Perhaps it started with Glenn Close on “Damages.” Or Kyra Sedgwick on “The Closer.” But no matter who deserves the credit for shattering the TV glass ceiling, there’s no question that women have found an abundance of rich, complicated characters on the small screen — and this year’s lineup of nominees serves as prime example. They’re not simply the women closest to the top of the call sheet, playing straight (wo)men to the male leads. They’re the leads in their own right — driving the storytelling, commanding the screen at every turn.
The proliferation of programming has led to a swirl of opportunity for female actors, who can find complex, compelling roles on television no matter the format. While it would be wonderful to see more of these characters rising from female showrunners, it’s worth noting that the year’s most-talked-about performances — take Elisabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale” or the stars of “Big Little Lies” and “Feud” — all came from the pens (and keyboards) of male writers.
Ryan Murphy has proved particularly potent as a writer of female perspective, who turns his collaborations with his cast into award-winning work. Consider last year’s triumph by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — their partnership produced an indelible portrayal, effectively redefining the nation’s perspective on the beleaguered district attorney. This time out, he’s behind “Feud: Bette and Joan,” luring Susan Sarandon to television in the role she was predestined to play, and guiding Jessica Lange to a legend-making turn as Joan Crawford.
Those actresses will face off in the limited series race category against two other powerhouse performers: Nicole Kidman, who’s having an unprecedented year, with every project she’s chosen, from “Lion” to “The Beguiled,” and Reese Witherspoon, who proved she could find humor and depth in what might have been a one-note character. The duo shepherded the femme-led project from concept to screen, yet it was David E. Kelley as the writer and director Jean-Marc Vallee who executed the creative vision. The other contenders in the category — Carrie Coon for FX’s “Fargo” and Felicity Huffman for ABC’s “American Crime” — both collaborated closely with their male showrunners (Noah Hawley and John Ridley).
|Peter Morgan crafted the royal world of Queen Elizabeth II.|
The pattern repeats on the drama side: the top two contenders for the prize both worked with male showrunners to build richer portrayals. For Claire Foy in Netflix’s “The Crown,” it was Peter Morgan’s devout attention to detail that helped her build a richer portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth, torn between love of country and her own romance. And for Elisabeth Moss of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she was an active voice behind the scenes with executive producers Bruce Miller and Warren Littlefield, ensuring that the role of Offred would be a delicately nuanced one. She knew she had to be meticulous in her choice of projects since “Mad Men” ended its storied run — and it shows. Just look at her face in any given scene — words are barely needed.
Even Viola Davis’ role on “How to Get Away With Murder,” which won her the Emmy two years ago, comes from a male executive producer, Pete Nowalk. But as a graduate of the Shonda Rhimes school of storytelling, where strong female voices ring loudly, he’s forged a close relationship with his star. Some of the series’ most standout moments were Davis’ own ideas, which he openly embraces. With a powerhouse like Davis on his team, he’s smart enough to make sure she gets heard.
There is a female voice in the room behind one of the lead actress’ noms: Lisa Joy co-showruns the sci-fi thriller “Westworld” with her husband, Jonathan Nolan. Joy has been an eloquent defender of the show’s sexual overtones. Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton may well have her to thank for their nods.
The comedy race finds more female voices behind the scenes: Marta Kauffman partnered with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda to create “Grace and Frankie,” and this year finds both women on the list. And Pamela Adlon can credit herself for the success of “Better Things,” a prime example of the trend of creators writing star turns for themselves (see “Atlanta,” “Master of None” and the criminally under-recognized “Insecure”).
But even Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who’s poised to break Emmy records should she win again as the profane politico Selina Meyer, has triumphed with the work of not one, but two male showrunners (David Mandel inherited the post from Armando Iannucci last season). Selina Meyer might have some choice words to say about that.
This may well be the year of the actress — to be sure, they all delivered the performances that have everyone talking. But it’s long past due time for the year of the female showrunner.