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Op-ed: Fall Season: Strong Women, Strong TV

Op-ed: Fall Season: Strong Women, Strong TV

Op-ed: Fall Season: Strong Women, Strong TV

Network is where the women are!

In the debut episode of NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura Debra Messing’s Det. Laura Diamond says, "Spoiler alert–I’m going to shoot off your testicles." We believe her because five minutes into the episode she tased a guy’s parts when he attacked an old man in the playground where her young twin sons were playing.

In the season opener of TV’s longest-running prime time drama, NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Sgt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) leans into the face of a drug lord and whispers that she will personally see to it that he’s hanged in his cell if he doesn’t reveal the information she needs, then turns and walks out of the interrogation room.

In the debut episode of CBS’s Madam Secretary, Téa Leoni, as Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, Secretary of State and former CIA operative turned college professor tells Keith Carradine’s President Conrad Dalton that she "knows a guy" who will help her get two young Americans released from a Syrian prison where they have been told they are "going to die." (Blood-curdling screams of a torture victim could be heard from a room outside their cell.) The president says that’s not the way they do things and she says it’s why he hired her–because it’s the way she does things.


Leoni in Madam Secretary 

These three scenes typify what viewers can expect from some of the top network dramas as the fall season begins: strong women in strong roles showing men who is really in charge.

It is, in a word, awesome.

While cable TV has increasingly become the venue for shows about men, male violence and other testosterone-driven issues–think Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, Suits and of course, Breaking Bad, which ended last season, but which has been revived in a Spanish-language version–network TV has become the purview for independent female characters in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s. Roles for women have, in the past, been limited to women in their 20s and 30s. Network has opened up the prospects for women. And with long-running series like Law & Order: SVU, Grey’s Anatomy, CSI and NCIS, female characters even in a single series have ranged in age from 20s to 50s.

Strong women are needed to balance out the TV landscape and in the top two ratings’ slots–Sundays and Thursdays–women predominate.

Sunday night football is counterpointed with CBS’s Madam Secretary and that powerhouse ratings- and Emmy-grabber, The Good Wife, the sixth season of which debuted Sept. 21. On ABC, Sundays have yet more strong and also dangerous women with Once Upon a Time and Revenge, now in its fourth season.

Thursday nights are the piece de resistance on ABC with the Shonda Rhimes juggernaut: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and debuting Sept. 25 as those other two hits return, How to Get Away with Murder. Olivia Pope, Meredith Grey and Callie Torres and now Annalise Keating are among the strongest female characters on prime time. And Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey has, like Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson, grown up before our eyes. Pompeo debuted in Grey’s Anatomy 11 seasons ago when she was 33. Hargitay debuted in Law & Order: SVU in 1999 when she was 33; she’s now 50.


Hargitay as Olivia Benson 

The longevity of both Meredith Grey and Olivia Benson as characters–especially as characters who have grown and matured, moving from sex objects to objects of commanding power and respect in their respective milieu–speaks to how much women want and need strong women with whom to identify on TV. Much as we might love Game of Thrones or have loved Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or The Wire, all among the great TV series of the past decade, there’s never been a place for us in those shows. The few female characters have been fraught, whether Anna Gunn’s Emmy-winning Skyler White or Edie Falco’s Emmy-winning Carmela Soprano and Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi.

A show like The Good Wife has matched both those shows for Emmy nominations and wins, but Julianna Margulies’ portrayal of Alicia Florrick is possibly the most nuanced performance by an actress on any show currently on TV, network or cable.


Margulies in The Good Wife 

The Good Wife can match any scripted cable show for brilliance. The writing has always been superb, the plotting mostly stellar and the female characters have depth and breadth.

At 62, Emmy- and Tony-winner Christine Baranski brings archness, wit, élan and a slight world-weariness to The Good Wife’s Diane Lockhart. Emmy-winner Archie Panjabi may be 42, but her smokin’ bisexual juggernaut, Kalinda Sharma rocks a leather mini-skirt with the best of the 20somethings and is one of the most complicated female characters on TV. Mary Beth Piel, 74 and Stockard Channing, 70, are in recurring roles on The Good Wife as Peter and Alicia Florrick’s mothers and both are written as vibrant, complex and still sexual women.

What has made ABC’s Scandal a must-watch show is the charisma and depth of Kerry Washington’s lead character, Olivia Pope. Washington’s soft and sometimes even fragile looks belie the place of penultimate power from which Olivia Pope situates herself as the premiere Beltway fixer. Washington has such a range in Scandal. Like Margulies, she has to nuance her role from broken, betrayed partner of a deeply flawed man in power to dynamic power-broker to damaged daughter. It’s a tour de force performance.


Washington as Oliva Pope 

Her counterpoint–and nemesis–has been Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant, the First Lady, who has been revealed over several seasons as much more than a social and political climber, but a woman with dark secrets who puts family above everything, most especially herself.

While Washington is the unquestionable star of Scandal and Olivia is the pivot around which everything revolves, Khandi Alexander’s Mama Pope has given a simply dazzling performance throughout last season when she was revealed as a terrorist. The scene where she chews through her own wrists to create a medical emergency that ultimately frees her is absolutely astonishing and a match for any Walter White sequence.

Equally superb has been Kate Burton’s Vice President Sally Langston. The episode last season where she kills her closeted gay husband is absolutely brilliant.

The new fall season ushers in several strong female characters, Leoni’s Madam Secretary being the most hyped. The show, created by Homeland executive producer Barbara Hall, debuted to extraordinary ratings; whether viewers are looking for a template from which to gauge the 2016 presidential race or they are fans of political drama (the show is perfectly situated between CBS’s 60 Minutes, now in its 47th season and The Good Wife), the show had the highest ratings of any debut scripted series thus far with just under 15 million viewers. (Compare with HBO’s ratings dynamo Game of Thrones at 8 million viewers or Mad Men at 7million.)

Madam Secretary received mostly positive reviews, but it seems what viewers are most unsure of is Leoni, whose Elizabeth McCord is brusque, edgy, a little bit of a know-it-all and not necessarily likable. Yet it’s just that complexity–she’s as concerned about her kids, her husband and her former partner in the CIA as much as she is matters of state–that makes her realistic and believable. Viewers aren’t used to seeing women in positions of political power in real life. Is McCord a stand-in for Hillary Clinton? In part. But she is also very much Valerie Plame, the hard-edged former CIA operative outed by the Bush Administration.

Part of what makes MadamSecretary compelling is what has made Grey’s Anatomy work for years–seeing the underside of how women have to compartmentalize in a stressful arena where women are usually background, not foreground. Leoni gave a strong performance in the premiere and all the pieces are there–including her chief of staff, Nadine Tolliver, played by powerhouse actress Bebe Neuwirth and a nemesis in the President’s chief of staff, Russell Jackson (Željko Ivanek).

The Mysteries of Laura, an adaptation of the Spanish TV series Los Misterios de Laura, debuted funny and quirky, but messy. Debra Messing is terrific as Laura, who is smart, painfully aware of being out of the loop in dating (she’s getting divorced, but works with her husband who is also her captain) and trying to juggle single motherhood and an intense job.


Messing in The Myseries of Laura 

The show pivots on a new mystery each week. It’s part Columbo, part Monk, part Brooklyn Nine Nine–mostly funny, with some danger and violence thrown in. Messing is so strong in the role, the other characters tend to recede. The next few weeks will tell if more balance is created. For now, it’s a star vehicle for Messing who was fantastic in Smash and has moved far beyond her Will & Grace days.

Oct. 2, is the premiere of NBC’s Bad Judge where Grey’s Anatomy alum Kate Walsh stars as Judge Rebecca Wright, a judge on the Los Angeles Circuit Court leading a rather intense party-girl lifestyle by night while sitting on the bench by day.

The show is executive produced by Will Ferrell and Anne Heche, so is bound to be funny. Walsh, who recently co-starred on F/X’s Fargo, often played her Private Practice role for laughs. Bad Judge is positioned for success in the NBC family dramedy lineup, debuting before Parenthood, which begins its sixth and final season Sept. 25.

Fox’s new hit Gotham is primarily male-driven, since it is basically Batman, the early years, but it has several powerhouse female performances, including lesbian and bisexual characters. But it is Jada Pinkett Smith’s performance as criminal mastermind Fish Mooney that rocks the show. Pinkett Smith is spectacular as the villainess. And her role adds yet another layering to where strong women fall in the network lineup this season.

Sept. 25, How to Get Away with Murder debuts, starring Oscar -nominee and Tony-winner Viola Davis as law professor Annalise Keating. The show follows the return of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, making for an night of nothing but strong women, white and black, straight and gay, young and not-so-young.


Davis in How To Get Away With Murder 

Why is network the place for strong female characters from teenage to middle age? No one is saying. But the idea that network is over and cable is the only TV game in town could not be further from reality, especially for women. And with other new shows in the wings premiering over the next few weeks starring strong female leads from Stalker with Maggie Q to Jane the Virgin with Gina Rodriguez and Ivonne Coll, as well as the return of other old favorites, the fall season has much to offer women. And do we ever deserve it.


Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of more than 20 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe andPhiladelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novels, Ordinary Mayhem and Cutting will both be published in winter 2014. @VABVOX 

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Victoria A. Brownworth