By Elisabeth Granzow
With the introduction of many streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Sky, the consumption of TV shows has become easier than ever. Unfortunately, however, picking the right program to watch has become much harder with the vast selection of scripted television. Another challenge for a critical viewer like myself is to find a show that transgresses common stereotypes of race, gender and class among others and includes complex marginalized and underrepresented characters and viewpoints. Many programs on television still revolve around straight white men and do not even pass the Bechdel Test, which already sets a low bar for the quality of female representation.
This is why I compiled a list of my top 5 current TV series that can be watched on Netflix and Co. Of course this is just my personal selection and does not constitute an exhaustive list. It should be noted that even the best shows can have problematic characters and storylines and could do a better job in some areas. Yet the programs that have made it into this list present complex and complicated female characters, are often partially written and produced by women and include important storylines that feature empowered women.
Please feel free to comment about your opinions of these shows and offer your own recommendations!
The Handmaid’s Tale (2016-, Hulu)
This widely acclaimed Hulu original might not be watchable for everyone. The drama is set in a near dystopian future, where a stark decrease in the fertility rate has resulted in a theocratic revolution in the U.S. In this world, women are oppressed and assigned certain roles for specific purposes, such as housewives who support their husbands or house servants called “Marthas.” The protagonist June/Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) serves an infertile rich powerful couple as a “handmaid.” Her duty? To become pregnant by the husband in a cringeworthy religious ritual that involves the wife as well.
Season One is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. The series was created by Bruce Miller, but has a number of female producers and writers. The drama also has a fantastic female cast (Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd among others) and gives the viewer a chilling outlook of the dangers of uncontrolled systems of oppression. I highly recommend this show for fans of thrilling, suspenseful dramas and dystopian fiction. The show presents highly artistic cinematography and depicts the resilience and empowerment of complex female characters in a world that treats them as subhumans. However, I also should warn viewers about the graphic depictions of rape, violence and torture, which makes this drama not for everyone. In addition, the Handmaid’s Tale has been criticized for not addressing race in this world, but rather using a colorblind approach in its treatment of its characters of color. The show does, however, include a number of actors of color, such as Samira Wiley.
Westworld (2016-, HBO)
This big-budget HBO drama blends the Western and Sci-Fi genres into a thought-provoking product that delves into philosophical questions, such as what makes humans human and whether violence and oppression against AI robots is ethical. In this futuristic world, Westworld is a theme park reminiscent of the Wild West, in which rich people can interact with intelligent robots called hosts that resemble humans so much that they can hardly be distinguished from the human guests. As a result, most park guests live out their darkest fantasies, which includes violence against the hosts, whose memory is wiped out after each violent death.
As the first season progresses, the hosts slowly start to rebel, although it is not always clear whether they were programmed that way of whether they have found “consciousness” and therefore their own agency. The drama is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Having a woman co-create such a popular show is still rather rare in the industry. In addition, women take on the most important roles in the typically male worlds of Westerns and Sci-Fi with very strong performances by Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Bloom. They play the female hosts Maeve and Dolores, the first to realize they are not human and to fight back against their male/human oppressors. The particular abuse of female hosts therefore serves as a metaphor for violence against women in our present world. Yet one can raise the question whether gender even exists for robots. I argue that the programming of the hosts’ gender parallels the construction of gender in humans. Both in terms of human gender and race, the world outside of the Westworld park seems egalitarian with many women and people of color in positions of power within the companies that are involved with the park such as Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), an executive director of one of these companies. Westworld is a compelling drama with fantastic performances by the many female lead characters and a variety of plot lines centered around female protagonists.
Dear White People (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix comedy is based on the 2014 indie film Dear White People. Both the film and the series were created by Justin Simien and follow a number of (mostly) black students at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college. The title Dear White People refers to the name of a campus radio show by Samantha White (Logan Browning), who uses her program to address racism and share the experiences of black people in the privileged environment on campus. Each episode follows one main character, shows their unique perspectives and interweaves their storylines into one coherent plot. Thus, this satire of campus life is not only witty and smartly written, but also includes many complex male and female black characters with different backgrounds and sexualities - such as biracial Samantha, Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) and Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) - as well as political and social viewpoints. Throughout its two seasons, it tackles relevant and urgent topics including debates around activism and protests against racism, internet trolling, abortion, racism and police brutality. The intelligent writing combined with compelling characters and great performances by the cast presents the viewer with an entertaining dramedy and insights into the diversity of black life in the privileged setting of an Ivy League school.
One Day at a Time (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix sitcom was created by Gloria Calderon and Mike Royce and depicts the life of a working class, Cuban-American household. The family includes three generations of women with single working mother Penelope (Justina Machado), her mother Lydia (the fantastic Rita Moreno) and her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), as well as her son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). The comedy includes many important topics around identity into its storylines, such as sexuality and Cuban American identity. Furthermore, One Day at at Time tackles the everyday struggles of working class, veteran and immigrant families. While these are serious topics, One Day skillfully manages to combine social and political commentary with the lightheartedness and comic elements of the sitcom genre and shows that sitcoms can also be thought provoking.
My full review of One Day at a Time can be found in the review section of our Femfilmfans website.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-, The CW)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a quirky, intelligent musical dramedy created by two incredibly talented women, namely Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. Bloom also plays the main character, the successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca Bunch. Rebecca decides to move to the California hometown of her summer camp love Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) on a whim. While the title and premise suggests problematic stereotypes of the crazy and romance-obsessed woman, the show is actually quite self-aware of sexist stereotypes and adds complexity and nuance to them by thoughtfully depicting Rebecca’s mental illness and its stigmatization. Despite this serious topic, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend includes incredibly hilarious yet thought-provoking musical numbers and a coherent narrative, which will be wrapped up in its fourth and final season. I can truly recommend this show to everyone for its freshness, wit and many extraordinary female characters.
For my full review of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, please check out the Femfilmfans review section.