscript that serves as a reminder of the kind of pride and hard work that went into the Nancy Drew series.

In a cat fight worthy of Fallon Carrington Colby the show’s run opened the old question of thedynasty PSMartin identity of Nancy’s creator. (For listeners too young to recognize that name, Nancy Drew actress Pamela Sue Martin’s next and last big role came in Dynasty, playing Fallon Carrington Colby. Saucy AND sassy.)

So, remember the code of silence… those confidentiality agreements that the Stratemeyer Syndicate forced its writers to sign? Well upon the TV show’s resurrection, the Nancy Drew Series success story again caught America’s interest. Syndicate president Harriet Adams claimed sole credit so boldly that you’d think she was practically writing the first outlines – which were really the work of her father – from her high school desk.

Not to be silenced by a woman who SO did not deserve such credit, Mildred Augustine Wirt crawled out from behind her confidentiality agreements and late in life, was celebrated for her years of writing… of this series and others. Lawsuits, pride, who revealed what in decades’ old correspondence? Harriet & Mildred were very tough ladies and together lived a story that in itself is worth a shot at the silver or small screen. Yellow suits, big shoulder pads, mud… this really should have been a great plot for Dynasty!

You’ve been listening to Advanced TV Herstory and why the legendary Nancy Drew never became a small or big screen heroine.

More information about Melanie Rehak’s book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her can be found at her website and Pamela Sue Martin has archived the Playboy interview on her website

Thanks for listening. I’m Cynthia Bemis Abrams


Basic TV Herstory

To fully grasp the role of women in TV shows – both in front of the camera and behind, let’s refresh our memory

of what else was going on in recent American history. Remember, TV is the medium that today more than ever, can turn in an instant. Or almost an instant.

In researching how old shows connect to recent ones, or how a hardworking writer on a mostly male production went on to breathe life and art into shows that feature and appeal to women – I am reminded that the entertainment industry was merely one flipper in the pinball machine we think of as America.

That’s never more evident or painful, than when you’re surfing for a show and come across something from the 60s or 70s that pretty much kept the women characters in their places…. If there even were women characters.
And if today you’re looking at the major network broadcast schedule, that same pain, that wince – might creep back. Because for every award winning show like Homeland, of today, we have Two Broke Girls – or The McCarthys. There is so much talent in entertainment today. No question. And women have more power than ever to finance and produce.

So to question the old cigarette commercial tagline, “HAVE we come a long way, baby?”

Advanced TV Herstory proudly answers yes and no. Thus, listeners will encounter segments that are truly celebratory. And then there will be teachable moments when we dig in and do a post mortem – maybe we can ask cracker jack fictional medical examiners Doctors Maura Isles, Megan Hunt or Melinda Warner for some assistance. As women over 40, they role model scientific competence and ethics that our girls need to see.

Our first big memory of a woman having influence over TV is the inimitable presence of Lucille Ball – who had risen from from B-grade actress to pioneer of the small screen. I Love Lucy, produced by Desilu Productions, reigned throughout the 50s and charted too many “firsts” to count.

But as Lucy and Ethel were yucking it up on screen, the girls of the baby boom, who were born starting in the year 1946, started making their presence felt. America’s postwar economy was strong, as technology and pent up demand for goods – the sacrifice of World War Two – changed the American household.

  • From 1957 – 1960 “The Pill” was tested and approved by the FDA.
  • Mattel’s Barbie appeared on toy shelves in 1961
  • Carole King, writing songs as an 18 year old married mother of one, wrote Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Connect the dots of the role birth control was playing in the modern relationship and you can feel the force of the women’s movement on the march.
  • In 1963, Betty Friedan had published the Feminine Mystique and two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down old laws that prevented of contraceptive use by married couples.

Where does Lucy fit into this? Throughout the 50s and into the 60s, the company she formed with husband Desi Arnaz – Desilu, was producing shows and investing in technology Desilu-lucydesi1957and business models (think something as simple as commercials targeted to the audience) to monetize TV as entertainment.

Desilu brought us Star Trek and The Untouchables – but also Our Miss Brooks (title role played by the wonderfully droll Eve Arden), The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour (setting the stage for variety shows of the 60s), The Ann Sothern Show (a sitcom in which actress Ann Sothern plays the super competent assistant to a bumbling manager of a swanky hotel). The Dick Van Dyke Show (which brought us Mary Tyler Moore – another pioneer who will be the subject of a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory), That Girl and Mannix. Mannix, which aired from 1967-75 was novel in that his assistant was played by Gail Fisher, an African American, in a serious, intelligent role.

Desilu was the 2nd largest independent television production company in the U.S. up until 1962 and remained the #1 independent production company until its sale in 1967. Over the years and amid divorce, Lucy bought Desi out and led the company . She eventually sold it to Gulf+Western in 1967, and it became known as Paramount Television – a closing logo you’ve seen many times.

Lucille Ball wielded clout in production, distribution and network decisions. So in the late 60s, when bras burned and women with college degrees were just 10% of the workforce (now we’re well past 40%), Lucille Ball aged into her late 50s and times were changing.

Which shows are the next big milestones of change? Julia, starring Diahann Carroll in 1968? All in the Family and its frank conversations about social change, which started in 1971? We know that Norman Lear’s critically acclaimed show certainly had an impact on how women characters were depicted – Edith was far deeper and wiser than she often appeared. Sally Struthers as Archie and Edith’s daughter Gloria Stivic opened wounds that Lear felt America needed to stare into and heal.diahann carroll

And the Bunker’s living room chairs introduced us to these women who would go on to star in their own spin offs – Maude Findley, played by Bea Arthur, Isabel Sanford as Louise Jefferson, and Esther Rolle as Florida Evans.

By the early 70s, major headlines in the progression of women in American life were being made frequently and because there were only three TV stations, everyone paid attention.

1972 was the year President Richard Nixon sought re-election. Helen Reddy delivered us 3 minutes and 4 seconds of pure inspiration in her single I Am Woman. Why? Because that year the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress & was sent to state legislatures for ratification. Its momentum was slowed by conservative voices like Phyllis Shlafly’s. The date by which ratification was allowed was extended to 1982. Thirty eight states were in and 12 stayed aloof. It failed.

But another landmark action came from the Nixon Administration in 1972 – the passage of Title IX – which I maintain is a major dividing line in the experience of Baby Boom women. It has to do with the provision of access to educational opportunities – like athletics, facilities and classes.

It reads: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Finally, girls were able to get serious about taking advanced science and math classes, or playing basketball or organizing a gymnastics team without having to raise hell and be labeled a troublemaker. Without Title IX, the immense interest in women’s tennis through the 70s and early 80s would never have happened. But what have we learned about our competitive spirit and how men see it? Where do sports fit into the female TV experience? Given the coverage of women athletes compared to their mail counterparts, it doesn’t feel like we’ve come a long way… Baby.

But, without Title IX, would we have three women medical examiners (which some would say is still too few) on TV screens 40 years later?

Women were entering the workforce right out of college and pushing the glass ceiling wherever they could. Between contraception and the law of the land under Roe V. Wade, pregnancy was no longer a career death knell or risk of a relationship that maybe wasn’t destined for marriage.

Some of the early depictions on TV seem so simple, so obvious, so painfully shallow. They feel as though they were characters developed by men, written by men and promoted by men. While that may be true, those roles and industry relationships created new opportunities. These are the connections I will bring forward in Advanced TV Herstory.

This is more than pop culture, this is art. This is business, marketing and politics. It’s the fabric of the female experience in America.

And we are our storytellers. We are the herstorians. TV – whether it’s a show you watched as a 10-year old or you saw for the first time on a Netflix binge – is a profoundly powerful medium. As we prepare a new generation of young women to fight for opportunities, rights and justice, it’s time we take this decades’ rich body of work seriously and tell the story.

And appreciate the hair.
And celebrate the humor.
And applaud the courage.

Personal Branding: One Rocker’s Legacy

A visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is a humbling fan experience, one that leaves you craving additions to your record collection. The museum’s curators dig deep in the stacks and fill in gaps of time forgotten by today’s oldies radio formats and programmers, respectfully showcasing the work of blues and gospel pioneers.

In this museum, rock and roll apparel finally gets its due. Touring 15 display areas dedicated to stage attire of some musical greats, stand in front of the James Brown ensembles, glance over at Prince’s and connect the fashion dots. The Supremes, Beach Boys, ZZ Top and Jimi Hendrix, it’s all real – as fascinating as the music itself.

The Stevie Nicks display stopped me in my tracks. I’m a longtime fan, intrigued by Stevie’s authentic look. I snapped these photos and have asked Rocker Fashion Genius Ann Rosenquist Fee to join me in discerning the ingredients of a look that has become one of the most successful examples of personal branding by an artist.

Cynthia: Stevie’s career started in the early 1970s and thus began her fashion choices. She turned 65 on Sunday, May 26, 2013, meaning her consistency has now spanned nearly 50 years. When I think about “frontwomen” who preceded Stevie, Diana Ross, Cass Elliot and Grace Slick come to mind. Men of that vintage include Mick Jagger, David Lee Roth and Bruce Springsteen. Does “the look” come to the front performer or does the front performer grow into the look?

Ann: Are you sure Stevie’s fashion choices corresponded with the start of her career? Because when I look at these shapes and textures, and think about the absolute ownership with which she wore stuff like this, I think, this is a person who probably wore tight-loose-tight-loose fringe and peplums in grade school. Or something close. This look is a need, not a construct. If that’s true – and the Internet won’t tell me if it is, how disappointing – then I would say front-performer status is a natural byproduct of “the look.”

Cynthia: Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac a few years after its formation. Their arrival as a duo was contractual, relational and stylistic. Over time, Stevie and the other female band member, Christine McVie, got along well and established distinct roles. Specifically, the older, married, British McVie became the secondary female vocalist whose stage presence was largely behind a keyboard or accordion. Her fashion morphed from her early days of prints and layered blouses to concert-wear that featured solid color tailored jackets with either a shell or white colored blouse underneath. Ann, are fans guilty of over-analyzing the strategy behind concert and performing apparel decisions?

Ann: I can’t answer that right this second because I’m busy clenching with envy about these boots. I didn’t realize until just now that these are the boots I’m always seeking at Goodwill or on Ebay or wherever. This is exactly what I need for singing, flesh-colored suede platforms, and not because of how they look – although they look perfect, just perfect – but because of how I know it would feel to sing in boots like this. I have some kind-of-similar black ones but they’re not the same because the black is too heavy, too distracting. Peachy brown is just right because it’s almost my leg, then, just with a hoof on the bottom. The hoof/heel makes you aware of your ribcage, standing there, and I think that helps the breath. It creates a different feel than a foot alone if you tap in any way to the beat. Obviously, Stevie knew that, or her costumers did, and they built up from there, and I think that’s why the whole shape works. The boots are what the soles of her feet require in order to move and sing the way she does. The skirt and its layers and angles move just right atop those boots. And we go from there. And I imagine Christine’s choices evolved accordingly, to that of a foil, a foundation, a set of layering pieces that became a layering piece for the band. So no. I don’t think over-analyzing is a problem.

Cynthia: Since the start of her career, Stevie’s worked hard to be authentic in her songwriting and style. In an interview from 1982 she revealed, “The clothes I wear… that doesn’t change. I love long dresses. I love velvet. I love high boots. I never change. I’m not a fad person. I still have everything I had then. That’s one part of me…that’s where my songs come from.” But fifty years of only modestly evolving your look might seem tedious. Should I remain true to my look at the risk of not looking like I’ve been in a store in five years?

Ann: If your look is built on the shapes and colors that love your particular form, and vice versa, then hell yes, remain true to those. Forget stores and their cycles. They don’t care about you, they really don’t, because if the trend is “red,” no sales person is going to care that you, my natural-redhead-friend Cynthia, would look garish in the season’s best. The store would have you think red is your thing, when in fact, red competes with your thing, it cheapens it, it throws everything off balance and looks as unconvincing as would Christine in platform boots and ruffles. Stevie’s fashion truth is suede hooves, faerie-queen textures and bias-cut layers upon layers made to be blown by a wind machine. These make up the perfect visual complement to her voice, which is the thing, the core. You, Cynthia, have a tailored core, with high notes of clarity that demand certain degrees of wool and silk and blue. I think it would upset the natural order of things to deny that. OK with me if you buy a fringe purse or some strappy shoes or whatever but just contain your whims to the accessories. Stay true to the rest.

Ann: Seriously. I’m so frustrated now. I just took a thirty-minute writing break to check Zappos, and Ebay for something like this. Did she copyright them? I see that there were multiple pairs here at the museum. I’m a size 7. Are you going back to Cleveland? Let’s talk offline.

Cynthia: I’m glad I had the presence of mind to capture the boots up close. It just seemed like the right thing to do. And while I have no intention of returning to Cleveland any time soon, if you feel a pilgrimage is in order, we should heed the call. One way to learn the name of the manufacturer of these boots would be to contact the museum curators. However, that request may require them to disassemble the display only to see that they were indeed custom made. No label, no clues.

However, now that I and the rest of the world know the look and features of your dream boot, why not turn shoe shoppers loose! Wanted: this boot in this approximate color. Size 7. Successful or exhaustive shoppers anywhere in the world can send a photo, location and price to Ann.

Cynthia: Famous people have built incredible careers in many fields by honing their look. From Cher to Madonna to Beyonce to Hillary Rodham Clinton, their apparel and look spurs trend and talk with every change. Each woman, when “on” delivers in spades. Their clothes are selected to enhance their features, hide what they perceive to be flaws and make them feel their strongest, their best. That sole criterion makes a closet audit strategic and affirming.
Ann: Amen. Boot-shoppers and others seeking such an audit might enjoy Ann’s Fashion Tarot, my series that guides you through a spiritually correct closet overhaul,or Ann’s Office Outfit Makeovers, the series in which I overhauled my friends. And I’m all ready to do you next, if you’d like to send a photo. Not necessary to buy me boots in advance.


That Fine Line Between Leadership Ambition & Entitlement

Since its publication, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has fascinated me and spurred me to think. It’s surely about women, but it’s also about generational perspectives, the way that cultures in different industries can vary wildly and reminds us that Midwestern IS different from East or West Coast.

As we attempt to do the right thing, guiding and building the next generation of leaders (who in fact are leading even today), let’s be mindful of the signals we send. One person’s impression of “leadership ambition” is another’s definition of “feeling entitled and uppity.”

Sheryl Sandberg questions the leadership ambition of women today in the first chapter of her bestseller, Lean In. Citing stats that correlate interest to professional growth, or lack thereof, she proclaims there to be anemic interest in leading large endeavors in the workplace, which translates into longer term difficulty in rising to leadership positions.

Resumes don’t reveal true strengths, track records are spotty and in many cases she cites, women still aren’t the first to volunteer for new duty, if old duty offers greater stability.

In a resume-based world, is the risk too high to allow for a leader who does not meet the ideal? As Baby Boomers, we grew up in an era where great responsibility was given to young people to fight in wars, manage stores, design and manage marketing campaigns and keep the books.

Some, but not all career paths were premised on tenure or education. For sure, to differentiate ourselves from the countless other resumes on the pile, we were judged by our character and work ethic.

In generational studies, Boomers are characterized as far more competitive than the “controlling” Gen X, the “collaborating” Millennials. Sandberg is a Gen Xer who sees clearly the opportunities for smart young women and openly values the self-starting character found in Silicon Valley.

The leadership ambition gap results when these questions are asked: Do women want to be leaders? Do they aspire to tackle the risk and receive the rewards that come with leading?

As the parent of two Millennials, I know many grounded, hard-working smart young women building their lives. They’ve worked part time and aspire to first professional jobs that pay decently and offer health insurance. Their aspirations aren’t necessarily lofty, they’re attainable.

Millennials who garner big media interest are those who demonstrate narcissistic tendencies and are perceived as upsetting the workplace with their expectations of entitlement. Maybe the squeaky wheels are getting the grease, but it’s also has served notice to the hard-working quiet wheels. Not every organization or industry is a start-up like Facebook, wherGENERATIONS-clip-art-CBAe innovation and youth is the consumer and the workforce.

In a regulated field or large, established company, a valuable Millennial is one who demonstrates a great work ethic and doesn’t appear to expect to run the division by the end of next year.

As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, we have to decide what we want from Millennials, or better yet give up our propensity to generalize. Prior to Sandberg’s chapter, it had never occurred to me that young women aspire to lead at a lesser rate than in previous years… and pale to rates of men.

I’m an optimist. Regular women in regular professions are watching out for the next generation. They seek out those who they think fit the culture and challenge the process. I find common ground with Sandberg when we connect these causes and effects: promotion is linked to performance,  linked to opportunity, linked to ambition, linked to confidence, linked to competence.



Yay! Message sent.
Error! Please validate your fields.
Let's get in touch

Want to discuss your ideas for a new project or figure out whether I can help you advance your goal? Drop me a line or pick up the phone!

Contact details
612 716 6595