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.
UPDATE: The Next 18
It’s been a while, and goodness me, a lot of great TV has come out in the last couple of years.
Here are another bunch of shows starring magnificent women. Enjoy!
The Handmaid’s Tale
Four minutes in and I was undone. I nearly didn’t watch the rest of the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, but I’m glad I took a deep breath and continued.
I read the book as a young adult, and watched the movie adaptation, and of course I knew it would be horrific – as well as politically instructive. But to watch this now, as a mother, to be immersed in a world where women are enslaved according to their fertility, and have their children ripped away from them, was an entirely different experience.
The other shock was how much more interested I was this time around in how the Republic of Gilead came to be, and how it related with the outside world. It’s just so damn plausible. One minute you’re curtailing human rights law to counter terrorism, the next minute a fundamentalist, patriarchal paramilitary has taken over and given fertile women an ear-tag and hand-cuffs.
Watch it, if you can, and then consider your real-world political options for making sure this never happens.
A gripping family melodrama set in the rural South, Queen Sugar features some wonderful characters and performances, beautiful photography, and an introduction to many different aspects of being black in America.
A faaaaaascinating look into the life of Queen Elizabeth II, this is gripping television. There are stunning performances from all the leads, and oh my, what a lot of curtseying.
Big Little Lies
It’s encouraging to see Hollywood stars who are on the cusp of being thrown away by the studio system – for being too old, you know – throw their energy, money and influence into making fantastic shows to star in.
In Big Little Lies – like Queen Sugar, based on a novel, giving real heft to its narrative arc – we have Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman leading a team of half a dozen stunning female actors to tell a story of secrets, violence and lies in a kind-of-ordinary rich California suburb.
Goodness me, it’s done well! And oh, that coastal scenery. And the soundtrack!
I adored Marta Dusseldorp in A Place to Call Home (above), and here she is again, playing the rather more flawed character of Janet King, a QC navigating professional and personal challenges.
It’s unsanitised and realistic in lots of ways – swearing and violence and so on – but not so ‘gritty’ as to turn your stomach.
Pleasingly, it also features a gay woman as the main character – how many shows can you name that do that?
A warning though, the first season portrays an investigation into a child abuse and pornography ring and contains disturbing content (though no images of abuse).
Three women from different social backgrounds take part in the 1916 Irish rebellion against British occupation.
That’s just about all you need to know. Watch it!
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Phryne Fisher is an exceptional woman. Living in 1920s Melbourne, she is an independent, liberated, glamorous woman with her own detective agency, and a tendency to gather waifs and strays.
This is a show with flair and warmth. It mostly follows an episodic mystery format, and I’d put it in the ‘light drama’ category, so if that sounds like you, Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) is a woman to get to know.
From (apparently) the Marvel Universe, Jessica Jones has super-power strength, which is, unfortunately, no match for David Tennant’s charismatic villian, Kilgrave.
Krysten Ritter plays a very dark and depressed Jessica, working as a detective, and trying to keep her head down in a very gloomy New York.
I’m not a Marvel person, but I found this utterly absorbing.
This is a chilling Brazilian dystopia, set in a future where the resources are so scarce that society picks out the top 3% of humans, by means of a mysterious ‘Process’ that citizens submit to when they’re 20 years old. If you pass, you get spirited away to The Offshore, the world of the privileged. If you fail, you go back to scrounging a living in the slums.
Bianca Comparato stars as Michele, and she is brilliant. As you can imagine, this kind of authoritarian regime inspires a lot of covert resistance, and just how all the characters fit into that unfolds through the series. Mind games, spy games and fights to the death ensue.
It’ll help your Portuguese, too!
Ah, who doesn’t want to be Agent Peggy Carter?
Calm, brilliant, and dealing with mansplainers like a pro, Peggy is a female spy in a wildly sexist agency in 1940s New York.
I have no idea how she fits into the wider Marvel universe, and no doubt if you’re a Marvel afficionado you’ll get a lot more out of this show, but I loved her.
Another lovely example of British period melodrama, this is set in a tiny village as World War II begins, among the women of the WI, the Women’s Institute.
As well as the domestic lives of the women, and the trials of war, Home Fires also covers all sorts of ‘issues’ from homophobia and xenophobia to domestic violence and grief.
Easy to watch and well made.
Top of the Lake
Jane Campion directs this dark, moody show, set (for the first season anyway) in Queenstown, New Zealand, but with an American lead actor, Elisabeth Moss, whose accent won’t fool Kiwis. She plays Robin Griffin, a police officer called into to help when a 12-year-old girl walks into a freezing lake, and is later discovered to be pregnant.
It’s beautifully shot, with excellent performances from a bunch of international actors as well as locals.
The Kettering Incident
This feels a bit like an Australian version of Top of the Lake, also starring an expat returning home to a small community, and an awful lot of menacing, beautiful scenery.
Anna Macy left Kettering as a teenager, shortly after her best friend, Gillian Baxter mysteriously disappeared, when the two of them were in the forest, and saw strange lights.
Now she’s home, unwelcome, and suffering from terrible headaches and memory loss, desperate to find out what happened.
If you weren’t grateful to the labour movement before, you will be after watching this show, set in a cotton mill community, where orphans are kept as virtual slaves to keep the machines running.
All of the characters are intriguing and well-drawn, and the individual experiences are set against the backdrop of protest, unionisation and labour reform.
Anne with an E
The first thing you need to know is that this is not an adaptation of the beloved novel, Anne of Green Gables. It’s more like someone else also knew Anne Shirley, and interviewed her and wrote a biography that matches the novel in lots of places but deviates a lot, too. It’s considerably darker in tone than the original books or the 1980s TV show, but there’s a lot of insight and reading between the lines that Anne-lovers will appreciate.
If you’re up for that, it’s a total treat. The casting, most Anne fans agree, is spot on, and the detail of life in Avonlea is satisfying and illuminating.
Set in 1890s-ish rural Canada, Anne with an E follows an elderly pair of unmarried siblings who adopt an orphan. Anne is delighted to finally have a home, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to fit in to a conservative, close-knit community, especially when she is full of imagination, honesty and, well, words.
If you’ve never read or watched Anne before, feel free to start with this. It’s a stunning piece of television, with gorgeous photography and thoughtful characterisation.
Line of Duty (seasons 2 and 4)
What a satisfying, twisting-and-turning crime show this is. Each season follows a different internal investigation by the police corruption unit, and although detective Steve Arnott is undoubtedly the star of the show, in seasons 2 and 4, the antagonist is a complex, brilliant woman cop, played by a superb big-screen actor: Keely Hawes in season 2 and Thandie Newton in season 4.
Do start at the start, though, because it’s been created as one long story, and rewards attentive watching.
Here’s the trailer for season 1:
There are two competing storylines in the BBC’s conspiracy drama Undercover, and I wish they’d stuck with the one based on Maya, a fearless lawyer who champions lost causes, from death row cases in the US to cover-ups in the UK. Sophie Okenodo is just wonderful to watch.
Unfortunately, the show turns out to be about something – and someone – else as well, and this other strand I found pretty thin and frustrating. I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’m not linking to the spoiler-ridden trailer. There’s still plenty to like about the show, so see what you think, but don’t be afraid to bail if you don’t warm to the second plot-line.
More successful than Undercover, but inhabiting the same shifting-sands world of conspiracy and crime is 2016 police thriller The Level.
Karla Crome is excellent as DS Nancy Devlin, an organised crime specialist assigned to an operation that keeps coming back to her family and her past.
It’s set in Brighton and beautifully shot, and well worth a watch.
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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