The Women's Realm
Whoever said that television is a female medium certainly has proof with this year's summer cable fare. Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Lili Taylor, Laura Kightlinger, Mary-Louise Parker, and Kyra Sedgwick are a few of the first-string players headlining series in what could be called a watershed moment for women on TV. And this does not include the second-string players, many of whom are building an eager fan base: Kristanna Loken on Painkiller Jane (Sci Fi), Jordana Spiro on My Boys (TBS), and Marissa Coughlan on Side Order of Life (Lifetime). It's a curious but perhaps not so surprising development. As the film industry appears to continually shut out women of a certain age (Hunter, Close, Sedgwick), they are moving to the small screen. Thankfully, the roles they're taking have depth. Not one annoying ditz in the bunch. That the characters they play are overwhelmingly white and middle class is a disappointment. The women of color are relegated to the amiable best friend, the no-nonsense boss, or some other supporting player. Some things are slow to change.
This wealth of women on TV has gotten me to reflect about what a reader said to me once about "men's TV" and "women's TV" and his observation that I did not write about "men's TV." My response at the time was that I didn't cover sports (men's TV?) or soap operas (women's TV?), but everything else was fair game. Now that there's this bevy of content featuring women, I have to wonder: What makes something a "man's show" or a "woman's show"? Is it content, theme, point of view, or something else?
What I like about the new crop of summer series is that the women are let out of the box. Instead of playing well at being one of the boys -- which has always been my complaint about shows like Law & Order or CSI -- these women are, well, women. The first and best example of this is Sedgwick as Brenda Johnson in The Closer (TNT). The premise of the series was that she was an unwelcome outsider. That she is a woman only added to her difficulty fitting in. But fitting in does not depend on her butching up or playing dumb/needy/pouty to get the boys' attention. In fact, the ongoing theme of the series is that she never really does fit in, but it doesn't matter. What matters more is that she has the respect of her crew. She does, but it's always tenuous, always up for renegotiation. And when Brenda Johnson does pull out her hyperrealized version of pristine femininity, she does it to play on the assumptions of those she aims to capture, not to win their affection.
Taylor (State of Mind) as Ann Bellowes is a therapist steering clear of her own breakdown after her failed marriage. She's prone to fantasies, like having her soon-to-be ex-husband talking in her ear -- naked, mind you -- while she decides how to approach a situation as a new single woman. But unlike a similar conceit used on Ally McBeal, these visions don't come off as juvenile or self-involved but as a physical representation of her interior rehabilitation. Taylor's Bellowes is vulnerable and wounded, but she's not pathetic. While Ally McBeal was stuck in an adolescent tantrum, Ann Bellowes' emotional outbursts are kept to a much more realistic internal roar. It's only through TV magic that we see her struggle and are touched when we witness her public behavior in the face of her private reality.
I've already written about Hunter in Saving Grace ("TV Eye," July 20) and Kightlinger in The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman ("TV Eye," Aug. 3). Which brings me to Glenn Close and Rose Byrne in Damages. More on that next time.
As always, stay tuned.