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During one of the most hilariously tragic moments of Succession‘s third season, we witness Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), the scion of a global media empire, down a drink at a blowout birthday bash and unleash herself on a half-filled dance floor. She writhes and rollicks in a kind of danse macabre, letting out all the pent-up vexation of her recent weeks: her hotshot attorney friend rejecting her request to represent her father’s legal case; her first public speech at Waystar Royco interrupted by a rendition of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”; her father forcing her to smile for a family photo with a crypto-fascist presidential candidate. Watching Shiv further deteriorate via this dance dance revolution, one thing became clear to me: Some of the most compelling television of 2021 has featured women and girls boiling with rage. Who needs likability when you can have accountability instead?
Historically, TV’s crossest women have often been nagging wives and shrewish singletons. Anger, after all, is considered an “unfeminine” quality, and young girls are routinely socialized to tamp down their emotions to take on traits like passivity and agreeableness. But the past decade of television has seen a rise in nuanced portrayals of seething women, from the caustic gynocracy of the Ryan Murphyverse to the megalomaniac noblewomen of Game of Thrones and its imitators to all the sardonic and richly drawn comic leads of the streaming era.
As real-life women have taken to social media to document their collective fury — about politics, about #MeToo malfeasance, about gendered labor disparities throughout the pandemic — they have seen their ferocity increasingly reflected back on them during this golden age of TV storytelling. While this current generation lives through a society-shifting, norms-combusting slow-motion equivalent of 9/11, I’m not surprised to observe that post-2020 television has been running on an engine of female ire. And it has inspired some of the best TV performances of this year.
A number of 2021 comedies capitalized on fang-baring, their casts rousing my frequent laughter, occasional screams and intermittent full-body cringes. Few Black comedies are as uncomfortably relatable as Apple TV+’s 1980s-set Physical, which stars a never-better Rose Byrne as a hippie turned unhappy housewife who expresses her regrets through a self-cannibalizing internal monologue, an uncontrolled eating disorder and a tendency to police the other women her life. She eventually directs this energy into building an aerobics tape empire. The four young British women of Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts also use their discontent to fuel their creativity, forming a thrashing all-female and Muslim punk band led by rage-addict butcher Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey). Impey is uproarious in the role, playing Saira as someone who feigns disaffection while her feelings and impulses eat her alive.
It’s the cutthroat comediennes of HBO Max’s Hacks, however, who are so delightfully ambitious that every droplet of acid in their veins is ultimately utilized for verbal poison — often against each other. Baby boomer Jean Smart and Gen Z-er Hannah Einbinder were the most adept onscreen sparring partners of 2021, respectively playing a washed-up Vegas stand-up and a canceled comedy writer who come together to revamp the former’s career. Fed up with how their lives have veered, they both take out their wrath by indicting the other’s generation. Smart is undeniably a powerhouse in this role, but it’s Einbinder’s smug grousing that lets the bombshell TV vet shine.
This year, comedic lashing out could sometimes be therapeutic for the viewer. The 30-something leads of Hulu’s PEN15 channel their deep-seated middle school fury in their portrayals of tween-age outcasts. Season two, a more somber turn for this cringe comedy, sees hyperactive Maya (Maya Erskine) and self-serious Anna (Anna Konkle) act out against their families, leading them to rebellion and shocking consequences.
Meanwhile, the second season of Showtime’s hidden gem Work in Progress explores star Abby McEnany’s sense of injustice, allowing audiences to laugh with and cry alongside her character as she confronts her mental illnesses. By invoking past traumas, these autobiographical comedies help viewers mine their own turbulent histories.
The female leads of corrosive dramedies Kevin Can F**k Himself and Succession, however, must learn to mask their anger if they want to maintain control of their fates. On AMC’s Kevin, a satirical look at archetypical sitcom nagwives, Annie Murphy plays Allison, a broke Worcester wife who has built her life around her oafish husband (Eric Petersen). After years of humiliation in the name of his antic fun, she finally resolves to murder him. Conversely, despite her access to wealth and power, Succession‘s Shiv Roy, too, is controlled by the men in her life — her capricious billionaire father (Brian Cox), her bumbling but manipulative brothers (Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin) and even her needy husband (Matthew Macfadyen), who all vie to uplift or destroy her at a moment’s notice. Shiv is as power-mad as the rest of them but struggles to silence her own moral righteousness to appease their me-me-me sensibilities.
Some of the most brutal portrayals of women’s anger, however, avoided jokes altogether. HBO crime drama Mare of Easttown, FX political history Impeachment: American Crime Story, Netflix inspirational miniseries Maid and Freeform YA thriller Cruel Summer all honed in on women ferociously fighting back against their mistreatment.
While Kate Winslet, Sarah Paulson and Margaret Qualley have received their fair share of awards chatter this year, I’d be remiss not to also commend the young actresses of Cruel Summer for their impressive work. The series, about a pair of resentful teens (Chiara Aurelia and Olivia Holt) who find themselves at the opposite sides of a kidnapping mystery, is one of the best-ever TV shows to tackle the subject of sexual grooming and coercion.
Despite their pains, none of these shows’ characters let their troubles swallow them. After all, when we get sad, we wallow. When get mad, we act.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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