All this week, Women and Hollywood will run our own “Best of” lists to honor and celebrate the year’s best women-directed and women-centric movies and TV shows. See our previous posts on the “Best Women-Directed Documentaries of 2013,” the “Best Women-Centric Films of 2013,” the “Most Popular Women and Hollywood Posts of 2013,” and the “Best Women-Directed Films of 2013.”
Getting to watch television for a living is a terrifically fun job even when what’s on screen isn’t all that compelling. But 2013 was chock-full of ridiculously terrific television, much of it by and about women. And because there’s just too much of it, and in too-varied forms, reducing it down to a simple top-ten list would be a tragedy. So here are the Women and Hollywood TV superlatives, recognizing some of the best television of the year.
Showrunner Of The Year: Jenji Kohan, Orange Is The New Black. One of the reasons Kohan was able to adapt Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name in the way that she did — with humor, pathos, and sexual heat — is that she made the show for Netflix. Working for an outlet that focuses more on creating content that connects deeply with audiences than what appeals superficially to as many people as possible is obviously a liberating experience. But no algorithm could have produced Orange Is The New Black, an astonishingly funny drama about the inmates at a women’s prison.
It was Kohan who put together her fabulous cast, turning Laverne Cox into a star as Sophia Burset, the most sophisticated portrait of a transgender woman on American television; spotting relative newcomer Danielle Brooks as prison librarian Taystee Jefferson; and transporting Kate Mulgrew, who was already famous for her work on Star Trek, into the role of prison chef Red. Kohan expanded the framework of the show to explore the lives of women of color and included a clever subplot in the show about the exploitation of their stories by white writers eager to advance their own careers. She also put together a diverse writers room that can run the gamut from an episode centered around a search for a magical chicken to a profoundly moving Christmas pageant.
Orange Is The New Black is one of the best new shows of the year. What Kohan gives us next will be one of the highlights of 2014.
Directors Of The Year: Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones), Ava DuVernay (Scandal), and Sarah Burns (Central Park Five). One of the best trends of the year in television is the way that anti-hero shows like Breaking Bad and fantasy epics like Game of Thrones are credentialing women as action directors. The woman at the forefront of this movement is Michelle MacLaren, an executive producer on Breaking Bad who directed “To’hajiilee,” one of the final episodes of that show, which included one of the tensest gunfights of the year. She’s also responsible for “The Bear And The Maiden Fair,” a tense, striking episode of Game of Thrones that pitted a female knight against the titular animal. It wouldn’t be surprising if she followed her Game of Thrones colleague Alan Taylor to directing features. But for television’s sake, I hope we can keep her on the small screen for a while longer.
On network television, film director Ava DuVernay directed one of the most striking episodes of Scandal this year, “Vermont Is For Lovers, Too.” It was an hour of television that jumped between cynical political manipulation, swooning romanticism, and visceral horror, the latter in a scene with Khandi Alexander chewing on her own wrists to feign a suicide attempt. And DuVernay also directed Venus vs., part of ESPN’s Nine for IX series, which focuses on Venus Williams’ quest for equal prize money for women’s tennis. Let’s hope that other showrunners and networks decide to hire DuVernay in 2014.
And finally, Ken Burns’ reputation as a director has been established for decades. But it was his daughter Sarah’s passion for the case of the Central Park Five — five New York City teenagers who were arrested, railroaded into confessions, and convicted of the rape of a white woman in New York — that fueled one of the best TV documentaries this year. Sarah wrote a book about the case, and together, the Burnses directed a terrific program about it that aired on PBS this year. It’s an important correction to the record that looks deeply at the women who prosecuted the case and gives voice to the men who lost so much of their lives to it.
Hardest Goodbye: Bunheads. There was no more frustrating cancellation of a television show, nor one that felt more stupidly premature, than ABC Family’s decision to axe Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads. The show about the teachers and students at a California ballet school was full of complex relationships between women. Bunheads gave us a mother and daughter-in-law trying to reconcile their approaches to ballet and finances; three teenaged friends trying to navigate their differing looks, talents, and relationships to men; and two sisters, one confident but abrasive, and the other sensitive but so socially invisible that almost no one recognized her gifts. And it also had gorgeous dance sequences, deeply hilarious pop-culture references, and realistic heartbreak. I miss it so, so badly.
Best Departing Character Of The Year: Liz Lemon (30 Rock). When he — and we — first met Liz Lemon so many years ago, Jack Donaghy diagnosed the woman who was running his network’s marquee show as “New York third-wave feminist, college-educated, single-and-pretending-to-be-happy-about-it, overscheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover and every two years you take up knitting for… a week.” By the time she departed our airwaves earlier this year, Liz hadn’t necessarily changed, but she’d proved that all her quirks weren’t obstacles to a happy professional and personal life. When 30 Rock ended, Liz had an adoring husband, two adopted kids, and was going on to run another television show, while it was Jack, now her dear friend and mentor, who was still struggling to have it all.
Best New Characters In A Drama: Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans) and Lt. Abbie Mills (Sleepy Hollow). The two best new drama leads have a great deal in common, despite their radically different origins — the former in the Soviet Union, the latter as an African-American woman in upstate New York. They’re prickly, skeptical, and deeply regretful of the harm they’ve caused other people in the past. As a deep-cover KGB spy, Keri Russell brought both steel and tremendous vulnerability to Elizabeth Jennings, the tougher half of her partnership with husband Philip (Matthew Rhys). And as Lt. Abbie Mills, Nicole Beharie beautifully inhabits the frustrations of a smart woman explaining the world to a particularly out-of-touch white man and trying to reconcile with the sister she betrayed years ago. They’re complex women without being facsimiles of prestige television’s male anti-heroes.
Best New Characters In A Comedy: Kate Harrison (Trophy Wife) and Detective Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine). I still can’t get over how much I adore Trophy Wife, Sarah Haskins’ semi-autobiographical comedy about the third wife of a lawyer who forms an extended family with his ex-wives and children. It’s my favorite new comedy of the fall, and an enormous part of that is Malin Ackerman’s Kate, a good-hearted goofball who can make the repetition of the word “glogg” an entire comedy routine in and of itself. A network over, Stephanie Beatriz plays Kate’s opposite on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Detective Rosa Diaz is a televisual cousin to Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza): taciturn, a little bit kinky, and secretly talented. But she’s also a fully-formed grownup, and watching her slow-growing friendship with Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) or her relationship with lovelorn colleague Detective Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) is one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s real pleasures.
Best Ensemble: Orange Is The New Black. I could write an entire piece praising the actresses on Orange is The New Black. Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset. Danielle Brooks as Taystee Jefferson. Taryn Manning’s ferocious white supremacist turn as Pennsatucky. The rigorous rules Michelle Hirst’s Miss Claudette uses to protect her intensely tender interior. Nicky Nichols, the recovering drug addict played by Natasha Lyonne. Uzo Aduba’s slow-burn exploration of mental illness and buried talent in the form of Suzanne. I could go on and on. And it speaks to the “Trojan Horse” nature of Orange Is The New Black that Taylor Schilling, who plays lead Piper, eventually fades into the incredibly rich texture of the show.
Political Show Of The Year: Scandal. House of Cards may have garnered more awards nominations, but no show better captures the attractions and repulsions of the presidency, the indignities of political wifehood (and mistresshood), and the anxieties of living in a surveillance state where torture become a governing tool than Shonda Rhimes’ fever dream of a drama. When we look back at the Obama era, Scandal, with its portrait of the passing of a white monopoly on presidential power, and the ascendency of women of color and gay men, will be an essential cultural document of our time.
Friendship Of The Year: Adriana Mendez and Daniel Frye (The Bridge). It’s unfortunate that when a man and woman share a television screen, thoughts almost inevitably turn to love, the will-they-or-won’t-they romances that drive so many midseason cliffhangers and sweeps smooches. The Bridge solved that problem with a friendship between Adriana (Emily Rios), a lesbian reporter from Juarez, and Daniel (Matthew Lillard), a floridly heterosexual Texan. At first, theirs is just a professional partnership as they chase the story of a serial killer operating on the border between El Paso and Juarez. But as Adriana helps Daniel manage his battle against his addictions, and Daniel gives Adriana an ally as she struggles to make her mother understand that her attraction to women is a fundamental part of her, they forge something that’s highly unusual on television. They’re the best reason to watch The Bridge when it returns in 2014.
Best Elisabeth Moss Show: Top Of The Lake. Mad Men may have made Elisabeth Moss famous, but even Peggy Olson’s break with Don Draper pales in comparison to Moss’ performance as a New Zealand detective investigating a horrifying sex crime in the town where she grew up — and experienced her own sexual assault. Moss got to be furious, frightened and frightening, violent, and intensely sexual. Her performance was a revelation that made me eager to see the end of Mad Men, if only to learn what Moss is going to do next.