It wasn’t until I’d finished my list of the year’s best scripted series — a fairly tortured process involving indecisions, visions, and tons of revisions — that I realized so many of them have a common theme: women and power.
An inordinate number of the best shows of 2017 hinge on the status of women — in our culture, in our families, in our economy, in our workplaces — and particularly those who are subjugated by men or a patriarchal system. The most obvious example, of course, is “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel that imagines a near future where fertile women are systematically raped — with twisted biblical justification — to boost a shrinking population. It’s an extreme look at the objectification of women under a militarized regime, a nightmare impressively realized by creator Bruce Miller and his team.
“Big Little Lies,” too, zooms in on victimized women, this time in a contemporary domestic setting that doesn’t allow viewers to distance themselves as they might with a show set in the future. Among the principal characters, there is a rape victim and a physically abused wife, the latter portrayed with stunning effectiveness by Nicole Kidman. One of the most emotionally potent twists in the show’s story line depicts what can happen when women join forces against tyranny — something they do, to a great extent, in “Better Things,” as Pamela Adlon’s self-supporting single mother firmly leads her three daughters into young adulthood.
It’s remarkable that these shows dramatically examining the unequal position of women in America have appeared during a year that has to a great extent revolved around the unequal position of women in America. Early in the year, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, women marched on various cities as a show of strength, in no small part reacting to the sexism that had dogged candidate Hillary Clinton and to the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump confessed to grabbing women inappropriately and sexually. The pink hats that were made for the occasion stood in perfect symbolic opposition to the handmaids’ costumes in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” so nun-like and identity-erasing.
Much later in the year, the #MeToo movement dawned, and women (and men) who’d been harassed, humiliated, molested, and held back by powerful men began speaking out. That, too, was bound into the year’s best TV. Both “Alias Grace” and “Master of None” include painful stories of sexual misconduct by men — in the latter, by Bobby Cannavale’s celebrity chef. And David Simon’s “The Deuce” would be missing its dominant subject if the women walking the streets in 1970s Times Square — with the exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s entrepreneurial Candy — didn’t work for psychologically and physically abusive male pimps. Their #MeToo stories are probably in league with those of Atwood’s handmaids.
Some of these women-centric shows offer bits of optimism, just as Candy hopes to get on the moneymaking side of the sex industry during the dawning of the porn-movie era. Candy is trying to catch the same kind of release from dependency on men as many of the first members of the 1980s Glorious Ladies of Wrestling on Netflix’s excellent “GLOW.” That same release is the subject of Amazon’s charming “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in which a dumped housewife starts doing stand-up comedy in 1950s Greenwich Village as a way to develop her independence and establish a career.
Were these shows written especially for this moment? I don’t think so; scripted TV is more on top of the zeitgeist than movies, with shorter production schedules, but still. Last year, no one could have predicted this year’s breaking news would be so heavily consumed by questions about women and inequality. The makers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” probably didn’t know their series would resonate harder than ever against the moral uncertainties of the Trump-Pence era. But then again, they must have known its truths would disturb and reverberate nonetheless.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.