The Future Of TV Is Female

A young girl turns 16… and her body descends into uncontrollable chaos. No, not like mundane hormonal puberty chaos, but “I turn into other people when I touch them” chaos. Bad chaos. For the longest time, such an unexpected allegory for burgeoning womanhood would be relegated to the least-attractive time slot on some forgotten network or ignored by the television powers that be all together. But now, it’s Netflix’s pricey, prestige sci-fi epic The Innocents — It’s serious, and it’s taken seriously.
The level of respect given to a series like August’s The Innocents, co-creator Hania Elkington’s first major project, proves how far television has come in terms of series powered by women.
“[Now,] the phrase ‘woman-led show’ isn’t even discussed,” New Girl creator Liz Meriwether told Refinery29 ahead of the premiere of her own new series, ABC comedy Single Parents starring Gossip Girl queen bee Leighton Meester. “At least with network TV, they’re really not thinking about it in those terms anymore.”
In the wake of last fall’s #MeToo revelations, where the world was forced to recognize Hollywood can be hell for women, it feels powerful to realize just how many shows about women, by women, are about to hit our screens. This fall, the women-led, women-created ranks include Single Parents, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Camping on HBO, Jennie Snyder Urman’s Charmed reboot on the CW, its network sister Legacies, Lifetime’s You, NBC’s I Feel Bad, and CBS’ Murphy Brown reboot. While Netflix’s Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina shares male showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with Riverdale, it also comes with a deep bench of women producers.
Since most of these series were greenlit as pilots before Harvey Weinstein was outed as a predator, sparking a cavalcade of #MeToo stories and the #TimesUp movement, they’re not mere trinkets to prove network executives don’t hate women. Rather they’re proof that the people calling the TV shots no longer question whether these types of series can be ratings success stories, awards show boons, or simply, massively entertaining. That kind of long-awaited acknowledgement gives women creators the freedom to explore what they want, when they want it, even when their name isn’t Shonda Rhimes. So, we should all be ready for this fall’s crop of new series, no matter the genre, to dig deep into the nitty gritty of what it means to be a woman right now.
You can tell television has made great strides from early in this decade when you talk to aforementioned New Girl mastermind Meriwether and her longtime collaborator J.J. Philbin, who executive produced the FOX comedy and currently does the same for Single Parents. As Philbin pointed out during the call, the network team she and Meriwether worked on “was pretty much all female” and “totally embraced them.” So much so that no one said a word, or question, about the fact that Meriwether was pregnant throughout pilot production. She gave birth during shooting.
“It turns out, you can do a lot on conference calls,” Meriwether joked. “I actually watched cuts when I had just given birth, too … Everyone the whole way was really supportive of me not wanting to do things and wanting to do things.”
This issue of internal network support came up with a few woman creatives across the new television landscape. As Aseem Batra, creator of NBC comedy I Feel Bad, about a married, working mom who is both kickass and guilty (hence all the titular bad feelings), recalled of her September 2017 pitch meeting, “Even the men in the room related to it because they had their own versions of feeling bad.” One executive was so moved, he exclaimed, “I’m going to go home and hug my wife because I don’t always understand what she’s feeling.”
With a story like that, it’s no surprise Batra, who produces Bad with Julie Anne Robinson and the one, the only, Amy Poehler, only had to pitch their series to NBC.
Now, with the Peacock network behind her, Batra, a Midwesterner with a South Asian background, is looking to really tackle what it means to be a mom right now while also adding some diversity to our television screens. Feel Bad’s star is Sarayu Blue, an American actress with Indian heritage. “What traditionally have women, and moms, been able to take for themselves? We explore that a little bit.” Batra teased of her comedy’s first season. “I’m excited to have a woman who’s like, ‘I’m an American. I may not look like what you think of when you say American, but this is what an American looks like.’”
In the same way Batra found universal executive respect birthing her series, so did longtime writer Sera Gamble with Lifetime’s haunting You, an adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’ social media-flavored thriller of the same name. While Gamble isn’t investigating the life of a middle-class mom of color, she is checking in on another often neglected facet of womanhood: the striving 20-something with tons of drive, but “without a lot of resources.” The writer found the perfect vehicle for that study with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a poetry grad student, New York transplant, and the much-stalked object of obsession for Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg.
“The day I got on the phone with Greg to talk about writing this together, I said to him, ‘As much as anything else, the thing that excites me about this is that I don’t usually see a 24-year-old woman explored so deeply,” Gamble recalled. “It’s kind of creepy to say this, but because the show is going to stalk the shit out of her, we’re going to get to really linger on all of the complexities and the contradictions that exist within a 20-something-year-old woman.”
Sarah Schechter, Berlanti Productions president and You executive producer, is equally excited about how the cable series approaches Beck. “There is a version of this that could be seen as very hateful towards women, and that’s not something we ever want to be a part of,” the executive pointed out. “You have a sense of how Joe sees [Beck]. But to see how she sees herself, to see how other people see her, to see how she feels about herself? [That] is really important.”
Schechter is bringing this same pro-woman attitude to another Berlanti fall production, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, which she is also executive producing. The streaming series ditches the shiny, kitschy vaneer of the Melissa Joan Hart version of the Archie Comics character we remember from childhood for an actually chilling adventure influenced by the likes of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka stars.) The evolution makes sense, Schechter argues, since being a teenage girl is already one of hardest, darkest things in the world.
“You’re in this really weird position where you’re being sexualized for the first time. You’re grappling with the power that suddenly people are looking at you very differently, and you’re also coming to realize your power as an adult,” the producer said. “What Sabrina’s trying to do is show the power that women have can be quite magical — can be amazing.”
Though woman-led television is well on its way to becoming a magical place, Schechter and her collaborator Gamble, Supernatural’s first female showrunner, agree there is still a lot of work to be done to make TV a better place for more marginalized people. After ruminating on the burden put on writers of color like Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes, and Donald Glover to represent every single person who looks like them, Gamble came to the conclusion such behavior is “ridiculous.”
Yet, she is optimistic. “We can fix this by making sure every time you turn on your TV the stories that are coming to you are diverse, and no one should ever have to stand up for an entire fucking continent,” Gamble added, with a laugh.
Schechter is equally hopeful, saying, “There is lots more work to do to include all kinds of voices. Straight white men have had the mic for a really long time, and I do think things are changing. Hopefully they’ll continue to change. The more voices we have, the more beautiful the chorus will be.”
With the fall TV schedule we have waiting ahead, we’re inching ever closer to that song.
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