When the Heroine Is Less Than Perfect
By Mike Hale, The New York Times
- Sep. 3, 2017
We’ve been living in the age of the television antihero for a while now. Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Frank Underwood, Don Draper — male murderousness and deception wrapped in charisma has been a dominant trope of the TV revolution.
So where are the antiheroines? Their arrival has been slow and fitful, the problematic female character apparently being a harder sell, a harder creative leap or both. They’re said to have arrived — a representative list might include Claire Underwood (“House of Cards”), Jackie Peyton (“Nurse Jackie”), Patty Hewes (“Damages”), Carrie Mathison (“Homeland”), Olivia Pope (“Scandal”) and Letty Dobesh (“Good Behavior”).
The two groups are separate and unequal, however. The antiheroes, defined by their exercise of power rather than the quality of their relationships, almost never have to say they’re sorry. Their flaws are a given, overshadowed by the more important question of whether and how they’ll triumph.
Troubled female protagonists are more likely to be defined by two things: their spousal and mothering skills and, closely related, their levels of guilt and fear. They spend a lot of time fretting and apologizing.
In truth, the women are seldom truly anti. The makers of television are still, for the most part (the occasional Claire Underwood or Cersei Lannister aside), unwilling to go all the way — to create a female character who freely practices evil and is, at least in dramatic terms, celebrated for it.
What we get instead are compromised heroines. Instead of “Will she win?” the question is, will she overcome her problems and reassure us that women aren’t like men? This is more of an observation than a criticism — the result can be female characters who are more complicated and realistic, if less superficially exciting, than their male counterparts. Several of the more interesting new and returning dramas this fall feature this sort of probationary heroine, on trial in an essentially personal way that male characters rarely are.
ABC’s abduction thriller “Ten Days in the Valley” (Oct. 1), created by the Canadian writer and producer Tassie Cameron (“Rookie Blue”), gets right to the heart of things. Kyra Sedgwick plays Jane Sadler, a high-powered TV writer who’s also the divorced single mom of a young daughter.
In the first episode — no big spoilers here — an emergency crops up at night, when Jane’s without help, and she leaves her daughter alone while she retreats to her backyard studio to write. When she returns a few hours later, the girl is gone.
“Ten Days” is a having-it-all horror story, with a perfect alignment of circumstances to paint Jane as an imperfect mother: divorce, a consuming career, a reliance on drugs to weather all-night writing sessions. What’s interesting about it, in the two episodes available for review, is that while we might sympathize with Jane, we’re not pushed to like her. Her concern for her daughter isn’t appreciably greater than her anger at the ex-husband she assumes is responsible for the abduction and her fear that the police will uncover her drug use.
“Liar,” a British mini-series beginning Sept. 27 on SundanceTV, tackles another paradigmatic situation in which a woman faces suspicion and resistance. Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey” plays a schoolteacher, Laura Nielson, who goes on a date with a handsome widowed doctor (Ioan Gruffudd) and subsequently accuses him of drugging and raping her.
The beats of this story, like those of the bad-mother story, are familiar, and the writer-producer brothers Harry and Jack Williams (“The Missing”) hit many of them: Laura’s alcohol intake on the night in question, her jangled emotions and defensiveness in its aftermath and a previous incident that casts doubt on her. In plot terms, keeping her stability and veracity in question is essential to the show’s mystery.
Perhaps no female protagonist in TV is more troubled than Robin Griffin, the Australian police detective played by Elisabeth Moss in Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake,” which begins its second season on SundanceTV on Sept. 10. (The season’s full title is “Top of the Lake: China Girl.”)
Robin returns to the Sydney police department (after solving a case while on vacation in New Zealand in Season 1) and, while looking into the murders of Asian prostitutes, confronts institutional sexism and indifference that exacerbate the depression she suffers as a result of having been raped as a teenager. She’s also saddled with mother-guilt, having given up the child born after the rape. In classic female-noir fashion, her personal demons both hinder her investigation and give her the empathy and insight she needs to pursue it.
“Ten Days in the Valley,” “Liar” and “Top of the Lake” all use genre-based mystery plots to examine predicaments and pressures that real-life women experience every day, and it may seem backward or reductive to group them on the basis of their problematic heroines.
But it makes sense when you consider there are no comparable male characters. Looking for troubled male leads in the fall’s new dramas, there’s the brilliant autistic surgeon of “The Good Doctor” on ABC and the brilliant, bereaved entrepreneur of “Wisdom of the Crowd” on CBS. Each exists largely above reproach, battling demons that were forced on him. When a male character has issues, they’re much more likely to be addressed through comedy, where judgment is suspended in the name of likability. The fall schedule is full of new comedies featuring men whose foibles and deficiencies are played for laughs: “9JKL,” “Ghosted,” “Me Myself & I,” “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”
Actually, one of television’s truest, most cleareyed depictions of the less-than-perfect woman and mother is also a comedy, but not of the slick sitcom variety. Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” returns for its second season on FX on Sept. 14, chronicling the continuing misadventures of a harried single mom and her three daughters in a way that’s hilarious but also honest about the stresses and potential dangers of that particular family arrangement. Ms. Adlon pulls off the essential trick for a show about her type of heroine: It’s all about judgment, but it’s never judgmental.