If anyone is looking for strong, complicated women in entertainment, they need go no further than their own home — remarkable women are showing up time and again on television. While things may have improved in recent years at the cinema, the very medium of TV lends itself to telling longer stories that allow leading ladies to play out complex arcs that defy the idea a character has to always make the right (or “likable”) choice.
Last year, Viola Davis won lead actress in a drama for playing Annalise Keating, a brilliant, bisexual law professor who is also deeply deceptive and unfaithful to her husband in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” While such characters might be found elsewhere on television, are any of them the leads of a network show, let alone a woman? Would such a character even exist in the space of a two-hour movie without simply being a go-to villain? But with 15 episodes in its first season to tell her story, Davis managed to make Keating compelling, sympathetic and even relatable.
Davis isn’t the only one; audiences love Taraji P. Henson’s scheming Cookie on the Fox hit “Empire,” a role that plays to the strengths of the actress who was underutilized in her previous TV roles on series such as “Person of Interest” and “Boston Legal.” Robin Wright has been delivering great performances in movies for 30 years, but has any previous role allowed her the opportunity to shine as much as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards”? Is it any wonder why Oscar winners like Jessica Lange and Jane Fonda and superstars like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga come to television, where they can sink their teeth into juicy parts?
|“With 15 episodes to tell her story, Davis managed to make Keating compelling, sympathetic and even relatable.”|
|@jenelleriley on Twitter|
This year saw an influx of new faces willing to tackle complicated women. Krysten Ritter finally found the perfect role in “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” as a butt-kicking superhero. The aforementioned Lopez enjoyed her best work in years on “Shades of Blue,” while three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen tried her hand at network television with “The Family.” The latter won’t see a second season; ABC cancelled the show after a 13-episode run, but that doesn’t diminish Allen’s powerful, nuanced work as a woman who believes her missing son has been returned after 10 years. What began as a sympathetic role took a turn when Allen’s character Claire Warren realizes her son is an imposter, and chooses to continue the charade for political purposes. For an actress who has played her share of mothers to great effect, “The Family” offered Allen a whole new take on the role.
It’s not just on the drama side; over in comedy, actresses like Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”) and Aya Cash (“You’re the Worst”) are willing to go for broke with warts-and-all portrayals of flawed women. Lena Dunham on “Girls” has never asked for anyone’s approval, something that also applies to the “Broad City” ladies Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.
Last season saw the introduction of perhaps the most divisive, complicated woman on TV: Rachel Bloom’s lawyer Rebecca Bunch on the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” After moving cross country to essentially stalk a former boyfriend, she interferes in his existing relationship and treats a potential suitor with disdain that sometimes borders on cruelty. It’s a delicate balance, and Bloom never asks us to like Rebecca — just to bear witness. Near the end of the season she finally realizes how hurtful her actions are, singing the song “I’m the Villain in My Own Story.”
That’s not to say women have to be conniving to entertain; Ellie Kemper manages to bring depth to the sweet title character of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) and Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”) are breathing new life into the sitcom mom trope playing smart, funny heads of their households. But as TV is often the best reflection of society, it’s wonderful to see so many fascinating women take the lead.