Female Sitcom Characters Who Changed My Life

In honor of Women’s History Month (and because a new post is definitely overdue), I’ve comprised a carefully considered list of the female sitcom characters I have cared about most over the years. Listed in no particular order, these characters have resonated with me more than others; I’ve come to personally identify with some, while others inspire me, and others still are just hilarious and well-written (or all of the above). My main rules in deciding the list: I could not choose more than one female character from the same series and I had to limit the list to three or four key characters. Now, onto the list!

  1. Monica Geller (Courteney Cox on Friends)

Memorable Lines: “Fine! Judge all you want to but, married a lesbian, left a man at the altar, fell in love with a gay ice dancer, threw a girl’s wooden leg in a fire, livin’ in a box!!! and, of course, “SEVEN!”

As far as the Friends universe is concerned, I’m definitely a Monica-type. In addition to having this listed on pretty much all of my social media accounts (plus the About Me page of this very blog), Monica is my go-to “Starbucks name” (mainly because I know from experience that they won’t spell my real first name correctly anyway). While I’m not a “neat freak” to the level that Monica is (but I’m not sure if anyone really could be), I consider myself very ambitious, competitive, and organized; I’ve also been called either “the planner” or the “mom friend” by myself and others too many times to count.

For these personal reasons, Monica clearly holds a special place in my heart, but that’s not the only reason she matters to me. She’s also incredibly inspiring, arguably the most inspiring of the six Friends. Sure, it’s admirable how Rachel goes from the stereotypical “spoiled rich girl” and Phoebe is undeniably a strong woman who has overcome a great deal, but let’s not ignore the amazing journey Monica undergoes.

The product of an emotionally abusive household where she struggled with her weight and had a mother who constantly criticized her, Monica nonetheless overcomes this to become a strong, confident woman who goes after what she wants and never settles. In Season Two, she memorably dates the older and sophisticated Dr. Richard Burke. Even though she comes to love him deeply and, at the time, sees him as the probable love of her life, she musters the strength to let him go when she realizes a key difference between them: unlike her, he doesn’t want children (well, in his case, he doesn’t want children again.

Her personality was also never confined by any gender stereotypes. She excelled at football and was repeatedly proven to be one of the physically strongest Friends, but also relished in planning her wedding and took pride in cleaning. She was the glue that held the Friends group together and made them feel more like a family (and was probably the funniest drunk out of the six).

  1. Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched)

A Couple Memorable Lines: “I am a witch. A real broom riding, house haunting, cauldron stirring witch!” and “Oh my stars!”

In an earlier blog post, I credited Bewitched as the first sitcom I ever cared about enough to watch religiously (not to mention it was the first one I enjoyed analyzing closely). Even in my college thesis (which dealt with sitcom relationships), Sam and Darrin were the first couple I chose to analyze. Basically, there was never any doubt in my mind of whether or not Sam would make this list.

As I briefly mentioned in my aforementioned post, I’ve always stood firm in my belief that Bewitched is, indeed, a feminist show. Samantha, expected to live a supernatural life of wonder among the clouds, defies her family by marrying a mortal man and choosing to live (mostly) without witchcraft. Sure, Sam’s choice may seem a bit bizarre, but what matters is that it is her choice and it is one she proudly defends, whether she’s going up against the Queen of the Witches or her own mother. Played by the incredibly talented Elizabeth Montgomery, Sam was intelligent, unwaveringly kind, strong, and funny. She could have anything she wanted with a twitch of her nose, but used her powers for good and only as a last resort, always choosing to solve any problem first and foremost with her mind and heart.

  1. Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin on Frasier)

Memorable Lines: “I’m smarter than he is, more confident, more articulate, but the stupid little wusses think I’m a hothead!”and “When I die, I want it to be on my hundredth birthday, in my beach house on Maui. And I want my husband to be so upset he has to drop out of college.”

            On countless sitcoms, female characters are generally depicted as “incomplete” until they find “the one”, settle down, and marry. And then there’s Roz Doyle: snarky, career-driven, and unapologetically sexual. She takes pride in her work as a producer and, despite many a verbal jab from Niles and Frasier, she enjoys living an active single life (and can out sass the Crane brothers any day of the week).

Roz’s tough exterior masks a warm, sensitive heart; the times she allows herself to be vulnerable are few but beautiful to watch. She’s been let down and had her heart broken more times than she’d like to admit, but she never gives up on herself. Despite her initial fears when faced with the reality of becoming a single mother, she overcomes these hesitations and successfully balances her career with the demands of motherhood.

More than being unapologetically sexual, Roz was always unapologetically herself. She’s proof that a woman’s happiness does not have to be anchored by one person, but instead can come from within as a result of self-confidence, inner strength, and determination. Frankly, TV is still very much in need of more female characters like her.

  1. Diane Chambers (Shelley Long on Cheers)

Memorable Lines: (in response to Sam noting she’s drunk) “Wow, you’re stupid. I’ll be sober in the morning!” and “Diane has the bar.”

I’m aware that Diane gets a lot of flak for being pretentious and loquacious, but I absolutely love her. One half of my favorite will they/won’t they TV couple of all time, Diane elevates every scene she’s in on Cheers (and later as a guest on Frasier) to new heights (and Sam Malone’s character suffers deeply when she’s no longer around to simultaneously challenge and ground him).

If Roz Doyle guards her vulnerabilities with a mask of snark, Diane Chambers guards hers with one made of steel. Diane is bookish, quick-witted, moralistic, and not so secretly believes she deserves only the finest things in life. For all her book smarts, she often struggles to fit in with the “average Joe’s” at Cheers and in her most vulnerable moments, it’s evident that she longs to be accepted. Diane is frequently mocked by the other characters who don’t take her seriously, while she in turn often takes herself far too seriously. She can become giddy over simple things (such as when she’s given brief control of the bar) and has a treasured stuffed animal collection—proving she’s not as haughty as she’d like to appear. Beneath her pseudo intellectualism, Diane is very much simply a woman in search of her place in life—and she should absolutely be taken seriously (even if Shelley’s performance leaves you in stitches).

Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

January 25th started out as a pretty standard day, great even. Then, I overheard the following at work: “Mary Tyler Moore just died.” I froze. Nooooo. I had known of Mary’s health problems, but I struggled with accepting the fact that the woman I had always viewed as a strong, resilient fighter was really gone.

The real life Mary was always an excellent role model—she was a lifelong animal rights activist and worked intimately with the JDRF to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes (a condition Mary herself had). Still, like countless others, it was through her two most iconic television roles that I came to “know” her: Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

In addition to the fact that each sitcom features iconic performances from Mary, both are essential viewing for anyone even slightly interested in comedy writing and strong female sitcom characters. Laura was charming, intelligent, quick-witted, just as funny as Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, and one heck of a dancer. Also, thanks to Mary’s influence, Laura revolutionized the way women dressed on television by donning her now iconic capris pants.

What is also worth noting about The Dick Van Dyke Show is how loving and mutually respectful the marriage between Rob and Laura was. Unlike many later sitcoms, where one half of the couple is “in charge” while the other half is often portrayed as a submissive buffoon, thus resulting in a somewhat repetitive cycle of “good cop vs bad cop”, Rob and Laura were true equals. They joked together, danced together, and when they argued neither of them ever came off as controlling or condescending. From episode to episode, the two alternated who was the “straight-man”, giving Van Dyke and Moore equal chance to play the fool.

A few years later (1970 to be exact) on her eponymous sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore continued to break ground as a woman whom was not a wife or mother—she was just Mary Richards. Career-driven, independent and funny, she was more than capable of helming her own story as the protagonist.

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In the pilot episode “Love Is All Around” (the same name as the series’ iconic theme song by Sonny Curtis), a newly single thirty-year-old Mary relocates her life to Minneapolis. She settles into a new apartment and quickly makes new friends (notably Valerie Harper’s quick-witted Rhoda Morgenstern). Then, in one of the most memorable scenes of the series, she interviews for a job at WJM-TV with Ed Asner’s gruff yet lovable news director Lou Grant:

Lou: “What religion are you?”

Mary: “Mr. Grant, I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.”

It’s a quick exchange, not nearly as iconic as the line anyone probably thinks of when remembering this pilot (referring to, of course, Lou’s “You know what, you’ve got spunk…I hate spunk!”), but it establishes something even more important about Mary’s character. Yes, of course Mary’s spunky; despite Asner’s excellent comic timing and delivery, the audience hardly needs reminding of such an obvious fact—especially when the aforementioned exchange between Mary and Lou so perfectly highlights Mary’s willingness to speak her mind, no matter whom she’s addressing or what the issue at hand may be. As the scene continues, Mary confirms that she will indeed be what the television landscape (and real life) is always in need of: an outspoken, confident woman who is willing and ready to fight for what she wants and knows she deserves. As Lou hired Mary as his Associate Producer, so too did countless women watching choose Mary as someone they not only wished to emulate as countless still saw her in themselves.

Decades later, this legacy continues. Thank you, Mary; thank you for your smile, individuality, independence, and spunk.

Thank you for paving the way.

Bottling Frasier’s Success

In many ways, the success—both commercially and critically—of many iconic sitcoms has come down to one crucial element: familiarity. How relatable are a character’s trials and tribulations to the ones the audience watching has faced? How comforting is the world of a particular sitcom and, moreover, to what extent is it able to serve as an “escape” from reality?

Timeless sitcoms Cheers and Friends are two such shows that exemplify this aura of intimacy between series and viewer. Cheers’ iconic theme song famously boasts the following line: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”––indeed, for eleven seasons millions of viewers came to feel as if they would fit right in among the titular bar’s quirky customers. Similarly, people to this day comment (whether jokingly or not depends on the person) that Friends’ Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross feel akin to true friends—maybe even family.

This is precisely why sitcom bottle episodes (aka an entire episode mostly, if not entirely, confined to the main cast in one primary location) come off as so endearing. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” and Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” are memorable examples of this formula and, while I love and have repeatedly watched both episodes, it is the two expertly crafted bottle episodes from my other favorite (and often the most criminally underrated nowadays, out of the three) sitcom, Frasier, that will be highlighted here.

Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “My Coffee With Niles” (1×24) and “Dinner Party” (6×17)

Like any good bottle episode, these Frasier episodes primarily take place in one setting; in the first, season one’s finale “My Coffee With Niles”, it is the characters’ go to hangout Café Nervosa and in the latter, season six’s “Dinner Party”, it is Frasier’s apartment. What puts these episodes into a league of their own—aside from the witty repartee that exists in every Frasier episode but is at peak form here—are two additional factors. First, each episode is not merely about the show’s core cast; it is primarily about its two leading characters: Frasier and Niles Crane, which arguably double as the show’s primary “relationship” in that a consistent, central theme of the entire show is their brotherly friendship and, more often than not, inevitable rivalry. This leads to the second factor: the two episodes focus on exploring, and attempting to answer, two primary questions that are imperative as much to the episode’s plot as to the show’s eleven-year arc.

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1) “My Coffee With Niles”

Relevant Episode Information: Frasier and Niles spend the entire episode chatting about their lives at their favorite coffee shop, Café Nervosa.

Primary Question: Is Frasier happy? Moreover, what does it mean to be happy?

While Martin, Roz and Daphne periodically and briefly speak to the brothers throughout the episode, the crux of the episode is Frasier’s response—and lack thereof—to Niles’ inquiry of whether or not he is happy. Note their initial exchange regarding this question:

Niles: “So, Frasier, now that chapter two of your life is in full swing, do you mind if I ask you something?”

Frasier: “No, go right ahead.”

Niles: “Are you happy?”

[Frasier is silent]

Niles: “Did you hear the question?”

Frasier: “Yes, I’m thinking. It’s a seemingly complex question.”

Niles: “No, it’s not.”

Frasier: “Yes, it is.”

Niles: “No, it’s not. Either you’re happy or you’re not.”

Frasier: “Are you happy?”

Niles: “No, but we’re not talking about me.”

With the show’s first season coming to a close, there could not be a more apt time for Niles to ask Frasier this. By this point, viewers (many undoubtedly initial Frasier Crane fans from his Cheers days) have watched twenty-four episodes in which Frasier has worked to adjust to returning to his home city, tackling a new job, reestablishing relationships with his family and being a country away from his only son. So, is Frasier happy with this life-changing decision? This is not the last time such a question will be asked of him, though it often will take more specific forms, typically regarding his level of satisfaction with his job or love life.

One aspect of the aforementioned exchange that intrigues me so much is the fact that Niles and Frasier differ on the complexity of saying whether or not one is happy. In theory, I agree with Niles; I tend to think and speak of happiness as something akin to love in that it is instinctual—if you feel either, you know, otherwise you do not. In practice, however, I have found myself more on Frasier’s side of this discussion in that I usually take a few moments to reflect on recent events before offering a response.

Furthermore, of course, it is simply not in Frasier’s character to simply say “yes” or “no” to this or really any question without thoroughly weighing the pros and cons. Later in season four, Frasier will spend an entire episode agonizing over whether or not he believes Niles and his first wife, Maris, truly belong together. Even further along in the series, he will also struggle to choose between two women, asking literally anyone and everyone he encounters for input.

In the case of “My Coffee With Niles”, Frasier continues to evade the question until, finally, it is presented to him again, this time by a waitress growing tired of adjusting his order to meet his specificities:

Waitress: “Zimbabwe decaf, non-fat milk, no cinnamon in sight. Now—are you happy?”

Frasier: [really answering Niles’ initial question] “You know, in the greater scheme…yes, I’d say I am.”

Arguably, perhaps it is up to the viewers to decide how true this will prove to be for him as the seasons continue.

2) “Dinner Party”

Relevant Episode Information: Niles and Frasier decide to co-host a dinner party, but struggle to agree on the people they should and should not invite.

Primary Question: Are Niles and Frasier too reliant on one another? Are they odd?

Almost any episode that deals primarily with the brothers Crane rivalry is among the most re-watchable for me. In “Author, Author” and “The Innkeepers”, their egos humorously and inevitably clash as they try to co-write a book and co-manage a restaurant, respectively. In “IQ”, Frasier’s personal ego takes a major hit as he learns that Niles is the brother with the higher IQ—and that it’s more than just a mere couple of points in difference. Many of the show’s best one-liners are also directly relevant to their tendency to one up the other, for instance:

Frasier: “Niles, I would shave my head for you.”

Niles: “A gesture which becomes less significant with each passing year.”

 

Niles: [filling in for Frasier’s radio show] “Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there’ll be no blaming mother today.”

 

Indeed, “Dinner Party” is not without its bickering moments between the two. Nonetheless, aside from the joy of watching these two play off no one but each other for most of the episode, what makes this episode so memorable to me is that it poignantly touches on the fact that Niles and Frasier do, ultimately, have a loving and very close relationship despite everything. Still, a running joke throughout the series questions if they in fact spend too much time together; other characters repeatedly tease them for bringing the other as a “date” to one function or another.

Here, the brothers accidentally hear someone they are planning on inviting to their party refer to them as “that one” and “the other one”; it is unclear which is which but the underlying suggestion that the two are almost interchangeable to some is clear. Niles and Frasier proceed to over-analyze and debate its meaning:

Frasier: “Perhaps she has a point. Ever since your divorce you have become more and more attached to me. Maybe that’s why she said what she said.”

Niles: “What?”

Frasier: “You get Frasier, you get that Niles!”

Niles: “She didn’t say that. She said, “you get the one, you get that other one.” What makes you think that you’re the one and I’m that other one?”

Frasier: “I am the one giving the party, and you are that other one!”

Niles: “I’m the one that invited her, so that makes you that other one!”

And, in one of my favorite exchanges of the episode:

Niles: “Why is Joaquin on such a strict diet?”

Frasier: “Because the Joaquin they’re bringing to dinner is… their foster child, from a tiny village on the Pampas. He speaks no English and he gets nauseated when he eats American food.”

Niles: “So, he’s not the conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic?”

Frasier: “Oh, you are so “that other one”!”

This episode’s key question is not given a clear answer. Niles and Frasier bicker (whilst becoming increasingly disenchanted with the idea of throwing this party at all), Martin maintains that they are not odd (“just special”), and the episode ends with the brothers resolving to not care what others think and enjoy each other’s company at dinner—before quickly changing their minds.

Well then, are Frasier and Niles too dependent on one another? I am an only child and so cannot personally identify with a sibling relationship. At the same time, I—as, I believe, can most people—understand how rare and wonderful it is to find even one person with whom you can talk endlessly and share similar interests or ways of thinking and that there is nothing wrong with valuing such a friendship. To paraphrase Frasier’s final response in “My Coffee With Niles”, perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is one of the keys to lasting happiness.