For female TV characters, the real strength is in numbers

Jessica Jones – AE1EGTV04-01032018-0001
Krysten Ritter stars as an angry investigator with superpowers in the Netflix Marvel series "Jessica Jones," which launches its second season on March 8.

I laughed when Netflix announced recently that its Marvel series Jessica Jones would premiere its second season on International Women’s Day.

That’s March 8, for those of you who haven’t already marked your calendars. It’s hard to imagine Jessica (Krysten Ritter), a perpetually angry private investigator with super powers, observing the day, but she is a woman and Netflix is available in nearly 200 countries.

If you’re looking for an example of the change the day’s organizers hope to see in the world —  hashtag  #PressForProgress — Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg (The Twilight Saga, Dexter) embodied it in October 2016, when she announced that all 13 episodes this season would be directed by women, who remain ridiculously underrepresented in the industry as a whole.

That’s cool. Yet I’d hate for anyone to watch Jessica Jones just because it seemed like the right thing to do.

One of the best of Marvel’s ever-expanding universe of TV series, it takes some time, in the five episodes I’ve seen of the new season, to get to a situation where Jessica’s punching up, not down. But get there it does. And the waiting didn’t feel to me like waiting: After what Jessica went through with Kilgrave (David Tennant), it seemed fitting that the PTSD that’s shaped her character is still holding her back.

If we’ve learned nothing else from months of #MeToo revelations, it’s that trauma’s not a one-season arc.

What I appreciated more, though, were the reminders that Jessica Jones isn’t only one woman’s story.

While Jessica’s investigating the circumstances of her mysterious past, we’re learning more about the tortured girlhood of Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), the former child star with whom Jessica was raised. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), the scruples-free lawyer who’s also played a part in Iron Fist and The Defenders, is facing some new challenges. And though I can’t say much about what new cast member Janet McTeer (The White Queen) is up to, it’s the kind of role fiftysomething women don’t often get to play, and the British stage legend is so far killing it.

And that’s where the women we don’t see on screen — like Rosenberg — might come in.

“Programs with women creators feature more female characters overall, and more major female characters, and have higher percentages of women writers and directors,” Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, told Variety last year in a piece about a report from a study tracking the progress of women in the industry. “In some cases, the differences are dramatic. Yet women comprise only 23 percent of all creators.”

CBS’s legal drama The Good Wife, created by Michelle and Robert King, was, for seven seasons, a great place to find women who weren’t always good, and usually in the ways that make TV characters great. Its spin-off, The Good Fight, which premieres its second season Sunday, isn’t quite as accessible — it’s only on the subscription streaming service CBS All Access — but it’s plenty rich in female characters, with Audra McDonald joining first-season stars Christine Baranski, Cush Jumbo, Rose Leslie, and Sarah Steele in the firm where Diane Lockhart (Baranski) is a name partner with Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo).

Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald in The Good Fight
Camera icon Patrick Harbron / CBS
Christine Baranski (right)  and Audra McDonald in CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight.”

I won’t call any of their characters strong women, because, as Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes recently noted on Twitter, “A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN. Also? ‘Women’ are not a TV trend — we’re half the planet.”

Plus, most of the women — and men — on The Good Fight are, like those in Jessica Jones, or any of Rhimes’ shows, at least a little messed up. Strength may be inspiring (and, in the case of Jessica Jones, super), but weakness and bad behavior are the stuff of both drama and comedy.

In her  new book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, one of the stories Joy Press tells is about CBS executives’ reaction to Diane English’s pitch for Murphy Brown, about a “single, middle-aged female broadcast journalist returning to the job after a stint in rehab.”

As English recalled in Press’ book, the executives liked the idea but preferred the character  eventually played by Candice Bergen to be returning from a spa, not the Betty Ford Center, and to be 30, not 40. “The word unlikable came up all the time. All … the … time,” English complained. “They would apply those terms to female characters often, but men don’t have to be likable.”

A writers’ strike forestalled changes to the pilot, which ended up being shot as written, and English got the last laugh, and then some. Murphy Brown not only ran for 10 seasons, but, like Roseanne — which returns to ABC on March 27, nearly  21 years after its original finale — it’s getting a reboot. At least four members of the original cast —  Bergen, Faith Ford, Joe Regalbuto, and Grant Shaud, all of them now well over 40 — are set to return to CBS, which has ordered 13 episodes for next season.

There are so many new shows premiering in March that I’m hoping the Roseanne premiere, though historic in its way, wasn’t scheduled as part of Women’s History Month, the month every year when my inbox fills with pitches for shows about women doing things that would be no less newsworthy or interesting the other 11 months of the year.

Women are, as Rhimes reminds us, half the planet. No one should need an excuse to pay attention.

Letterman’s latest

But speaking of international women: education activist Malala Yousafzai will be David Letterman’s guest in the third segment of his Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, which premieres Friday.

The choice of the young Nobel laureate, who as a schoolgirl was shot by the Taliban  in Pakistan in 2012 and who now attends Oxford University, is on-brand for Letterman’s new monthly show, whose first two segments have featured an interview with former President Barack Obama and one with George Clooney that largely focused on the actor’s non-show business activities.

These are two people I’ve seen interviewed a lot, and I still learned things about them.

Letterman’s next guest has done fewer talk shows than Obama or Clooney (though she did do card tricks with Letterman’s Late Show successor, Stephen Colbert, in a 2015 appearance).

Though there’s often a sense in his new show that Letterman seems more embarrassed than he probably needs to be by his former job, the earnestness of his approach to people whose work he clearly admires, and the amount of time and effort put into telling their stories, is charming. And the results can’t help but point up how little actually gets said these days in late night, as a parade of celebrities tell their carefully crafted anecdotes, all so the host can roll the clip and we can all go to bed.