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Before 'Girls': A Television History of the Single Woman in the City

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire April 13, 2012 at 1:23PM

This weekend, Lena Dunham's highly anticipated new series "Girls" officially debuts on HBO. And if early reviews have anything to say about it, the show should quickly become an imperative addition to a long-cherished television genre: the single woman (or women) trying to make it in the big city.  In honor of this, Indiewire decided to take a look back at the historical progression of the shows that came before it.
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This weekend, Lena Dunham's highly anticipated new series "Girls" officially debuts on HBO. And if early reviews have anything to say about it, the show should quickly become an imperative addition to a long-cherished television genre: the single woman (or women) trying to make it in the big city.  In honor of this, Indiewire decided to take a look back at the historical progression of the shows that came before it.

While examples of the genre across the half-century or so of television are clearly fewer and farther between than demographically responsible, there's a clear trajectory that led to "Girls" (which notably features the youngest characters and frankest discussions of pretty much any of its predecessors). 

From 1966's "That Girl" to a slew of shows that premiered earlier this season (including including the similarly titled "2 Broke Girls" and "New Girl"), here's a few examples:

That Girl (ABC, 1966-1971)
Though "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" deservedly gets a lot of credit as a pioneer of the professional single women television genre (let's face it, it was a much better show), "That Girl" was definitely its forerunner.  The first sitcom ever to focus on a single woman (at least one who was not a maid or living with her parents) came in 1966 when Marlo Thomas brought the character of Ann Marie to airwaves.  An aspiring actress who moves to New York City from her small hometown, Thomas based the premise of her own life trying to get into acting.  Thomas herself was the real creator of the show (originally titling it "Miss Independence"), but she wasn't credited as such, explaining in retrospect that she "played down her power" purposely to not come across as threatening. Either way, her influence is clear. It was Thomas who fought to leave her character unmarried at the end of the show's five-year run, not wanting to send the message that that was the ultimate goal for young women.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977)
Widely considered one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was clearly a huge influence on so many female-led sitcoms that would follow it (it's even name-checked 40 years later in "Girls").  Starring Moore as the iconic Mary Richards, the show ran for seven seasons in the 1970s, winning three consecutive Emmys for best comedy series.  Richards' character was a thirtysomething, never-married, successful  television producer who remained single throughout the show's duration (though had two somewhat serious relationships at times). And in addition to her, "Mary Tyler Moore" gave us a quartet of other classic female sitcom characters (though not all of them quite as independent as Richards) in Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper, who who would spin-off the character in "Rhoda), Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) and Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel).


Laverne & Shirley (CBS, 1976-1983)
A spin-off of "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley" starred Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams as its titular women, roommates who worked at a fictitious Milwaukee brewery. Set in the 1960s, it's considerably more goofy (and less influential) than the aforementioned shows, but stands as an forerunning example of the single-gal-in-the-city sitcom nonetheless.  Laverne and Shirley supported themselves financially, and relied on each other emotionally largely over any male characters (the series' primary male characters, Lenny & Squiggy, were more sidekicks than anything else). For two seasons in a row, it was also the highest rated series on television.

Murphy Brown (CBS, 1988-1998)
A full decade after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" went off the air, it found its truest successor in "Murphy Brown."  Candice Bergen starred as the title character (and won a whopping five Emmys for the role), an investigative journalist and news anchor who enters the series fresh from rehab after suffering from alcoholism. Single and forty-ish, Murphy caused a huge stir outside the show when she became unwed and pregnant.  After the show made it clear Murphy would raise the child alone, then-Vice President Dan Quayle infamously spoke out against the show's disprespect of family values.

Sex and the City (HBO, 1998-2004)
Like "The Mary Tyler Moore" show, "Sex and the City" is mentioned in the first episode of "Girls," though the two series are probably the least alike on this list. Blending comedy and drama (and set in the near restriction-free fictional world that comes with HBO), the series follows four thirtysomething New York women, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) -- each a difference archetype of the single-gal-in-the city. Carrie, a newspaper columnist, is probably the closest thing the series has to a Mary Richards, but "Sex" is much less about the office politics that dominated "Mary Tyler Moore" than it is about, well, sex.  Like "Girls," "Sex and the City" offered a frank portrayal of the characters' relationships with their various male partners, and with each other. The show became a full-on cultural phenomenon (spinning off two rather dreadful feature films), though it holds up less well a near-decade later than "Mary Tyler Moore" does after over 40 years.

30 Rock (NBC, 2006-present)
Currently in its sixth season, "30 Rock" continues to give us a contemporary spin on the classic workplace sitcom.  Sans laugh track or multiple cameras, Tina Fey brings us a 21st century Mary Richards in Liz Lemon (and Alec Baldwin a 21st century Lou Grant in Jack Donaghy), the single fortysomething head writer of a "Saturday Night Live"-esque sitcom. Though never much of a ratings success, the show has been an awards favorite, with Fey herself managing 12 different Emmy nominations for her various jobs as writer, producer and star.

New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, Don't Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 (Various Networks, 2011-present)
"Girls" isn't the only new single-woman-in-the-city comedy this season. While its certainly gaining the most acclaim, it was preceded over on the networks by three different sitcoms: Fox's "New Girl," CBS's "2 Broke Girls," and ABC's "Don't Trust The B---- in Apartment 23" (there's also NBC's "Whitney" and "Are You There, Chelsea?," but since they'll likely be both wiped from our memory by 2013, what's the point of an extensive mention?).  Each follow young, single women hoping to make it in big city, and the former two ("New Girl" and "Broke Girls") are among the biggest new hits of the season ("Don't Trust" premiered only last week, but so far, so good). Which more or less makes the current television season the year of the "girls."

This article is related to: Girls, Lena Dunham, Television, Features, TV Features





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