I first noticed this phenomenon with Sex and the City. The first time through, on DVD, I loved Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and all that she stood for — the fashion, the musings, the free spirit. But when I began watching it again in TBS reruns (every night at 11, and edited for commercials to such a length as to be the literal equivalent of eating a bon bon) she began to grate. What the hell was she wearing? Did she really think the cutesy questions were deep? And what was up with her flirtation laugh, nervous and whinnying, simultaneously too young and too old. I was mad when she cheated on Aidan with Big and therefore in no mood to put up with her subsequent sulks. Charlotte (Kristin Davis), who originally seemed like comic relief, began to seem the soul of the series, growing up, moving on, as good a friend as ever.
The reason for this change of heroine is obvious: I too was growing up, now married and a homeowner. In fact, I only gave up watching the reruns when I got pregnant, Charlotte’s highest hope and could no longer stay awake past 10 p.m. But I have always been a Charlotte, preppy and square, baking and home-making, complete with an interest in the art world and oversize glasses. So what changed was not me but my desire to be someone else.
This spring we watched all seven seasons of The West Wing in a row. I had only watched odd episodes in the past, on nights when I needed TV and there was nothing else on. But I remembered the excitement surrounding the show and the swoons of many for Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), clearly the stand-in (as smartest man in the White House) for show creator Aaron Sorkin. But from the very first season, Josh grated. He kept messing up. He was high-handed. He did not play well with others. He acted like an idiot toward women, and still they loved him. And that never changed. Sure, he got his comeuppance a few times from Congress, was strung along by Mary Louise Parker exhibiting all the same quirky mannerisms she now employs on Weeds and eventually had to exile himself to the campaign trail.
But on that final season campaign trail he was a huge jerk, most of the time. I wanted more Sam (until Rob Lowe exited the show, starved for a good plot), more Leo, more of Toby’s twins, but most of all more C.J. and Donna. It dawned on me slowly, first with C.J., then with Donna once she was allowed to grow a backbone, that they were the only ones making sense, working as a team, setting their egos aside week after week. They stole the show from the men who were set up as our heroes, and what I don’t know is whether that was on purpose or in spite of the writing.
An acquaintance of mine from college who surely sees himself as a Josh Lyman was a writer, editor, and then producer on the show, and he would have to have mellowed a lot to see the women as the stars. But all of the feminist language flung about to little effect by Mary Louise Parker and Stockard Channing (as Mrs. Bartlet) comes to a neo-feminist resolution in the stories of C.J. and Donna. C.J. gets to take a step back from running the country, get married and have a baby before it is too late (and, we hope, help a fictional Gates/Jobs mash-up save the world); Donna gets to have a high-powered job and her dream boyfriend too. In TVland, that passes for a more than happy ending.