TV NotesCable's saving grace is women
By Bill Keveney and Gary Levin USA TODAY
July 12, 2007
When a piggish cattle baron won't stop hitting on Holly Hunter's character in TNT's new Saving Grace
, she punches him in the face.
That's becoming the ladylike thing to do, at least on cable, where strong female lead characters and the notable film actresses who play them are growing in number.
In addition to Hunter's Grace Hanadarko, a police detective with a self-destructive streak, there's Glenn Close's steely litigator in FX's new series Damages
and, to a less pugilistic degree, Lili Taylor's smart, take-charge therapist in Lifetime's State of Mind
A hunger for such characters is evident in the critical and ratings success of TNT's The Closer
, which features Kyra Sedgwick as a master police interrogator who has candy and commitment issues. Sedgwick won a Golden Globe for her role in the drama, which set a basic-cable audience record with 8.8 million viewers for its third-season opener.
"The whole cable industry has been validated by that show's success," says Hunter, whose Grace, premiering July 23, will follow The Closer. "That it's a female lead has been great, not just for women but for everybody, because people understand that people want to watch women in the lead (roles)."
The simplest reason for the actresses' move to TV? The roles are better. "I've never played anyone like Grace. She's an original creature," says Hunter, who won an Oscar for The Piano.
Hunter has turned down numerous TV series offers, including recent ones that didn't make her "feel galvanized," but the Grace script grabbed her. "By about Page 6, I called my agent and said, 'If this keeps up, there's no way I can say no. I don't want to think of anyone else playing this part.' "
Close enjoys the different dimensions of her character, powerful attorney Patty Hewes. "She has a marriage with a sexy man, and it's very unexpected and great. I'm blessed to have this, it's fun, it's flexing my creative muscle."Stigma fades
Traditionally, television has been a refuge for actors when film roles dry up, and there's still some sensitivity about such moves. But many say that stigma is all but gone.
"It almost seems like TV can help you get work," Taylor says. "Movies have changed in terms of casting. Financiers are much more involved. So if you're on a show that's doing well, you may have a better shot at getting a part in a movie."
Younger viewers don't make a distinction between film and TV acting, says Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media, and the success of HBO and advent of a golden age of TV drama have raised the status of the small screen.
"For actresses in their mid- to late 30s to 40s, there are fantastic TV roles they might not be getting in film, roles that reflect where women are today, on either side of 40, which is they're still aspirational, they may have flaws, they're complicated," says Lifetime series development chief Maria Grasso.
Those roles can be richer, too, because of the characters' greater life experience. "There are many more interesting stories you can tell when somebody has 20 years' living" as an adult, Grasso says.Targeting the audience
Complex, mature characters are in shorter supply in mainstream films built on spectacle and sequels and aimed at a younger audience. Characters such as Grace and The Closer's Brenda Leigh Johnson mesh with TNT's target audience, ages 25 to 54, and State of Mind, premiering Sunday, is a good fit for a network aimed at women.
Close acknowledges that age plays a role in film opportunities.
"I think it's problematic, when a woman leaves her 30s in Hollywood, to get really good parts. The great irony for women is we only get better, but I think we don't become as clearly sexual objects. That's just the way it is," she says.
But challenging roles are becoming more available in TV, says Close, whose series premieres July 24. She compares cable's product to "the classiest television" of an earlier era, Hallmark Hall of Fame, where she produced and performed in Sarah, Plain and Tall.
"Now with the advent and incredible evolution of cable, that's changed the landscape," she says. "You get as-great writing and certainly production values on cable as you used to get in movies. You can do great work and still have the possibility of a large audience."
TNT bought The Closer because it liked the stories and scripts, says Michael Wright, the network's head of content creation.
"I can't tell you we did it because it was a female lead. But that was part of the appeal because you're sort of looking for what's not on, and as you looked around the television landscape, it didn't seem that there were a great number of female leads in procedural dramas," he says. "To the extent there haven't been as many complex, interesting and challenging female leads, it's good for everybody if that's happening now."
Minnie Driver, who plays a drug-addicted ex-con in FX's The Riches
, and Mary-Louise Parker, the pot-dealing mom of pay-cable Showtime's Weeds
, are among the actresses taking advantage of cable roles. Actors, including Emmy winner Michael Chiklis (The Shield
) and Denis Leary (Rescue Me
), have raised their profiles on cable.
"I think (Shield creator) Shawn Ryan and The Shield busted cable out," says Grace creator Nancy Miller. "We can take more chances and explore the humanity of these characters. And we can show that women are just as complex and compelling as men."Freedoms on cable
With lower budgets and pay, and smaller target audiences than those of broadcast networks, Taylor says there's "more creative freedom on cable," as is often the case in independent film.
Saving Grace, for example, has far greater license in the realm of language, sex and nudity than it would have had on broadcast TV. The series, which will have a mature-audience label, opens with an enthusiastic bedroom romp involving Grace and her colleague/lover. Grace's hardened cops swear freely.
"One of the things that was really enticing to me was an opportunity to talk about sex with somebody like Grace, who has no inhibitions and is adventurous in the bedroom or in the kitchen or in the bathroom. She has a real freedom that I wanted to explore," says Hunter, who became intrigued with that topic when filming The Piano.
For the actresses, most of whom have theatrical experience, cable offers a side benefit, too. Most cable series have fewer episodes than broadcast shows, which leaves time for a movie, a play or other pursuits, Grasso says.
Broadcast TV hasn't ignored strong women. Ensembles such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy
and Brothers & Sisters
feature capable females. A female police investigator is the central character on CBS' Cold Case
, and the main character in Fox's upcoming Canterbury's Law
shows she is literally hard-nosed when a beleaguered witness decks her. And ABC's CB]Commander in Chief[/b] earned plaudits for putting a woman in the White House.
But cable's greater license lets it enter grittier territory, with women playing tough, quite flawed cops and lawyers, traditional male turf, in nuanced characterizations, Simon says. "Basic cable now is very ambitious. FX was able to develop a very masculine role. Now other networks are looking for more complexity in the feminine role."
He credits the influence of Oscar winner Helen Mirren, who played Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect
. The damaged police investigator was a richer character because of her life experience. "Having seen Helen Mirren, certainly that inspires other actresses to try to create complex characters," he says.
Although female roles are pushing boundaries, they haven't risked being as unlikable as male characters have.
In another break from past treatment of strong-willed women, Grace isn't condemned for her behavioral problems, including drinking, promiscuity and general recklessness.
"The nature of the show is not punitive," Hunter says. "She's living the big full ride of a woman's life."http://www.usatoday.com/life/televis...en-cover_N.htm