Are sitcoms unfair to women?

A household theological discussion turned into some remembrances of Sports Night, the lamented Aaron Sorkin offering that lasted only two seasons. It’s not a stretch — in one scene, Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) frets that the Pope has questioned the existence of Hell, while Jeremy (Joshua Malina) insists that she did good things not to avoid a fiery afterlife but because she was a good person.

It’s a thoughtful scene, but there’s a problem. Jeremy is always the one to reason with Natalie. In their on-again, off-again relationship, Jeremy is always the rational one. Natalie, though apparently good at her job and too cute for words, drives Jeremy away at least once by being ridiculous.

The other women in the show aren’t any better. Dana (Felicity Huffman) is the producer in charge but is hapless in relationships. Sally (Brenda Strong) is basically an evil temptress.

That led me to one of several problems I have with the current season of The Office. Most of the characters on the show have quirks of some kind, and I can’t complain about tightly wound Angela. Jan’s latent psychopathic behavior was comedy gold. I’d be happy if Phyllis simply disappeared from the show, but that’s because I don’t find her funny, not because her personality traits are any worse than, say, Creed’s. Kelly has severe personality flaws but is a terrific character to have on the show.

One problem is Erin, the receptionist who veers between sweetly naive and stereotypically stupid. She gets a bit of a pass because she’s played by brilliant Princeton grad Ellie Kemper, but the writers have gone overboard in making her stupid. She’s basically a cute, single Peter Griffin.

The biggest problem is Pam. During her receptionist/budding artist years, we always sensed that she was capable of doing much more. Since then, she has been a failure. Flunked out of art school. Horrible at sales. Flailing as an office administrator. And she doesn’t even get as many witty lines as she used to.

The redeeming woman on The Office is Holly, who is leading Michael to a new life. Sure, she has quirks as well, but it is a comedy, after all.

Other sitcoms are more difficult to judge. Community sometimes explores relationships, but when everyone is involved in a paintball game that has turned into hard-core warfare at a community college, the absurdity level is too high to complain about how women are portrayed. (Besides, they held their own.) 30 Rock is cruel to Liz Lemon, which is one reason I haven’t fully gotten into it, but the men are mostly crazy.

And in any case, sitcom women are never as stupid as men in beer commercials.

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