More characters have baggage-filled backstories
TV series are frequently filled with men battling inner demons while women provide the support system or, more often, spur the turmoil.
Yet recently some of the best parts popping up for actresses have been characters grappling with their own bad juju. “United States of Tara” star Toni Collette contends with multiple personalities brought forth by distant trauma, January Jones submerges her feelings on “Mad Men,” and Anna Gunn proves typical housewives have hidden devils on “Breaking Bad,” just to name a few.
Producer-creator Diablo Cody says Tara has been living with this primal wound her entire life. She wants to be a good wife, mother and person, but she’s faced with the universal human dilemma.
“We are all damaged in some way, and how do you cope with that?” Cody asks. “I want to see her live, make friends and (open) up next season to see how she interacts with the world. These characters will have adventures and epiphanies, but at the core is this inescapable truth that Tara is sick. When she leaves that cocoon created for her at home, it can be dangerous for her.”
“Mad Men,” which emphasizes the male-dominated workplace of the 1960s, inspires auds because it also gives value to women characters dealing with unspeakable trauma. Instead of using Jones as an attractive accessory for her husband, Don, she plays a character filled with internal struggles. Betty must reconcile her own damaged feelings of self-worth as she figures a way to forgive a cheating husband who may not, in fact, be in love with her.
“In the past few years, (TV writers) have decided to write more in-depth characters (for women) and not just use them as window dressing,” Jones says. “Betty hid all her emotions. She said one thing and felt the opposite.”
Then the cracks began to emerge, such as Betty blowing away the neighbor’s birds with a shotgun. Those brief glimpses into Betty’s soul revealed a tormented woman locked in a world where she was supposed to be grateful for a husband providing a privileged lifestyle.
“She should want this life, but it isn’t making her happy,” Jones says. “Don is trapped in his own ad campaign. He designed this perfect world and cast this wife, but he’s attracted to women who are the exact opposite, who are strong-willed and independent.”
“Breaking Bad” explores the contemporary woman trapped in a similar stay-at-home-mom role with Gunn as Walt’s wife, Skyler.
“She’s the kind of person who wants to do the right thing, but not someone who keeps to that high road,” Gunn says. “Skyler had all kinds of dreams and aspirations, but she had to put that all aside when she had a child with special needs.”
Now, Skyler is at a point where she wants some sense of power back into her life. Her deep sense of dissatisfaction may be the reason why she’s reaching out to her boss, Ted.
“She feels invisible, which is exactly the kind of thing that happens to stay-at-home moms,” Gunn says. “This is an interesting role for an actor, to have all these submerged feelings.”
Cody believes these tortured characters are gaining ground in TV series, but slowly.
“Even though we’re seeing these amazing characters emerge, we still have work to do,” she says. “As long as the majority voice in screenwriting is coming from men, it will always be more about men’s experiences. I’m not saying men can’t write these stories, but we need women for the full range to come out.”