We may not have a TV, but DVD box sets and the internet are an enormous part of my life in the resting-or-breastfeeding days of late pregnancy and the ‘fourth trimester‘.
I know I’m not alone in finding it suddenly much easier to watch than read during those hours on the sofa. It’s hard to hold a book while you’re feeding a baby – and also to hold the thread of a written narrative, sometimes. And when you’re in your PJs at 7pm, you can fit in a lot of episodes!
One excellent pay-off of the hundreds of episodes I’ve watched over the last year is this list: heaps of current or very recent shows I’ve discovered that have strong, magnetic female lead characters – and not just as one half of a duo with a male co-star. All but one of these thirteen shows is built solidly around a key woman: she’s the reason you watch.
This is a recent phenomenon, and while we’ve still got a long way to go to show different women’s stories on the small screen, I’ve been really encouraged by the breadth and quality of (some of!) the stuff I’ve discovered.
I’ll be keen to hear what you’d add to the list in the comments, so please do leave your recommendations.
The Guardian has a great feature, ‘Your Next Box Set‘, and that’s where I heard of Orphan Black, a Canadian-British collaboration starring the astounding Tatiana Maslany, who plays around a dozen different characters over the course of the two seasons so far.
It’s smart, grown-up sci-fi, set in today’s Toronto (though they won’t ever quite tell you that), centred on Sarah, a Cockney orphan whose life is changed when she sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide.
My favourite thing apart from Tat’s acting tour de force is Sarah’s foster brother Felix – but I find I can’t say anything about him that doesn’t reduce him to mere adjectives, so you’ll just have to watch for yourself and fall in love with – well, anyone on the show. There are lots of candidates.
Canada is holding Buffy’s legacy, apparently: this is another contemporary sci-fi action mystery series built around a woman.
Vancouver is flashily on show here, as we follow Kiera, a police officer from the corporate-controlled near future, accidentally sent back to our present, chasing terrorists who are trying to change the course of history.
Kiera’s tech-genius teenage sidekick Alec is a treat, and the slow-drip revelation of what life’s like when governments have bent to corporations is thoughtfully done. Oh, and her crime-fighting cybersuit is awesome, too.
Jumping back in time, The Paradise lost to Mr Selfridge in the (who knew this was a thing?) race to be the dominant version of early department store melodrama, but there’s a lot to enjoy about it.
Shopgirl Denise goes from smalltown Scottish ingenue to precocious businesswoman, winning over some grouches along the way. I was underwhelmed after two episodes, but gave it another go a few months later and enjoyed some unexpected developments in character – people don’t all stay stuck in their niches here.
The Bletchley Circle
Now she’s a former Bletchley Park codebreaker stuck in a 1950s housewife life. Not even her husband knows how she and her gifted colleagues changed the course of the war, so when she notices a pattern in newspaper crime reports, it’s hard to make anyone believe she’s got useful data for catching a killer.
She and her Bletchley Park alumnae will just have to solve the crime themselves, then, right?
The Honourable Woman
Probably the best thing I’ve seen in the last year, thanks to my sister-in-law discovering it when we were in the United Kingdom last year.
Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has inherited her Israeli father’s arms business and turned its riches towards making peace in the Middle East. That means as many powerful people hate her as love her, so cue a dark, complex, insightful political tangle that will colour how you read international news coverage from now on.
One of the best of the recent crowd of harrowing crime dramas. Sally Wainwright is the writer and showrunner of Happy Valley. I’ll give you a clue: it’s not very happy.
Catherine is a police officer in a small town in the depressed north of England. Drugs, child neglect, casual violence, exploitation, it’s all just the backdrop to the central knot of the story, where everyone is connected, in ways that slowly become clear over the short series.
Catherine is a well-rounded, recognisable, sympathetic character. She’s a down-to-earth single mum, a no-nonsense Sarge, and you want to see more of her.
Somehow Broadchurch doesn’t fall into that same ‘gritty’ category, perhaps because the crime story it wants to tell is of how an entire community responds when a boy goes missing.
The characters are fascinating, and Olivia Colman as DS Ellie Miller is particularly excellent (this is the only show in the list where the female lead is a co-star, but since Colman is playing off David Tennant, we’ll let this through, yeah?)
In the second (far inferior, sadly) series, which revolves around a court case, I loved that the judge and both barristers were women, and that no one particularly noted that fact.
On rather a lighter note, Nashville is a soapy, likeable, music-heavy series following the rising and falling stars of country music.
Over three seasons, all the key players are women, from Connie Britton’s superstar Rayna Jaymes to the tween hit Juliette Barnes who threatens to knock her off her perch, to shy hippie waitress Scarlett who follows her loser boyfriend to Nashville and finds her voice there.
Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder
I can’t bring myself to recommend Scandal because after a gripping first season, I reckon it jumped the shark and started eating its own plotlines.
Maybe How to Get Away with Murder, from the same Shonda Rhimes show-machine, will do the same thing, but at least both of them star amazing black women dominating their professions.
Olivia Pope in Scandal is a super-smart political fixer who attracts surprising loyalty from her trusty band of employees.
How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating is a granite-eyed defense attorney who – this is where it is leaps into the fantastical – also teaches criminal law at a fancy university, in an implausibly unorthodox way. She also handpicks students to be her slaves, I mean interns, and they’re an odd mix – just like Team Olivia in Scandal.
Both shows are sharp, fast and good fun as long as you’re not hoping for realism.
It’s not House of Cards, or The West Wing, but it is Sigourney Weaver as a Secretary of State aiming to be President. That’s all you need to know, right?
The Crimson Field
One of many Great War shows made in anticipation of the centenary, this is one of the better ones, focusing on nurses and volunteer assistants in medical camps in France.
See also the Australian/New Zealand co-production ANZAC Girls (though my Dad panned it with a gruff ‘saccharine rubbish!’ and I couldn’t really disagree), and no doubt many more in the coming year.
A Place to Call Home
Now to rural Australia, 1953, in the long shadow of World War II.
You can be transfixed by Anna, who’s been through enough not to give a damn what people think of her. You can despise and secretly envy the matriarch of that amazing country house (with turrets!), and you can roll your eyes at the adolescent naivete of the spoiled little rich girls.
Ooh, and there’s tuberculosis, sexism, racism, homophobia and everything else that made the 1950s unbearable. Some nice cardigans, though.
And now over to you. What are your favourite female-centred shows, of any era? Get recommending in the comments, please!
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