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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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