In these times of instant Nielsen Ratings, which don’t pass muster anymore but still make or break shows, it is much harder for a new show to make it than it used to be. Shows used to get at least a few weeks to find their footing, and viewers were given some time to bond with a new show.
These days, a show can be pulled after two or even one episode (i.e. “The Playboy Club”). So when shows make it to a second season, that is a huge deal. And even though I tend to think that summer shows are held to slightly more relaxed standards, some of these shows could easily compete with the big guys on the fall roster.
So here is my list of returning summer shows, in order of quality of the show and its representations of women:
At number 1 you will not be surprised to find the biggest hit of the last two summers, “Orange is the New Black.” The show, loosely based on the real experiences of one Piper Kerman, is set in a women’s prison. That kind of sounds like bad lesbian porn, right? Well, there’s a little bit of girl-on-girl action, but mostly there are human stories of women who got into tricky situations and handled them wrong.
The first season was an instant hit, and with the first three episodes of the second season, I had a real fear that that magic could not be replicated. But episodes 4-13 not only recreated the magic, they surpassed it.
With an ensemble of characters of all sizes, ages and ethnic and economic backgrounds, this show gives a voice to women who don’t often get to tell their stories, like the middle-aged Russian immigrant or the transgender African-American. These important stories are written brilliantly and acted to perfection.
At number 2, a very close second, is ABC Family’s “The Fosters.” The show has been a first in many ways: First, It is a classic family show, but is headed by two lesbians. Second, it is on a network that is primarily oriented toward tweens and teens. This is a mighty change from the days of Prop 8 ads that tried to scare us that exposure to the “gay lifestyle” might teach little girls they could marry a princess.
The show doesn’t just tell us the mothers are lesbians; it actually shows them engaging in a loving, complex relationship. It shows them hugging, kissing, holding hands, lying in bed together, and even trying to get their kids out of the house so that they can have sex. They are wonderful parents, and they are raising caring, self-aware children who experience all the usual teenage angst and mistakes.
Coming in at number 3 is the final season of the little engine that could, “The Killing.” What a troubled show, and I am not even talking about its content. “The Killing” started out on AMC with a fantastically dark first season that pissed everyone off when it ended without a solution to the mystery. The second season redeemed itself, but unfortunately many angry viewers did not stick around to see it, and the show was canceled.
Avid fans of the show pestered AMC to change their minds, and in a rare turn of events, they did. The show was picked up for a third season and started off looking like it was going to be their best yet. Alas, the ending crashed and burned and ruined the whole season. The show was not given another shot.
But wait, there’s another twist! Enter Netflix. The show was picked up for one final season of only six episodes to get the ending it deserved. And this time, they got it right.
Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is one of the darkest female characters I have ever seen. She is a bad mother, she is self-destructive, and she obsesses over her cases in a sick way. In other words, she is like many male antiheros we see on television all the time. But the way she connects with her victims, who are almost exclusively female, is something no male detective could ever do. The bond she creates with the victims and her sense of responsibility to them is what made the show so special.
For number 4, I chose a show that I can’t say that I like because it disturbs me on the deepest of levels. But that’s kind of the point, and it does it very well, so I can appreciate it. “The Bridge” is a an FX show that takes place in El Paso, on the Texas-Mexican border, and revolves around one American female detective and one Mexican male detective (Oscar nominee Demian Bichir), who try together to fight the evildoings of the Mexican drug cartels. Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger excels in this complex role) is the American. She is on the spectrum, so she is not very good with social graces, but she is strong-headed and quite brilliant at what she does.
But in a refreshing change from the tired trope of the mentally unstable woman whose disorder is the reason for her genius (Carrie in “Homeland,” Jackie in “Nurse Jackie,” etc. etc. Look out for a separate post on the subject), Sonya doesn’t have to be self-destructive to be successful. Her unique character means that you will not get easy access to her psyche, but you will respect her from afar, as she fights to the death to bring justice to her, mostly female, victims.
Number 5 is “Major Crimes,” the spinoff that was born out of “The Closer” (another great female-led show), has been the loveliest surprise of the last two summers. I had had my doubts about stiff Sharon Raydor leading a show on her own, but Mary McDonnell has been doing a beautiful job taking a two-dimensional, minor character and fleshing out all her colors in this new incarnation.
The show’s smartest move was bringing onboard one adorable teenager named Rusty, a homeless boy with ample charm, whom Sharon takes in. This has drawn so much compassion, humor and personality out of Sharon that we almost learn to know her as a brand new character. She is strong, unapologetic and independent, but she is also maternal and sweet.
That being said, the show is due for major improvements when it comes to female representations. Although two women were added to the crew: Detective Amy Sykes (Kearran Giovanni), and D.D.A Emma Rios (Nadine Velazquez), the two are way too often treated as laughing stock for the guys. Things could start looking up, though, if Laurie Holden, who was brought in for the last couple of episodes to play a cop with an interesting backstory, sticks around.
At number 6, and I would never have expected to have it so low on the list, we have “Rizzoli and Isles.” And you all know why it’s fallen down the ranks, right? No matter how much I love my darling rough detective and prissy ME couple, and no matter how adorable they are together, the show has been getting on my nerves. So the girls act completely like a couple, the show titillates us with lesbian references all over the place. Exhibit A:
And then – what – all of a sudden someone up there got spooked?
Last year they really dialed back on the “lesbian overtones,” which turned off many of the lesbian fans, who felt their feelings were being toyed with. But this year they went with the worst possible cliché: they knocked Jane up, only to then have her lose the baby. Make up your mind already, people!
For number 7 I am going with one of my favorite summer shows, “Rookie Blue,” which gave me a little extra reason to love it last summer. First of all, the show is adorable (well, it is Canadian!). Secondly, it is full of powerful women cops who are completely equal to their male counterparts, so much so that it isn’t even an issue. And third, last season, angry girl Gail Peck (Charlotte Sullivan) finally realized she was gay. That made so much sense, didn’t it?? So there was a little angst with her new girlfriend, but we know how to take a little angst when there’s payoff in the end!
Number 8 goes to a show that I really love but is also getting on my nerves. “Nurse Jackie” revolves around a drug addict. Granted, addicts are not known to be the most endearing of characters. But Jackie seems to have House’s fatal flaw, and I don’t mean her addictive gene, but her creators’ lack of desire to let her grow.
Yes, addiction is a life-long battle, but both Jackie and House got a second chance and their respective shows got so much better when they did. But both had to relapse, drive us crazy. Let’s hope Jackie doesn’t end up like House (i.e. canceled).
Plus, Eve Best is gone. So as much as Zoey (Merritt Weaver) and Akalitus (Anna Deavere Smith) are good enough reason to keep watching, and Edie Falco is so good as Jackie, seeing those daughters of hers ruin their lives because their mother is a complete self-absorbed, lying, cheating, manipulating “bitch,” albeit a really good nurse, just doesn’t feel that funny.
I’m giving number 9 to CBS’s “Unforgettable” mostly because I appreciate how much the show has improved from its first season to its second. I couldn’t stand Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery) in the first season, and I didn’t really like the show, either.
The second season sees a much more grounded, funny, but edgy Carrie, her biographical memory gets a lot more play time, and the cases have been more interesting. I still find Dylan Walsh creepy as her partner Al Burns and find that the “sexual tension” between them is completely made up (personally, I think Walsh has about as much sex appeal as a shoelace), but as long as it doesn’t get too much in the way of Carrie ripping through NYC to find bad guys, I’m okay with that.
Number 10 goes to another crime show (shocking, I know, there are so few of those!). ABC’s “Motive” tries to flip the formula of the old procedural and does so to moderate interest. What makes the show enjoyable is Kristin Lehman who plays Detective Angie Flynn. We really don’t know almost anything about Flynn, which is problematic, but Lehman does a great job leading a light hour of girl power entertainment.
At number 11 is another old favorite that has really slipped down this year. “Covert Affairs” has been the only USA show to get DVR time in my house, but this season it just tried too hard to change its identity. I don’t like this new, dark and tortured Annie Walker. I don’t like this new convoluted plotline. I am definitely happy that Joan got more to do, and I think the show is capable of tackling more serious issues, but it cannot do it at the expense of its charm, which was the only reason we watched it to begin with (well, that and Piper Perabo).
I give the second to last spot, number 12, to “Devious Maids.” The show, by “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry and “Housewives” alum Eva Longoria, tells the tales of Latina maids and their stereotypical employers. Though I suppose it is meant to empower Latina women by giving them a show of their own and by flipping the stereotype on its head, I found that the show relied too much on caricatures and absurd situations. It worked on “Housewives” because there were so many more layers that were slowly revealed about each character, but it did not happen for me here.
Lastly, at number 13, we have “Mistresses,” which is not only a badly written show about badly-written female characters, but it committed the unforgivable crime of badly Americanizing an excellent British show.
The Summer Show That Screwed Up:
“Last Comic Standing” is a reality show that made a comeback last summer, much to my delight. This new and revamped 2.0 version has the hilarious and brilliant Roseanne Barr as a new judge, which is already fantastic news (though I liked the previous female judge Natasha Leggero, as well). Roseanne was joined by two new male judges, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Russell Peters. It is important to note that the competition is completely decided by the judges, with no audience vote.
This season started off very promising, with auditions full of witty, clever, funny women. Disappointingly, only TWO women made it in to the final ten, making room for far less funny men.
Aida Rodriguez, an attractive and funny Latina woman, was actually asked by judge Wayans to pull back on her attractiveness because he found it distracted him from her humor. Wow. Speechless here. Aida was the first to be cut from the show.
Making up for all of that was Nikki Carr, the African-American, heavy-set lesbian, who made it to the finals and grabbed second place.
But what are we to learn from this? That the age-old stereotype that funny girls have to be unattractive, or that any girl who doesn’t fit society’s ridiculous beauty ideal can only grow up to be funny because that’s the only thing she has going for her?
That a woman would be told she had to be less attractive to not distract from her intelligence, skills, sense of humor or talents is just as offensive as telling a woman that her self-worth was in her looks instead of all of the above.
That is messed up, Last Comic. Totally messed up. Roseanne, please fix it.
Best Comeback of the Season:
The third season of “Homeland” turned off quite a few people. Besides the fact that it was weak, many people didn’t like that Brody was killed. But that turned out to be the best decision for the show. The new season has a much more disturbed, but fierce Carrie, and a storyline that keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats every single episode. If you’ve given “Homeland” up last year, you should really give this new season a chance!
Your Turn: Which are your favorite returning summer shows? Which season let you down? Have you been digging the new season of “Homeland?”