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Leading ladies propel Showtime

Strong female characters give boost to network

While movie studios ponder the success of strong female characters on TV and what that means for their slates, Showtime is speeding ahead with the confidence that viewers are drawn to femme-driven stories.

Cabler has built a murderer’s row of killer star turns with Mary-Louise Parker in “Weeds,” Edie Falco in “Nurse Jackie,” Toni Collette in “United States of Tara” and “The Big C” lead Laura Linney — who thinks Showtime has “really good taste.”

“Bill Condon (who directed the ‘Big C’ pilot) and I were talking about MGM in the golden age of film, about having a great stable of women,” Linney says. “It’s unusual for one network to have such a stable of great lineup and talent, including the men, not just the women.”

Showtime president of entertainment David Nevins says it was very much a plan to try to create strong, complex characters — it just so happened that the characters were female.

“Actors are the best and the most astute readers,” says Nevins. “And I think as the movie business has become more and more tentpole driven and the sophisticated adult dramas have pretty much dried up, there is a world of actors interested in reading TV scripts.”

Nevins says the women in the starring quartet all have great force of personality.

“None of these women are shrinking violets,” he says. “Another thing is their dexterity: to do what Toni Collette does or Laura Linney does, going from comedic to dramatic. Sort of sad to fierce. I like ballsy women with a sense of humor, and none of our shows, including the serial killer show, take themselves too seriously. It makes the show more real and grounded and believable.”

Inside the industry, Nevins believes that Showtime is getting a good reputation for being a place where having good, complicated, “messy” writing and characters get rewarded.

“It doesn’t get rewarded in network television or movies,” he says. “I think people are appreciative of that, and it creates a close bond between the program and the audience, I feel they get a real piece of Laura and Mary-Louise and Toni and Edie — people feel very possessive of the shows,” he says.

Interestingly, Parker, who notes TV’s tradition of female-driven hits starring the likes of Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore, has some reservations concerning the antihero tilt.

“The only thing now is,” Parker says, “women don’t have to be played as sparkly, and it doesn’t matter if they are enormously rough around the edges. I think that was true of men, too: There were certainly not a lot of Tony Sopranos as I was growing up.”

“Some of that is good, and some of that I don’t think is good. It’s one thing to create a character that is complex, it’s another thing to have an anti-heroine. There’s something about that as a trend that seems equally false. It’s sort of where the premise becomes something controversial — they (the industry) think because this show sold, like my show, ‘Maybe we’ll do that.’ ”

More from Award Season Focus: The Women
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