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On TV Today, There's No One Like 'That Girl'

Growing up, there was one show that made me put down my Barbies and take notice. "That Girl" starred Marlo Thomas as an aspiring actress living in her own apartment - with a skylight! - in New York City. She had the most perfect hair you've ever seen. An army of blow-dryers couldn't get my hair that straight, or that shiny.

What's more, Ann Marie, a.k.a. That Girl, had loving parents who stopped by a lot to see how she was doing. She had a boyfriend who was kind and considerate and supportive. He was the Donald before "The Donald."

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I knew the show was a fairy tale, but I felt good about the people it presented week after week. They were funny, and they were, for lack of a better word, nice.

It's through the lens of Ann Marie that I now look with horror on today's crop of television women. There's no one to inspire me, and not much to aspire to.

Part of the problem is that everything and everyone has gone so staggeringly PC (politically correct, not personal computer) that it's probably not even polite to laugh anymore, even at a comedy.

TV today tells us it's OK to be gay (see "Ellen"), OK to have breast cancer (see "Murphy Brown"), OK to get divorced (see "Veronica's Closet" - actually, no, don't see "Veronica's Closet," but more on that later). It's OK to be heavenly (see "Touched by an Angel"). It's even OK to have HIV.

OK, but where's the fun? Where are the laughs? Most of these shows are less about public awareness (whatever that means) and more about prurient interest, or morbid curiosity. That's entertainment? Not by a long shot.

If I were growing up today, I know who my role model would be, hands down: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This girl is a true friend; she tries to take high school seriously (as if!); she gets along with her mom; and at the same time she tries to save the world from demonic possession.

It's over the top, but it's done with a lot of humor and sweetness and a surprisingly light touch, considering the premise. And, just like Ann Marie's, Buffy's hair is always perfect. Some things never change.

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Finding a role model on a TV show is like looking for a word that begins with the letter "I" in the "Q" section of the dictionary. You're never going to find it there. Yet, we all watch so much television that it can't help but alter our perceptions of reality, and my guess would be not for the better. And since, when it comes to TV, we sometimes become what we watch, we had better start watching what we're watching. Because these days most of what's on television is not very becoming.

I'm not so much worried about the effect TV is having on our kids - that's another essay. I'm more concerned about what it's doing to the rest of us. Our imaginary role models seem to be going the same route as our sports heroes - on probation or in rehab.

I'm told "Veronica's Closet," for example, is one of the few hits of the new season. Say it isn't so. If it is, then the portrayal of women on television has hit a new low. The language on this show makes the old "Married With Children" seem like "Father Knows Best."

The women, Kirstie Alley and the usually wonderful Kathy Najimy, are like a nightmare version of Lucy and Ethel meet Beavis and Butt-Head. I can't even reveal the plot lines I've seen because they would bless no one in the retelling and possibly injure mankind. Suffice it to say that in the world of "Veronica's Closet," women are self-loathing, back biting, and self-obsessed. Thin or fat, they're a pathetic lot, and worst of all, they're not funny.

THERE always have been only three types of woman portrayed on TV, so from the get-go you've got problems. Do the math: Women times infinity equals three? I don't think so.

Nevertheless, you've got your honeys, your bunnies, and your funnies. The honeys are the ones to whom you say, "Honey, I'm home." This is a large group, encompassing all the nonthreatening wife-mom types: Mrs. Cleaver, Mrs. Walton, Mrs. Jefferson, all Bob Newhart's TV wives, even supernatural spouses like Elizabeth Montgomery on "Bewitched." And yes, there are still honeys in these latter-day '90s: Tim Allen's TV wife on "Home Improvement" and Phylicia Rashad, Bill Cosby's two-time TV wife, one of the few honey/bunny/funnies.

Then you've got your bunnies. Again a big tree with a lot of branches. Baywatch babes, Melrose Place rabbits, superpower bunnies like Xena - who's just a modern-day version of Wonder Woman, who was invented to upstage Honey West (yes, Honey was a bunny). Bunnies aren't role models. They're puerile fantasy.

Finally, the best and hardest category - the funny woman. In the '50s it was Lucy, the '60s had those "Laugh In" light heads, the '70s were the era of "Mary Tyler Moore," the '80s had "Designing Women" and "The Golden Girls."

Now it's the '90s, and comedy was never trickier or more needed. Humor is highly subjective, which is why I can't bear to be subjected to "Roseanne," "Married With Children," or "The Nanny." But then there's Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Seinfeld," Helen Hunt of "Mad About You," all the women on "Friends." Cybill is funny, though "Absolutely Fabulous," the British show it copied, was funnier. And that Mimi character on the "Drew Carey Show" is funny, in the peculiar sense.

So while there may not be many TV women to look up to, there are a few you can cast a glance at, maybe a wink of recognition. It's not a lot, but it's something. Until they bring back "That Girl," it's better than nothing.

We all know the real answer: Unplug the TV set. Want to laugh? Read a book. Want a role model? Read a book. And if you've had a hard day at work or at home and definitely don't want to get up off the couch, then read a book.

OK, maybe just one show, but no channel surfing. Then turn off the tube and read. I was thinking maybe Jane Austen. And, yes, she does make great movies.

* Madora McKenzie Kibbe is a freelance writer in New York who once wrote an episode of "The Love Boat."

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