How Women Are Dominating TV Right Now — And Changing It for the Better
The best and boldest shows of the year so far have been centered on, and created by, women
The story of the year in television so far was told in the closing shot of Broad City. As Ilana descended into the subway and out of our lives, the camera followed a new pair of friends, then another and another, each of different ethnicities and gender identities, all with a dynamic similar to Ilana and Abbi’s. The message was clear: There are so many women’s stories to be told, and you’ve been watching only two.
With the departures of Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, not to mention the ways that Game of Thrones failed Daenerys, Sansa and Arya in its own farewell season, 2019 could have marked a downturn for women on TV. But most of those shows concluded well. And they didn’t leave a barren landscape: Nearly all of this year’s best shows so far have been about and made by women.
Start with Netflix’s inspired Russian Doll, in which Natasha Lyonne (who created it with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) plays Nadia, a coder who keeps dying and being resurrected around the events of her 36th birthday. Lyonne is a comic force of nature throughout. In one episode, Nadia survives long enough to make it to work, where her male colleagues scold her for an error. She points out that one of them made the mistake, fixes the bug quickly while they stare at her in puzzlement, then runs off to investigate her existential quandary. It recalls a line about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: She did everything he did, but backward and in heels.
In Hulu’s Pen15, 31-year-old co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves at age 13, opposite a cast of actual middle-schoolers. What starts as a sketch-comedy idea goes much deeper into the messy dynamics of best friends experiencing adolescence at different speeds. It’s also gut-bustingly raunchy in a way that’s usually reserved for stories about boys. Female self-gratification has never seemed as hilariously all-consuming as it does in the episode where Maya learns how to masturbate.
The year has offered one striking new female-centric debut after another, including Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated buddy comedy that’s emotionally rich and endearingly silly; HBO’s Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones as a barely closeted 19th-century English landowner trying to figure out how to take a wife; and Hulu’s Shrill, with Aidy Bryant as a writer struggling to get the world to look beyond her physique.
Not only that, many of 2019’s best shows have been returning female-fronted series that found ways to level up. Starz’s Vida, about two Mexican American sisters reuniting to save their late mother’s lesbian bar, returned more confident than in Season One, when it didn’t seem to fully grasp how to tell its characters’ stories. As a result, it’s been more satisfying and intimate. The third season of Pamela Adlon’s great autobiographical FX series, Better Things — without disgraced co-creator Louis C.K. — expanded the focus beyond the usual mother-daughter dynamics while maintaining the delicate command of tone and sentiment. And the belated second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Amazon series, Fleabag, in which the title character fell for a hot priest (Andrew Scott), was a wonder, with remarkably keen insight on faith and love.
At one point, Fleabag meets a businesswoman (Kristin Scott Thomas) who sums up the female experience as one driven by suffering: “Women are born with pain built in,” she says. “It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves, throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out.” That’s just one of many female takes on the world that — despite the departures of Abbi and Ilana, Kimmy Schmidt and others — are leaving TV in secure hands.