Remember the days when around June you turned off your television, only to turn it back on sometime around September? Summer used to be all about “you shouldn’t be home in front of a screen. Go out, dive into a pool, have fun!” But now that we spend most of our waking hours staring at a screen anyway, and content is with us everywhere we go, all of a sudden those months between June and September have become primo spots for excellent new productions and for favorites we’ve come to recognize as our summer shows.
We love these shows so much, in fact, that now the networks even bring them back to plug that deadly hole around the winter holidays, when all the fall shows go on hiatus (which gave birth to the much hated “midseason finale”).
My DVR was so busy this summer (and as a result, so was I!), that I decided those shows merited some discussion. Some of the best shows I have seen in a while happened in the summer, and many of them featured strong female leads or all-women ensembles.
Here are the most notable female-centric shows, ranked in order of quality of the show and its representations of women from best to “nice try.”
At the top of my list of new shows, I must give a tie to three shows that blew me away:
“The Leftovers” – This excellent new mystery thriller with a supernatural/religious overtones will have you believe the lead character is Kevin (Justin Theroux), but it is actually Amy Brenneman and Carrie Coon who have the most prominent roles. As two women who deal very differently with incredible loss and confusion, they drive the emotional complexities on the show, along with Ann Dowd, Liv Tyler and Margaret Qualley. This ensemble of top-notch actresses makes for a gripping drama that pulls you in with the social and psychological implications for these women’s lives.
“The Honourable Woman” – Maggie Gyllenhaal shatters any idea I’ve ever had of the type of actress she is and the kind of roles she can play. In this superbly complex and fascinating, yet unfortunately too low under the radar, Sundance miniseries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (what timing!) Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a complicated Jewish philanthropist with a secret. She tears your soul apart more than once during the eight episodes, and her relationship with Atika (Lubna Azabal) is one of the most fascinating and intricate female relationships ever to be seen on the small screen. And have I mentioned Eve Best and Janet McTeer are in it, too?
“The Divide” – Another one you may have missed because it was on a relatively obscure channel (WE TV) that otherwise mostly plays SVU reruns. But boy, did they knock their first foray into original programming out of the park! Marin Ireland balances strength, vulnerability and a lot of determination as a caseworker in an Innocence Project-type organization in this psychological thriller that surprises you at every turn.
My number 2 goes to “Extant,” the new Spielberg scifi show starring Halle Berry. Yes, I could stop right there; Berry is enough of a reason to watch anything. But this show, which I had been a bit nervous about, turned out to deliver great suspense and even quite a bit of heart-tugging (think “Alien” meets “ET”). Even though the guys are running the show (both in the fictional world and behind the scenes), Berry has Camryn Manheim and Grace Gummer (of Meryl Streep royalty) as her fellow female sci-fighters. Issues of motherhood to two unusual kids (a robot and a half-alien) are dealt with in an original way, and the women and children work together against the forces (i.e. men) who are trying to take advantage of them.
Number 3 on the list might surprise some people because this show got a lot of flack from reviewers and we probably should not expect to see it back next season, which is a real tragedy. “Black Box,” from Ilene Chaiken, the creator who brought you “The L Word,” is a show about a bipolar neurologist. Yes, the depiction of the mental illness is unfortunately too cartoonish to be justified as “dramatic license,” and, yes, Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) is one of those now-ubiquitous self-destructive geniuses, a kind of a Dr. House minus the Y chromosome (and a much better bedside manner). But the show is quite refreshing in its take on the old medical procedural, with a lot of Dr. Black’s personal life involved. Other ladies on the show are the great Vanessa Redgrave in the role of the doctor’s psychiatrist, and Laura Fraser from “Lip Service“ and “Breaking Bad.” Oh, and the score is all jazz!
In number 4 we have a new TNT show. With every week that went by, “Murder in the First” steadily built a strong case for it being one of the best shows of the summer. A definite surprise from TNT which usually goes for the lightweight procedurals, this new show from Steven Bochco, who revolutionized television with “Hill Street Blues” and pioneered the raw, gritty, serial police drama, is a long-form, slow-burn crime show that revolves around one single case. It is lead by Kathleen Robertson and Taye Diggs, who are equally competent and whose relationship, gratefully, does not involve any of the compulsory sexual tension, which leaves a lot of room for just good cerebral drama.
The number 5 spot goes to another miniseries. “Crisis” revolves the kidnapping of the children of some of the most powerful people in the country. It stars Rachael Taylor in the detective role. Here, again, it is refreshing to see a woman in a powerful position who doesn’t need to fall in love with her male partner, though she does struggle with the fatal trait that plagues most of television’s professional women: failed motherhood. Playing her very powerful sister is the wonderful Gillian Anderson.
Coming in at number 6 is the lighthearted procedural “Taxi Brooklyn.” Starring Chyler Leigh (aka Little Grey from “Grey’s Anatomy”) as diamond-in-the-rough Detective Caitlyn Sullivan, and supported by the lovely Jennifer Esposito as the medical examiner, this show is heartwarming, fun and at times even suspenseful, albeit premised on a far-fetched idea. Sullivan’s partner of sorts, Leo the cab driver (Jacky Ido), is charming, but that doesn’t mean he and Sullivan have to be romantically involved. Instead, his charms work well to complement her good-hearted-yet-bad-attituded ways.
Finally, at the bottom of the list at number 7, “The Lottery,” a Lifetime show about a not-so-far-in-the-future crisis of fertility (Margaret Atwood much?) showed much promise with a myriad of feminine and feminist issues to work with and a female lead (Marley Shelton). Alas, the show wasn’t interesting enough to keep this feminist watching.
Stay tuned for part II where I will rank new seasons of veteran summer shows.
Pat on the Back of the Week:
Two of my favorite shows this season, CBS’s Sunday shows “The Good Wife” and “Madam Secretary,” are far more than just excellent. Last Sunday it dawned on me that I have another good reason to love them. Being shot in the great NYC (a place I’m proud to call home), they have been taking great advantage of the myriad fabulous theatre actors we have to offer.
Not only are Bebe Neuwirth (an award winning Broadway veteran) and Patina Miller (from the original Broadway production of “Sister Act”) regulars on “Madam,” but on one night, Oct. 26th, I counted six Broadway actors on “Good Wife:” Steven Pasquale (the magnificent tenor who has just buried his new musical “The Bridges of Madison County” despite it being the best new musical Broadway has seen in years!), Jan Maxwell (who has recently wrapped a run at Lincoln Center Theater in “The City of Conversation”), Sarah Steele (currently in “The Country House”), Alan Cumming (currently starring in “Cabaret”), Stockard Channing (currently starring in the divine “It’s Only a Play”), and Linda Lavin (Broadway royalty). So IN MY OPINION, this is awesome, if you catch my drift…. (and if not, start watching “Good Wife” and you’ll get the joke!).
Look How Far We’ve Come of the Week:
Serves me right for betraying everything my Jewish heritage has taught me and going on the record calling Callie and Arizona the most stable couple on “Grey’s Anatomy” without even spitting once or knocking on some wood. Well, look what happened. Callie and Arizona are, so it seems, breaking up.
But say what you will about whether or not they belonged together in the first place, here is what’s important: The entire episode of “Grey’s” last Thursday was dedicated to these two women and their relentless attempts to make their relationship work.
Yes, it does seem like Callie is going to date men again. The show prepared us for it with numerous “but I am bisexual” exclamations. And it is true; Callie has always been a bisexual. When Erica Hahn was going through the whole “Oh my God, I’m seeing leaves” discovery, Callie was thinking about making babies with Mark. And you know what, bisexuals could use a good representative character.
But who would have thought, just a few years ago, that a lesbian couple would get a whole episode to talk about their relationship, without it being a heart-wrenching coming out story, or a custody battle, or a suicide?
Folks, we’ve come a long way. And hopefully, this will at least mean Arizona will get some fun dating time now. We know all the lesbians in the hospital want her!
Best Scene of the Week:
No words. Just watch:
Your turn: Which new summer shows did you like? What did you think about Callie and Arizona breaking up? Speak up!