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When broadcast networks unveil their fall schedule, more often than not, some trends become apparent. This fall, the clearly dominant trend, at least in the drama category, is shows with female leads. New series, whether they are trendy or not, always run the risk of being canceled even before a handful of episodes have aired. When that happens, we usually discuss how bad the particular series was or how frustrating it is that the audience couldn’t see the beauty in the show. This year, however, the female leads have widened the typical scope of such postmortem analysis, taking us into new territories.
Before discussing the series themselves, let me share with you why I think what the networks did matters, especially as you will see my points have some bearing on the shows’ reception. The expression “glass ceiling” exists because not all categories of the population seem to be able to reach the stars while there is apparently no visible barrier preventing them to do so. It is true that Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth ruled over England (and Ireland) during the 16th century, just like it is true that Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Erin Burnett and Rachel Maddow are household names today in the U.S. But, none of that changes the fact that the Larry Pages (Google) and Mark Zuckerbergs (Facebook) of the world are still very much distinctly male, even if right below them there is an increasing majority of very capable women.
Furthermore, a lot of what came from earlier gender-centric civil rights movements could disappear in the blink of an eye depending on how the power plays pan out in Washington. Whatever your side (if you have any) on the right of a woman to choose when and if to have a baby, there is no question that we as a society consider half of our citizens, the very ones whose bodies are at play, ill-equipped to be left alone with that decision.
In a climate where there is a glass ceiling that many (male and female) choose to ignore, but that can be seen in statistics, it was refreshing to see the networks chip in from the entertainment angle. Unfortunately, whatever we write bears the striking influence of what we (as a society) have been through, so this fall season foray into shows with “leading” women could not escape a backslash stemming from elements of our history, in addition to the usual production shortcomings.
That said, I find it interesting that among the series we are discussing, those that have already been renewed (or that are likely to be) are the ones that played it safe by reusing proven material. Meanwhile, those that have chosen to touch on the glass ceiling are all in trouble, except one, for a very specific reason.
Among those that played it safe, we have the CW shows that cater to their audience with the usual material including very little controversy, if any at all. Hart of Dixie is about a young female doctor from New York city who settles in the South. There is romance, family drama and a picture of the South that might make many cringe, but is still very much business as usual for a TV show. The Secret Circle is about teenage witches, who are always a good substitute when there is a shortage of vampires or zombies. And finally, Ringer stars Sarah Michelle Gellar in a surprisingly interesting story of identity theft. If you have not had it with teenagers and witchcraft or can stand watching a CW show at all, then The Secret Circle or Ringer might prove definitely entertaining.
Leading the pack of those shows that have chosen to challenge the status quo, ABC’s Revenge is a very modern retelling of Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Count of Monte Christo with one of the most interesting new characters of the season — played by Emily VanCamp. Switching to a female lead (instead of the male of the book) allowed the show to embark on storylines that would have been impossible otherwise. And here we not only have a female protagonist, but the character that appears to be the most prominent antagonist is another strong woman played by Madeleine Stowe. On the one hand, this is a story of revenge with women using skills the society recognizes as theirs to achieve their goals, but on the other hand, it is also a vibrant portrayal of a woman breaking the glass ceiling. This is almost a perfect example of the strong, assertive female going against ruthless men and women, and though she engaged in morally questionable actions, it doesn’t quite cross the limit that would make the viewer resist the character’s charm. The show has already been renewed, which is reassuring about the viewing habits of the general public.
Also from ABC, Charlie’s Angels has already been canceled, but the jury is still out on Pan Am. NBC opened the cancellation ball when it ruthlessly acted on The Playboy Club, but the network is still mulling over what to do with Prime Suspect. Those four shows are at the heart of this season’s trend and the last two particularly, unlike Revenge, have picked the wrong end of the stick. Although it might be hard to believe a 100-pound pretty woman can fight as well as Charlie’s Angels, the reasons behind the failure of the show are much more prosaic: they are a combination of bad ideas, bad execution and bad acting. When all three come together, with the acting sticking out in every scene like a sore thumb, there is no hope.
The Playboy Club was like a blueprint of what not to do, starting with the title which was likely to attract an audience that would be disappointed by the “sweet” burgeoning love story masquerading as a tale of lust and organized crime from another age. The show could not be both of those things and be successful. It had to choose between the bunnies (title, outfits, Playboy Mansion, etc.) and the romance/drama. The romance worked in more extreme settings (like for Pretty Woman) so it could have worked here, but the bunnies at primetime on a broadcast network were always going to be a hard sell, no matter how good the story was put together and portrayed. This is a perfect example of how difficult it is to navigate when picking subjects about women. The Playboy Club did extremely well in everything Charlie’s Angels got wrong, but those were never going to be the key reasons behind its success in the first place.
NBC’s Prime Suspect is another show definitely falling short of expectations. This remake of the British series has made some different choices, among which was the casting of a younger lead in Maria Bello, who is portraying a tough female cop surrounded by men in an environment where overt sexism is the norm. In the pilot, it was difficult to make the distinction between squad members who just didn’t like Jane (the female cop) and those who had an issue with her being a woman. Besides Jane’s unconventional ways, sexism is so built into the show that the series’ success depends on the will of the audience to follow that struggle. Struggle is the keyword here because, unlike in Revenge, the strong female lead doesn’t start with an advantage, but seems to be constantly fighting to prove her point or to keep her own demons at bay. This is a show that requires some patience, something the mainstream audience rarely has, especially when the subtext hits so close to home and there are virtually no other elements to cling on.