Countless people have labeled the current entertainment landscape the Golden Age of Television, and I couldn’t agree more. And besides the increase in quality programming (especially on cable and through streaming services), evidence of this proclamation can be found in the rash of A-list movie actors sign up of for small-screen projects.
In her recent Golden Globe acceptance speech for her starring role in the mini-series The Honourable Woman, praised the current TV renaissance, in particular for the “wealth of roles for powerful women.” She expanded on that noting, “And when I look around the room at the women who are here, and I think about the performances I’ve watched this year, what I see actually are women who are sometimes powerful, sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honorable, sometimes not, and what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film. That’s what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary and it’s what’s turning me on.”
What Gyllenhaal is celebrating is not only the range of characters now available to actresses, but the depth with which they are created. The two-dimensional, unrealistic “strong female character” is being replaced more and more with a complex figure more relatable to women in the real world. Sure, these characters may be in absurd situations, but they are portrayed in ways that make them more human, more complex. So we got to thinking, who are some of these great characters on TV right now, and here are some of our favorites.
Nessa Stein, The Honourable Woman (Sundance)
You can’t have a list like this without including the character that inspired Gyllenhaal to make the statements that she did. If you haven’t watched the Hugo Blick political thriller, please do. Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, the daughter of an Israeli arms dealer who witnesses her father’s assassination as a small child. Stein, along with her brother, use their father’s fortune to create an organization that seeks to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in doing so, is caught up in a political, social and personal quagmire. On the surface, Stein is an assured woman but inside she’s haunted by traumas from her past that she’s trying to suppress. Gyllenhaal definitely deserved her award for her role.
Carrie Mathison, Homeland (Showtime)
The Honourable Woman is often compared to Homeland, a series about a complicated woman trying to solve the complicated issues that arise from the Middle East. Ugly-crier Claire Danes is masterful as the CIA’s Carrie Mathison, who could have been written as an unrealistic wunder-agent, but instead she’s an extremely flawed one battling bipolar disorder. What I love about Mathison is how you swing from loving her to hating her, but all the time are routing for her.
Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans (FX)
I’ve had a girl crush on Keri Russell since her days on Felicity—I think it’s the hair—and she continues to prove herself on the Russian spy drama The Americans. Jennings could easily be the caricature of the kick-ass undercover Russian agent, cold and calculating and capable of disarming a bomb while combating 3 counter-agents, but she’s not. She’s a woman who was forced into a faux-marriage with her partner as part of her cover by her beloved mother country and dealing with raising two children whose ingrained American values are the very thing she’s been trained to bring down. This show really doesn’t get the hype and love it deserves.
Peggy Olson, Mad Men (AMC)
Over the past seven seasons, we’ve watched Peggy Olson evolve from a timid little secretary to an ambitious career woman in an ad agency during the turbulent 60s. While Olson represents those first women who tried to break through the glass ceiling in corporate America, her struggles are so often relatable to women in the workplace today. Peggy isn’t a Teflon feminist, forging ahead and breaking barriers with no fear or consequence. She’s vulnerable yet arrogant, lovelorn yet independent (and sometimes she just drinks too much). While I’m hoping women aren’t still called “sweetheart” at the office these days, most of us can understand what it’s like to be overshadowed by a co-worker, dealing with office romances and living in not-so-great apartments at one time or another.
The Whole Cast, Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
I’m just going to go ahead and say the whole cast for this show. Seriously you can’t find a richer, more ethnically diverse, set of roles for women out there. From Red, the tough Russian trying clawing her way back to the top of the pyramid, to Crazy Eyes, mentally challenged yet aware to Sophia, a transgender woman letting go of her wife—each character is so complicated, so endearing and so flawed (which is the reason they’re in prison). Even Piper is so much more than an over-privileged WASP who winds up in jail for juvenile trespasses. Prison confines these women to analyze who they really are and where they came from, and I for one, enjoy watching every second of it.
Hannah Horvath, Girls (HBO)
Lena Dunham’s show might be flawed—Dunham-hate is starting to rival Hatha-hate—but there is so much she get’s right about Hannah Horvath. Unlike other broke-ass New Yorker characters, Hannah is not beautiful, her clothes are cheap and ill-fitting, and she lives in a crappy apartment. Her narcissism is classic for a 20something just unleashed unto the world, especially ones destined to be the voice of their generation. Hannah Horvath is annoying as sin, but isn’t that just a symptom of the age?
Ali Pfefferman, Transparent (Amazon)
There is so much to love about this surprise hit on Amazon Prime, and that includes how truly uncomfortable baby of the Pfefferman family, Ali, makes me feel. Hoffman is incredible in this challenging role, playing a decidedly confused woman in her 30s, questioning not only her direction in life but her sexual identity. It’s almost like she’s tortured by being her own skin.
Selina Meyer, Veep (HBO)
Not every great role has to be on a drama (despite what awards shows tell us). Julia Louis Dreyfus reminds us of that in her portrayal of fictional Vice President Selina Meyer. Veep is arguably the funniest show on TV right now, and much of that is because Dreyfus plays this power-hungry yet powerless character with such aplomb. Selina is a politician at the top of her game, but there are so many things she does that makes you wonder how she got there. Also, the fact the Louis-Dreyfus was the only actor to escape the Seinfeld curse goes to prove that women are just as funny as men.
Claire Underwood, House of Cards (Netflix)
Just when you think she’s a cookie-cutter Lady MacBeth, Claire Underwood goes on to show some vulnerability that makes her seem a little bit human. And then she quickly goes back to being terrifying. The soon-to-be First Lady on this political thriller is cold and calculating like her husband, and trying to stay ahead of her game is often useless. And that’s what is so great about Claire—she’s so damn hard to figure out.
Olivia Pope, Scandal (ABC)
I went back and forth on whether or not Olivia should be on this list. I mean when it comes to unrealistic TV, Scandal takes the cake. Fixed presidential elections, characters murdering each other left and right and Quinn and Huck are just a few of the reasons why you have to suspend reality when you turn on this Shonda Rhimes soap. But there’s something about Olivia (just ask Fitz and Jake) that makes her both a badass and entirely relatable. She’s insanely smart, poised and well-spoken, but at the same time, she has horrible choices in men, a dysfunctional relationship with her parents, and at the end of the day, she likes to guzzle wine while wearing soft sweaters and eating popcorn. And lord knows she likes a dance party.