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Maureen Ryan

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Women On TV Finally Get Their Close-Ups

Posted: 11/14/2012 5:15 pm

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Five years ago, Betty Draper walked out of her house and shot at her neighbor's birds on "Mad Men."

A couple years later, "Parks and Recreation's" Leslie Knope began teaching us that a capable, kind and optimistic person can be infinitely entertaining.

This past year, the klutzy narcissism of "Girls" heroine Hannah Horvath and Skyler White's horrified reaction to her husband's transformation on "Breaking Bad" provided some of television's most memorable moments.

And then there's Carrie Mathison, who contains more multitudes than one post can handle. Ten essays wouldn't be enough to describe everything that's endearing and infuriating about half of "Homeland's" central couple.

Those are just some of the women making TV interesting, but in this slideshow, we've taken television to task for female characters we find it difficult to love. Of course, not every member of the HuffPost TV staff agrees with every assessment on that roster -- each of us contributed a name or two of characters who frequently give us migraines. (And yes, before you ask, a similar roster of annoying male characters is in the works.)

Take a look through to see who made our list:

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  • Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), "The Mindy Project"

    We don't need Mindy Lahiri to be nice all the time, but <em>some</em> of the time would sure make this comedy more watchable. We like that Lahiri is a competent professional. We're thrilled that a smart woman like Kaling got to create and star in her own sitcom. What's not awesome is that "Mindy's" winning supporting cast often outshines its alleged lead character, who is often abrupt and rude when she's not self-absorbed and condescending. Either make Lahiri an anti-hero or start making her more believably and lovably flawed, like the stars of those romantic comedies she loves so much.

  • Rayna James (Connie Britton), "Nashville"

    To be fair, after the amazingness of "Friday Night Lights'" Tami Taylor, it's tough for Britton to match it. But Rayna James is about as one-dimensional as TV characters can be. She's a washed-up, nearly obsolete country singer, and she's married to a man she doesn't love. She's shrill, borderline annoying and won't accept the fact that her fame/career is declining -- every episode involves her lying to her husband, leading on her obvious crush (her grizzled guitarist), complaining about her position in life and thinking of ways to shoot down her main competitor: the younger, sexier Juliette Barnes.

  • Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), "Nashville"

    What better match for a one-dimensional older female character than a one-dimensional younger female character? Watching Juliette and Rayna verbally spar is like seeing two cardboard cutouts duel. Juliette is the new, up-and-coming country sensation, who's (of course) usurping Rayna's throne. The one fly in the ointment for Juliette, though, is she's <em>troubled</em>. Yes, our country star has those tried-and-true TV problems of a drug-addicted mother, a tendency towards kleptomania, promiscuity and loneliness. It's tough to care about her difficulties as she moves from gated mansion to gated mansion, and bed to bed.

  • Jess (Zooey Deschanel), "New Girl"

    On first glance, "New Girl" was an awesome idea. It was a show about an "adorkable" girl named Jess (Zooey Deschanel) living with a group of guys. Initially it was hilarious when Jess would burst into song with those big blue eyes and piss off her roommates, but the cutesy factor got old quickly. Now she's just an annoying 30-something with a shaky career and love life. Not a good look, Jess.

  • Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos), "Revolution"

    Lots of TV shows feature characters who are new to a particular show and are thus the audience's "way in" (think Peggy on "Mad Men" or Hurley on "Lost"). Because they're educating us about what's cool or scary about that place, and because they're our surrogate, they often become beloved characters. Charlie, not so much. When she's not wrinkling her brow in confusion, she's widening her eyes in dismay and ... well, that's about it, aside from the occasional bouts of crying. There are zombies on "The Walking Dead" with more charisma. Let's hope "Revolution" finds a way to give Charlie a spark, which this show needs more than it needs a working power grid.

  • Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald), "Boardwalk Empire"

    There are a lot of reasons that Margaret Thompson should be likable in "Boardwalk Empire's" universe of criminals and bootleggers. Superbly acted by Kelly Macdonald, Margaret has taken up the cause of women's health this season, fighting the Catholic church to get Atlantic City's women crucial information about reproductive hygiene and even birth control. She's trapped in awful marriage with a husband who openly cheats on her after getting out of a physically abusive first marriage. But unlike Nucky, the antihero who the show encourages viewers to root for no matter his sins, Margaret paid a heavy price in fan favorability when she sold Nucky's land holdings to the church at the end of Season 2. On a show that specializes in mafia violence, the writers have failed to give Margaret anywhere close to the amount of compelling material Carmela had to work with on "The Sopranos."

  • The Girls Of "Gossip Girl" (Blake Lively, Leighton Meester et al.)

    Let's face it: Everyone on "Gossip Girl" is pretty heinous, especially in the show's latter seasons, but considering that the CW show's target audience is young, impressionable teenage girls, it's even more depressing that none of the female protagonists have a single redeeming feature to speak of. Serena (Blake Lively) has always been a flaky, drug addicted, boyfriend-stealing airhead, and she flames out on every single attempt to grow up she's ever made. Best friend Blair (Leighton Meester) on the other hand, has spent the last three seasons taking one step forward and two steps back in terms of characterization, fluctuating between independent career woman, scheming diva and codependent emotional punching bag, often in the space of one episode. And the less said about "Mother of the Year" Lily (Kelly Rutherford), gold-digging Ivy (Kaylee DeFer) and the human embodiment of paint drying, Sage (Sofia Black-D'Elia), this season, the better. Almost makes you long for the days of Jenny and Vanessa, doesn't it?

  • Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), "Revenge"

    There's no one else we'd rather check off our own revengendas with, but would it kill Emily to smile every once in a while? Obviously we feel for the girl, and she's got plenty of reasons to be on this neverending revenge mission, but a little levity wouldn't hurt to remind viewers why we should care. Emily Thorne tiptoes that line between heroine and villain with precision, but the show should be careful to keep her away from too much bad girl territory.

  • Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), "The Vampire Diaries"

    "The Vampire Diaries" has some incredible characters, but leading lady Elena Gilbert is not one of them. The stereotypes abound: She's constantly distraught; she's a martyr to an unbelievable and harmful degree; she never lets go and she's basically 17 going on 50. Now that Elena has finally become a vampire in the series' current fourth season, she's kind of, sort of growing on us ... emphasis on the "kind of, sort of." She's barely grown or developed as a person throughout the series (they needed vampirism to do that), unlike formerly shallow and now multi-faceted fellow lady vamp Caroline Forbes.

  • Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), "Grey's Anatomy"

    It's Season 9 of "Grey's Anatomy" and Meredith Grey is still incredibly annoying -- she's downgraded from extremely, but it's not much of an improvement. There are elements of the character that are intended to go against female stereotypes (her biting reparte with Cristina and hardassness, for example). But then there are moments like Season 1's "I love you, in a really, really big 'pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window,' unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9Swo1anaCE"> pick me, choose me, love me</a>," that make us want to bang our heads against a wall. Dessert and chick flick references <em>plus</em> desperation? Why not throw a cat in the mix for a little be more cliche girliness?


Now, lest anyone think we are here to bash actresses, that's certainly not the intent. Ninety percent of the time, problematic characters of either gender don't have much to do with performance. Of course, there are issues when a writer's reach exceeds a performer's grasp, but most of the time, the fictional ladies who drive us insane (and not in the good ways) have serious issues baked right into their DNA.

Major problems arise when the conception and the writing of a female character are half-baked and inconsistent; even bigger problems develop when the depiction and portrayal of male characters is generally more interesting, nuanced and complex. It's an issue mainstream movies have grappled with for years, and television is certainly not immune from this disorder.

Though I think the situation is evolving (and I'll have more to say on that in a minute), I've often found this admittedly broad generalization to be true a significant percentage of the time: The dilemmas, hopes, dreams and goals of female characters, especially on moderately to seriously ambitious dramas, are often fit in around those of male characters. Even if a woman is not there to assist or have sex with or inspire the lust (or anger) of a male character, even if she's not there simply to remind him of the rules or limit his transgressions, her concerns generally aren't paramount. Her agenda often isn't allowed to become as interesting. Her behavior and decisions often become less and less consistent over time.

The end result is that, despite the existence of Laura Roslin of "Battlestar Galactica," Tami Taylor of "Friday Night Lights" and Peggy Olsen of "Mad Men," there have been more truly memorable male characters and arcs in the last dozen years of Golden Age TV than female characters and arcs.

As the side salads, the love interests or the supporting players, or as lead characters kept within certain relatively strict parameters, female characters often start with the deck stacked against them. Even shows that use women well on occasion don't seem quite sure what to do with them half the time. (Hello, "Lost," how are you doing "Sons of Anarchy," good to see you, "The Walking Dead.")

Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on my part, but it seems as though these dynamics are changing, if ever so slowly. The success of "Homeland" -- a show that has equally fascinating co-leads -- has been lost on no one in the television industry. And as much as I've loved "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," it's hard not to see the not-too-distant ends of those shows as marking the close of a chapter on a great run of shows that put male anti-heroes at their core. Judging by the shows that are in the pipeline at networks like FX and Showtime, and going by what's on the air now, a new crop of quality dramas and genuinely engaging comedies appear to be changing the long-accepted "rules" of the television game.

HBO's "Game of Thrones," for all the (legitimate) questions that are asked about its use of boobs as wallpaper, is a true ensemble piece in which the adventures of resourceful girls and women are every bit as important as the agendas of male characters (several of whom present interesting, non-traditional takes on masculinity). Cinemax's "Hunted" is the story of a female spy who is as deeply damaged and innately proactive as Jack Bauer. Programs as varied as Syfy's "Lost Girl," ABC's "Happy Endings" and ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" depict the complexities of friendship among women and also between men and women. And PBS' "Call the Midwife" may have its more predictable elements, but it also presented a terrific array of female characters who rarely engage in cattiness or shrill bickering, despite their differing ages, incomes and outlooks.

It's possible -- and likely, actually -- for long-running shows to improve their stories by upping the stakes for all their major characters in intelligent, unpredictable ways. In recent seasons, "Breaking Bad" took Skyler from one-dimensional nag to fully realized human being and thus gave the wonderful Anna Gunn an array of great material to play. Leslie Knope quickly went from obnoxious to unapologetically take-charge and winning quite early in the run of "Parks and Recreation." "Dexter" got a lot more interesting when Deb learned her brother's dark secret, "Fringe" improved by leaps and bounds when Olivia became more than a stick figure in a dark pantsuit, and so on and so forth.

Of course, these efforts don't always take; the progress made one season (or episode) might be undone the next. That scene of "Mad Men's" Betty Draper firing a shotgun in Season 1's "Shoot" signaled -- to me, anyway -- that this drama had just gone from very good to all-time great; it was such a jarringly unexpected and terrific thing for that often passive character to do. But sadly, "Mad Men" has continually and stubbornly made the same series of mistakes with Betty: It's depicted her as a terrible mother without acknowledging how much that stacked the deck against her in the eyes of viewers; it made her daughter Sally far more complex and worth caring about; and in general, it hasn't offset her many shrill, narcissistic qualities with enough other attributes that would make her truly interesting and/or deep. Yes, I know she had a bad childhood and a lying spouse. The trouble is, the infrequent and inconsistent attempts to deepen the character and make her more sympathetic have continually run up against January Jones' chilly limitations as a performer.

Yet as a whole, "Mad Men" takes the worlds and the lives of women seriously, and for that, I'll be forever grateful to the show and very sad when it's gone. Beyond that, I'm grateful for the expanding number of shows that take it as a given that every character (regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race) should be more than a collection of predictable traits.

I'm glad there are so many shows that are willing to have their female characters seem unlikable at times, that there are programs happy to show women making mistakes, aspiring to better, being noble and generally being human in messy, fascinating, contradictory ways.

I don't know about you, but I don't need to always like the men and women on my TV. I do, however, always need to be interested in what they're going to do next. My fingers are crossed that TV, which has supplied me with some of my favorite role models for decades now, is doing more to even the score on that front.

 

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