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Women rule TV in 2019 to create wealth of fascinatingly ‘difficult’ characters

By Neal Justin • Apr 11, 2019 at 7:00 PM

LOS ANGELES — Stars have a reputation for making big demands. But when Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba signed on as the leads and executive producers for a new buddy-cop series, their list of requirements included some doozies: Trailers need to be outfitted as nurseries. Three-day weekends are encouraged. Whenever possible, cast and crew should be home in time for dinner.

“It’s important that we set the stage for a family-friendly and feminist environment, which means that women are equal to men in this world that we’ve created,” Alba said from the set of “L.A.’s Finest,” premiering next month on NBC. “It’s really cool that we don’t have to compartmentalize our personal lives so much. They can bleed into what we are doing here every day.”

And what’s happening on sets such as this one has a direct effect on TV viewers. Suddenly, they’re enjoying a rich array of female protagonists as dark, daring, disturbed and delicious as the characters male actors take for granted.

Just in the past month, TV viewers saw the debuts of Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists,” a spinoff where women still get to tell the fattest fibs; ABC’s “The Fix,” a courtroom drama featuring a barely fictionalized version of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark; and Hulu’s “Shrill,” in which Aidy Bryant slowly realizes that big is beautiful.

Meanwhile, CW’s equal-opportunity novella “Jane the Virgin” returned for a new season, as did Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet,” with Drew Barrymore biting deeper into her role as an unapologetic cannibal. Then came the March 31 premiere of HBO’s “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ beloved take on a politician who’s more complicated than all the current presidential candidates combined.

For each of those series, women held key roles beyond what we see on the screen — from commandeering the writers’ room to calling “Action.”

“I’ve always acted in shows written by 50-year-old white men,” said “The Fix” star Robin Tunney. “This time, I have three women writing my character, a female producer and a female directing the pilot. I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime.”

This month viewers can watch the highly anticipated Season 2 premiere of BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” the cat-and-mouse thriller created by “Fleabag” star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. There’s also the debut of ABC’s “Bless This Mess,” a sitcom-y version of “The Newlywed Game” co-developed by “New Girl” creator Elizabeth Meriwether and comic powerhouse Lake Bell (best known for big-screen hits such as “No Strings Attached”). In both cases, Hollywood women turned down opportunities in front of the camera to make a difference behind it.

“As an actress, I was feeling sort of underused and that I had more to offer,” said Elizabeth Banks, who has parlayed her on-screen success into a career as an executive producer on numerous projects, including “Shrill.” “I just thought I didn’t need to join the train at the end. I could be in front of the train, get it moving.”

‘WE’RE THE BRICKS’

According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, when programs boast at least one female executive producer, women account for 42 percent of the major characters. That number drops to 33 percent when the bosses are exclusively male.

“I think women are used to being the cement and men being the bricks,” said Emerald Fennell, an executive producer and lead writer for “Killing Eve.” “And so what we’ve done is fill in the cracks. We take up the space and try to make it work. And on shows like this, we’re the bricks.

Actor Jodie Comer plays a villain on “Killing Eve” with as many layers as anyone who ever challenged Batman. She believes the secret to her character’s allure is the women-led writers room. “What’s so wonderful is the complexity and versatility which we’re allowed to show through these characters,” Comer said. “It’s so visible in the writing that it’s being written by women.”

Working on a set dominated by women can be invigorating, even for Oscar winners with decades of experience. Female bonding was a significant reason the cast of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” reunited for more episodes, which will start airing in June.

“When I was younger, I wouldn’t bring my children to set because it made me feel vulnerable,” said “Lies” star and producer Reese Witherspoon. “It would make me feel exposed and that no one was going to be supporting me if I needed to take care of a sick child. I never felt that with this group of women. They would do everything short of putting on a blond wig and taking care of that child for me. It was an incredible experience to be able to lean on each other.”

It doesn’t hurt that these women-led projects have given some performers the best reviews of their careers. “Lies” headliners Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern took home Emmys last year; the industry’s most revered star, Meryl Streep, signed on for the second season.

Turns out, big-name women no longer hesitate when it comes to television, where richer parts await. In recent years, Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Veep” all cleaned up at the Emmys. Since 2003, just one film with a woman as the lead — “The Shape of Water” — took home the best picture Oscar, but Sally Hawkins’ character in the Guillermo del Toro-directed movie is mute.

At least on television, women are much more likely to be heard.

“I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard in auditions and meetings, ‘Well, she’s only in three scenes, but she’s the heart and soul of the show,’” said Emily Browning, who plays “American Gods” character Laura Moon, a former casino dealer who uses her second chance at life to double down on meanness. “Well, OK. But men have had such a broad spectrum of roles to choose from for such a long time and there have only been a few categories for women to slide into. I get a chance to play a really difficult character in this show and not once has anyone said to me, ‘She needs to look cuter; she needs to be likable.’ From the beginning, we all decided some people are going to like her and some aren’t. That gives you so much freedom to play.”

After seven seasons of playing the calculating, sometimes conniving law partner on “Suits,” Gina Torres thought it was time to move on. But she quickly realized that roles that rich are rare in feature films. Which is why she returned for USA’s upcoming “Pearson” spinoff.

“In film, you’re usually the woman behind the man. You come in, make whatever magic you need to make, and then you’re out,” Torres said. “The nature of television allows for more of a protracted arc, more of an opportunity to get to know a strong woman in a more fleshed-out way.”

PERFECTLY QUALIFIED

Despite the box-office success of Patty Jenkins’ 2017 “Wonder Woman” and Banks’ 2015 “Pitch Perfect 2,” studios are reluctant to hand over feature films to women, often claiming there aren’t enough qualified candidates to head such expensive projects.

That excuse doesn’t fly in TV, where diversity programs and mentoring have been in place for more than a decade.

“Every show I’ve worked on since the early 1990s has had women as the backbone of the staff,” said Caissie St. Onge, who got her start as David Letterman’s intern and now serves as executive producer on Busy Philipps’ talk show for E! “So when opportunities finally started presenting themselves in great numbers, so many seasoned and experienced women were ready to just step in and run.”

The #MeToo movement deserves credit for pressuring Hollywood to create a more equal playing field. But powerhouses such as Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Mrs. Maisel”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and Jenji Kohan (“Orange Is the New Black”) went out of their way to give the next generation enough hands-on experience to become forces of their own.

“It used to be sort of like woman-against-woman and everyone was in this competition,” said Kim Raver, who learned a lot from observing Rhimes during her 10 years as a “Grey’s” cast member. Now she’s applying those lessons to her directorial debut, the upcoming Lifetime movie “Tempting Fate.” Raver also acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Lifetime vice president Tanya Lopez and “Tempting Fate” star Alyssa Milano, a driving force behind #MeToo. “There’s now this incredible support system,” Raver added. “It’s a real shift in the workforce.”

Of course, there’s still work to be done. According to the Directors Guild of America, 25 percent of TV episodes in the 2017-18 season were directed by women, up 4 percentage points from the year before, but still a far cry from parity. Women are even more underrepresented in other key crew positions, including directors of photography.

Forbes reports that the 10 highest paid women on TV pull down $168.5 million a year, compared with $181 million for their male counterparts.

But the TV industry is making progress, if only because it’s good business.

“Television has always been a women’s medium. Films were not,” Streep said. “People are understanding that women’s voices drive the market and drive what’s available.”

For decades, Comedy Central was obsessed with appealing to a young-guy audience. The success of “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City” got the network to rethink its strategy. Last year, it saw viewership among women 18-49 rise by 13 percent.

ABC recently hired Karey Burke as its entertainment president, the second woman in a row to hold that position at the third-place network.

“It’s always been my personal goal to create the best opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera,” she said. “I know what’s possible when women come together and share their vision. That’s a big part of what’s going to lead us back to the top.”

The key to moving forward will be women who rule the red carpet continuing to work in tandem with women who run the sets. Hopefully they take their cues from people such as Emmy and Oscar winner Regina King, who pledged to use her clout to insist on parity. And Union, who will continue to insist that every “L.A.’s Finest” cast member can get a crib in his or her trailer.

“It took me 46 years to realize I’ve got to take opportunities when they come,” Union said before returning to work. “If I keep waiting for somebody to give me something, nobody’s going to give me anything. I have to take it. And I when I do, I want to bring as many people along as possible.”

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©2019 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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