Women steal the new crop of shows

  • Elle Fanning as "Catherine" in "The Great." (Nick Wall/Hulu) Nick Wall/Hulu

  • Zoe Kravitz as “Robyn” in “High Fidelity.” Phillip Caruso / Hulu

Los Angeles Times
Published: 6/15/2020 5:04:31 PM

It wasn’t that long ago that Murphy Brown caught hell for its title character’s decision to raise a child on her own. Yes, that was a thing in the late 1980s. And just last month, the president of the United States upbraided a reporter, saying she “wasn’t Donna Reed,” referring to the actress who embodied the 1950s TV ideal of the good housewife.

Expectations of women as shaped by television — especially as to their moral character — have long been pretty narrow. It would be many years after “Murphy” before female leads could be seen as unapologetically independent, complicated and neither fully “good” nor fully “bad.” That multidimensional territory had long been reserved for men. But then came Nurse Jackie and Girls and even The Mindy Project and Fleabag.

Now a new crop of quality shows has these kinds of flawed but compelling young women bursting forth in all their human messiness — strident, selfish, rebellious and all.

Sara Kucserka, co-creator of Hulu’s series adaptation of High Fidelity, grew up in the age of Murphy Brown and has watched the TV landscape change. She largely credits the evolution of women characters to a “huge groundswell of female creators who are rising up and saying, ‘We are just as complex and difficult and complicated as any male character you’ve been seeing on television.’

“I think that hunger has always been there, and there were baby steps to getting there. Streaming has opened up new avenues, new voices. It has allowed, I think, not just diversity behind the camera but in front of it and allowed more and more people to say, ‘Yes, that’s me.’ It’s representational. ‘That’s me. Nobody has seen it before, but that is who I am.’ ”

Faithful in her fashion

The hero in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, Rob, is a self-pitying, pop-music-obsessed man-child. He was memorably played by John Cusack in a 2000 film. In the 2020 Hulu series, Rob’s gender is flipped and ethnicity changed, but pretty much everything else is the same. As played in the show by Zoe Kravitz (an executive producer who co-wrote an episode and whose mother, Lisa Bonet, played one of Rob’s girlfriends in the film), Rob has the same appetites, flaws and appeal, and is just as sympathetic.

Kucserka said, “When Veronica (West) and I pitched this, we said, ‘We are not changing this character at all.’ We read this book when it came out, and we identified with this character. It wasn’t that we saw him as a man we knew; we saw him as ourselves.”

“For a long time, if you wanted to have a woman behaving the way Rob behaves, in order to explain it and make it OK for the audience, there had to be some deep trauma that her behavior was a byproduct of,” says Kucserka. “As some of society has become more comfortable with the fact that women can be just as messy without some huge catalyst, it’s gotten better and better.”

A portrait of the artist as a young woman

Flaws and dimension are fine, but showrunner Alena Smith wants to make one thing clear: “I see Emily Dickinson as a hero. Not an anti-hero; a hero. I think Emily was up against a lot and fought really hard for what she believed in.”

Apple TV+’s Dickinson is a frequently absurd, hip, anachronistic take on the beloved poet (played by Hailee Steinfeld). We see Emily as a teen, moving through discoveries sexual, artistic and philosophical. All this happens in antebellum Massachusetts, where women were not expected to pursue dreams outside the family. We even see her hiding her identity to write a contest-winning poem.

“The traditional received myth of Emily Dickinson is she was alone in her room, writing her poems,” says Smith. “But she started as a very social, wickedly funny, outgoing, rebellious — not necessarily as rebellious as she is in the show — but spiritually rebellious. … The story about her being the only girl who didn’t get born again in her high school — that was true. The show’s goal is to depict Emily Dickinson’s coming of age.”

Smith also agrees series like hers might not have been possible until recently. “There has been a new mold created in, say, the last 10-15 years,” she says. “It wasn’t that long ago that women were kept in some pretty tight boxes. … It’s kind of up to us, as things do become more open, to re-engage with that history and pull the old dresses out of the closet and say, ‘What was it really like to wear these? And are we still wearing them now?’ ”

To be young, gifted and female

HBO’s Italian drama My Brilliant Friend looks deeply into Lenu and Lila, each the other’s brilliant friend. It’s based on a series of novels by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym), but the show is created, co-written and mostly directed by a man: Saverio Costanzo.

The young geniuses in My Brilliant Friend are generally discouraged from any ambitions beyond taking low-level jobs in the little universe of their neighborhood and serving a husband. It’s not a box that fits them well. They’re guilty of pettiness and selfishness; they make some terrible decisions despite being the smartest people in the series.

“When cinema and television describe women, usually, especially in Italy, we have very simple characters. There’s no complexity, the dark side that makes a character interesting. These two girls are very bad at some things. We can identify with them.”

The uncertainty of the characters’ futures in My Brilliant Friend makes it particularly painful to see the vibrant minds of Lenu and Lila so shackled. “The story is a fight between women who are trying to become a person and the men who are afraid to break a habit. We are talking about a country — my country — which is one of the most misogynist in the world. Even if we are in the 21st century, Italy is still very misogynist,” says Costanzo.

Think she’s good now? Just wait

At the center of The Great (as in Catherine) is Elle Fanning’s portrayal of a naive girl thrown into court intrigue before rising to become one of Russia’s greatest leaders. Her dreams of humanist reform fall into the meat grinder of a society so patriarchal, women aren’t allowed to be formally educated. In one exchange with her trusted maid, Catherine says she always sensed God intended her to do great things. Her maid asks, “Why did he make you a woman then?” She answers, “For comedy, I guess.”

“You go into the show thinking you know what’s going to happen,” says Fanning, noting Catherine’s staggering accomplishments. Fanning says viewers might expect her to be “strong” and prepared from the start, which she emphatically is not. But, says the actress, “ ‘strong female character’ always sounds a bit condescending to me. Like when people say it, they sound surprised.”

Creator Tony McNamara (The Favourite) says, “She’s not simple and not all good. As the series goes on, you’ll see more and more complications of what it’s like to have power and how she tries to retain elements of herself. She has got an arrogance; she’s got this ruthlessness, which she needs. So I do see it as part of that line” of complex female protagonists.

Fanning says, “I got to go to pitch meetings … those rooms that a lot of times were full of men — you know, talking about the show, and a lot of those rooms not getting it. Trying to explain why it’s important to have a show like this where the female (lead) isn’t perfect. She has an ego. I love her ego too.”




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