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Women Trailblazers at NBCUniversal Pave a New Road

NBCUniversal’s diverse slate of groundbreaking series share one thing in common: women creators at the helm

Courtesy of NBC; Ilene Chaiken, Ricky
Courtesy of NBC; Ilene Chaiken, Ricky Middlesworth

Women are at the helm of NBCUniversal as showrunners, creators and executive producers of many of the most popular shows on television, streaming and cable. It’s an idea that was radical not too long ago, but now these women are proving that they are remarkable not because of their gender, but because of their talent.

The first wave of 1990s trailblazers, who mainly began as interns and assistants, now executive produce, create and run their own shows. And, in turn, they extend a hand to others.

The roster of women who run series at NBCUniversal includes Tina Fey, creator and showrunner of the recently re-upped comedy “Mr. Mayor”; Emmy-winner Meredith Scardino, creator and showrunner of the girl-group-reunion comedy “Girls5eva”; Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello, co-creators (with Paul W. Downs) of the Vegas odd-couple comedy “Hacks”; and Alexandra Cunningham, who created the true-crime series “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story.”

Beyond them, NBCUniversal boasts a strong quartet of women — Debra Martin Chase, Tracey Wigfield, Jenna Bans and Ilene Chaiken — who are breaking ground with new series.


Debra Martin Chase

Debra Martin Chase is executive producer of “The Equalizer,” an update of the 1980s series, starring Queen Latifah as a woman who fights crime by helping those with nowhere else to turn.

The series, which debuted in February, garnered more than 20 million viewers and was recently renewed.

Chase was the first Black woman to produce a film grossing over $100 million (“Courage Under Fire”), then became the first Black woman to sign a production deal with a major studio.

Chase, who says she likes to tell specific stories with universal messages, has a theory as to why the action-heavy “Equalizer” has across-the-board appeal.

“She kicks butt every week,” Chase says of Latifah’s Equalizer, a single mom who can take down the world’s most vicious criminals but finds maintaining a positive relationship with her 15-year-old daughter challenging.

“Hollywood has recognized that diversity and inclusion is good business,” says Chase who remembers the days when executives’ eyes glazed over whenever women or people of color were mentioned. “There are opportunities today that did not exist even a few years ago.

“Once women started getting opportunities to direct and to run shows and the efforts resulted in success,” adds Chase, “it opened the door.

“I’m excited about the stories that I’m getting to tell right now,” she says.

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Courtesy of HBO Max

Tracey Wigfield

Peacock’s tangy “Saved by the Bell” reboot, from executive producer and showrunner Tracey Wigfield, proves that nostalgia plus irony equals a winning formula for a comedic series throwback.

Wigfield got her start writing for NBC’s “30 Rock,” rising from writers’ assistant to producer, and winning an Emmy (with Tina Fey) for the series finale. She created the comedy “Great News” and was co-executive producer, writer and an actor on “The Mindy Project.”

The original “Saved by the Bell” “meant a lot to me both in an ironic, poking-fun-at-it kind of way, but also I just genuinely liked watching it and it made me happy,” says Wigfield.

The deconstructive conceit of Wigfield’s reboot is that Zack Morris, the privileged prankster of 1990s Bayside High, is now the gaffe-prone governor of California. Gov. Morris immediately cut education funds, then tried to make up for it by sending underprivileged kids to schools like Bayside.

This writers room is the most diverse she’s ever been in, Wigfield says. “I think the storytelling would feel inauthentic if the room wasn’t filled with all different kinds of people with all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences,” she adds.

“I liked the idea of creating a surreal world that normal people step into and comment on how weird it is,” Wigfield says. “Even though we sometimes deal with heavier topics, like privilege, race and education, at its core this is a happy, hopeful show.”

And it was a “real gift,” she adds, that original cast members were “willing to go along for the ride.”


Jenna Bans

Jenna Bans is creator, executive producer and co-showrunner for NBCUniversal’s comedic crime drama, “Good Girls,” featuring three suburban moms who are pushed by hard times into criminal activity.

Bans says she got the idea when the ultimate good girl — a former U.S. senator and secretary of state — lost the presidential election in 2016.

What happens, Bans thought, when you spend your whole life following the rules and life doesn’t work out for you the way you planned?

The show takes the three rule-followers and puts them in extreme situations. “We get a lot of comedy from that,” says Bans. “But we don’t want them to lose their moral centers.”

Bans says her generation has found the industry open to women.

“I’m fortunate to be able to stand on the backs of all those women who sort of pushed their way into the entertainment industry,” says Bans. “I think for women there has never been more opportunity.”

She says her writers room has “a really good mix of different cultures, experiences and races —men and women.”

Now she and executive producer and co-showrunner Bill Krebs want to bring in writers with different socioeconomic perspectives, says Bans, “because that is where the characters are coming from.”


Ilene Chaiken

Ilene Chaiken leads with her activism, which is apparent from the themes of social justice, commitment to diverse representation and the atmosphere of inclusion she brings to each of her projects.

Chaiken, who recently signed an overall deal with Universal Television, is the showrunner of “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”

In this new series, brand favorite Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) returns. Stabler’s wife has been murdered by a bomb apparently meant for him; now he’s back in New York and in a bad frame of mind for detective work.

In a break from the brand formula, there’s no procedural wrap-up at the end of each episode. Since Stabler’s departure from “SVU” over a decade ago, Chaiken has also been challenged with evolving the popular yet controversial character, to be more reflective of the current cultural climate.

“We wanted to talk about policing in the world of today, a subject that’s very much in every conversation,” says Chaiken. “But we wanted to talk about it from a character point of view.”

Chaiken was a creator of “The L Word,” an Emmy winner for “The Handmaid’s Tale” and showrunner for “Empire.” In “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” she builds on themes that she has been addressing since the beginning.

“All of us that have been unrepresented for so long, not just queer folk, we’ve got decades worth of stories that have yet to be told, but they are getting told now,” Chaiken says.