Friday, March 30, 2012
I know I’m a couple summers late on my “Men Are Over” trend piece, but I keep coming across complaints about the relative lack of interesting women on television. It’s like nobody watches Bravo any more. While my personal tastes tend away from Walter White’s bluster and toward Skyler’s more conflicted descent, even I’d admit Breaking Bad is the poster child for the manly men shows like Luck, The Walking Dead, and Sons of Anarchy with relatively few, albeit strong, roles for women (particularly Gemma Teller, Andrea and now the mysterious Michonne). Walt, Jesse, Hank, Gus, Mike, and Saul simply overshadow whatever Skyler and Marie are left with, and I hasten to add that this is hardly a criticism of a show about masculinity. That said, if there’s inequality, it’s almost certainly confined to serious hourlong dramas, and I stipulate "serious" because soaps, dramedies, and young adult fare are run by women.
But look at the more gender-balanced dramas and a pretty clear trend emerges. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Treme are consistently noted for their female characters. January Jones towers over Mad Men season two the way Elisabeth Moss does for season four, and Christina Hendricks resonates far beyond the boundaries of her screen-time. Don Draper may be the clear lead, but spots two through four go to the women, and even the supporting cast of Sally, Trudy, Bobby, Rachel, and Faye (and now, presumably, Megan) refuse to be ignored in any serious account of the show’s indelible figures. Westeros is so sprawling it’s hard to get a handle on who the favorites are, but it looks like Arya and Daenerys are right there with Tyrion in the hearts of fans, almost certainly the three meatiest roles now that season one has taken its toll. And Treme for me is no contest. Ladonna, Janelle, and Annie, and to a lesser extent stalwart supporter Toni, are the stars of the show, both in terms of narrative heft and performance. Even the Wendell Pierce partisans can’t deny the fascinating women of the show.
Which brings us to the female-led dramas. Womanhood is essential to the fabric of The Good Wife, Homeland, and Revenge. There are a fair number of other female-led shows like The Killing, True Blood, and The Closer, but I won’t pretend they belong on a list of television’s most interesting roles. But dramedies like Shameless and Glee pick up the slack.
And once you look at half-hour comedies the picture looks even better for women. For every Modern Family PMS episode, there’s a three-headed comedy bloc (The Middle, Suburgatory, Happy Endings) shaking its heads, saying, “Not cool,” to say nothing of Cougar Town. NBC has 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, while some of the strongest characters on Community and The Office are women, and I haven’t even resorted to using Whitney and Chelsea. In fact, it’s hard to come up with even a handful of decent comedies where the men outshine the women.
Now I'll put my pixels where my mouth is. Almost exactly a year ago TV Squad made a list of the 100 best female TV characters of all time, and I supplemented with 25 of my own. This year, to demonstrate how many rich female characters are on TV right now, I have 25 women just from this season. And I'm handicapped by just seeing the first two hours of Mad Men (which make a provisional case for Megan and Joan, though I'll leave them off for now); being behind on Justified and Shameless (whose Emmy Rossum was remarkable last season); not watching Downton Abbey and other potentially relevant series; and compiling this list just before the debuts of Girls, Veep, Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, and whatever else NBC wants to try out before May. Quick note: There are ties, because I wanted to show the game-makers that they don’t own me, but for the most part I went with one character per show.
25. Virginia Chance (Martha Plimpton) – Raising Hope
Like Mike & Molly, Raising Hope is a show recognized by Emmy only through its lead actress, and in both cases I’d say Emmy chose correctly. But where Melissa McCarthy anchors everything (and by “everything” I mean a pile-up of sitcom clichés wasting whatever sets Mike & Molly apart), Martha Plimpton is elevated by her terrific ensemble. Sometimes she’s the smart one, sometimes she’s the moral center, sometimes she’s the essential sweetness that defines Greg Garcia’s worldview, but Virginia is always worth watching.
24. Dr. Lola Spratt (Erinn Hayes) – Childrens Hospital
I could as easily have gone with Dr. Cat Black or Megan Mullally’s Chief or Dr. Valerie Flame (although she is technically a man, and a version of Jon Hamm playing himself, at that), but while everyone on Childrens Hospital is game for the latest absurdity, season 3 is especially rich for Dr. Lola Spratt. The premiere is all about her saving the day, the ‘70s flashback episode casts her as the first female doctor, and all the while she’s central to the everyone-moves-in-together house and the revolving door romances.
23. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) – Breaking Bad
Like Jesse, Skyler’s descent has been partly from riding on Walter’s horse and partly from taking the reins herself, but for me, one of the primary draws of season 4 has been seeing Skyler go full-criminal. At first, she isn’t willing to face the brutal drug trade she’s involved in so she treats it like a game, counting cars and play-acting fake transactions and covering her ass (and Ted’s and Walter’s and…) by playing the ditzy accountant. But by “Crawl Space” and beyond, she realizes that whatever level-5 shitstorm hits their home, she helped invite it.
22. Megan (Kristen Bell) – Unsupervised
The first of four awkward teens on my list, so I guess I have a type (and it’s adorkable!). But Megan is possibly a singular figure, the new adolescent who’s actually afraid of the changes going on inside and around her. She’d rather stay home with mom than go to a party, and her best friend, recently dubbed “Rocket Tits” for guessable reasons, is possibly leaving her behind. Meanwhile, Megan’s a type-A resume-hound with an inexplicable crush on a realistically depicted bad boy (read: total loser), and Kristen Bell typically turns every line into comic gold. Bonus: There’s a Veronica Mars homage—“I’m gonna find out who did this, and I’m gonna go ape-shit, so watch out!”—that absolutely lives up to Bell’s former feminist drama.
21. Pamela (Pamela Adlon) – Louie
I don’t have anything against Chelsea (in either incarnation) or Whitney (in either incarnation), but Pamela Adlon has a leg up on the other abrasive messes primarily because she’s written so sensitively by Louis CK in his Humanism After Dark short story cycle. And Pamela Adlon plays her so confidently that you never feel the artifice, whether she’s taking him apartment-hunting or trying to spare him the embarrassment of confessing his love repeatedly.
20. Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) – Archer
If there’s a TV character more in touch with herself than Pam—phrasing!—then I haven’t met her. Only Malory and Ray had as strong a season three as Pam, who it turns out is big on the drag race circuit and is everything Archer could want in bed. She’s always been confident and funny, but she was never so vital.
19. Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) – The Hour
If The Hour never comes close to its irresponsible “Mad Men in the ‘50s” headlines, The Hour focusing primarily on a tidy narrative and Mad Men focusing primarily on everything else, Romola Garai at least lives up to the example Mad Men has set for fascinating midcentury women. I’m a sucker for competence in my TV characters, and Bel certainly fits into the Joan Holloway/Leslie Knope mode there, but she’s also young and figuring out who she wants to be. In the hands of Garai, that’s far more captivating than the Cold War.
18. Hershe Heartshe (Kristen Schaal) – The Heart, She Holler
The Heart, She Holler was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it miniseries on Adult Swim whose story of rural, in-bred, power-hungry idiots makes for a surreal political satire with more teeth than HBO could dream of. Heather Lawless’ Hambrosia Heartshe is hysterical as one of the daughters vying for the mayorship, she through her formidable psionic power, but Kristen Schaal’s Hershe is somewhat more trenchant with a bawdy performance that frames her every scene as a gender struggle (whether she realizes it or not). You’d be forgiven for forgetting what Schaal is capable of by the way 30 Rock has treated her, but Hershe Heartshe is one searing comic creation.
17. Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox) – Cougar Town
A season ago Laurie was the clear breakout, and then it was Ellie’s turn, but it’s time to acknowledge the live wire that is Courteney Cox. I’ve never had the shrill allergy that many seem to have with actresses like her, and I maintain that her wry take on aging elevates the broad early episodes. But it’s increasingly clear how essential Cox’s mania is to Cougar Town. Her crazy mom moments are such sincere, compound expressions of love that even her antics are tethered onto the show’s skeleton, and her bossiness is often punished. Jules is an intense and passionate meddler, yes, but what would the show be without her loneliness at the core?
16. Samantha Bee (Herself) – The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Long my favorite Daily Show correspondent, Samantha Bee continues to bring her sassy, blonde, girl-brain to recurring issues like gender inequality and gay discrimination while participating in the show’s ongoing coverage of the Republican primary. If you haven’t seen her scattered shots all over the area surrounding a Park Slope food coop, you’re in for a treat.
15. Max Black and Caroline Channing (Kat Dennings & Beth Behrs) – 2 Broke Girls
While I continue to see 2 Broke Girls as a stylized and equally thorough exploration of class mired in a swamp of Michael Patrick King puns and equally uninspired camerawork, I can’t imagine giving up a show with such a strong central relationship. It’s not just Kat Dennings’ sarcastic Max keeping this show afloat, but also Beth Behrs’ totally capable Caroline. Whenever they’re not made to invest in forced puns, it’s truly amazing what these two can do.
14. Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) – Community
I don’t find much impressive about the performances on Community—Shirley and Pierce are afterthoughts, Alison Brie insists on keeping Annie relatively shallow (while her Trudy Campbell does wonders with limited screentime), and Danny Pudi would be adrift without the Asperger’s crutch (as it is he’s the intolerable Magnitude with the benefit of something resembling psychology)—but like everyone else, I’m in love with Gillian Jacobs’ Britta. Maybe it’s a good thing she’s the only one not tied to any ongoing storylines (unless you count being sex buddies with Jeff), the better for her to transcend any preordained role. Britta is just comically failing to figure out how to be an adult, and Jacobs' performance is so authentic that—take it from someone who knows—it singlehandedly makes Community worth watching.
13. Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) – Glee
I think I just liked Glee later than everyone else. Not longer, not deeper, just at a different time, the much reviled Season 2 that I defended at San Jacinto on the grounds of its scrapbook genius. Nowadays I don’t know what the hell is going on, the show simultaneously getting more sophisticated and much less, but through it all, Santana remains a powerful force, and not only because she rocked Adele with the Way Better Than New Directions Singers also known as the Troubletones. Like everything that Glee thinks is a story, Santana’s acceptance of herself as a lesbian creaks and farts like a ramshackle rocking chair, but Rivera owns even the cheesiest moments, making the isolated peaks of profundity all the more moving. Better still, she’s no stereotype, and best of all, she agrees with me on the merits of one Finn Hudson.
12. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) – 30 Rock
Even though every other TV writer simultaneously grew up to realize how disappointing their collective hero was a couple months ago, I’m with Emily Nussbaum: Liz Lemon was and is one of the most fascinating women on television. Moreover, she’s growing, despite shallow once-overs that mistake her relationship with Jack as that of a child and God. What matters to me is not that Liz Lemon is a role model for women but that she is a full and complicated human being. Whatever 30 Rock’s latter day failings, Liz remains ridiculous yet basically competent, at home and at work, and Tina Fey remains hilarious.
11. Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz) – Bob’s Burgers
It was painful picking Tina over Louise, who is on a roll so far this year, but Tina was the breakout for me last year and promises to see some curious growth this year as a self-proclaimed “smart, strong, sensual woman.” Thing is, she is smart and strong and—oh, God—sensual, awkward on the outside but weirdly together on the inside, and that’s what makes her so interesting as she pines for the (gay?) boy across the street and negotiates to get her savings out safely during a hostage crisis at the bank.
10. Lisa Shay (Allie Grant) – Suburgatory
Suburgatory has such a deep ensemble that settling on Lisa was a coin-toss. Tessa Altman ain’t your daddy’s disaffected teen, Dallas Royce is the cast ninja, her precision never failing to find the comedy, and Dalia Royce is Exhibit A in the show’s look at the people inside the stereotypes. But Lisa Shay is the wild card, and Allie Grant plays her like a rock star. She can smack sense into Tessa and open up to Malik as easily as she can streak through the neighborhood on Thanksgiving or immediately play into Dalia’s faux-friendship. She’s almost never the center, but she’s by far the most complicated character, and her weirdness is Suburgatory at its most honest.
9. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) – Homeland
Unlike, well, everyone with prestige cable, I think Homeland is more promising than successful so far—about which more to come—but most of that has to do with the show failing to live up to Claire Danes’ electric, unified work as the mentally unstable, guilt-ridden, creative, capable CIA agent Carrie Mathison. This is a full performance, a three-dimensional sack of organs with fears and desires independent of whatever narrative tricks are at play. Showtime is full of female antiheroes, each in her own static Purgatory, but Danes rides through town like a madwoman, never knowing quite where she’s going but finding another way nonetheless.
8. Penny Hartz (Casey Wilson) – Happy Endings
Say what you will about Eliza Coupe’s commitment or Elisha Cuthbert’s goofiness, none of them quite match Casey Wilson’s detail. Her inflections and eye-rolls and sad faces and motormouths and horse-baths give every single phrase its due like some modern heir to silent comedy. It’s also interesting how being the hapless friend everyone’s rooting for kind of moved Penny into center stage to take the place of the would-be bride and groom as the lead, albeit barely in this formidable phalanx.
7. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) – Parks and Recreation
Maybe Leslie Knope is too low, but like Alicia Florrick (not listed on account of The Good Wife disintegrating and Alicia getting deboned with respect to her cheating husband and her wannabe squeaky clean lawyering), Leslie Knope has had a rocky year. Most notably, her campaign for city council, which should have been a goldmine, has somehow sucked the hypercompetence out of her and replaced it with infatuation. She’s still basically the Leslie Knope that would have topped this list last year, especially in the first half of season 4 which was only tangentially focused on her campaign. And I should point out that Parks had far to fall because it has been on a such a roll, but if Leslie is down a little, the slack has been picked up by April Ludgate Dwyer’s superb year and Kathryn Hahn’s riveting, hilarious campaign manager.
6. Ladonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander) – Treme
Maybe she has the dramatic advantage of successive tragedy, but Khandi Alexander positively crackles as she tries to keep it together year after year after Katrina. Ladonna’s ferocious but also, as season two horrifically demonstrates, human. Which only makes room for Treme’s community spirit to come in, which I don’t mean as some new age feelgoodery but rather as a very concrete defining image: Ladonna collapsing into the arms of a police officer outside her bar, unmistakably recalling the first season scene where she falls into Toni's arms in the shipping container. At first she struggles, then she deactivates, but somewhere in there it turns into a woman hanging on for dear life. From “get your hands off me” to “don’t let me go.” It’s the heart of Treme.
5. Emily Thorne (Emily Van Camp) – Revenge
I can’t believe how perfect Emily Van Camp is for Revenge. Her mastery of soap opera stares and loaded smiles outpaces everything her Emmy rivals do with speeches and tears, and I haven’t even mentioned her own preposterous speeches about vengeance and loyalty and kidnapping pesky therapists. Revenge is profoundly solemn, but you spend so much time laughing with delight at Emily’s latest manipulation or some delicate, delicious conversation with her that it feels as vivacious as any other human drama. There’s also real pathos somewhere inside the stone-faced samurai, and Van Camp knows just how to hint at it, letting her play the wounded little girl and the righteous puppeteer all at once.
4. Fiona Wallice (Lisa Kudrow) – Web Therapy
I’ve already tweeted everyone’s ears off about the genius of Lisa Kudrow’s narcissism, but as one of twelve viewers of Web Therapy, it’s worth reiterating that if you’re complaining about no interesting female characters on television, you are probably overlooking Kudrow’s latest satirical masterpiece, the Showtime comedy that reveals the shallowness of all the rest. Web Therapy operates on many levels, but through it all is Fiona Wallice, a webcam therapist who operates in three-minute sessions who’s at once tremendously bored with postmodern ennui and extremely skilled at pinpointing psychological concerns, if she can stop focusing on her own goals for a moment. Basically Kudrow is picking up where The Comeback left off, savagely lampooning a perennial target in the land of individualism.
3. Sue Heck (Eden Sher) – The Middle
For two years Sue Heck was the pure, unbridled can-do spirit of American mythology, but she’s been growing up all along, and this season, she’s starting to rebel. What’s amazing is that it’s still the same Sue, but now she can be as sullen as Axl every now and then, and she’ll try to sneak into an R-rated movie, and she’ll find some clothes that aren’t from the Lisa Frank section of Kids R Us, and every bit of it is as moving as when the old Sue perseveres through a birthday everyone’s forgotten. It’s a new side of her that only enriches an already unusual character. And with Frankie Heck living more of an “If at first you don’t succeed, good enough” kind of mantra, The Middle is essential viewing for those seeking great female TV characters. In a just world it’d be essential viewing for Emmy voters, too.
2. Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) – Mildred Pierce
Kate Winslet has never more fully inhabited a role than in Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and what’s more, it’s a story specifically about a woman’s role as told through a woman’s picture, a good, old-fashioned melodrama. But there’s very little distance in Winslet’s full-throated performance as a single mother trying to find a way through the Depression; she commits to everything with the same heightened naturalism, whether crafting the most sumptuous pie ever filmed or falling into Veda’s snake pit (a figurative term here, but probably a literal one, too). Even at the end Mildred the miniseries refuses to sacrifice the deeply wounded character of Mildred for some surface-feminism ideal, which only cements its dedication to women’s independence.
1. Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) – Enlightened
Play us off, past Brandon: From the hybrid personality to the logical contortions, Amy may as well be a real, live sphinx. And for someone who’s made a career in the Iraq years of debasing herself, from Inland Empire’s ugly chic to Year of the Dog’s coldness to Recount’s grotesquerie, Dern fucking immolates herself. Amy isn’t even like those other characters; she’s an entirely new expression of Dern’s physicality, whose banshee “I will kill you, motherfucker!” freeze-frame is heartfelt, funny, and sad all at once, whose dance club crimp is unwittingly absurd, whose calm reflection bridges the gap from The Stepford Wives to the self-help section. Character study strikes me as not art but practice, and it’s rarely justified by the kinds of static shows that try it, but the way Dern keeps surprising us, burrowing into this persona like Manny Farber’s prize termite, would be enough to animate the entire corpse.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 1:46 PM