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Cool Cable Women Say Sayonara
August 11, 2012  | By Diane Werts
 
Is the golden age over? As three great lead roles for women surf into the sunset of imminent cable finales, it's unclear when series TV might match the star-actress showcase it has delivered this past decade.

Kyra Sedgwick (left) closes the door on The Closer this Monday (Aug. 13) after seven smash seasons of TNT's police procedural. Glenn Close drops the gavel on her five-season legal thriller Damages Sept. 12 on DirecTV. And Mary-Louise Parker's days as a drug-dealing (sub)urban denizen end Sept. 16 after eight seasons of Showtime's Weeds (below, right).

Wow. Three huge losses. Three movie names who moved to cable TV for better roles, and found broader success as series leads.

And they're not the only female stars who've lately found such riches on the tube.

Holly Hunter dominated three TNT seasons of Saving Grace (2007-10) as a self-destructive cop with a guardian angel. Jada Pinkett Smith was a committed chief nurse through three seasons of TNT's HawthoRNe (2009-11). And Minnie Driver joined Eddie Izzard in two seasons of FX's con-family saga The Riches (2007-08).

Heck, there's even the star of The Sarah Silverman Program (2007-10), finding a self-expressive home on Comedy Central, while her male comic contemporaries landed (disappointing, externally directed, often sadly stunted yet far more lucrative) movie careers (Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler).

But here's the real issue: The three women ending their long-running, career-sustaining cable vehicles aren't being replaced on the tube by nearly as many female stars of similar stature or ambition. While it's easy to like capable leads such as Sarah Shahi in USA's Fairly Legal, Callie Thorne in USA's Necessary Roughness and Mary McDonnell in TNT's Closer spinoff Major Crimes (premiering Monday at 10 p.m. ET out of the Closer finale), they're essentially talented TV people who've worked their way up.

That's a wonderful thing. But it's not the same as taking a dominating female film personality and making her an even more prominent cultural presence as a single-lead star who's beamed into millions of homes, week after week, over a period of years — much less in a vehicle designed around her powerhouse skills that would otherwise likely be wasted by third-lead gigs in forgettable flicks.

Lifetime — "the network for women" — tried to do this at one point, too, showcasing underappreciated female stars including Bonnie Bedelia and Taraji P. Henson (The Division), Lili Taylor (State of Mind) and Vivica A. Fox (1-800-Missing). But the cabler now chooses more familiar second-level names and faces, a la Army Wives with Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Girls gotta work.

But where are the girls of guts and gusto who take the star slot and run with it, right up the hill to the top of the TV mountain, solo? Where are the female lead series characters whose own careers, choices and even crimes define them and their shows, more than the men around them?

Seems like basic cable got that ball rolling a decade back, only to drop it. For every new Covert Affairs with Piper Perabo (left), USA gives us a half-dozen male lead shows from Monk to Kojak (Ving Rhames version) to Royal Pains. After a great start with Sedgwick and Hunter, TNT added shows starring Timothy Hutton, Ray Romano, Noah Wyle and Eric McCormack.

And FX, which in 2007 launched Close's Damages (airing its first three seasons)? It's boy-land there now, with Justified, Rescue Me, Wilfred, Archer and Anger Management. Where's their female Louie? (We won't begrudge FX its Sons of Anarchy; that cycle gang saga has evolved into The Katey Sagal Show, due in equal parts perhaps to Sagal's huge talent and her handy status as wife of the series creator.)

And then there's basic cable's current proliferation of lighthearted "buddy" dramas. These might be considered the guilty-pleasure chocolates of the hour-series menu. Except, as everybody knows, it's women who love chocolate most. And for every gal-pal hour like TNT's Rizzoli & Isles (right), we get TNT's Franklin & Bash plus USA's Psych, White Collar, Suits and Common Law — guy-guy, all. Even the guy-girl setup of USA's Burn Notice seems a blessed relief (despite the guy-guy sub-gig involving Bruce Campbell). Take note that Burn Notice includes among its supporting cast Sharon Gless — once the tough, flawed and fiercely independent cop heroine of CBS's 1980s female-buddies groundbreaker Cagney & Lacey.

Which brings us back to the networks. That's where movie-made guys go when they turn to TV. Kiefer Sutherland, James Woods, Gary Sinise, Jim Caviezel, Tim Roth, Terrence Howard, Joseph Fiennes, Donnie Wahlberg, Alfred Molina, Chris O'Donnell — all moved from films this past decade to big broadcast chances. Christian Slater? He's had three. (Fourth dud due any minute now.)

Now let's think of female movie names who get to jump to network TV. Uhh … uhhhh … Yeah. Right.

Kathy Bates (left) went gangbusters in Harry's Law, but drew a mostly older audience whose loyalty didn't impress advertisers enough for NBC to keep the show afloat. Action-movie lead Lena Headey (300) got to be a Fox action-series star, briefly, in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles; now she's on HBO's Game of Thrones. Maria Bello, most recently movie awards-bait in titles like A History of Violence, was actually returning to TV to star in last year's Prime Suspect on NBC, where she once helped staff ER. Returning from last season are Kerry Washington in ABC's Scandal (she can thank the clout of her show creator, network hitmaker Shonda Rhimes) and Zooey Deschanel on Fox fave New Girl. It's not a long list.

Maybe leading women don't "sell" as well as men to ad-supported broadcasting's broad-based viewership. But they sure can make the grade on cable: TNT's mega-ratings for The Closer often beat most scripted series on broadcast networks. In pay cable, Parker's drug-dealing mom on Weeds helped vault Showtime to premium-TV prominence, since fueled by other edgy series like Laura Linney's cancer-com The Big C and Edie Falco's Nurse Jackie.

And so it's premium cable — which exists to make not advertisers but subscribers happy — that recently gave us two fresh new female leads. Claire Danes (right), who hit teen fame in TV (My So-Called Life) before doing movies, is everybody's odds-on favorite to win an Emmy for her badass but brain-addled counterterror agent on Showtime's equally admired thriller Homeland (Season 2 starts Sept. 30). And Laura Dern's life-changing seeker is the heart and soul of HBO's Enlightened (back in January).

Both actresses won Golden Globes for their series' first seasons. That's something. But only if you pony up for premium channels — not on basic cable, available to the vast majority of TV households, much less the broadcast networks, available to all.

That less-than-mainstream availability may be due to the warts-and-all characters these powerhouse actors play. They tend to be quirky, damaged, self-directed, plus those other attributes not-always-nicely applied to assertive women — feisty, headstrong, impetuous. It's long been men supposed to be "naturally" those things on broadcast TV, where female characters are mostly secondary and commonly cast as wives, pals, assistants, helpmates, enablers and other "support" people — not the motive power of the show's main plot. Unless they're cutesy "girls" like flighty Ally McBeal, the occasional action chick like Nikita, or fantastical oddities like the witches of Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Back in the real world, look at the title of the CBS show starring Julianna Margulies, a wonderful actress on perhaps the networks' top-flight drama — The Good Wife. Kathy Bates' show was given a "trick" title that made it sound manly — Harry's Law. Who's gonna watch Harriet's?

That's why it hurts to say goodbye all at once to the top-dog triumvirate of Sedgwick, Close and Parker. The Closer, Damages and Weeds gave us rich female characters of different lifestyles, professions and family situations who shared the crucial characteristic of leading — truly leading — their own lives. (Damages offered two of them (right), with Rose Byrne's antagonist to Close's lead, doing war with each other in terms usually reserved for male rivals.) Maybe the guts and glory of Homeland and Enlightened, along with Lena Dunham's new next-generation HBO ensemble Girls, will filter down to the more widely available channels of basic cable and broadcast.

Where are their conflicted, flawed, misbehaving, opinionated, even criminal women? We need the next Cagney, Lacey, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, China Beach. An American AbFab. A new TV Thelma & Louise.

We're waiting.
 
 
 
 
 
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