Writing about women and popular culture can be an exercise in enormous frustration, given how few women are in positions of power in the entertainment industry, how few of them get the funding and opportunities to realize their visions, and how reductive and even cruel so many of the images that actually make it to the screen can be.
But for every primal scream that this job inspires, there are exhilarating steps forward and wonderful creative accomplishments to behold. This is especially true in television, where women have stepped up as innovative showrunners and sought-after directors and have found increasingly rich parts as actresses. So for Thanksgiving, here are five women in television I’m remarkably glad are making it better for the rest of us:
1. Shonda Rhimes. I know, it’s obvious to put the most prominent female showrunner in television — and the most prominent showrunner of color, too — at the top of this list. But given how much of the work of making television better for women rests on Rhimes’ capable shoulders, I figure she deservess all the accolades she can get. Thanks to Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Rhimes was an institution long before she made Scandal, her show about a DC fixer named Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) whose main recreational activities are drinking lots of wine and being the President’s mistress. With Scandal, a bona fide phenomenon, Rhimes has reached a whole other level.
At a time when television ratings were shrinking, Scandal became a breakout hit in part because it was a social media phenomenon: live-tweeters made it essential to watch Scandal in the time slot so you could participate in that conversation as it happened. This was a development Rhimes encouraged, tweeting during episodes and encouraging her cast to champion the show online, less by telling viewers to watch from on high than by participating in the discussion with them. The show itself evolved from its original form as a case-of-the-week procedural to a sophisticated, long-arc drama.
And Scandal wasn’t just fun. It reflected a growing anxiety about the unaccountable power of the national security state, as we learned that Olivia had helped steal the presidential election for her lover, and that her father, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton), was the head of an agency called B613 that trains assassins and manipulates presidents and Congress.
And in Olivia and First Lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), Rhimes has created two of the most complicated female characters on television in the last decade. And unlike her cable counterparts, neither Olivia nor Mellie is reduced to being a main character’s wife. They’re the stars, and Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), Olivia’s lover and Mellie’s husband, is the supporting guy. So this fall, raise a glass to Shonda Rhimes. Let’s hope that in the next year her production company, Shondaland, is able to launch some Shonda proteges, since her efforts to sell web television phenomenon Issa Rae’s shows this year didn’t result in pickups. Television needs to make a lot of changes. Rhimes shouldn’t have to do it alone.
2. Emily Rios. Rios’ performances are so quiet and so humane that they sometimes get overshadowed by flashier elements in the television shows in which she appears. But this 24-year-old actress, who broke out in the 2006 indie Quinceanera, has turned in a series of impeccable performances this year — and improved every television show she’s in, even the sensational Breaking Bad.
On that show, Rios played Andrea Cantillo, the girlfriend of recovering addict and increasingly expert meth cook Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), since 2010. Breaking Bad, which followed a former chemistry teacher’s (Bryan Cranston) descent into evil and megalomania after he starts manufacturing methamphetamine, was a show where no one was pure. Walter White, the main character, became an increasingly ruthless killer, even as he insisted he was a principled family man. His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) began laundering Walt’s drug money and was ruined by her complicity in Walt’s criminal empire. Walt’s brother Hank (Dean Norris), a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, could be brutal and crass. His wife Marie (Betsey Brandt) had a shoplifting habit. And Jesse was a junkie who became a murderer.
But in their midst, Andrea was perhaps the only adult on Breaking Bad who was a genuinely good person, caring for her son Brock (Ian Posada), acting as a good partner to Jesse, and treating him with kindness and without bitterness after their relationship ended. But the way Rios played her didn’t make her a dope or a rube, which might have been a real risk in such an unrelentingly dark show. Instead, Andrea’s decency shamed everyone else around her. Her death in the run-up to the Breaking Bad finale served as a sign of how corrupt the world around her had become, as well as how the humanity she’d inspired in Jesse survived even in the worst circumstances.
As Breaking Bad wound down to its end, Rios stepped up as half of a duo that was the best thing about a new show, FX’s borderlands crime drama The Bridge. She plays Adriana Mendez, a junior reporter assigned to work with Daniel Frye (a sensational Matthew Lillard). Adriana began the show as a sphinx, her quietness a shield against Daniel, who was an obnoxious addict, but one she had to work with to advance her career. Gradually, their sparring and their work on a series of increasingly nasty murders brought Daniel to Adriana’s family’s house in Mexico, where he learned she is a lesbian, and then Adriana to Daniel’s AA meetings. Finally, the two developed a durable friendship and a reporting partnership. Rios’ patient, fully realized work to help us get to know Adriana, and to contribute her half of her prickly, platonic relationship with Daniel, was one of the best things on television this year. Let’s hope that in 2014, someone recognizes that being quiet and careful doesn’t mean Rios should be consigned to supporting roles. She’s a star.
3. Michelle MacLaren. At a moment when the rise of superhero movies and summer blockbusters can make action films feel like not just a boy’s club but a group of Victorian gentlemen who withdraw after dinner to smoke cigars and talk horses, it’s refreshing that the most sought-after action director in television is a woman. Michell MacLaren got her first directing credit on The X-Files in 2002, and Vince Gilligan, who was a writer on that show, brought her to Breaking Bad, where she became a co-executive producer and directed more episodes of what’s perhaps the most visually ambitious show of the Golden Age of Television. This season alone, MacLaren directed the Breaking Bad episides “Buried” and “To’Hajiilee,” which featured tense, shocking, and precise gun battles that plenty of blockbusters could stand to learn from.
If she were only affiliated with Breaking Bad, that would be impressive enough. But she’s also turned in work on AMC’s massive hit zombie apocalypse show The Walking Dead. And this year, she began working with HBO on Game of Thrones, where her direction on “The Bear And The Maiden Fair,” which featured a brutal fight between the bear and young woman in the title, who’d been tossed into the bear pit with just a wooden sword for self-defense, was a particular standout. In other words, MacLaren’s good with a gun-fight, the up-close, the nasty work of killing zombies, and making medieval violence feel fresh and terrifying.
Is there any kind of action she can’t conjure thrillingly to life, any kind of fight she can’t make an expression of character, rather than a mindless display of violence? If more men in the business tried to see through a camera lens the way MacLaren does, the action that’s become so dominant in our pop culture would be a lot more interesting.
4. Aisha Muharrar. Those (criminally) few of us who watch Parks and Recreation are an obsessive and devoted bunch whose love extends to the show’s writers. My personal favorite is Aisha Muharrar, who’s now a producer on the show as well. Muharrar perfectly captures both Parks’ essential kindness and its occasional heartbreaks. When Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), who’d been elected City Councilwoman at the end of the show’s fourth season, lost her seat in a recall election sponsored by local businesses this fall, it was Muharrar who wrote the hilarious and heartbreaking episode that followed Leslie’s collapse in the wake of her defeat.
The wider world is taking notice of Muharrar — Elle featured her as a fashion icon of the writers’ room this fall. And NBC picked up a show from Muharrar last month about a teenager who dreams of being the next Oprah, which is being produced by The Office alum Ed Helms. All I want for Christmas is for NBC to pick up Muharrar’s show to series, and for the rest of the world to discover how terrific she is.
5. Kim Miscia and Beth Bowling. Sleepy Hollow, one of the fall television season’s biggest hits, has a silly — and dude-centric — premise. In this fantasy universe, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), was a British soldier-turned-spy for George Washington, who killed one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse before being fatally wounded, put into a deep freeze by his wife, a powerful witch, and waking up in the twenty-first century in upstate New York. It wasn’t a promising pitch.
But Sleepy Hollow has turned out to be an unexpected delight, and an even more surprising victory for diversity. 42, Shame, and American Violet veteran Nicole Beharie co-stars as Detective Abbie Mills, who becomes Crane’s partner and guide to contemporary America. Lyndie Greenwood is fierce as the sister Abbie abandoned in their early teens. And Orlando Jones backs them up as Police Captain Frank Irving. Given how important casting directors are to either maintaining or shattering the very white status quo in popular culture, let’s raise a glass to Kim Miscia and Beth Bowling, who toplined Sleepy Hollow‘s casting process and implemented Fox’s new mandate to make shows more diverse — and helped make a hit in the process.