Television is enjoying a golden age. Part of that is its juicy opportunities for female actors. In terms of gender parity, it puts corporate America, the Trump administration and the Senate to shame.
I worship Charlize Theron, the “Atomic Blonde” trailer is a hoot, and I love the story she keeps sharing with interviewers about training so hard for the fight scenes that she cracked several teeth.
But please stop telling me that “Atomic Blonde,” on the heels of “Wonder Woman,” amounts to some hinge moment for movies, which are henceforth going to shower us with female action leads. I’ve heard that joke too many times before.
Let’s talk instead about all the wonderful women — brawlers, bawlers, schemers, dreamers — on the small screen, a nickname that we have to retire because television is proving infinitely bigger in spirit and more in tune with the moment than most of the loud schlock shoveled into multiplexes.
And let’s trade the usual, sadly necessary outrage about how poorly a given group of Americans is being represented for a hearty cheer about some heartening progress.
The Emmy nominations came out last week, and they affirmed not only that television is indeed enjoying a golden age but also that part of that is its juicy opportunities for female actors. In terms of gender parity, it puts corporate America, the Trump administration and the Senate to shame.
A Times television critic, James Poniewozik, pointed to the “murderers’ row” of actresses nominated for best lead performance in a limited series: Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in “Big Little Lies,” Carrie Coon in “Fargo” and Felicity Huffman in “American Crime.”
Five of them are over 40. Two (Lange and Sarandon) are over 60, playing roles that speak expressly to sexist double standards and the derision women face if they do something as audacious as age in the limelight.
Yes, there’s a negative spin on this: Why have Lange, Sarandon, Witherspoon and Kidman, all winners of the best actress Oscar, fled to television?
Also, the disproportionate crowd of men nominated in the writing and directing categories this year suggests that despite the recent successes of such female writers, directors and show runners as Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”) and Jill Soloway (“Transparent,” “I Love Dick”), women still don’t get enough opportunities behind the camera.
But television is hardly a last-resort medium anymore. And what’s happening in front of the camera really does warrant celebration.
Often, in the wake of Oscar nominations, there’s talk about how tough it was to fill the five slots in the best actress category credibly. Emmy categories accommodate six or seven nominees, and the chatter this year focused on how many deserving women couldn’t be squeezed in. No Dunham for “Girls,” no Oprah Winfrey for “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” no Claire Danes for “Homeland” and no crime in any of that, because there was so much else that deserved — and got — recognition.
To compare the nominees for best supporting actor and best supporting actress in a comedy series is to be reminded that women rule the “Saturday Night Live” roost. From that show, only one recurring male performer, Alec Baldwin, got an acting nod, while three female performers — Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer and Leslie Jones — did.
It’s not just that actresses are giving television’s greatest performances but that many of the top-tier shows — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Better Things” — tackle gender-related issues.
The most recent season of “House of Cards” was in some ways about the tricky algebra of effacement, assertion, subservience and ingenuity behind many women’s paths to power. It ended (spoiler alert!) with two triumphant words from Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, that pointedly evoked Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign: “My turn.”
There’s a world of fascinating women and fierce actresses on television now. Britain, which long ago conjured the miracle of Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect,” recently tripled down with the messy, mesmerizing sleuths played by Sarah Lancashire in “Happy Valley,” Gillian Anderson in “The Fall” and Anna Friel in “Marcella.”
And finally, this week, the producers of the BBC series “Doctor Who” announced that the role of the Doctor, which has changed hands repeatedly over decades, would next be played by a woman, actress Jodie Whittaker. That’s a first.
But to watch Lancashire in “Happy Valley,” Lange in “Feud” or Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder” isn’t to applaud social justice. It’s to savor phenomenal artistry. Television proves what has been observed about all walks of life: For the best talent, cast the net wide and don’t ignore any of the available pools.
Theron long ago worked on a movie with Tom Hanks, who signed her script with words that, she told Variety, “I bet he’s eating.” They were these: “Promise me you’ll never do television.”
I want her to promise that she’ll do lots of television. She’ll get meatier parts that way, and might not even need dental work afterward.