One of the best examples of how Hollywood is moving toward being a place for more inclusive storytelling might be this year’s limited series Emmy race. All five of the nominees in that category tell stories about female characters; most specifically concentrating on depictions of women who have traditionally been marginalized both on and off screen.
“Unbelievable” showrunner Susannah Grant sums it up by saying that “it’s great to see stories of people who have historically been voiceless getting such a big platform.”
Grant’s Netflix series — which is inspired by reporters Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller’s Pulitzer-winning news story — stars Merritt Wever and supporting limited series/TV movie actress nominee Toni Collette as police detectives tasked with solving a serial rape case several years after a survivor’s (Kaitlyn Dever) accusations were not taken seriously.
“So many people in our culture have been used to not seeing their stories told and when you start telling them, they will show up,” adds Grant, who is also nominated for co-writing “Unbelievable’s” first episode with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. “Everybody wants to see his or her experience reflected in our cultural storytelling.”
It’s also appropriate because, like women themselves, the limited series category had to make significant inroads to being taken seriously.
“It’s a category that has really been up-and-coming over the last few years [and] I feel like people understand the power of limited series [now],” says Liz Tigelaar, showrunner of Hulu’s adaptation of author Celeste Ng’s best-seller “Little Fires Everywhere.”
“Little Fires Everywhere” stars Reese Witherspoon and lead limited series/TV movie nominee Kerry Washington in a story that unabashedly addresses complicated topics from race and class to motherhood, and Tigelaar reminds that “the stars that you can attract to do something when they’re not signing a contract for seven years and it’s just 10 civilized episodes? It’s different. I feel like in some ways, it kind of elevates everything.”
That these shows also aired during a time of heightened unrest should not go unnoticed. Nominees interviewed for this report routinely invoked mention of politically charged events such as the 2016 presidential election, the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the #MeToo movement.
“Watchmen” director and executive producer Nicole Kassell read the pilot for Damon Lindelof’s HBO adaptation during the 2017 Christmas holiday — just a few months after the disastrous Unite the Right rally made her home town of Charlottesville, Va., a racially charged hot zone. She says that since President Trump’s election she was “very much reeling from [a feeling of] ‘What is happening? How could this happen?’ And ‘What can I do?’”
Kassell, who is also nominated for directing the “Watchmen” premiere, says this story centered around a fearless Black cop played by lead limited series/TV movie actress nominee Regina King that discusses institutionalized racism “was really an answer to that prayer of where I could funnel all my energy to create a piece of art that was going to talk about the issues of our time.”
But it isn’t just the protagonists in these projects who are noteworthy. All five nominated limited series also make a point of spotlighting supporting characters who, either because of race, gender, age or something else, are not routinely seen in fully fleshed-out roles on screen.
“We had many conversations about how to bring characters who are marginalized at the time and highlight them and bring them more center-stage in the show itself,” says “Mrs. America” showrunner Dahvi Waller, whose FX on Hulu series looks at the key players in the second-wave feminism era during the latter half of the 20th century — as well as those who wanted to topple it.
She adds that this was not always easy, but “that’s something that anyone who works on a historical drama will encounter as a writer” because there’s so little coverage of them. (This strategy paid off: “Shirley,” the third episode of “Mrs. America” that was penned by Tanya Barfield and concentrates on Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for U.S. president — is in the running in the writing category. And Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Chisholm, is nominated for supporting limited series/TV movie actress).
Making interesting supporting characters also serves to strengthen an understanding of your lead, says “Unorthodox” creator Anna Winger. Her Netflix four-parter, which is inspired by Deborah Feldman’s autobiography of escaping her strict Satmar community, delves deeply not only into main character Esty (lead limited series/TV movie actress nominee Shira Haas), but also those with whom she interacts in her home city of Brooklyn and the ones she meets in her new life in Berlin.
“We decided to narrow in on a certain part of the book, which is basically the collapse of this marriage and rebirth of this woman,” says Winger, who is also nominated for writing the series’ first episode. Therefore, Winger says, “the secondary characters are very important to her journey.”
Michele Schreiber, an associate professor of film and media studies at Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences, says it’s also important to note how many of these shows grew out of source material written by women. She says we should look to Hollywood’s increased focus of “incorporating women in powerful positions,” which may have resulted in more executives and producers actively looking for books and articles about women.
Schreiber adds that this style of storytelling also serves as a happy medium between film and an open-ended series because creators get to explore a specific narrative and “access the story from a number of different vantage points.”
But is there also something sad about the fact that all these shows are in the limited series race? The intended one-and-done nature of this category means that there will now be five less female-specific shows continuing.
“I guess the way that I like to think about it isn’t that it’s five stories about women that were cut off,” says Tigelaar. “I think of it as these were five stories about women that were told in the format that best suited the story.”