Cable brings us complex women, while networks think we’re uninteresting

If the word “cable” was an acronym, then the “c” would surely stand for “complex women.” It seems these days cable, both the basic and premium kinds, is the best place to find richly drawn, fully realized female characters.  

This week saw the return of two of TV’s most complex female characters in Nurse Jackie and the United States of Tara. Though calling a nurse with a pill-popping problem and a housewife with multiple personalities “complex” might be an understatement. Those shows along with Weeds and the upcoming The Big C make Showtime one of the best networks for female-driven entertainment.

But Showtime is not alone in the cable universe in thinking estrogen makes for good TV. FX has Damages starring Glenn Close and Rose Bryne. TNT has The Closer starring Kyra Sedgwick and Saving Grace starring Holly Hunter. And USA is about to give Mary McCormack‘s In Plain Sight company with the twofer of Sarah Shahi‘s Facing Kate and Piper Perabo‘s Covert Affairs

These are all shows with strong, interesting, powerful female leads who are much more than just the mom or just the wife or just the pretty face. Sure they may also be one or all of those things as well, but those basic titles do or restrict their role. And their worlds do not revolve solely around their relationship to men. In other words, they’re like real women – complicated.

In contrast, broadcast TV gave us two new shows with a female lead last year: Cougar Town and The Good Wife.  

But Showtime programming head Robert Greenblatt insists the network didn’t set out to make shows about complicated women: “It’s not like we had some great strategy: ‘Let’s do a series of shows about flawed women.’ Weeds was a great idea and it started a trend.” 

Though, if you think about it, why not? TV executives have no problem saying, “Let’s do a series of shows about flawed men.” House, 24, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Californication. Should I continue?

The reason is, of course, simple. As Nurse Jackie co-creator Linda Wallem told last week about the post-90s climate, “All the [network] TV executives in LA were going, ‘Women are not interesting.’ And you see what happened to television. Shame on them.”  

Well, “shame” is a much nicer word than I would have used. She went on to say a “new breed of television executives” came in only wanting to see the female role as the “the wife, and oh, she’s long suffering.” And then, of course, they’d bring up the dreaded demographics trap that says men ages 18-49 won’t watch a female-driven show. You’d think they were talking to Disney.

Of course, what gets missed in all this male posturing in the broadcast networks in the wealth of talent of women of all ages, but particularly those a little older than the average girlfriend on Two and a Half Men.  

As Nurse Jackie co-creator Liz Brixius told Jezebel: 

You have this group of women over 30 who are profoundly talented. Their skill set is deeper, their talent is more ripe, and there aren’t as many parts for them … TV is stocked with Clooney wannabees, guys who are handsome and then they get their own show. Women are relegated to wives and mistresses. By the time they’re 30 or 40 they’re looking for work. And you start finding these magnificently talented people. 

Well, good for Showtime. And good for FX and TNT and USA. Network TV just gave Christian Slater his third (yes, third) new show in three years. Just think if they gave three different, equally (or more – ahem) talented women the same chance to have just one show. Uninteresting my ass.