You could organize the history of TV dramas into B.T. and A.T.: Before Tony and After Tony. Before The Sopranos, TV drama was mainly divided between good guys and bad guys (with the odd exception like NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz). Tony Soprano and his followers on HBO, FX and elsewhere showed that audiences would follow villains with sympathetic qualities and heroes with addictive, self-destructive personalities. Move over, good guys and bad guys, these dramas said. Make room for the good-bad guy.
The operative word, however, was guy. Like many revolutions, this one liberated the men first. The shows focused on male antiheroes and their loud, angsty Y-chromosome dramas: Tony, The Shield's Vic Mackey, Rescue Me's Tommy Gavin, Dexter's serial killer Dexter Morgan, Deadwood's Al Swearengen, 24's Jack Bauer. These shows made TV more complex and challenging, but their definition of serious drama had a pronounced silverback streak.
This summer, however, two of Hollywood's most acclaimed actresses have taken the leads in a pair of edgy cable dramas and matched TV's bad boys vice for vice and flaw for flaw. In FX's engrossing legal chiller Damages (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. E.T.), Glenn Close plays Patty Hewes, a committed and vicious trial lawyer who is driven to win cases against the powerful but resorts to bullying and deception--and other, possibly bloodier, means--to do it. Litigating against a CEO (Ted Danson) in a pump-and-dump stock scandal, she hires--or exploits?--a young lawyer (Rose Byrne) with a personal connection to the case; it's soon an open question which one of them Patty is a greater threat to. In TNT's Saving Grace (Mondays, 10 p.m. E.T.), Holly Hunter is Grace Hanadarko, a tortured, hard-living Oklahoma City cop who sleeps with whom she likes, drinks as much as she likes and will sucker punch anyone she doesn't like. In the first scene, we see her fully naked in bed--with a married cop--a prelude to her driving drunk, hitting a pedestrian and getting an intervention from a genuine, albeit tobacco-chewing angel. (By the second episode, she's trying to beat him up too.)
Patty and Grace are nobody's damsels in distress, but this is not a "TV discovers strong women" story. TV has had no shortage of female cops and young babes with superpowers (see NBC's Bionic Woman, this fall). Rather, TV has found women leads who are strong but also weak, like Dahlia Malloy (Minnie Driver) of FX's The Riches, a drug addict and ex-con (and current con artist). Or criminal but charming, like Mary-Louise Parker's pot-dealing widow in Showtime's suburban dramedy Weeds. Or sympathetic but scary, like Courteney Cox's rapacious gossip-magazine editor in FX's Dirt. Or dedicated but damaged, like Kyra Sedgwick's detective Brenda Johnson, beset with food addictions and relationship problems, in TNT's The Closer. Or earnest but abrasive, like Chloë Sevigny's pushy, shopping-addicted but fiercely loyal and devout polygamist in HBO's Big Love.
Uplift and empowerment are all well and good--girls kick ass; we get it--but showing that women can be as good as men without showing that they also can be as bad is condescending. And it's boring. As Nancy Miller, Saving Grace's creator, puts it, "Being tough is a male characteristic? Enjoying sex is a male characteristic? Throwing a few back is a male characteristic?"
TV dramas lacked complex women in the early days because they lacked female leads, period. Women were more likely to star in soaps or sitcoms, which had more of a domestic focus. Even as women landed roles outside the home in real life, it was easier to find a multifaceted woman on Mary Tyler Moore or Maude than on Charlie's Angels or Police Woman.
That started to change in the early '80s, with the cop drama Cagney & Lacey (see above), whose duo battled family problems and alcoholism. But the changes were still slow. Women tended to be action stars (Alias) or less complicated heroines (Crossing Jordan), or, more likely, were second leads or co-stars with men (The X-Files, CSI). Sturm und Drang remained men's work. "I've been trying to sell a new Cagney & Lacey to the networks for 15 years," says Miller. "I've developed it five different times, but it's never gotten to the point of being shot as a pilot. A lot of people think you need a male lead."
There were exceptions, like Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren's brilliant but self-destructive, even cruel detective in the British Prime Suspect series. But the more commercial inspiration for TV's new women may be Meredith Grey. Grey's Anatomy is far removed from the suburban dysfunction of Weeds or the deadly intrigues of Damages, but it demonstrated that there was a vast audience for a show about a fleshed-out heroine who sleeps with a married man, makes bad and selfish choices and can be downright unlikable.
At the same time, there was a growing vacuum in the movies that left an opening for TV. It's no coincidence that most of these new antiheroines are played by movie actresses of a certain age in a business where meaty roles go to twentysomethings or to Meryl Streep. That problem, Hunter says, is exacerbated by the decline of middle-budget, character-based films: "Now movies are made for $2 million, or they're made for more than $60 million." To Driver, the variety of roles on cable outweighs any stigma. "I'm glad to be doing TV," she says. "I'll do it at a bus stop if that means you're getting something new and creative out there. I'd do it if it were a dog-food commercial: Buy Pedigree Chum from Dahlia the crank addict."
It's also probably no coincidence that these actresses were able to see Mirren collect both an Emmy and an Oscar last season (for portraying Queens Elizabeth I and II) after having played the Ur-antiheroine in Prime Suspect. (Driver, Parker and Sedgwick won Emmy nominations this year--as did Mirren, for Prime Suspect's final installment.) Closer creator James Duff never expected Sedgwick to play Brenda--nor, at first, did Sedgwick. Then, she says, "my manager said to me, 'It's a little bit like Prime Suspect.'" These shows give non-ingenues a rare chance to play interesting women. Grace may make iffy choices, but, says Hunter, "she's really just somebody who says yes to a whole lot. She's managed to fashion a life where she can say yes with a whole lot of freedom. She's unashamed and in that way really liberated."