No matter which actresses win noms and awards from the TV Academy this Emmy season, it will be at the expense of several dozen other incredibly talented performers. Television’s range of opportunities in peak TV has meant that performing heavyweights of all stripes have found a niche somewhere in the 400-plus scripted shows currently airing or streaming somewhere in the ether. But with actresses especially, the concentration and depth of talent currently on the television bench is unparalleled; it’s an embarrassment of brilliant performances.
In the limited series competition alone, two sets of Academy Award winners for lead actress are going toe-to-toe in series that emphasized the fraught nature of female relationships: “Feud” on FX, starring Jessica Lange (1995) and Susan Sarandon (1996), and “Big Little Lies” on HBO, starring Nicole Kidman (2003) and Reese Witherspoon (2006). In a wonderful metatextual flourish, “Feud” stars Lange and Sarandon play screen sirens Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, themselves duking it out for awards and acclaim. Except, of course, it’s not that metatextual: Crawford and Davis came to blows because of the shrinking number of roles for women their age on the big screen. Is it any wonder that in 2017, the actress categories are stacked with women of that certain post-ingénue age, displaying titanic skill on the small screen?
Indeed, the scope of telling stories about women over 40 has never been broader. The comedy race includes “Grace and Frankie” stars Jane Fonda (a two-time Oscar-winner herself, in 1972 and 1979) and Lily Tomlin (supporting actress nom in 1976), both in their 70s. Actresses including Allison Janney, Minnie Driver and Tracee Ellis Ross bring complex narratives to mothers, grandmothers and long-suffering wives in different ways on network sitcoms. Perennial champ Julia Louis-Dreyfus has built a legacy around playing an obsessively egotistical career politician. Tig Notaro with “One Mississippi” offers up a narrative of grief and illness through the lens of a queer protagonist.
Drama is a little less rich, because of the marquee talent siphoned off to limited series. But if anything, the preponderance of gimlet-eyed legal experts indicates a brilliantly broad understanding of what a woman over that certain age is capable of. There are no dupes or fools, with Christine Baranski reprising her role as Diane Lockhart on “The Good Fight,” reigning champ Viola Davis with another turn as lethally effective Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away With Murder,” former winner Claire Danes saving the world yet again in “Homeland,” and Robin Wright as the terrifying Claire Underwood in “House of Cards.”
Outside of age, nearly every contending actress brings with her a show that challenges gender and social norms — whether that is the critique of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with Elisabeth Moss’ lovely central performance, the intellectual curiosity and confrontation of Kathryn Hahn in “I Love Dick,” or the social comedy of Lena Dunham’s envelope-pushing “Girls,” which just closed its final season. Even in shows rooted in familiar genres — “The Crown,” with a luminous central performance by Claire Foy, and “Westworld,” featuring Evan Rachel Wood as a sentient android who thinks she’s a pioneer girl — the female roles are exceptional because they are so complicated by the characters’ relationship to immovable and typically male-created power structures.
Of course, the broadest scope of opportunity is still for white women: Issa Rae, Taraji P. Henson, Ellis Ross and Davis may garner acclaim, but they are nearly the whole field for black women in contention for performing. Of all the women of color who could be recognized — Constance Wu, Rutina Wesley, Jennifer Lopez — only Rae is in a show that is truly exceptional. “Insecure” is a triumph, but it’s not enough, when clearly so many meaty and fascinating roles exist for white women.