It’s winter! What better time is there than to curl up under a blanket on the couch and binge watch some excellent TV shows which just happen to star women and be made by women?
You can celebrate diversity and relax at the same time!
Here are my top 5 favourite female-led shows to watch many episodes of while sipping hot cups of tea, or, if particularly daring, a glass of tasty red wine.
In alphabetical order because I couldn’t pick a number 1.
CALL THE MIDWIFE
Oh call the midwife, you are so very british but so very endearing. This show for me, is a fabulous antidote to all those period dramas that seem to centre around immature men and their fractured masculinities (I’m looking at you Madmen and Boardwalk Empire). It is ‘procedural’ drama with a birth of the week instead of a crime of the week, but it’s charmingly written and despite this being a show about childbirth, it rarely dwells on the whole ‘who’s sleeping with who’ question, and instead focuses on issues around poverty, healthcare, and social welfare.
The show is not perfect, tending towards melodrama occasionally, and it is strictly heteronormative and has an overwhelmingly white cast which is a little disappointing – it speaks, I think, of a timidness on the part of the writers – there is one episode in the whole of the 3 series which deals with racial differences but they could have featured it more if they had wanted to.
And I should also add dear readers, that it is set in a convent and while not overly religious in tone, God is occasionally discussed so if that kind of thing really bothers you it might not be your cup of tea. Oh but please, don’t let that put you off – there’s a strident stroppy nun who won’t allow men in the birthing room, an innocent nun who falls in love with someone she shouldn’t and a nun suffering from dementia who only talks in riddles , PLUS the actual midwives themselves (those who are not nuns) are a pretty decent bag of innocence, sexiness, ambition and bad decisions.
But honestly it is just incredibly refreshing to see plot-lines driven by women and by the decisions they make. And sometimes, often even, have those decisions not be about men, or husbands, or who to be in love with but to be about work, and family, and religion, and other people! Who knew women could be so compelling eh?
The delightful Laura Dern co-created this show with Mike White (even though, weirdly she is not credited with this in many of the reviews or press coverage of the show – gah).
Amy Jellicoe ( played by Laura Dern) is a high-powered exec who has a breakdown, then an epiphany, and then spends the rest of the series oscillating between trying to bring down the system, and trying to satisfy her raging ambition to get to the top, an ambition that sort of gave her the nervous breakdown in the first place.
Although, actually what kind of gives her the nervous breakdown is the fact that her secret lover breaks up with her. Which leads me to my main critique of this show, this is a really hard show to get a handle on, and I’m not quite sure whether this is really an empowering or disempowering portrait of a strong female character.
Amy is super smart, but also, so incredibly innocent and just plain stupid at times, and her character is really clumsy which at first I thought was just that standard lazy rom-com shorthand for ‘difficult woman’, but now I wonder if it was a metaphor for how she is just physically trapped in this corporate system that she can’t control.
She is also very much at the mercy of the broken relationships in her life, with an alcoholic ex-husband, an emotionally cold mother, her nerdy friend at work (who she looks down on for being ‘less cool’) and the ‘mean girls’ in the upstairs office, this is a real exploration of friendships and forgiveness and expectation, and Amy’s character often seems quite oblivious to the way her actions have hurt people in the past.
Despite its occasional uneven-ness in tone, the characters are three-dimensional and compelling so that you end up rooting for them regardless of their faults and personality defects. And the best part about this series are the cheesy voice-overs – a deliberate send up of the worst kind of positive affirmation slogans that are eerily close to the things we all tell ourselves when we’re trying to be better people. It’s so well written, and it sneaks a social message in there under all that drama, you’ll finish watching and wonder why you want to fist pump the air and shout ‘fight the power’.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
So when I originally watched the pilot for this show I thought it was just another show about a skinny privileged white woman looking pretty in circumstances where she should be sweaty and disheveled (I’m looking at you Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and every CSI episode ever). BUT I decided to give it another try because so many people recommended it to me and I gotta say this show is really good.
It’s complex and layered, it has a massively diverse cast (one of the few shows I’ve seen so far this year with more than one regular character of colour) and they’re not just token characters either, they’re interesting and change-able and are written so that we care about them for who they are.
It still bothers me a little that Piper is so perfectly middle class, but in all fairness it is based on a real person who is actually like that so I can’t really be too hard on them. (Question though: I bet there are at least a few other ‘true story’ type books they could have adapted out there about someone going to jail and being completely unprepared for it where the main character is NOT so traditional looking… just saying). And the show has come under fire for Piper’s binary insistence that she WAS a lesbian but is now an EX-LESBIAN, with no discussion of bisexuality or sexuality in all of its complicated glory. However, since there are so many diverse sexualities on the show, I think it’s fair to say that even though Piper’s character insists on a gay/straight dichotomy, the show does not.
And regardless of that, it’s just really good writing guys, really good writing. It draws you in, and makes you think, and makes you question your original assumptions about all of the characters, you can never quite predict where the story is going and that, my friends, is good TV right there.
So the original series of this is over 20 years old but it’s still good, I promise. It’s actually a collection of mini-series, where several episodes are devoted to solving one particularly brutal murder or murders. It stars the indomitable Helen Mirren and is unashamedly feminist in its discussions of the police force and women’s role in it. Mirren’s character of Jane Tennyson is strong, ambitious and calculating, she’s flawed and complicated and never misses a beat, and you can see the influence of her hard-ass female cop in many modern shows like The Closer, and Law and Order. This is a very british world and questions of class and social graces are something that constantly restrict and inform the characters and their motivations.
Now, there is also a recent American remake, which is not quite as considered, or as subtle. But, for the modern viewer this could be a good thing, especially if you’re used to the more bang bang shoot ’em up action thriller series that we’ve all come to know and love. The major reason this remake is so entertaining is the excellent casting, Maria Bello takes the character of Jane Tennyson (here converted into Jane Timoney) with a stalwart supporting cast who play their buffoonish male cops to perfection.
Lynda La Plante created and wrote both the british and American series and has done an admirable job of making them feel like two very different worlds; the uptight class-driven world of Jane Tennyson and the low-down neighbourhood driven dirty world of Irish-American cops and pub owners that Jane Timoney inhabits. Despite their differences (and I feel the British series is still stronger even though a little dated) La Plante’s central preoccupation shines through: what is it like to be a woman when you work in a ‘man’s world’?
Okay so if you watch this show expecting it to be another Grey’s Anatomy (which I never really got into so I’m not too fussed about that), or if you expect it to be ‘The West Wing for Girls’ then you are going to be sadly disappointed. This is a creation of hyper-melo-drama so unique that I just made up a word to describe it.
It’s trashy and intelligent at the same time. The main character is a stroppy, emotionally isolated woman who acts like a moony teenager around her on again off again lover who is the President of the Freaking United States (don’t worry I didn’t spoil anything for you, you know this fairly early on in episode 1).
It’s silly, and oh so scandalous and it does not shy away from extreme storylines so ludicrous that if you tried to explain to someone else they would walk away shaking their head.
Kerry Washington never wears the same outfit twice and always has perfect hair, in fact, everyone in this show has perfect outfits and perfect hair, always.
But, but, but, you’ll watch it and then feel dirty and then immediately download the next episode so you can watch more.
It manages to tick a few boxes in the diversity department – with two strong African American characters (although not many other regular characters of colour) and two strong gay characters – all with 3 dimensional storylines that do not centre around their sexuality or race and instead reflect their actual personalities.
And this is, again, a show about a complex, fascinating, flawed woman who’s carved a niche for herself in the ‘man’s world’ of politics. At first, I was annoyed by the fact that you never saw the president doing anything actually political, but then I realized that was part of the point. This show is about Olivia’s prowess, she drives the storylines, he is just supporting cast who gets trotted in and out in honour of romantic love interest, and he’s supposed to be boorish and uninteresting, because what’s really going on, the real interesting story here, is the power play between Olivia and Melly. Two political geniuses vying for power over a domain that each of them considers their own.
This is trashy TV at it’s best, it’s fast paced, hyperbolic and dramatic, it’s like a gossip magazine on speed. But you don’t have to feel guilty for reading it because it’s about made up people instead of poor real life celebrities. And it’s perfect for winter when all you want to do is snuggle up and turn your brain off.
SO those are my top five winter TV binge-fests.
What are yours?
(featured image By Paul Townsend from Bristol, UK [CC-BY-SA-2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)