Small is beautiful

In a slim year for bigscreen parts, femme thesps find salvation in TV

If a case can be made that the female nominees and performances in this year’s bigscreen dramas lack the excitement and passion of years past, there might be a reasonable explanation.

The best dramatic roles for women these days can be found on television.

Just to name a few, Kyra Sedgwick stars as a newly transplanted LAPD detective in cable’s most-watched original series, TNT’s “The Closer”; in a long-shot win that even her clairvoyant character would never have guessed, Patricia Arquette won the Emmy for her role on NBC’s “Medium”; Geena Davis holds court in the Oval Office on ABC’s new Tuesday hit “Commander in Chief”; and Ellen Pompeo is a surgical intern on the immensely popular ABC skein “Grey’s Anatomy” — SAG nominees all.

And on the procedurals, previously dominated by wisecracking males (think the “Law & Order” franchise), women are making major inroads. At CBS, Kathryn Morris has been solving past crimes for three seasons on “Cold Case,” and Jennifer Finnigan is doing her best to put crooks behind bars in “Close to Home,” aka crime in the ‘burbs.

“Writing for women has gotten better but it’s a great time for drama overall,” says Matt Roush, senior critic at TV Guide. “It would be interesting to see if Marg Helgenberger can ever be considered a lead over William Peterson (on ratings powerhouse ‘CSI,’ the most-watched drama on TV). If there can be a female lead in a procedural that popular, the die will have been cast.”

The fact that there are more women showrunners now than ever before helps make the case for better female roles. Shonda Rhimes is running “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Meredith Stiehm is calling the shots on “Cold Case.” But men, too, are realizing how casting a woman as a strong dramatic lead can help a series thrive — both creatively and in the ratings race.

“Franchises that used to be male-dominated now have women behind the scenes, and that has something to do with the increase in great female parts as well,” says Roush.

“There’s always been an appeal and strong attempt on the network’s part to appeal to women,” says John Gray, creator of the Eye’s Friday night supernatural hit “Ghost Whisperer.” “There does seem to be a lot of strong women right now. You see often in these shows now that men are more supporting characters, where women used to be. That presents some good role models and a positive message.”

“We’re at a changing of the guard in society,” says “Close to Home” showrunner Jim Leonard. “People are getting used to the idea that women don’t have to act like men to be in charge.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been great women’s roles in the past. “Cagney & Lacey” was a watershed moment in cop dramas and ran for six years (1982-88). Sharon Gless was nominated every year and won twice, while her onscreen partner Tyne Daly was nommed six times as well and won four.

When “Desperate Housewives” took off last year, there were many who said the reason the series became such a watercooler hit was that it was the rare show in which women were in charge, given front-and-center roles, with the men clearly in the background. (“Housewives” has been considered a comedy for awards purposes, but that’s clearly open to interpretation.)

Same could be said for medical drama “Grey’s,” in which three surgical interns (Pompeo, Sandra Oh and Katherine Heigl) dominate the action. One minute they’re assisting in heart surgery, the next they’re lamenting a past boyfriend. And their boss is another tough lady, Chandra Wilson, known on the show as the Nazi.

Demos prove a correlation between lead female characters and a strong contingency of female viewers. Of “Grey’s” total viewing audience, 67% are female while “Housewives” is close behind at 66%. They are the top female-skewing shows on the air right now.

“Attracting a female audience is the key to survival in a lot of these shows, so you’re better off having strong female characters,” says Roush. “The loyalty women have to TV shows is something that males don’t always have.”

What also makes programs such as “Grey’s” and “Housewives” popular with femmes is that the stories seem relatable. Cops, docs or lawyers, they still have husbands and kids to tend to and a seemingly daily crisis away from the office.

“Audiences like seeing people having their own problems,” says “Ghost Whisperer” exec producer Gray. “She (star Jennifer Love Hewitt) may have supernatural gifts, but she still has to deal with her family.”

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