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‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and the Rise of the Female TV Ensemble

Between the current political climate and the money-making reality that women watch a lot of television, it’s no surprise that networks have seen the benefits of backing programs loaded with female talent.

What is also a relief is that so many of these series are also quite good. Hulu’s dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Netflix’s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black” are Emmy darlings. They also enjoy the critical acclaim that’s also been generated for newer shows like BBC America’s cat-and-mouse assassin chase “Killing Eve,” Starz’s family drama “Vida” and Netflix’s “GLOW.”

None of these facts have gone unnoticed or unappreciated by the women who star in these programs.

“One of the genius things about ensembles is that once there’s a level of trust that’s created, you can fly; you can soar,” says “OITNB” star and previous lead actress Emmy nominee Taylor Schilling. For her, this means that “there’s a lot more room to be braver and take risks” when filming various takes in scenes.

Schilling says that, after seven years on creator Jenji Kohan’s series, she’s not sure what came first: the camaraderie or the comfort. But they’re both definitely still there.

“We talk oftentimes about that first year we were making it and nobody really knew what Netflix was, but there was a certain level of comfort that comes from being in a group with all females and a certain primal basic level of safety,” says Schilling, who stresses that the few men who are on her show have also fostered this community.

She says this comes with the territory of doing a show “where it was never about makeup or tight jeans, it was never about anything other than putting on a jumpsuit and going to work.”

These safe environments are especially poignant now, as movements like #MeToo have brought to light how toxically sexist (or worse) some sets can be. “Vida’s” Melissa Barrera says that, in addition to being able to tell a story of a minority family debating concepts like inclusion and gentrification, creator Tanya Saracho’s series has a welcoming and diverse cast and crew. Barrera says this means she no longer has to put up with “those kinds of people who have been working for a long time and just really feel like they can call the shots.”

There is also a support system that comes with sticking to these kinds of projects. Sandra Oh received multiple Emmy noms for her work on Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” and is now in “Killing Eve” — another series created by a woman (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a lauded female cast. None of this is lost on Oh, who says, “I’ve only gone to where the work has been for me and the work has been for me with these women.

“Once there’s a level of trust that’s created, you can fly; you can soar.”
Taylor Schilling

“I’ve worked with a lot of women; I’ve worked with a lot of women of color; I’ve worked with a lot of women and women of color who are first ADs; who are directors,” Oh continues. “And the reason why I work with them and I’ve had a lot of experience working with women and women of color is because that’s who hires me. Along with it being my choice, it is who has decided to work with me.”

Perhaps one of the most obvious benefits of working on these shows is the confidence it gives actresses just coming onto these shows. “OINTB’s” Schilling humbly says she doesn’t know if she’s ever imparted wisdom onto anybody, but, “I think freedom in work is kind of what everybody is after.” After awhile, she says she can see this feeling “permeate in the bones” of new cast members.

“I think that for some of us who have been around for awhile, it’s a well-oiled machine,” Schilling says. “We really know how to get to risk-taking and joy in the work quickly and to cast inhibition and vanity aside and I think that permeates the world of the show.”

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