SIX ACTRESSES NOT IN SEARCH OF TV WORK
IN her dressing room, so newly occupied that the only visible decoration was a bag of Reese’s Pieces, Kat Dennings was pointing out the couch where she’d had a minor meltdown here on the Warner Brothers lot the night before.
That evening she was preparing to face a studio audience and film her second episode of “2 Broke Girls,” a CBS comedy that will make its debut on Monday, and she freely admitted she didn’t handle the pressure well.
“I was talking on the phone to my mother,” said Ms. Dennings, 25, a spirited, self-deprecating actress whose film credits include “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Thor.” “I was like: ‘Mom, there’s no air. I’m going to throw up. What do I do?’ She’s like: ‘Go out there, you’ll be great. Go get some water. Eat a piece of fruit.’ ”
Ms. Dennings said she was revitalized once she took the stage, but she might want to keep her mother on speed dial anyway. This season she is among a handful of actresses in their 20s and 30s who are hardly household names yet have been given the pressure, the obligation and the opportunity of carrying their own network shows.
In a crop of new series that run the gamut from bawdy comedies (like “2 Broke Girls,” on which Ms. Dennings plays a sassy waitress who befriends an heiress who’s hit the skids) to “Mad Men”-style period dramas, the notoriously dues-paying medium of television has turned to these relatively untested young women to be the faces and voices of its broadcast networks.
Their résumés vary considerably. Some have played one or two prominent film parts or labored in the salt mines of supporting television roles, while others have hardly been seen on screen before. One possesses a quaint acting trophy called a Tony Award. None has the long track record or recognizability that usually prefigures a starring prime-time role.
Yet they understand that they came to their positions through some combination of the shifting popular culture, coincidence and the experimentation (or random flailing) of the networks — not any specific outreach to female talent or viewers.
“I don’t think that these shows are on because women are the stars of them,” said Whitney Cummings, 29, a creator of “2 Broke Girls” and the star of her own NBC comedy, “Whitney.” “The shows that just happened to be the best this year happened to be centered around women.”
They are also hopeful that their shows — if they survive the season — might signify a moment when characters who are their ages and in circumstances they recognize from their lives are finally considered worthy of their own narratives.
“There is something very interesting about a woman in her late 20s, early 30s,” said Laura Benanti, a Tony winner for the 2008 revival of “Gypsy” who is co-starring in the NBC drama “The Playboy Club.” “She’s clearly on the cusp of something, changing from something into something else. And that leads to many more stories to tell.”
It is a first-year class that includes Zooey Deschanel, a star of the romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” and lead singer of the retro-rock band She & Him. She is playing a socially awkward single woman living with male roommates in the Fox comedy “New Girl.” At 31, she has had a healthy film career, but she said her goofy charm made her an oddity in the movie industry. As she described it, the reaction she elicits from Hollywood is: “ ‘She’s not a cheerleader, she’s not a jock, she’s not a goth. We don’t know what to do with her. Who is she?’ Well, I’m my own thing.”
Ms. Deschanel said that the offbeat roles she covets have become even harder to come by in recent years, and Ms. Dennings echoed this point, saying that the harsh reality of filmmaking economics was a strong incentive to consider a transition to television. “It was really disappointing to lose something because you won’t get any money for the production,” she said.
Without comparable film or television credits, Ms. Cummings has been making her own luck as a stand-up comedian, parlaying jobs on Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts into a one-hour special and a pilot deal with that network. Though that project was not made into a series, it caught the attention of Michael Patrick King, who produced “Sex and the City” and directed its two films, with whom Ms. Cummings wrote the pilot script for “2 Broke Girls.” That show, in turn, was picked up by CBS just as NBC gave the green light to “Whitney,” a comedy about Ms. Cummings’s relationship with a live-in boyfriend. (She continues to receive creative and consulting credits on “2 Broke Girls.”)
Though she knows unfamiliar viewers may believe she is the beneficiary of overnight success, Ms. Cummings said she had been “aggressively, violently failing” for years.
“I’m calling my agents: ‘Will they see me for that part? Do they want to meet me?’ ” Ms. Cummings said. “They’re like, ‘No, just go to law school, you’re embarrassing yourself.’ ”
It is that do-it-yourself spirit that these women most admire about professional idols like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler (whose memoir “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea” is being adapted as an NBC comedy), and they want to see that quality reflected in the roles they play: independent, un-self-conscious, occasionally foul-mouthed characters once reserved exclusively for male performers.
(As Ms. Dennings put it, “Women are supposed to be mysterious, and there’s a veil you don’t cross, but vagina jokes are just gold, man.”)
In the pilot episode of the deeply irreverent comedy “Apartment 23,” which ABC is planning for a midseason debut, the lead character played by Krysten Ritter sells drugs, lets her neighbors watch her walk around naked and splits up her roommate from her fiancé.
But Ms. Ritter, 29, who has appeared on “Breaking Bad” and in movies like “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” said she saw her character as “this disenfranchised girl who refuses to conform and makes her money in these twisted ways.” She added: “I think that speaks to a generation. Everyone’s out there hustling. No one wants to climb a corporate ladder anymore.”
To find these roles two actresses said they had to turn the clock back to the 1960s, or at least the version of that decade depicted in “The Playboy Club,” a drama about the Chicago nightspot and its bunny-costumed hostesses during an era of social upheaval.
This series has already met resistance from KSL Television, an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City that said it will not broadcast it, and Gloria Steinem, who once worked at the Playboy Club in New York, who said the show “normalizes prostitution and male dominance.”
Amber Heard, who portrays one of the principal Bunnies, said she was “playing a real character.” “In the ’60s, there were different opportunities and responsibilities afforded to women,” said Ms. Heard, 25, who has appeared in the films “Pineapple Express” and the coming “Rum Diary.”
“That being said, in 2011 I am a part of a group of women who do not have to choose between combat boots and an apron,” Ms. Heard continued. “Denying a woman’s sexuality is just as chauvinistic, if not worse.”
Ms. Benanti, 32, who plays a Bunny being pushed out of her job at the age of 30, drew a more direct line from the transgressive “Playboy Club” characters to the present day. “It’s because of women like this,” she said, “who are creating options for themselves that you get to have shows like ‘Whitney.’ ”
It’s not only the series about women clad in cottontails that have the potential to rile viewers. Ms. Ritter’s series, “Apartment 23,” has already had its title shortened from “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23.” (“My publicist said it’s for the best they’re not calling it that,” she lamented. “We’d have such a hard time.”)
And “2 Broke Girls” and “New Girl” have stirred debate by describing their adult protagonists as girls, though Ms. Dennings said she fully endorsed the title of her show.
“When someone describes me as a woman,” she said, “I’m like, ‘Ucch, O.K.’ It’s like being called ‘ma’am.’ It’s more of a proper term, and propriety doesn’t have much of a place in TV comedy.”
Among the actresses there was no consensus as to why all of their shows landed in the same season. Maybe the success of the summer film comedy “Bridesmaids” demonstrated a larger appetite for stories about young women, or maybe enough female writers had risen through the ranks to create them. (In addition to the female creators of “Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls,” “New Girl” was created by Elizabeth Meriwether, the screenwriter of “No Strings Attached,” and “Apartment 23” was created by Nahnatchka Khan, a producer of “American Dad!”)
Or maybe, Ms. Benanti said, “networks have finally realized that women are watching television, and they buy things.”
Whatever had brought them together these women said they felt a strong sense of camaraderie with the actresses they already knew and those they hoped to meet someday: they were watching one another’s pilots and sending supportive messages on Twitter.
“There’s room for everybody,” Ms. Ritter said. “If one is successful, we all get to come up together. It’s all about cheering each other on.”
Ms. Deschanel agreed, saying, “It’s feeling like a very exciting time to be a woman.” She paused to correct herself: “A girl. A lady. Female. It always feels like it doesn’t describe me because it seems too old. But I’m a grown woman, I know.”