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Television John Doyle: Why are women disappearing from mainstream TV?

The third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now streaming on Netflix. At this point, the series is a bit wobbly and repetitive, but it has its moments.

Created by Tina Fey and 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, the comedy is dopey and daft but remains focused, mostly, on heroine Kimmy (Ellie Kemper). She spent years trapped in a doomsday cult and once freed is largely clueless about contemporary life. What the show amounts to is her education in existence as a modern young woman – the pleasures and pitfalls. This means plenty of satire aimed at everything in this digital age. While it can be arch, it is very much about this woman and the women around her.

The new season arrives just as the picture of the new fall TV season from the main networks is becoming clear. And what's clear is that very few new productions are about women or feature women in leading roles. It's a bizarre and troubling turn.

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The trade magazines and websites that study the mainstream TV industry have now picked apart the lineups from CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and the mini-network The CW. There are about 36 new series, depending on how you define "new" when there are so many reboots and revivals. But let's say there are 36. Of those, only 11 have a woman in the leading role. For the 2016/17 network TV season, there were 41 new shows, and 20 had a female lead.

Skim over the schedule of new and returning shows and, superficially, it actually looks like a lot of shows feature women in the main roles. But the shows with strong female-centric stories are not new – Madam Secretary, How To Get Away with Murder and Supergirl, for instance.

The shift toward male-centric series and stories on mainstream TV seems particularly strange because the most talked about and acclaimed series on cable and streaming services in recent months have been about women. Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is currently the most-discussed and admired series. HBO's Big Little Lies and FX's Feud are emphatically about women and feature women in all the leading roles.

However, what has been newly commissioned and given money and support by the networks for the 2017/18 season is a long list of shows about white, middle-aged guys facing some sort of challenge and changing their lives. One critic, Michael Schneider of IndieWire, described the new network season as being about "White Dudes in Crisis," and he's correct. Look at the synopses or watch the trailers for a batch of new network series and a plethora are about guys abandoning their day job or routine to start something new.

ABC's Alex, Inc. is about a mid-30s guy with a wife and two kids who "makes the crazy decision to quit his good job and dive into the brave new world of starting a business." Specifically, he starts a podcast. NBC's Rise is about "dedicated teacher and family man Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) who sheds his own self-doubt and takes over the school's lacklustre theatre department." Apparently he "galvanizes not only the faculty and students, but the entire working-class town." Also, of course, he finds personal satisfaction.

CBS's By the Book is about "a modern-day man at a crossroads in his life who decides to live according to the Bible." And there's the drama The Gospel of Kevin, from ABC, which is about Kevin (Jason Ritter), a selfish, drug-addled jerk who is "tasked by God with a mission to save the world." His task is to change, be righteous and help others.

And those examples don't even include the new military and cop dramas about guys abandoning their routine lives to become heroic men of action.

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The trend is unsettling and the reasons behind it are multiple. A lot of what is concocted in the TV racket amounts to the fantasy life of middle-aged male executives. It has always been that way. A business reason is the issue of getting men to watch mainstream TV comedy and drama. Few do and it is hard to lure them and thus attract the advertisers who want to reach them. Give them shows about men changing their dull lives and following their dreams and, maybe, they are hooked.

Eventually, when this batch of new shows begin airing, it might be possible to extrapolate some bigger meaning from what is Trump-era TV. Right now, it simply looks weird, this trend. The number of women employed as writers, directors and producers in network TV is already scandalously low. And it seems that isn't about to change.

Meanwhile, on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, everything is still about women and the other major character is a gay man, Titus (Tituss Burgess). From the get-go, the series has been anchored in the unsparing, inspiring optimism of Kimmy Schmidt. That optimism occasionally brings heartbreak. It's fiction and in the real world it is hard to be optimistic about mainstream TV paying more attention to strong women characters and less attention to middle-aged male fantasy.

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