Women revamp TV roles rules

Females show strength before and behind TV camera

What do Edie Falco, Patricia Heaton, Courteney Cox, Jenna Elfman and Julianna Margulies have in common?

Not only did these actresses return to TV in buzzed-about roles in 2009, but they did so in series driven by female creatives. From Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” to CBS’ “The Good Wife,” this season’s fresh crop of Golden Globe hopefuls are populated with women executive producers, writers and showrunners.

That confluence of female talent in front of and behind the camera means many of the old rules no longer apply.

“The time has passed for characters that are just ‘the wife of,’ ” says Jessika Borsiczky Goyer, an executive producer of ABC’s “FlashForward,” whose lead female character is balancing marriage, motherhood, a medical career and the repercussions of a mysterious global crisis. “The audience is bored of those old types of portrayals, and so are the women who are in a position to do something about them.”

Of course, strong female characters aren’t new to television. But what sets today’s portrayals apart is the way in which they’ve been uniquely tailored to reflect the issues and realities of the modern woman. These women aren’t just juggling careers, families and the quest for personal fulfillment; they’re doing so in the midst of increasingly uncertain times.

On the ABC comedy “The Middle,” Heaton’s Frankie is a Midwestern mom struggling to keep her family afloat in the recession-hit suburbs. The lead character on NBC’s nursing drama “Mercy” is an Iraq War vet haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an age where political sex scandals are all too frequently in the headlines, Margulies’ “Good Wife” — which is run by Michelle King with her husband and co-creator, Robert — deals with the fallout from her politician husband’s very public infidelity.

Likewise, CBS’ “Accidentally on Purpose,” executive produced by Claudia Lonow, and ABC’s “Cougar Town” also deal in sexual politics, though of a very different sort. Their characters are successful professional women who hook up with — and in “Accidentally’s” case, become pregnant by — younger men.

“I thought the concept was really relevant to what a lot of women are going through,” says Cox, star and executive producer of “Cougar Town.”

“Women are feeling more confident with themselves, but the guys Jules’ age wanna go out with younger girls and older guys wanna settle down. When you’re recently divorced, you’re not ready for that, so you’ve gotta have some fun, and younger guys are fun.”

TV’s post-“Sex and the City” women often get to have just as much fun — and be as deliciously complicated — as the guys. The women in charge make sure of it.

“Watching TV as a woman, I haven’t always recognized myself,” admits “Mercy” creator/executive producer Liz Heldens. “My girlfriends and I are rowdy, and I felt like it was appropriate to write women who drink beer and get in trouble because they’re the ones making mistakes, not because their men are.”

The women on cable — notably Tanya, the female pimp of HBO’s “Hung” and the pill-popping, adulterous “Nurse Jackie” — are even more flawed and morally ambiguous, much to their executive producers’ relief and delight.

“Tanya is our mouthpiece for the creatively yearning person who’s stuck in a non-creative place,” she says.

With the critically adored Falco onboard, “Jackie’s” executive producers, Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem, felt free to craft their dream character.

“We thought, let’s take some­body and just load her up with all these roles — nurse, mother, wife, adulterer — (because) we, as women, are all asked to wear a million different hats,” Brixius says. “We all know that feeling of ‘I have to be all these things to all these people.’ ”

“To take the things we went through, and now be able to tell stories about them and get paid for it is amazing,” says Wallem, before adding with a laugh, “I wish somebody would’ve told us this before we went through our rehabs.”

Likewise, “The Middle’s” Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline consider the show they run together their own brand of therapy.

“We are Frankie,” says Heline, referring to the lead character. “We’re tired moms (with) a huge workload. The good news is, anything that happens to us we can write into the show.”

Heisler adds, “If it feels real, that’s because it comes from women who’ve lived it.”

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