2012: The Year Little Girls on TV Stopped Being Annoying

Riddle: “Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet” Answer: ” … Just the people who are in charge of that decision.” It’s one of the best jokes on one of the best comedies, perfectly delivered — and apparently written — by a little girl. But Jane on Louie wasn’t the only elementary-school-aged girl tearing it up this season. It seemed like everywhere we looked, there was another fantastic wide-eyed munchkin, defying every kid-actor disappointment, rejecting the limited depictions of girlhood. To gaze at the TV landscape this year was to see a nation of Lisa Simpsons. It was glorious.

Maybe the biggest break-out comedy star of the year is Bebe Wood, who plays the sage, quirky Shania on The New Normal. She’s busted out a Cher impression, donned a Grey Gardens scarf and impersonated Little Edie, and delivered what could have been really schlocky wisdom voice-overs that instead played as light and gentle. On a show that’s still about 40 percent horrible, Shania’s the most reliably funny character by far.

And The New Normal was not the only show this season to feature an unconventional family that dotes on its youngest female member. Ben and Kate, so earnest where Normal can be so nasty, also features a charming little girl, though Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) doesn’t have quite as much to do as Shania. Maybe the most striking thing about both the characters — and the actresses — is how not annoying they are. Sitcom kids, boys and girls alike, are notoriously awful. There just too much, or they’re written too precociously, or the acting reeks of stage moms pantomiming scenes from off camera. But there’s anti-preciousness in these performances that’s almost shocking. They are cute! But they are tolerable, too!

On the strictly naturalistic side, there’s Lily and Jane on Louie, the constant, accidental truth-tellers on a show all about admitting to and exposing ugly truths. “You’re fat, daddy,” they tell Louie. Why don’t you have a girlfriend, they ask. Why don’t I, he wonders. In addition to the miraculous gorilla joke, Jane’s responsible for another iconic moment on this season of Louie. At the beginning of “Dad,” there she stands, playing the violin. It’s advanced musicianship, beautiful and surprising (and again, shockingly un-annoying considering that it is a small child playing a violin), until Louie yells at her to knock it off. Oh right; this is Louie, and this is Louis CK, and this is a story about how the grind of domesticity and child-rearing can strip splendor off anything. Not that every daughter grinds her parents down. On Bob’s Burgers, we get the perky yet bloodthirsty Louise, as determined and maniacal as a supervillain, but as supportive and loyal as any parent or sibling could hope for. (My heart belongs to Tina Belcher, but she’s a teenager and thus does not qualify for this story. Sorry, Tina.)

It’s worth mentioning here that all these little girls are white. There are very few children of color on prime-time TV, period; fewer still are young girls, and none have a central role as a character or a break-out role as an actress. It’s one of the many things we’d like to see change on TV in 2013, though frankly we’ll be surprised if it does.

But hey, TV can be full of surprises. Because if there was any child who defined television 2012, it wasn’t the carefully crafted Sally Draper or the enterprising, courageous Arya Stark. It was Honey Boo Boo. Alana Thompson somehow surfed a wave of negativity right into backlash-to-the-backlash, going from maligned pageant creature to heralded spokeschild for “real” American families, giggling her way to pig-cuddling stardom. Keep your sugar and spice. These days, little girls are made of “sketti” and fame.

2012: The Year Little Girls Took Over TV