The role of women on TV has varied over the years, from housewives and girlfriends, to nurses and schoolteachers, to policewomen, lawyers, and doctors. While women's characters often start out promising, an all-too-common progression is to eventually reduce them to a romantic interest, or turn them into idiots to be ridiculed. And though it has always been worse on the big screen, the small screen has also had its prejudices against any woman over 25. These five TV characters, and the amazing actresses who portray them, are an admirable attempt at breaking the worn-out conventions of female characters on television.
Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) -- The Good Wife
It seems hardly a day goes by when there isn't some new political sex scandal, and often the focus is as much on the wife as it is on the man who lied and cheated. The burning question on so many minds is how a woman can "stand by her man", and The Good Wife tackles that question in a real life way. The short answer: It's complicated. That's what makes the show so captivating to watch. We see the multiple responsibilities, pressures, anger, confusion, longings, fortitude, and sacrifices of Alicia as she deals with the saga of scandal and the imprisonment of her husband.
Alicia is forced to move out of her large house and into an apartment with her two children. She goes back to work as a junior associate in a law firm, starting out at the bottom with young, ambitious recent college grad Cary (Matt Czuchry). Alicia is subjected to rude comments, insinuations, and the humiliation of Internet videos of her husband in compromising positions with hookers. Her boss, Will (Josh Charles), a former law school buddy, starts as a friend and evolves into a love interest that further complicates issues for Alicia.
Her family life is tough, with her two teenage children finding it difficult to work out whether to be mad at their father, their mother, or both. Alicia also has to rely on her mother-in-law for child care, and thus has to deal with the woman's meddling and completely blind adoration of her son. There are also the stresses of court cases, politics in the office, paying the family's mounting bills, and the very real threats from her husband's political enemies.
While the multiple intricacies of Alicia's life make her an interesting character, the way Julianna Margulies plays her has also been fascinating to watch. Her extremely understated portrayal makes her something of an enigma, even though so much of her life is laid before us to examine and witness.
While we are meant to sympathize with her, we do see darker shades of her personality as well. Not all of her decisions fit the mold of "a good wife", and some may fit that definition more than we'd like. As described in The New York Times: "...the intelligence and the subdued emotionalism of Margulies's performance lets you know that there is no neatness in Alicia's life. She doesn't always say much, and there's no edge to her words when she does. But in every situation you can feel what she's going through, and the sacrifices she's continually forced to make."
Alicia Florrick doesn't fit any cookie cutter mold, and her depth and mystery make her one of the finest woman characters on TV to watch.
Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) -- The Good Wife
The Good Wife is so good, it gets two slots in the Best Woman TV character list. Kalinda, an investigator for Alicia's law firm, is another gem of a complex woman. In each episode, we get to see Kalinda in action, bending the rules to get the information necessary to help the firm's case. She flirts with witnesses, breaks into apartments, calls in favors, and seduces mildly sleazy cops. With her large, beautiful eyes that seem always to hold a note of challenge in them, her stoic poker face, sultry voice and sexy clothing, Kalinda intrigues and entices, and gets people to spill everything without ever revealing anything herself.
While the series may go a bit overboard in its interest in Kalinda's sex life, they still present an interesting character for what is on the surface a TV law drama. The question of Kalinda's sexual preferences is in constant flux, while there's a distinct possibility that Kalinda merely uses sex as a tool to get what she wants, no matter the gender of the person.
Kalinda is fiercely intelligent, bluntly honest to those she trusts, and operates in an ethical gray area much of the time. The beauty of Kalinda is that she's not a caricature--we get glimpses of her personal honor code and the faintest whispers of vulnerability when something truly unsettling happens. Despite her foxy superhero investigator vibe, she still comes across as a real person.
Archie Panjabi is brilliant at portraying the character, combining all of these elements into a person who evokes both admiration and fear. The fun of Kalinda is her cleverness, bravery, and secrets--she's a mystery we hope never to solve.
Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) -- The Closer
Kyra Sedgwick and her feisty turn as an L.A. detective with a lilting Georgia twang and a domineering attitude started a wave of TV shows with woman characters in their 30s and 40s. The Closer has proved that the TV viewing public find women over 25 perfectly compelling, thank you--thank you, very much. Though sadly Brenda stands alone in a sea of men on this TNT drama, her relationships with each are as complex, frustrating, and rewarding as those we encounter in real life.
Take a look at movie posters and photo ads for TV. Very often you'll see the male characters in the foreground, and the women in the back--even if you'd consider them an equal in character status on the show. The promos for The Closer, however, put Brenda Leigh front and center. She's the boss of a team of expert detectives, and when she takes charge of high profile murder cases, those on the scene aren't always happy about it.
Brenda gives us a woman TV character who is smart, and very, very good at her job. Her powerhouse personality is hidden inside a petite, blonde, feminine woman in flowy skirts and bright lipstick. The Closer covers Brenda's cases in vivid detail, following her every step of the way, while she navigates dealing with both coworkers, criminals, and victims. As added challenges, she faces the politics of work, the ambition of those around her, and of course, sexism. The fun thing about Brenda, though, is that she's far more likely to offend someone by her rudeness and rule breaking than she is by being a woman in a "man's job".
Brenda is a character study that shows you can't be all things to all people. While Brenda is a bulldog at work, fighting hard for justice and using every facet of her intelligence and cunning to catch criminals, she often falls apart when it comes to her personal life. The Closer isn't afraid of a little humor when it comes to Brenda's foibles, like her chocolate addiction, the way she's constantly losing belongings like her phone or purse, and her inability to navigate her way around the city's winding streets. As Kelly West on Cinema Blend writes: "Just as Sedgwick shines in her ability to play both the good cop and the bad cop, she's equally amusing to watch when she's freaking out over her cat issues."
What sets Brenda apart from many other woman TV characters is that she's in a stable relationship. When The Closer premiered, Fritz (Jon Tenney) was already an established love interest. Although there's often been a little added intrigue with Brenda's boss, and former lover Chief Pope (J.K. Simmons), the drama in their relationship is about real life issues like buying a house and separating work and home life.
Nominated for multiple Emmys and winner of a Golden Globe for The Closer, Kyra Sedgwick takes all the conflicting traits and quirks of this TV character and makes her a flawed, yet appealing woman to watch.
U.S. Marshal Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) -- In Plain Sight
Cable network USA's slogan is "Characters Welcome", and Mary Shannon is definitely a character. With unrivaled bluntness and cynicism, Mary plays the bad cop role to her more sensitive partner Marshall Mann's (Fred Weller) good cop. At least, that's the way it seems on the surface. As gruff and unapologetically rude as Mary gets, over time we see the fierce loyalty and sense of justice that drives her. Mary has her own sensitive side, but it's buried under years of parental neglect and family alcoholism.
The joy of watching Mary is the waiting with anticipation to see what she'll say or do next. Whether she's kicking down doors, shooting at a suspect, or giving her witness protection program protectees a piece of her mind about the realities of life, Mary is full of spark and wit. The barbs she trades with intellectual Marshall and their long-suffering boss Stan (Paul Ben-Victor) is akin to watching those great 40s movies like Cary Grant's His Girl Friday, with the rapid fire dialogue that is both passionate and hilarious.
Mary Shannon is an unusual woman TV character in that she's often not sympathetic. Even though she's our heroine, she's often a bully and a jerk to the people who care about her the most. Her unrelenting negativity can be exhausting, and In Plain Sight viewers can feel like giving up on her at times.
The good news is that just before we reach our breaking point, someone or something gets through to Mary and she bounces back from that dark place. A new showrunner in 2010 brought about some needed changes for In Plain Sight, which brought us a better balance between Mary's emotionally destructive home life and the sense of purpose she finds in her job.
A typical show would also give partners Mary and Marshall a constant "will they or won't they" sexual tension vibe, but with Mary and Marshall it's much more complex and understated than that. Sometimes we get a sense Marshall has some stronger feelings for Mary than just as coworkers, but it could just be genuine affection for someone whom you face life and death situations with every day. If you think pigtail pulling is a sign of love, you could construe Mary and Marshall's constant bickering and put-downs as a form of flirtation. It may be that to these two Marshals as well, but they don't necessarily think it means a darn thing.
Mary Shannon is definitely not one to fit into a typical woman TV character mold, and Mary McCormack brings the character to life with studious attention to all the stuff going on underneath. As mean as Mary might be on the outside, McCormack lets us see the anguish or fear or insecurity that's driving her personality from the inside. So while we enjoy seeing the criminal cases and the struggle to protect witnesses with a variety of personal issues, we also love to see the progression Mary makes in her own life and with her own demons.
Divya Katdare (Reshma Shetty) -- Royal Pains
I was pretty skeptical when USA's Royal Pains first premiered, with an episode full of young Barbie doll types surrounding two regular guys. At the introduction of Divya, who pretty much pressures Dr. Hank (Mark Feuerstein) to hire her for his private practice as a physician's assistant, I had a small hope there would be more to her character than just being a pretty face. I've been pleasantly surprised with her development as a character.
Royal Plains is, on the surface, a fairly fluffy summer show that makes for great guilty pleasure viewing. While it's certainly not Law & Order, USA has always had a knack of giving viewers a basically light-hearted show but injecting it with real issues and emotions. With Divya, we get her struggle with keeping up appearances to her parents, who don't know she's running around town helping a concierge doctor treat the eccentric rich of the Hamptons. We also see the prejudice she receives from certain clients, who assume (either because she's young, a woman, Indian, or all three) that she's somehow incompetent or merely Dr. Hank's appointment taker.
While trying to forge her own career in secret, and work her way through issues of the family's expectation of an arranged marriage, Divya also has to deal with Dr. Hank's brother Evan (Paulo Costanzo). The blatant flirtations and obnoxious attitude towards women in general makes Divya crazy, but she never backs down from telling Evan just what she thinks of him. The continual hostile exchanges with Evan have turned into a worthwhile friendship, and Reshma Shetty's charm as Divya has somehow made the annoying character of Evan more appealing.
While viewers can thank the writers of Royal Pains for giving Shetty an actual character to work with, the actress must also be congratulated on taking what could have been a small background role and making the most of it--bringing us a woman's TV character we want to keep learning more about.