The first ladies of television

It's boom time for female characters on the small screen.

Extreme endurance, explosive speed, and supreme strength; this summer was always going to be full of strong televised female performance thanks to the Olympics, but that is by no means where it will end. We’re facing a boom for fictional female characters on the small screen, and from QCs to killers, the roles could hardly be more varied or powerful.

In fact, the two shows that already have critics beside themselves with excitement are female- led, and, whether we’re meeting the Vice President or just a group of New Yorkers, both shows feature female TV firsts. Veep has been the subject of all kinds of anticipation since it was announced that The Thick Of It’s Armando Ianucci would be working with Brass Eye’s Chris Morris on an American political satire, and now that it’s coming to Sky Atlantic in June, we’re reaching fever pitch.

The fact that the titular Veep is played by Seinfeld’s Julia Louis- Dreyfus could simply be seen as a sitcom gimmick, but creating the (albeit fictional) first female Vice President of the United States for a mass audience could have quite an effect. Dennis Haysbert, the actor who played America’s first black President, David Palmer, in Kiefer Sutherland’s 24, has said that the role "may have helped open the eyes of the American people" ahead of Barack Obama’s 2009 election victory. And if an against-the-clock actioner can pave the way for an African- American Commander- in- Chief, surely an intelligent comedy hailed by the New York Post as having "rescued the sitcom" could plant the idea of a woman in the Oval Office?

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Instead of re-ordering America’s political elite, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls (coming to, again, Sky Atlantic in September) focuses on reinventing the way women are portrayed in TV comedies. In fact, it’s been so successful at doing just that, that New York magazine described it as "like nothing else on TV" and as "a sex comedy from the female POV", perhaps not surprising with rising star Dunham at the helm alongside Bridesmaids producer and US comedy king- maker Judd Apatow.

Naomi Gibney, director of Sky Atlantic, says that not only is there more where that came from, but there are home- grown female fronted shows to look forward to as well. “At Sky Atlantic we’ve built a reputation for showing some of the best television in the world and this summer – as ever - we’re proud to present a line-up which includes smart, magnetic and immersive storytelling both by and about strong female characters,” she says.

There’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ toe-curlingly brilliant performance as Washington’s second-in-command in Veep and Kristen Bell’s razor-sharp portrayal of ambitious Ivy League graduate Jeannie Van Der Hoven in House Of Lies, while Lena Dunham’s sensational new series Girls – which counts the 26-year-old as creator, writer, director and star – looks set to revitalise the portrayal of young women on TV.  And from this side of the pond, we’ll be showcasing brand new series from two of Britain’s finest comediennes this summer – Kathy Burke’s Walking and Talking and Julia Davis’ Hunderby.

It’s not all Sky Atlantic though, and, this week (15 May) Maxine Peake returns to the BBC in a second series of Silk, as a high- flying QC who she describes as "a successful female who’s got her foibles and got her faults, but at the same time she’s quirky and she’s human".

The autumn will also see one of terrestrial TV’s strongest characters back on fighting form when Dame Maggie Smith returns for a third series of Downton Abbey, and, no doubt competing for the same viewers on Christmas day, we can look forward to the arrival of Doctor Who’s new companion, Jenna- Louise Coleman, currently bagging more headlines than the Timelord himself. Even further in the future, Sherlock’s Lara Pulver has hinted at a return for her dominatrix character who sent middle England into a froth with pre- watershed S&M scenes, but with shooting not set to commence until 2013, we’ve got a wait on our hands.

It’s quite a trend, but why now? Certainly, it’s about time that TV roles for women reflected those in real- life (the designers on Veep are said to have based the wardrobe on that of Michelle Obama for example), but the reason could be simpler still. The most- talked about TV trend of recent times has to be the wave of Scandinavian drama led by The Killing and The Bridge, and, in addition to a towering body count and subtitles, both shows have one thing in common- a strong leading lady.

The Bridge’s Sofia Helin and The Killing’s Sofie Grabol have both managed to hold the attention of an international audience without conforming to female television stereotypes, and in spite of being, particularly in the case of Helin’s character Noren, potential sociopaths. With The Killing already successfully remade for an English- speaking audience, The Bridge reportedly set foran English version on Sky Atlantic, and a fresh slate of imports on their way, it may not be surprising that writers have been inspired by the best aspects of these Scando- dramas and grabbed the chance to ignore TV traditions in favour of a bold female front.

That said, not all traditional roles are dead - a re- boot of Dallas arrives on Channel 5 soon, and with Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen Ewing making a TV return, it could yet prove to be the biggest hit of them all.

Julia Louis Dreyfus, star of HBO's Veep (photo: Getty Images)
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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories