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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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution