Cable TV's powerhouse women flip the script on gender roles
I ask, because a quick tally of the coolest series on TV right now, includes some pretty amazing female characters; Glenn Close's Gloria Allred-on-steroids lawyer Patty Hewes on FX's Damages; Holly Hunter's self-destructive detective Grace Hanadarko on TNT's Saving Grace; Mary McCormack's relationship-phobic witness protection marshal Mary Shannon on USA's In Plain Sight; Edie Falco's substance abuse huffing emergency room nurse Jackie Payton on Showtime's Nurse Jackie and Toni Collette's multiple personality-having suburban mom, Tara Gregson on Showtime's United States of Tara.
And most of them have one thing in common: They turn the concept of a typical female character on its head.
This is a thought which came while I was powering through preview DVDs of In Plain Sight, Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara. Showtime was nice enough to send critics a complete collection of each show's second season, though the episodes themselves only began to air last Monday, and USA gave out this week's debut episode of McCormack's show.
What I saw, especially on Jackie and Sight, were female characters acting in ways usually reserved for men. Falco's Jackie Peyton seems to be the primary breadwinner in her home, struggling to deal with both a workplace affair and raging painkiller addiction. Her dreamboat, good guy husband is the one who takes care of the kids, while Jackie uses her punishing work schedule to enable her extramarital adventures, distancing herself from her own children.
In this week's Sight, McCormack's tenderness-averse Mary Shannon is recovering from a gunshot to the gut, desperate to avoid all the people in her life gushing about their love for her in the wake of her near death. Back in the office clocking 13-hour shifts within weeks, Shannon struggles to connect emotionally with her partner and her boyfriend, much more comfortable punching out the guy who shot her and helping a good-guy ex-criminal out of a jam.
In many ways, these women seem like distant cousins to Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU -- another successful female character hanging with the boys who wasn't really cloned much elsewhere on network TV.
Even on Tara, Gregson's husband -- ably played by scruffy hunk John Corbett -- cares for the family as his wife struggles with her illness. This season, she realizes that her male personality, a super-macho redneck named Buck, has begun an affair with another woman who has fallen in love with them.
In all these shows, women lead the action in ways you don't often see on television -- making the arrests, saving the lives, having the affairs and leaving their male partners to care for the kids and play sidekick for once. No wonder so many A-list actresses, tired of playing the supportive wife or loving girlfriend in countless films, have latched onto these series like the professional lives depend on them.
Because, in a world well-stocked with Transformers and Iron Man movies, they probably do.
To be honest, I would prefer seeing female characters which aren't quite so interchangeable with guys. Kyra Sedgwick's sharp Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson insists on being feminine and a kickass cop on TNT's The Closer, nailing interrogations of suspected murderers and leading the L.A. police's more prestigious unit while also managing to seem like her own woman.
But seeing this wealth of female characters on cable TV only highlights how badly some other areas of showbiz are doing in that regard.
Here's hoping the amazing stories on Nurse Jackie, Tara, In Plain Sight and Laura Linney's upcoming Showtime drama The C Word teaches Hollywood a few lessons it sorely needs learning.