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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era