Barbara Hall, the seasoned showrunner and novelist, raised an intriguing question last month while talking up her new CBS drama, “Madam Secretary.”
Why are so many female characters depicted as successful in their professional lives but “broken” in every other way? “Madam Secretary” is Hall’s effort to bust out of what has become a TV cliche.
Tea Leoni stars as a former CIA analyst who is reluctantly recruited as Secretary of State after her predecessor dies mysteriously. The conflict for Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord comes as she grapples with her high-pressure, 24/7 job where national security is in fact on the line every day. But she has a solid marriage with her religion professor husband, played by Tim Daly, and healthy relationships with her two kids.
“The challenge of trying to create a woman in a strong position of leadership is to not show her life being broken everywhere else,” Hall said. “That is sort of the common theme, and it is something that we, as women, have to overcome.”
Hall’s observation got me thinking about how few iconic female TV characters fit that bill.
Tyne Daly’s Mary Beth Lacey, while on the beat with “Cagney and Lacey,” had a solid marriage with her steelworker husband, Harvey.
“Murphy Brown” started with its namesake fresh out of rehab, but for the most part Candice Bergen’s crusading journo was comfortable in her own skin, even if others in the real-world weren’t so keen on her decision to become a single mother.
Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor of “Friday Night Lights” was a very effective guidance counselor and principal and still managed to be a good partner to Coach Taylor. Who can forget her “I have been a coach’s wife for 18 years” moment in the finale?
For sure, a big reason dysfunction reigns in the lives of TV characters male and female is the need for conflict and compelling storylines. Olivia Pope’s adventures on “Scandal” wouldn’t have been half as exciting if she hadn’t been in the midst of a crazy-making affair with the Commander in Chief. Alicia Florrick has been taking two steps forward, one step back with her personal-professional life tango since “The Good Wife” began. And it’s hard to complain about the lack of nuanced female protagonists while “Good Wife,” “The Americans,” “Mad Men,” “Homeland” and “Parenthood,” among others, are on the air.
But Hall still makes a good point. I thought of her observation while digesting the incredible performances by Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in “Fight,” the third episode of this season’s “Masters of Sex.”
This episode cemented the spot of Caplan’s Virginia Johnson on the list of wonderfully unpredictable female characters. (No surprise that the incisive, economical script came from a femme writer, Amy Lippman. And due credit goes to Michael Apted for skillful directing.)
Johnson doesn’t have it easy trying to punch her way out of the secretary box in the world of late 1950s medical research. She has to fight for recognition for her contributions to her boss’ groundbreaking sex research, and she has to navigate a very strange affair with said boss.
But as the storyline in “Fight” reveals, Johnson is far more in touch with herself (literally and figuratively) than Sheen’s esteemed William Masters. Johnson leads the two through the role-playing calisthenics that drove the episode and revealed so much about the source of Masters’ repression.
Johnson is a captivating character because she is courageously comfortable in her own skin at a time when we have been taught to believe that women were mostly mousy hausfraus. That makes for compelling television drama — in this or any era.