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Fall’s Fab Female Showrunners

Fall's Fab Female Showrunners

“What a wonderful time for women on television!” said Julianna Margulies during her Emmy acceptance speech for The Good Wife last week. The remark, while not untrue, was somewhat undermined by the evening’s lack of female nominees in gender-neutral categories, not to mention the tacky bit with Sofia Vergara rotating onstage like a sports car on a convention-center dais.  

But this fall’s lineup is looking seriously promising, in particular three very different dramas run by women. The one I’m most excited about is Showtime’s The Affair, with playwright and In Treatment co-producer Sarah Treem as showrunner. She created it with Hagai Levi, also of In Treatment.

On its face, the show’s premise isn’t exactly radical: Ominous flashbacks to a torrid tryst between Dominic West and Ruth Wilson’s characters, during a summer in Montauk, vaguely imply that something went terribly wrong in the aftermath.

But as Treem told Writer magazine, the show carefully examines the events from both male and female perspectives:

“I think that’s radical in a love story because so often the woman is written as the object and the man as the subject. But in this show, they are both the subjects of their own story and the objects of each other’s. And the story changes depending on whose perspective we are in…. As a woman, I’m very cognizant that I experience the world differently from men. And because I’m a woman who has worked in a male-dominated field for so long, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time training myself to ‘think like a man’ in order to survive. When telling this story, I actively thought about how men and women experience the same scene differently. Which was a lot of fun and very liberating for me personally.”

In addition to her work on In Treatment and more recently House of Cards, Treem had a play in NY earlier this summer: When We Were Young and Unafraid, a work about feminism and racism, with the main character being a woman who takes in abused women in the 1970s. I like the New Yorker’s take on the long-reaching effects of Treem’s subtle writing:

“It works on you residually — it may take a few days for you to grasp why you felt so uneasy during certain scenes, and your unease may have something to do with your memory of the moments in your own life when you felt your humanity trivialized by violence, or the threat of violence, and you quickly tried to tuck those feelings away, like something ugly and shaming, locked in a dresser or shoved to a corner of the attic. Treem’s play opens that dresser drawer and empties it onstage.”

It’s an interesting observation in light of the new series’ subject matter. The trailers seem to imply a violent incident has taken place, and I’m wondering if the show will upend the still ubiquitous noir narrative about the investigation of a murdered woman (as I had been hoping True Detective was going to end up doing, but as it turned out, not so much).

Meanwhile, there’s Amazon’s new series Transparent, about a septuagenarian (Jeffrey Tambor) who blindsides her adult children with her decision to live as a transwoman. Creator Jill Soloway (United States of Tara, Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy), recently profiled in the NY Times, has been known for her complex female characters for years. She has said in several interviews that she saw much of herself in Brenda and Claire on Six Feet Under, and her 2013 film Afternoon Delight had as its protagonist a not especially likable character, played skillfully by Katherine Hahn. Transgender is certainly (finally, some would say) a hot topic this year, and Transparent stands to be Soloway’s highest-profile project yet.

Soloway, whose father similarly came out as transgender three years ago, is edgy and feminist and funny (an anal bleaching-themed short she wrote, “Courtney Cox’s Asshole,” got her the gig on Six Feet Under), and I can’t wait to see what she does with this subject and with Tambor. She certainly doesn’t hold back her thoughts on gender. Speaking of True Detective, I loved this quote  in the New Republic:

“I mean, if you just take one popular show and imagine it gender-switched. Let’s take True Detective. Imagine that’s a show about two fucked-up raunchy women investigating the murder of all kinds of naked men. Just naked tortured men all over the place. Even if that aired only once, people would be like, ‘what?!'”

Finally, there’s CBS’ Madam Secretary, starring the criminally underused Tea Leoni, with Homeland executive producer and Joan of Arcadia creator Barbara Hall as creator and showrunner. Shades of Hillary Clinton are unavoidable in a show about an unorthodox female Secretary of State with a complicated personal life. And indeed, producer Lori McCreary (Through the Wormhole) has mentioned Clinton’s 2012 testimony at the Benghazi hearings as part inspiration for the show.

In addition, the show had another heavy-hitter as advisor: Madeleine Albright, who Hall described as “very eager to weigh in and help us.”

I’ve liked the multitalented Leoni ever since Flirting with Disaster, and it’s great to see her doing TV for the first time in over a decade. Also promising: Hall has been upfront about not wanting Leoni’s character to fall into sexist clichés about women in positions of power having terribly screwed-up personal lives as a result of their careers:

“Right now [we want to] steer away from [that]. What I really wanted to do was create a successful marriage. I believe they exist, I’ve seen them. I believe the challenge of creating a woman in leadership is to not show her life broken in every other respect.”

How, you may ask, can one keep up with so many substantive, progressive shows simultaneously? I’m already sweating it, but this is a good problem to have. Just think, soon maybe we’ll have some hand-wringing about that overwhelming surplus in a new, more egalitarian Golden Age of Television.

The Affair starts Sunday, Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. on Showtime; the first episode of Transparent is currently available for free on Amazon and the series will be released September 26; Madam Secretary begins on Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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