The women of “Private Practice” and “Bionic Woman”: Pathetic or just (sort of) human?

Last week, Private Practice and Bionic Woman were jointly, and depressingly, reviewed in The New York Times. The essence of the review appeared midway: “Both shows suggest that the easiest way to make a female protagonist likable is to dumb her down with self-doubt.” I had planned to watch Bionic Woman but not Private Practice. However, I decided to check out both and see if the prognosis was as bleak as the reviewer suggested. My conclusion, not surprisingly, was both yes and no.

I started with Private Practice, which I’m not going to thoroughly review, except to say that it was disappointingly stupid. If Audra McDonald is going to do television instead of Broadway, then it needs to be good television, people!

For anyone unaware, Private Practice is the ill-advised spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy (which I do not watch.) The show’s opening introduces us to the other doctors in Addison’s new practice. Fertility specialist Naomi (Audra McDonald), Addison’s best friend, is sobbing on her bathroom floor eating an entire cake.

Psychiatrist Violet (Amy Brenneman) is stalking her (now-married) ex-boyfriend, who implores her to leave him alone.

(That’s not a photo from Private Practice, but she looks so cozy with Cameron Diaz.)

And then we cut to Addison (Kate Walsh) dancing in a towel, which she drops in a demonstration of newfound free-spiritedness.

The moment screeches to a halt when her next door neighbor, Naomi’s ex-husband, Sam (Taye Diggs) sees her dancing in all her naked glory.

Thus we begin with various degrees of pathetic-ness and an element of sexual humiliation.

Then, we move on to the patients: a wife and mistress fighting over a dead man’s sperm (Ew!), a psychiatric client who’s had a psychotic break and is compulsively counting the floor tiles in a sporting goods store, and a pregnant 17-year-old whose labor turns into a life-threatening crisis.

So the reviewer may have a point about the self-doubt and general neediness.

Then there’s Bionic Woman, which Dorothy Snarker reviewed here. At the beginning of the episode, the post-millennial Jaime Sommers is no 1970s kick-ass Lindsay Wagner.

The original Bionic woman was a professional tennis player injured in an extreme sports accident. Compare that to our current Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan), who’s an aimless bartender who is insecure about why her bionics-expert, surgeon boyfriend loves her.

But she looks better than Lindsay Wagner did in a sports bra.

She came from a broken home and is the guardian for her computer-criminal kid sister. (I’m guessing her hacker skills are going to come in handy down the road.) Her injury occurred when the original bionic woman (Katee Sackhoff) tried to kill her boyfriend. Her initial reaction to her new status was horror.

And even the badass bionic super-villain was a little needy. She insisted that her evil-genius boyfriend tell her that he loved her before they had sex.

So, the reviewer makes a pretty compelling point. Our introduction to the women in these two shows is not one of strength and self-confidence. Their personal lives are a collective mess, and they certainly are not established as role models. Mostly this can be attributed to god-awful writing and, in Michelle Ryan’s case, god-awful delivery. (I’m sorry. You’re lovely, but your acting in the pilot was horrendous.) Regardless, I’m wistful for the Jaime Sommers I pretended to be 30 years ago, and I don’t like that the first view of the women in female-centered shows highlights their cringe-worthy behavior.

But I’m not convinced that the situation is as dire as the review suggests.

The women in Private Practice are initially pathetic. But, professionally, they are not defined or limited by their personal problems. In fact, they may be more compassionate due to their personal crap. Naomi successfully resolves the standoff with the women vying for the sperm and learns a lesson about letting go. Violet manages the crisis with the patient in the sporting goods store. Addison initially freaks out (which the reviewer views as weakness) when she realizes that she has to perform a C-section under woefully inadequate conditions, but she talks herself into it and saves the life of both baby and mother. Additionally, Naomi demonstrates a different type of strength by acknowledging an instance of poor management to her peers. And, Addison stands up for herself and makes a speech.

And how about Jaime Sommers? Yes, she’s insecure and messed-up in the beginning. And, yes, she freaks out when she realizes they bionicized her without her consent. But I think being freaked out and angry is pretty reasonable response to learning you’ve been turned into a cyborg. After returning to her life, she grows increasingly more comfortable, not to mention adventurous, with her new powers. And she wraps up the episode by telling the bionics program guru that she’ll be bionic, but only on her terms. Perhaps she’ll eventually be cool enough to get her own board game.

Ultimately, I find the Times analysis a little tricky. I don’t like women being made pathetic for laughs. And I don’t like a paradigm in which women have to be a wreck personally to compensate for professional strength. But I don’t view having a human reaction to stress and trauma as an inherent sign of weakness or insecurity.

I’ve rambled enough, though. What do you think?

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