Your guide to 200 hours of TV starring kick-ass women
Tatiana Maslany seen in about half the roles she plays on the show Orphan Black.
All right, class. We’ve got an activity for you, so pay attention. Take a red pen out of your desks and draw a big box around the month of April. Done? Okay. Now write this down because you’re going to be quizzed on it later: April 2016 will end up being the best month for women on television in the history of the medium.
The internet loves hyperbole, but this is for real. In this 30-day stretch we will see the returns of Outlander (props to the female gaze!), Orphan Black, Veep, Game of Thrones, Inside Amy Schumer and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That means not only can you reengage with your favorite leading women, you can watch some of the best comedy and character drama on TV. And considering how much serial programming we have to choose from these days, being deemed a “Must Watch” show is a true superlative.
Because in this new Golden Age of TV or Peak TV or whatever you want to call it, if you’re not critically acclaimed you can GTFO. Viewers have more options than ever before, and we mean by a margin of miles. You know it. You feel it. The only thing worse than the TV FOMO is the TV super-saturation point. At the end of 2015, The New York Times reported that there were 409 original scripted shows across traditional and online formats, which was up from 376 in 2014. Those quaint old days of 1999, when there were only 23 original scripted series on cable, feel like memories in soft focus now.
Over at New York Magazine’s pop culture blog, Vulture, they’ve leveled up the Sadism and built a “Commitment Calculator” to assess the number of hours you will spend watching TV each season if you keep up with all your favorite shows. Checking every single box for the Winter 2015/2016 slate would have signed you up for 225 shows and more than 1,500 hours of watch time. That is an extreme figure, and makes the Emmys opening gag about Andy Samberg going into a vault for a year to catch up on all the TV he’s missed feel almost too real.
So how could you not be on the bubble of burnout? All those great shows we listed before are just the ones coming back in April. We’re also tapering off a winter season that was massive for female-anchored programming. If you act now, you can check in before the season finales of Quantico, How To Get Away With Murder, Girls, Scandal, Blindspot, Broad City, The Americans, Supergirl, iZombie, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and more. And you just missed Telenovela, Shades of Blue and American Crime Story. (Yes, that last one was about the O.J. Simpson trial, but the runaway star of the season was Sarah Paulson’s brilliant turn as prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark.)
That’s just too much TV, and too much good TV means we need filters in place – protocols to help us walk that fine line between earning a pop culture pro credential and experiencing complete social breakdown. So why not just focus your efforts on watching shows that feature female leads? Because we’ve finally hit a point where you can commit a depressing amount of your life to that single pursuit.
We used to the calculator to determine how many hours of TV we could aggregate if we only wanted to watch shows that put women front and center, things like Agent Carter, The Good Wife, Not Safe with Nikki Glaser and Jane the Virgin. We’ve got a long way to go towards parity, but the results were still impressive: 27 shows and over 180 hours of content, which equals the number of scripted series on cable in all of 2014. And that doesn’t even count ensemble programs with great female characters like Modern Family, The Goldbergs, Empire, regular American Crime or Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Women, and women of color, are now doing all the jobs on TV. Do you want to see a woman playing a time traveling World War II nurse, the vice president of the United States, an apocalypse cult survivor, a kick-ass attorney, a political fixer, a super hero, a record executive, a physician, a zombie, a law enforcement official or just a plain old person living up their 20s in New York City? Well you can have all that now at the push of your on-demand button. If you’re an Orphan Black fan you can even see Tatiana Maslany play all those things at once! (Even if she hasn’t been a zombie or political fixer yet, just give it time.)
And one of the most buzzed-about new shows airing this April is also one of the best. The Girlfriend Experience is latest TV project from ace auteur Steven Soderbergh, who also brought forth the excellent Cinemax period drama, The Knick. The Girlfriend Experience is based on his 2009 movie of the same name in which adult film star Sasha Grey plays a Manhattan girl just trying to have it all by juggling demands of being a businesswoman, a significant other and a high end escort. In the show that starring role is filled by Riley Keough, and she plays a Chicago law student who chooses to enter the field of sex work.
Yes. She chooses it, and Slate’s TV critic Willa Paskin wrote about how the show challenges our American desires to strip the agency of women who enjoy sex or seek it out for any reason: “We are acculturated to have certain judgments about sex work, and the show is aware of this and seeks to cut them off at the pass. It goes out of its way to cross off any easy explanations for Christine’s behavior and to keep her from the creepiest, most dangerous possibilities of her profession. Christine does not have a traumatic history. She comes from an intact family. She is not in financial trouble.”
Riley Keough making her own decisions as Chelsea in The Girlfriend Experience.
Indiewire’s blog ThePlaylist calls the show “Outstanding” and says, “it gives a female TV antihero for the ages” while New York Magazine hails it as one of the best offerings of the year, telling views that, “If you aren’t sure what to make of it, how serious or unserious it is, whether to be turned on or off by the sex, or how to interpret particular revelations about the heroine’s past and her psychological development, you’re watching it right.”
You mean… It’s a nuanced character drama with a central figure that has and enjoys sex who is also emotionally intelligent and professionally driven? And it’s a woman?! For some of us, the cult of Don Draper that rose up around Mad Men couldn’t end soon enough (crucify me!), and Keough’s Chelsea is a protagonist America needs right now.
But you know what? If Girlfriend Experience isn’t your bag, you don’t even have to bother with it. Chelsea the escort is a type of woman, but she’s not the only type of woman. Unlike what we’ve learned from TV and movies over the past so many decades, there isn’t any one kind of woman, or one job that women have or one role that women play. They get to be heroes and antiheroes and superheroes and protagonists and antagonists and funny and serious and having sex or not having sex. Our TV landscape is finally coming closer to reflecting the reality of being a woman – who is gay or straight or black or Latina or skinny or heavy or trans or happy or unhappy or whatever else – and in April 2016 we get to celebrate a lot of those truths through our popular arts. The war is not won, but the siege is most definitely on, and the future is looking a lot more female than it used to.