Earnest TV that doesn't short change women
May 16, 2012 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend me a TV series that is both earnest and feminist friendly?

Recently, I just caught up with Mad Men. I find it fantastic in the same way I found Six Feet Under revelatory when I first watched it: not only do both series take themselves seriously, providing meaningful insights without overdoing the schmaltz factor, but they both feature strong (well-developed, not necessarily strong personality-wise) female characters. They also feel distinctly earnest, because the shows are never so campy or cloaked in irony that the emotional appeal gets distorted. I really value the ability of television to develop characters so thoroughly, and I believe that television is really well suited - moreso than other forms of media - to provide insight on human relationships. SFU and Mad Men do this in spades. I don't watch comedies that often, but I really enjoy Parks and Recreation because it manages to be funny without squandering that power.

Unfortunately, I've found that a lot of other acclaimed series who achieve that earnestness are centered around men to the point of silencing the female perspective. If a show is going to explore the complexities of human relationships and society, I need for it not to ignore or trivialize women. The Wire was a great series, but the ratio of male characters to female characters is about ten to one. I've only watched a little bit of Breaking Bad, which is similarly a sausage fest. On the other hand, I can't stand what's offered as the quintessential feminist show: the acting on Buffy makes me cringe, and the show is way too campy to have any sort of impact anyway. Comedies seem to be a little more equal-opportunity, but I really can't stand when something is built up to be emotional and then trivialized by a joke. (Community, I'm looking at you.)

I realize this is a little long-winded, but I until I saw Mad Men I forgot how much I could be wowed by a TV series. I'd like to feel that again.
posted by Bleusman to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Battlestar Gallactica? I am not a connoisseur of feminism, but the show has both strang and weak female (and male) characters and does a good job of developing them over the course of the series (in my opinion).
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:51 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

posted by Yma at 9:53 PM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Freaks and Geeks.
posted by carrienation at 9:58 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

The first season of Joan of Arcadia? Obviously, lots and lots of religion, but not in an obnoxious Seventh Heaven way. I found a lot of that show deeply moving and Joan is a pretty great character, as is her friend Grace. Particularly the episodes titled "Jump" and "Death Be Not Whatever." I rewatch them an embarrassing number of times.

You're already on Parks and Recreation which is what I basically came in here to recommend. (Is there anyone awesomer than Leslie Knope? NO. THERE IS NOT.)

Have you watched Scrubs? Good female characters, hilarious and also emotional enough to bring me to tears. I'm a wuss, though.

Gilmore Girls? Doctor Who (2005 and up)? (Some serious cheese there, though.)
posted by Aquifer at 10:01 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

The West Wing.
posted by chiababe at 10:04 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you can find a copy, Brides of Christ is almost all very complicated female characters.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:04 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Friday Night Lights.
posted by Cue the Strings at 10:05 PM on May 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

I loved Six Feet Under but I've never watched Mad Men.

I like several British series - Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren, Monday Monday, Torchwood (which I love despite never having liked Dr. Who) and to a lesser extent In Plain Sight on the USA network. And Dead Like Me was seriously underrated.
posted by shoesietart at 10:06 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Game of Thrones is great. The books it's based on have excellent female characters, and I think the show goes even farther to flesh out some of the weaker characters.

Veronica Mars was also great for this. Seconding Gilmore Girls, Parks and Rec and Battlestar Galactica.
posted by lunasol at 10:07 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

D'oh, missed that you mentioned Parks and Rec!
posted by lunasol at 10:08 PM on May 16, 2012

The first season of Damages starring Glenn Close was fairly compelling. I personally feel the actress playing the young lawyer was in over her head, but the writing was good enough to keep her from drowning.
posted by Ardiril at 10:10 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, Saving Grace with Holly Hunter.
posted by shoesietart at 10:11 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Firefly. It's a totally different sort of genre, but how about Downton Abbey? Definitely earnest and good character development/female characters.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:16 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Good Wife

Watch from the beginning to see her character grow - you'll see what I mean. And Kalinda - Kalinda:)

And you did not discover this - independent films are tanking now and all the talent is going to tv series. (watched some round table about this yesterday.)
posted by cda at 10:17 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you for asking this and reminding me how much I love good TV. Enthusiastically seconding Scrubs, Freaks and Geeks, and Veronica Mars.
posted by tantivy at 10:18 PM on May 16, 2012

Yes, absolutely West Wing. The show probably does have more male than female characters, but it sometimes directly addresses feminist issues, and the female characters it does have are very strongly written characters. And earnest? It's the earnestest.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:19 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Slings and Arrows. Great Canadian series about a theater festival.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:20 PM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Fortier if you can get it is a great Quebec series with a great female lead, who is surrounded, however by male cast, but she is totally the centre, and her alone-ness as a woman is key. Well written, great acting. Watched with subtitles. Can be a bit grisly. Very suspenseful. huge hit in Quebec 2001-2004.

Seconding Prime Suspect from the UK. (Similar -- detective, lone woman, in later series there are more female characters -- Helen Mirren is fantastic!)
posted by chapps at 10:36 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The West Wing (although, sometimes I am unhappy with how the female characters are dealt with early on, but, to be honest, I think that was mostly Sorkin - later eps are better with that).

Also, Torchwood.
posted by mleigh at 10:38 PM on May 16, 2012

I also liked Cold Feet, ensemble cast, about life in Manchester, hitting your thirties. A bit sentimental at times, but at times hilarious. Good female characters, especially early seasons. Especially good when you have a young kid.
posted by chapps at 10:41 PM on May 16, 2012

The Danish series The Killing is an incredibly smart show featuring a female lead character who is more or less Clint Eastwood.
posted by hot soup girl at 10:46 PM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Definitely seconding and thirding Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls and Prime Suspect. I haven't finished PS but I own the others.
posted by amapolaroja at 10:47 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the recommendations, everyone! I love the first four seasons of The West Wing, as well as Veronica Mars. Always meant to check out Firefly but after being underwhelmed by Buffy I keep putting it off. Definitely planning to check out Downton Abbey and Slings and Arrows.
posted by Bleusman at 10:48 PM on May 16, 2012

This is perhaps not what you're looking for, but I found Avatar: The Last Airbender to be both earnest (it's a kids show) and feminist friendly. Not only are the female characters complicated and well written, but I also appreciated how the show consistently put women in positions of authority in the background.
posted by FakePalindrome at 10:54 PM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

If you like science fiction with a steampunk flavor, Warehouse 13 is not bad.
posted by StrawberryPie at 11:09 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My So Called Life
posted by brujita at 11:09 PM on May 16, 2012

I suspect we have pretty similar taste, especially after your update, and... I don't think you will like Firefly. There's not a lot of TV that does it for me, to be honest. Here are some suggestions (but you may have already seen all of them, since TV like this is thin on the ground.)

I liked the first season of Battlestar Galactica a lot. It has two totally fucked-up and unusual female characters (Starbuck, Roslin) that are like nothing you've seen.

I like Downton Abbey. It's not... you know, it's mostly about people who are entrenched in tradition, so you're not going to get a lot of explicit feminism, exactly. But the women are often fairly complicated and/or weird, and there are a lot of them.

Have you tried Deadwood? There are only a couple of female leads, but they are strange and interesting.

What about The Sarah Connor Chronicles? The lead lady is one of the few instances where I feel like you really believe that she is violent and terrifying. (Of course, the show was rapidly canceled.)

How do you feel about Northern Exposure? It's a comedy, but... a lot of the characters on it are totally fresh and the women escape being shoe-horned into The Hot One, The Mom, etc. And it has a tone, a world-view, that is kind without being treacly.

Another weird suggestion: I am a big Futurama fan and often feel like it is explicitly feminist, and, uh, it periodically really moves me. The new seasons are really good and seem to be more like little miniature science-fiction stories that just happen to be hilarious.

As others have mentioned, you may like Joan of Arcadia and Friday Night Lights.

Oh! Have you tried Parenthood? It's the stories of one extended family (lots o' ladies of various ages) and the acting and dialog are pretty naturalistic (almost Six Feet Under-lite, since it has Peter Krause). The arguments often ring really true to my ear, which I think is the sign of something that's well-done.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:24 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I actually just checked out the pilot of Parenthood earlier today, and I think it has promise. I cringed a few times at the writing, but the cast is solid enough for me to keep watching.
posted by Bleusman at 11:40 PM on May 16, 2012

Yes, Battlestar Galactica! If you're not usually a sci-fi kind of person, it's really much more about human complexity than space battles and such. I would honestly say that it has the best portrayal of women in a TV show that I've ever seen. The "strong female" characters are not presented as "look at me, I am a Tough Chick, what a paradox" but just... people.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:12 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Big Love is fantastic for this. The premise might seem a bit unexpected for a decent feminism-friendly TV show (fundamentalist polygamists living in/out of a cult), but seriously, it's got a huge selection of fantastic female characters and does some really interesting things with its premise.
posted by Catseye at 12:17 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Being Erica -- it can be a little soapy at times, and the premise seems a little silly at the start, but it really was a great show with a strong female lead that really grows and evolves over time.
posted by willnot at 12:35 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to provide some context, I watch a lot of TV and genuinely enjoy the character exploration it provide. Still, as a Theater Arts person, I find more negatives than positives in most things (writing, directing, acting, generally in that order), but I also have as many guilty pleasures as well as shows I think are exceptionally high quality. Basically, I can thoroughly enjoy highly flawed shows if I accept them for the level of where they are. I disagree with you about the acting on Buffy. It depends on the actor, but I only mention that to provide context to my opinion, not to argue with you. This could be pages long, but I will try to keep it brief.

Many of these are great suggestions, especially My So Called Life, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls , I heart Lauren Graham so much) Joan of Arcadia, & Torchwood. I love the 2000s reboot of Doctor Who, but there are definitely some weird dynamics going on with the whole female companions thing. Since the definition of feminist friendly varies depending on who you are talking to, I'm just going with "strong, complicated female characters." Being Erica is one that hasn't been mentioned. It is a very quirky, heavy suspension of disbelief/sci-fi concept, but I really enjoy it. Also, the BBC's Murder in Suburbia was excellent. I also like SyFy's Eureka, Haven, & Warehouse 13, which while they may not be female centric and are definitely not high art, they do have some great, multidimensional characters. I enjoy the escapism of USA shows, & Covert Affairs, Fairly Legal, & Necessary Roughness have strong female leads. Felicity Day's web series The Guild, which is available on Netflix & I think Amazon, is great as well. Also, you may want to check out United States of Tara, Shameless (US version, haven't seen UK original), The Big C, and to a lesser extent, Homeland, not because it isn't great acting/writing, but there is one strong female role vs. a plethora of strong male roles. Alias was also great for the most part. Again, none of these shows are perfect, but there is a lot of good work going on and complex female roles there. If you are looking for something soapy, the BBC's Mistresses was great fun and female focused.

Lastly, I think Shonda Rhimes's work (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, &, more recently, Scandal), gets a bad rap. The writing is often flawed, and you can see the networks grubby handprints all over it in many cases, but the characters are fully realized and, generally, superbly acted. The casts are not only generally diverse in terms of ethnicity, but they also tend to be female-centric. It all depends on how much you can recognize the weaknesses but put them aside to get lost in the story regardless.
posted by katemcd at 12:40 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

P.S. Almost forgot, Sons of Anarchy & Justified are testosterone fests, but the lead female characters (especially in Sons of Anarchy, Season 2) are, for the most part, well-written and wonderfully acted. Katy Segal in SofA is doing amazing work. Okay, I think that's it for now. Happy watching! :)
posted by katemcd at 12:42 AM on May 17, 2012

If Six Feet Under and Mad Men gave you the happy then definitely try Friday Night Lights. Don't let the football aspect of it put you off, there's a bunch of really well fleshed out female characters in there. The dynamic between the coach, his wife and his daughter is just terrifically played out.

The Good Wife always impresses me but I wouldn't quite put it in the 'earnest' category. Note the abundance of female producers/writers etc on the credits.

I love me some Justified too - its brilliantly scripted, acted and beautifully filmed, I wouldn't say the female characters are stand out - they suffer a bit from needing to be rescued but they are at least complex and well scripted.

The single worst TV drama for female characters I've seen recently was the first few episodes of Blue Bloods. Every single time the sister opened her mouth she mentioned her ratbag husband, who had left her. Awful, awful writing. No idea if it improved, I couldn't get through an episode without shouting at that character.
posted by Ness at 1:06 AM on May 17, 2012

I've only seen the first season so far, but I loved Nurse Jackie. (I'm on the waiting list at the library for season two.)
posted by marsha56 at 2:02 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

marsha56 just beat me to it, but seconding Nurse Jackie! If you like the loveable-though-sometimes-an-asshole characters (like Anthony Bourdain, or Ron Swanson), Jackie pulls it off so well but as a much more rarely seen female character.
posted by shortyJBot at 3:36 AM on May 17, 2012

The first 3-4 seasons of X-FILES may suit (that's when the character of Scully was really, really well written).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:05 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's a comedy, but I think Cybill would fit the bill. (Not familiar with Cybill Shepherd outside of that show, mind.) There's her best friend Mary Ann, a lot of plotlines around being an older woman working in Hollywood, and her teenage daughter Zoe is a great, strong female character who wants to do her own thing.
posted by mippy at 4:31 AM on May 17, 2012

Wow, I could have written this question!

I just finished watching the first season of the Good Wife, and so far it seems excellent, and likely to be of interest to you. I can't believe I waited so long to check it out.

Castle just wrapped up its fourth season, and seems to have even more solidly planted itself in the "earnest show where emotional payoffs are valued" category. The women in the show are fantastic, and vital to the story. Arguably, Castle's story is much less important than that of his woman partner, Becket. In recent interviews, the show runner describes what he sees as a "covenant" with the audience, in which its his duty to follow through on the narrative promises he makes. I just marathoned all four seasons after being hassled by friends about it for years, and it's now my favorite thing on television.

As far as comedies go, having followed How I Met Your Mother for all seven years of its run, it seems to be on track to do some really great things in its final season. And although I know a lot of people are frustrated with how long the "mother" question has been put off, I don't personally mind much because I've so enjoyed spending time with the women on the show. Although I will caution you that some of the male characters -- NPH's Barney in particular -- can be awful cads, and the show isn't always as good at addressing and contextualizing that awfulness as it could be. It DOES, however, take the interpersonal relationships and inner lives of the characters very seriously.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:31 AM on May 17, 2012

There is a terrific Canadian series, Intelligence. Sadly only a couple seasons but we loved it.
posted by beccaj at 7:04 AM on May 17, 2012

Women are either whores, saints or victims - and it does get tiring!.

I would vote for "Nurse Jackie" - I enjoy the women's sarcastic look at life, although it's getting a little repetitive. Battlestar Galactica – yes, strong women leads but same old cliché stories. Justified – not terribly progressive, but good writing. Season

When I want some mindless, easy show, I’ve watched Rizzoli & Isles – I haven’t found it too offensive. Shameless - it's a good laugh but I don't take it too seriously.

I enjoyed Carnival – strong female lead that developed during its short time on TV and she closed the show. Overall, interesting characters. I liked La Femme Nikita which was in the nineties (with Peta Wilson). The female lead character got more complex over the years (watched the original French film: La Femme Nikita to understand where the character came from). The current Nikita series pales in comparison.
posted by what's her name at 8:30 AM on May 17, 2012

Offspring, an Australian TV show (available on iTunes). Brilliant and hilarious.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 8:39 AM on May 17, 2012

'The Shield' may be a bit on the boy-zone-y side (even if it has CCH Pounder in it) but season 4 with Glenn Close as the new boss might be worth a look.
posted by rjs at 10:09 AM on May 17, 2012

I saw someone already recommended Avatar: the Last Airbender, and I'd add the currently running sequel Legend of Korra to that. It's in the middle of its first season right now, so I guess it could still take a nosedive quality-wise, but I somehow doubt it with the creative team behind it. Korra takes place some 70 years in the future in the same Asian-based fantasy world as A:tLA, and follows the Avatar in a new incarnation, Korra. I am thrilled with Korra as a female protagonist so far, and with the awesome Lin Bei Fong who had a major role in last week's episode. Not sure if animation is your thing, but Legend of Korra is gorgeously animated and has plenty of meaty plot to interest adults.

I'll also second the recommendation for Grey's Anatomy. For all that it is a soapy hospital melodrama full of romantic angst, Shonda Rhimes does female friendship better than just about anyone else on TV. If you can fully embrace the melodrama and occasional insanity that is Grey's, I think it's one of the best shows out there for fully-realized, well-acted female characters.
posted by yasaman at 10:09 AM on May 17, 2012

I promise you that the football aspect of Friday Night Lights is so completely irrelevant to the plot that I gorged myself on the entire series and still have no idea what a fullback does. Meanwhile, there are multiple strong, believable female characters on the show who get just as much depth as their male counterparts. I hate hate hate sports, especially football, especially Texans who love high school football, and I couldn't stop watching that damn show. Plus, it's all on Netflix streaming!

I also love Game of Thrones, which is heavily political and a lot less about dragons (I feel the same way about SF/fantasy as I feel about Texas high school football, yet HERE I AM) than about the constraints of power in a political sphere. Some of the women are directly vying for power alongside the men, but most of them are forced to navigate power through back channels, so they wind up more cunning and savvy than many of the men who are outright competing with each other. It's fascinating to watch.

Girls, currently on HBO, is fantastic and brutally honest, though I don't know how enjoyable it would be for someone who's seeking noble, earnest women to admire. Girls is a lot more interested in how 4 completely fallible, vulnerable college grads deal with adulthood. It's effing funny as hell, but their relationship with feminism is really complex. As a feminist myself, I identify (sometimes to my own embarrassment) with their pit falls and arrogance, because even the most dedicated feminists went through a humiliating trial-by-fire in their early twenties. YMMV. Here's an article about Girls by New York Magazing TV critic and feminist Emily Nussbaum.

My last suggestion may negate the worth of my other ones, but I am sincerely recommending the few three seasons of Showtime's The L Word (the actual show, not the crappy reality show that came after it). Before producer Ilene Chaiken went off her rocker and tried to make a soap opera of increasingly unbelievable proportions, the show was an awesome soap opera of pretty well-drawn characters. It's also on Netflix streaming.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:39 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mercy was a one-season wonder that I really liked. The central character was a working-class army nurse back from Iraq and having some adjustment issues. The cast included little sister Dawn from Buffy and Captain Jane from Star Trek Voyager. I highly recommend it.
posted by shoesietart at 10:49 AM on May 17, 2012

posted by Iris Gambol at 12:33 PM on May 17, 2012

Returning to this, you might also like Dead Like Me. It's not exactly earnest in the same way, but its quirky premise and down-to-earth realistic heroine may win you over.

And I'll nth Grey's Anatomy, too--especially the first two seasons, there were tears there--it's a silly show these days, but you have to love the characters, the diverse cast, the female friendships.

I also liked The L Word but mostly for the sex scenes.
posted by snorkmaiden at 2:11 PM on May 17, 2012

The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow's too-short-lived show about an aging actress, will make you cringe, but in the best possible way. There's a lot of sexism on display, but it is never seen as acceptable or otherwise okay. Not sure if you'd count it as earnest since it's a comedy, but I certainly think it is.
posted by Mchelly at 2:14 PM on May 17, 2012

It was recommended upthread, so I'm just here to beat this drum a little louder...

Parks and Recreation is superb (I always recommend starting with season 2, episode 1; every episode thereafter just gets funnier) and I say this as someone who will randomly tell people that Six Feet Under was hands-down the best show to ever grace my television screen. I am also a huge fan of Mad Men, for what it's worth.

I know that Parks & Rec isn't an HBO type drama, but an ensemble cast has rarely clicked so well and been so feminist friendly.
posted by ohyouknow at 3:53 PM on May 17, 2012

I can't believe no one has mentioned Daria yet!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:06 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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