TV is experiencing all kinds of fascinating growing pains: Half-hour shows can be tragic, hourlong shows can be comedies, and people from a wide range of classes, cultures, and backgrounds can be protagonists.
And women are at the heart of many of those changes, as both creators and stars.
Progress hasn’t come nearly far enough. By most reputable statistical measures, very little forward movement has been made in the last couple of decades, especially in the ranks of executive producers, writers, and creators. It would be progress for women to constitute one-third of any of those groups.
But in a media landscape dominated by Shondaland Thursdays, “Queen Sugar,” Arya Stark, Cookie Lyon, and streaming comedies like “One Mississippi” and “Transparent,” there can be little doubt that the women behind and in front of the camera are having more cultural impact than ever.
Women were, of course, part of the TV industry a decade ago, but outside of certain niches, their stories and perspectives were rarely at the center of the most celebrated narratives. Many cable channels in the early to mid-2000s made their reputations on the backs of an array of conflicted male characters, men whose status anxiety and need for affirmation often made them rash, violent and full of contradictory urges. It was a great era for television, but to be at the center of an ambitious narrative 10 or 12 or even five years ago, characters often had to be broken and selfish, and it sure helped if they were male.
That’s changing, and in the past few years in particular, a number of networks have grown hearteningly dependent on an array of female characters, writers and producers. Comedy Central, so long a bastion of bros, is now more known for the array of funny women on its air, and the among the most anticipated series of the fall were “Insecure” and “Better Things,” HBO and FX programs from female creators. Samantha Bee is undoubtedly more important to this election cycle than “The Daily Show,” a scenario that was hard to imagine a decade ago.
How perfect, then, that “Gilmore Girls” will be back this year. The show, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, was something of an oasis during the dude-centric aughts. It’s heartening that Lorelai and Rory are returning to a TV landscape that they quietly influenced as much as — if not more than — “Mad Men” and its brethren.
“Gilmore Girls” was partly powered by pain and difficult connections, and its characters made more than their share of mistakes. But it was, at its heart, a celebration of adaptability, resilience, and the kind of patience and endurance most women employ at work and at home. It wasn’t just that it was created by a woman and starred complex female characters; it celebrated the kinds of survival tactics and sanity-saving strategies that many, many women are familiar with.
“The CW, especially under the leadership of president Mark Pedowitz, has created an empire based on the depictions of can-do women who work hard and are, on a fundamental level, sincere.”
Scripted programs that celebrate female competence and complexity — and that still manage to be funny, imaginative, and poignant — are still more rare than they should be. But not on the CW, the network that descended from the WB, the original home of “Gilmore Girls.”
Partly because being female-focused had long been in its DNA, the CW was showcasing memorable female characters and creators well before other networks began regularly doing so. Especially under the leadership of president Mark Pedowitz, it has created an empire based on the depictions of can-do women who work hard and are, on a fundamental level, sincere. It’s not that complicated female characters don’t exist outside the CW — far from it. But much of the network’s success has been built on its reliance upon an array of women who are a little bit square, and who still get to be challenging, flawed, and surprising.
The CW has carved out a distinctive niche by using hourlong shows that use music, telenovelas, superpowers and comedic flourishes to explore serious ideas about duty, the pressure to conform, ambition and frustrated expectations; these are all themes that have special relevance for women (and thus it’s a particular relief that most of its shows return this month, which has been challenging for everyone, but particularly women).
In any event, what a difference a decade makes: The characters at the center of “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “No Tomorrow” are, essentially, anti-antiheroes. But as Rebecca Bunch of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” might say, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.
Some characters on the network are actual superheroes: This season, “Supergirl” migrated to the CW, which is where it probably should have been all along. It’s too soon to tell whether it will stay aloft in its new home — I lean toward the idea that the ensemble around star Melissa Benoist could use further fine-tuning, and the show needs more compelling villains. But there was a sprightly, energized air to the Oct. 10 premiere; the show felt more sure of itself.
It emanated the kind of sturdy reliability the network’s shows are often known for. Part of the charm of the Season Two premiere emanated from Supergirl’s interactions with her more famous cousin, Superman (Tyler Hoechlin). The duo might hail from Krypton, but they did something that’s very common on CW shows, which remain relatable no matter how heightened their premises. Superman and Supergirl worked diligently to solve a problem, and it’s this blend of earnestness, genre competence and humor that often makes the network’s fare addictive.
Kara lives a squeaky-clean life, but none of the women in the CW-verse are perfect. You might say that Liv Moore of “iZombie” has a superpower of a sort: She can’t die, given that she’s already dead. But much of that rewarding show — which is a drama, but a very funny one — functions as a metaphor for depression. Something awful (a zombie infection) happened to Liv, her life fell apart, and it’s been a difficult slog to rebuild a new life, and her struggle that involves many secrets, mistakes and disappointments. But like “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “iZombie” wraps its difficult core truths in the kinds of distracting and amusing metaphors that make the characters’ pain bearable — but no less affecting.
“No Tomorrow” is the latest CW show to star an affable, hard-working woman. It’s too soon to tell whether it’ll be as good as the rest of the network’s best fare (and it’d be welcome if women of color were cast in more of these roles, and not just on the CW). But the show’s low-key pilot was engaging, in part because it pondered ideas about mortality, ambition and unconventional coping strategies.
It’s not easy to create the kinds of winning protagonists — male and female — seen on the CW; in the wrong hands, they could easily slide toward self-righteousness and superficiality. It’s also worth noting that it can be just as difficult — if not more difficult — to foment drama around characters who are scrupulously trying to do the right thing most of the time (its virtuoso ability to do just that is part of the reason “Jane the Virgin” is one of the best shows on TV). Anti-heroes are, in their own ways, plot-creation machines: They recklessly careen into the lives and feelings of other people without much regard for the consequences, and those consequences help create new stories.
In the ranks of CW women, the manipulative Rebecca from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”* veers closest to Don Draper territory; as one character notes in that comedy’s excellent Oct. 21 Season Two premiere: “You mess with people’s lives and pass that off as quirky.” Tough but fair.
But Rebecca shows up to work every day and usually wins cases for the law firm that employs her. Some CW heroines work not just one but two jobs, and it’s unclear to me whether Kara Danvers or Jane Villanueva ever sleep. These women don’t have time for certain kinds of drama, yet their adventures are so often crisply entertaining. And if they ever met, they might realize how much they have in common.
*In case you need them, here are some reasons to binge Season One of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”