It was depressing, for a number of reasons, to hear about a comedy that ABC is putting into production called The Smart One. I love Portia di Rossi, whose wonderful comedic talent has languished since Arrested Development and Better Off Ted went off the air. But this is not an enlightening premise: “The show follows two sisters: de Rossi’s smart one and [Malin] Akerman’s dumb one. De Rossi’s character goes to work for her dimmer, but more popular sister who is a former beauty queen currently serving as the mayor of a city.” It’s especially irritating to see ABC doubling down on dumb-but-pretty stereotypes because television is actually doing a nice job with female politicians—nicer, perhaps, than our politics at large, where women remain underrepresented.
I feel like I don’t even have to spend time discussing the foremost example of this trend, Leslie Knope, the civil servant who’s running for Pawnee, Indiana City Council on Parks and Recreation. But I will say this, anyway: whatever long-time fans of the show think of Parks and Recreation’s tonal and plot problems this season, the fact that they’ve got a woman on television running for office, and are taking her anxieties about that process seriously and generally respectfully, is kind of remarkable. Leslie may make hilarious miscalculations, and things may go wrong in her campaign, but the show’s never questioned the idea that Leslie’s desire to serve is deep and genuine, and that she’d make an absolutely fantastic member of City Council. Parks and Recreation‘s contempt for the laziness, entitlement and incompetence of Bobby Newport, the vastly wealthy heir to a destructive company who is trying to buy the seat Leslie’s running for, is particularly bracing given the role that billionaires are playing in supporting the various Republican candidates in this year’s primary campaign.
By contrast, Mel Burke, the city councilwoman Melissa Joan Heart plays on ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey, is essentially Leslie Knope for the non-hipster comedy set. Like Leslie, she’s blonde, fiercely devoted to her small city, somewhat awkward with the press, and prone to lingering sexual tension, though in this case with Joey, the manny she’s hired to take care of her niece and nephew, who are living with her after her brother went to jail for a massive Ponzi scheme. A multi-camera sitcom, Melissa & Joey spends much more time in Mel’s house than in her office, and the wacky antics have more to do with the fact that she has a hunky former banker living in her basement rather than her overwhelming devotion to public service. But that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have at least some of Parks and Recreation‘s zany sense of politics: in the first-season episode “Seoul Man,” an illegal-domestic-help scandal hit Toledo’s public servants, and it turned out Joey was born in Korea and was having trouble locating the papers establishing his citizenship. It’s nothing revolutionary, but Parks and Recreation and Melissa & Joey share a nice commitment to celebrating women in public life, and to portraying them as more competent and dedicated than the people around them even though they have more burdens and obligations to balance.
There’s no question that the new crop of political shows will have a more varied take on women in politics, and that’s a good thing. Female politicians do misspeak and get themselves int turf wars, as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character on Veep does. Inconvenient romances happen in Washington in real life as they do—though perhaps not to the same extent—as they will on ABC’s other political show debuting this spring, Scandal. But it’s one thing to give women in politics complexity and texture. And quite another to have it be hilarious that they’re only there because they’re hot, and voters are too dumb to care that they have no other qualifications.