Anyone who wonders if television really is a reflection of modern-day society should consider this year’s lead actress nominees. While real-life women organize marches, defy party lines to take down harmful legislation, or simply manage to get dinner on the table on time while fighting to “have it all,” so too are their fictional counterparts standing strong to fight their own wars.
Lead comedy actress nominees, including Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow on ABC’s “Black-ish,” Allison Janney as Bonnie on CBS’ “Mom” and Pamela Adlon as Sam on FX’s “Better Things,” are all fighting to keep their families afloat while being role models for their kids. Ellie Kemper’s titular peppy lead in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in “Grace and Frankie” are all in the process of rebuilding their lives.
Meanwhile, drama nominees such as Elisabeth Moss as Offred in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in HBO’s “Westworld” rise up to the patriarchy. Even if, as in the case of drama nominees Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood from Netflix’s “House of Cards,” that roadblock is your husband, or Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II of Netflix’s “The Crown,” anyone who belittles your destiny.
Moss’ “Handmaid’s” has been the subject of countless think pieces, and it has also been referenced in timely public demonstrations as fans draw parallels between series creator Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel and an actual government that they feel is inflicting misogynistic rule. Moss argues that she “can’t imagine not connecting with this role at any point in my life.”
“[Offred’s] one of the great literary characters and the chance to play someone from a prolific novel is always so exciting,” says Moss, who has previously received noms for her work on AMC drama “Mad Men” and SundanceTV miniseries “Top of the Lake.” She is also an executive producer on the Hulu series and relishes that that means she’s also a contender in the best drama category.
She adds that Offred is “a true heroine” because of her relatability. “She’s someone who, I think, is strong and smart and badass and also flawed and human and broken at times, but she never gives up and will always keep fighting to find her family and to get out of there,” Moss says. “Slowly, those personal feelings turn to a more outward understanding that maybe it’s about more than just her and her family. Maybe she can help change the world. I so admire that and find it inspiring.”
Moss says her favorite scene occurs late in the season when Yvonne Strahovski’s steely Serena Joy takes Offred to see that her young daughter is alive, yet locks her in the car to block their reunion. The action may have been intended to break Offred into submission, but Serena clearly underestimated her strength.
“It was a spectacular scene in the script that I felt very grateful to have and thoroughly enjoyed doing,” Moss says. “I remember doing one of the first takes, where the camera wasn’t even on my face — I think it was a wider shot from the back of the car — and, afterward, I just sat there. I couldn’t move and I was trying to breathe and my entire body was weak. Then I realized that was the first take and I had hours left.”
That so many of these characters are mothers should not be ignored. Lead actress in a comedy nominee Adlon, who co-created her FX comedy “Better Things” with frequent collaborator Louis C.K., received praise for the honesty in a series based on her own life experiences as a single mom with young kids. Her show about working — yet not being famous — in Hollywood has made her a “little bit popular right now” with friends curious about casting opportunities.
“I have to be careful because I am a mom and I said to myself years ago that I never should take on more than I can handle because I always want to have enough room for my daughters,” Adlon says.
Examples of this are peppered throughout the show, such as a scene early on where her character takes her aggression over one of her kid’s teachers out in a voiceover booth.
“I mean, you have the moms who are completely obsessed with being room moms and making food for them every day and making it fresh for their lunchboxes and they’re the first ones to sign up for back-to-school night,” she says. “I used to call those Robot Moms and I would get very intimidated by them. I would just say, ‘It’s OK, you don’t have to run the traffic program at school. You have to keep moving forward in your life.’ ”
Still, Sam is not her exact replica. “Yeah, she was born from me but she’s gone beyond,” she says. “Remember that movie ‘Gremlins’ where you [feed] them after midnight, they’d start doing crazy things? That’s like Sam Fox. She’s my inner gremlin and I can live out fantasies and things in her that I wouldn’t necessarily in my real life.”
In our day of anti-heroines and more three-dimensional roles for women, we’re also seeing female characters whose motives may be hard to unanimously support or understand. Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” is an alcoholic with a vengeful streak and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep” both offers up a tryst with her loyal subordinate Amy (supporting actress in a comedy nominee Anna Chlumsky) and uses the birth of her new grandson as collateral for her political legacy.
Keri Russell’s covert Soviet spy, Elizabeth Jennings (birth name: Nadezhda) on FX’s “The Americans” is certainly not the first parent struggling to relate to her teenager (Holly Taylor’s Paige). But the two have slowly found a commonality in recent seasons as Elizabeth, a rape survivor, has tried to give Paige something that she never had: the ability to defend herself. This well-meaning bonding, along with other attempts to help Paige understand her parents’ dedication to their careers, is not without consequences. This season, viewers saw that Paige’s awareness has led to her own departure from innocence.
“One of my favorite moments this year [occurred when] I was on my bike in Brooklyn at a stop light,” Russell recalls. “A cyclist next to me, without even looking at me, just started talking and said ‘You just HAD to do it, didn’t you? You just HAD to go and break the kid.’ Biker man said he and his wife watch together. It made me laugh really hard.”
Russell says she actually hasn’t watched her show in years. “I feel like I live it!,” she says. And she’s right on more than one level: Matthew Rhys is her partner both on screen and off, as well as a nominee in the lead actor in a drama category. He directed his second episode of the series this year.
She isn’t alone in this situation; Louis-Dreyfus’ husband, Brad Hall, also directs “Veep.” Russell admits that, for her, this can be “weird.” But she says there’s also “an obvious shorthand and intimacy you share with each other, which saves time and that accumulated trust adds an element to any scene.”
“That being said, if there’s something I don’t agree with, the boyfriend director is probably going to get a louder, more persistent earful than some new director I’m trying to be polite with,” Russell says.
Girl power at its finest.