Emmys: Inside the Rise of the Female TV Auteur

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Behind some of TV's top new comedies — from 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' to 'GLOW' — are female writers who are using their shows to explore thoughtful takes on the issues of gender, dating and sex.

In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s pilot, viewers learn just how perfect 1950s housewife Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) used to be before embarking on an unlikely career in stand-up comedy. After her husband falls asleep, she sneaks into the bathroom, where she puts her hair in curlers, removes her makeup and applies an overnight mask. In the morning, she wakes up just before her husband, washes off the mask and returns to bed with a full face of makeup and a flawless coif — with her clueless other half none the wiser. 

Written by series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the scene is funny, but also undeniably sad: Midge goes to extraordinary lengths to be beautiful at all times, and her husband still leaves her for his secretary. That keen attention to how women are expected to behave — and to the necessary quests that female characters must undergo to discover who they are and what they’re capable of — is a quality that Sherman-Palladino’s Amazon dramedy shares with many of this year’s female-authored Emmy contenders.

The modern period of female auteurship in television arguably began in the late 1980s, with Diane English championing female ambition on Murphy Brown and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason remaking the Southern belle in her own fire-breathing-liberal image on Designing Women.

More recently, visionaries like Tina Fey, Lena Dunham and Shonda Rhimes helped usher in the current era, with their distinctly female perspectives often breathing new life into stock topics and genres. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (SundanceTV), for example, gave a detective — that most familiar TV archetype — a novel and extremely female premise: investigating the disappearance of a pregnant teen while dealing with the memories of her own rape. 

With the #MeToo movement lingering in the background, it’s perhaps extra-relevant that so many of the Emmy contenders with a female creator or showrunner center on a female character’s search for a dating or sex life that is meaningful to them. Pop culture is rife with stories about men who get — or get back — an attractive woman as a reward for the completion of their journey. We don’t ask often enough what women want from men (or other women).

But a handful of female-authored comedies have done just that, receiving critical acclaim along the way, including Insecure (HBO), GLOW (Netflix), Broad City (Comedy Central), Better Things (FX), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW), SMILF (Showtime), Jane the Virgin (The CW), One Day at a Time (Netflix) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix).

To be sure, none of the series above is a nomination slam dunk. But with a hole left this season by the absence of three-time winner Veep (another comedy with a complicated female lead), they stand out — both for their innovation and for their contribution to TV’s increasingly diverse landscape of voices. 

Take the subject of dating and relationships, which is evergreen comedy fodder. One Day at a Time’s ambitious sophomore season gave its single-mom protagonist two very under-the-radar female experiences: joining the military as a new mom to serve with her deploying husband, and dating with depression (women are twice as likely as men to suffer from the disease, as well as to take antidepressants). Like One Day at a Time, Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feature storylines that feel like they could happen on no other show.

Broad City’s Abbi dealt with the shame of “breaking” a lover’s penis during sex, while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s titular character had to recalibrate a new relationship after a suicide attempt. And on Insecure, Issa’s corporateattorney bestie Molly had to wonder once again how much of the stagnation in her professional and personal lives was due to her status as a black woman — a wholly relatable worry to anyone who’s ever wondered if institutional bias worked against them.

But dating and sex are, sadly, not only about discovery and adventure. SMILF and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are two of the funniest and most endearing comedies around, and both tackle issues of sexual trauma and its repercussions as part of their protagonists’ storylines. SMILF’s single mom wants sex when she wants it — i.e., during her kid’s nap time — but her need for sexual and psychological wholeness also includes her desire to confront her estranged father, who sexually assaulted her as a child. Just as successful in nuanced portraits of healing is Kimmy Schmidt, which continues to have its cultescapee heroine seek peace with her horrific past. 

Motherhood always shifts one’s priorities, especially in the realm of sex and relationships. One of the most memorable scenes in Better Things’ second season involves single mom Sam delivering a blistering monologue to a bad date about men’s failure to understand how often women accommodate male egos. Sam spends much of Better Things choosing her family over men — a decision Jane the Virgin’s titular character also frequently makes, as she tiptoes toward a romance with her accidental baby daddy that she fears could blow up the carefully balanced juggling act she’s pulled off thus far. 

In too many myopically male projects, women are reduced to trophies. The complications — and comedy — in women’s foibles and desires that female auteurs bring to the screen are long overdue.

This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.