‘Girls’ to women: the march of fe­male-led tele­vi­sion

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Una Mu­lally

Last month, Lena Dun­ham’s Girls had its last episode. The cul­tural im­pact of the show on tele­vi­sion is sim­i­lar to the im­pact Frozen had on an­i­mated fea­tures (quick – young girls are a huge au­di­ence: make things for them to watch) and Brides­maids had on woman-led com­edy fea­tures (quick – women are a huge cin­ema au­di­ence: make things for them to watch). It is im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the in­crease in fe­male-led tele­vi­sion, which is oc­cur­ring at a time when watch­ing tele­vi­sion is an end­less com­pet­i­tive sport.

Glob­ally, there has been a widen­ing of what a story on tele­vi­sion is, and inevitably that leads to a di­ver­sity be­yond the tra­di­tional male-driven sto­ries that have typ­i­fied much of the his­tory of tele­vi­sion. That ex­pan­sion has led to more fe­male voices com­ing to the fore.

Over the years, sev­eral women tele­vi­sion writ­ers and co­me­di­ans have told me that they have been in rooms with com­mis­sion­ers and chan­nel heads where they have been told that a broad­caster al­ready has one woman-driven com­edy, so come back an­other time. This line would never be de­liv­ered to a male writer. Per­haps the great­est and most over­due leap for con­tem­po­rary tele­vi­sion is that “fe­male” ceases to be a genre.

The per­sonal has also be­come a precinct. “Smaller”, char­ac­ter-driven shows – ones that don’t have colos­sal bud­gets and a bom­bas­tic feel – are break­ing out, and it is in this space that fe­male-led voices are win­ning, with an indie feel across new shows re­gard­less of whether they’re streamed or tele­vised.

In Ire­land, women writ­ers are cre­at­ing some of the most in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial, and even within this new­ness of voices and sto­ry­tellers on tele­vi­sion there is a fur­ther hom­ing in on the “lo­cal”. Ste­fanie Preiss­ner’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope was set in Dublin but with a Cork ac­cent. Ali­son Spit­tle’s up­com­ing RTÉ2 sit­com, Nowhere Fast, is set in the mid­lands. The Young Of­fend­ers, which is be­ing adapted from film to small screen by the BBC, is an­other Cork-fo­cused story.

Ir­ish women abroad

There have been fur­ther suc­cesses with the BBC for Ir­ish women writ­ers, with BBC3 adapt­ing Eva O’Con­nor’s play about anorexia, Over­shad­owed, into an eight-part short-form se­ries to be writ­ten by O’Con­nor and Hilde­gard Ryan. The online-only BBC3 is prov­ing to be a promis­ing new out­let for Ir­ish com­edy, with Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope also picked up by the chan­nel. It prob­a­bly doesn’t hurt that chan­nel con­troller Damian Kavanagh is a Dubliner.

The frag­men­ta­tion of broad­cast­ing and plat­forms also al­lows for both di­ver­sity and risk. The risks that com­pa­nies such as Net­flix and Ama­zon can take, the shift in what it means to ac­cu­mu­late an au­di­ence on th­ese plat­forms – with a fo­cus on clus­ters of view­ers ev­ery­where as op­posed to a large au­di­ence in one place, which tra­di­tion­ally ham­pered ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and risk in ter­res­trial broad­cast­ers – and the cre­ative free­dom this al­lows writ­ers inevitably leads to more in­ter­est­ing stuff.

Sub­scrip­tion mod­els, as HBO has shown, have al­ways yielded pro­grammes that are smarter and more so­phis­ti­cated.

When a show does not have to be made for the masses, it can oc­cupy a more in­ter­est­ing space

When a show does not have to be made for the masses, it can oc­cupy a more in­ter­est­ing space.

There is also a more nu­anced struc­tural change within se­ries and episodes them­selves. With stream­ing, the pace of pro­grammes has changed. Shows such as Trans­par­ent are not slaves to the pre-ad-break hook in the same way that pro­grammes broad­cast on chan­nels that carry ad­ver­tis­ing are. Tele­vi­sion au­di­ences have tra­di­tion­ally been con­di­tioned around a spe­cific ad­ver­tise­ment-driven pro­gramme struc­ture, with the episode usu­ally bro­ken up into five parts. It be­gins with a teaser lead­ing into act one and a break, fol­lowed by act two and a hook be­fore the ad, fol­lowed by act three and a hook be­fore the ad, fol­lowed by act four, act five and a cliffhanger.

Stream­ing has bro­ken that struc­ture. Now scenes can ex­ist on their own cre­ative merit. The dream se­quences of The So­pra­nos were seen as ground­break­ing, and many of the pro­grammes we watch now have an equally indie feel. Jill Soloway’s lat­est se­ries, I Love Dick, for Ama­zon, feels less like a tele­vi­sion show and more like in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can cin­ema.

Of course, it’s not all about crit­i­cal ac­claim: it’s also about the num­bers. But the suc­cess of new women tele­vi­sion sto­ry­tellers isn’t a fad, it’s an open­ing-up. With money now fol­low­ing di­verse voices, the Ir­ish Film Board’s an­nounce­ment at the end of 2015 that it is aim­ing for 50-50 gen­der par­ity in fund­ing over the fol­low­ing three years will inevitably see more women funded, and will also give them en­cour­age­ment to go for fund­ing. While most of this will be in film, peo­ple who write for film also write for tele­vi­sion, and many pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies make both.

In a way, the ge­nie is out of the bot­tle for this new era of fe­male-led tele­vi­sion. The com­edy we are watch­ing now feels al­most post-sit­com. Sharon Hor­gan, for ex­am­ple, makes stealth drama, and many of the suc­cess­ful shows we loosely la­bel com­edy lean more heav­ily on drama, emo­tion, so­cial con­text – race, fem­i­nism, mil­len­nial en­nui – and char­ac­ter ex­plo­ration than gags and canned laugh­ter. The idea of a tra­di­tional main­stream net­work sit­com now feels old-fash­ioned. They might still get made, but with so many op­tions avail­able to view­ers, au­di­ences will re­treat into other si­los, where sto­ries that ap­peal di­rectly to them, or sto­ries and set­tings and char­ac­ters they have rarely seen on tele­vi­sion up un­til now, feel far more in­ter­est­ing and rel­e­vant.

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