Baltimore Sun TV/Media critic David Zurawik looks at the 10 best TV series of the year so far. And each has a lot to say about gender. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun video)
Just over halfway through 2017, one powerful TV theme has already emerged: Women rule.
It is not just that the best series of the year feature women in rich and empowering roles. Many of the performances and some of the series themselves are questioning and challenging the core assumptions of male power and patriarchy.
When you have that kind of consistent messaging in a medium that permeates society the way TV and streamed video do in ours, it is a safe bet that cultural change is in the wind.
But let's not overdose on sociology, because the 10 best series so far this year are also a lot of fun and consistently engaging.
As many Ph.D. dissertations on feminine identity as there surely are in the pilot for "GLOW," a new Netflix series about a 1980s cable TV show featuring female wrestlers, I enjoyed it the first time through mostly as a body-slamming, darkly comic romp.
Using that standard of TV productions that entertain, but have some cultural substance as well, here are my top 10 series so far this year.
1. “GLOW” (Netflix)
Since it's the buzz of the summer TV season, let's start the Top 10 list with this new ensemble series from Jenji Kohan, creator of "Orange Is the New Black."
The series stars Alison Brie ("Mad Men") as Ruth, a young, broke actress in Los Angeles who is so insecure and desperate that she waits for an hour in a bathroom stall after an audition hoping the casting director will come in so she can ask how she did.
As usual, Ruth's performance did not match her aspiration, but the director tosses her a bone: a tip about a start-up TV wrestling show, "Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling," that's looking for performers.
With her pretensions to serious theater, Brie's character is easily the least likely onscreen to succeed as a TV wrestler.
But Marc Maron's Sam Sylvia, the cocaine-snorting, burned-out director of this production, has a vision of her as an archetypal, Russian villain in an ongoing wrestling drama that pits her against an all-American heroine played by Betty Gilpin ("Nurse Jackie").
It could work. It definitely means work for the struggling and demoralized Ruth, anyway.
Brie is a fine comic performer. Maron, who brings the darkness with him, is even better.
And let me offer just a bit of sociology. The pilot is as clever an exploration of the kinds of ego-crushing jobs young people are forced to take in today's economy as was the first episode of Comedy's Central's "Broad City."
And without being preachy, "GLOW" also shows how those jobs are often worse for women, because the person defining and sometimes demeaning them is usually a man and, in one way or another, the woman's body and/or sexuality are likely to be exploited.
Meanwhile, the women in this vulnerable situation find strength and refuge in a community they form despite their disparate backgrounds.
Sound a little like "Orange Is the New Black"? How could that not be a good thing?
2. “The Americans” Season 5 (FX)
Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is one of my favorite characters on television. I can't say I especially like her, but I am fascinated by her. I love her toughness, focus and dedication. She's clearly tougher than her partner and fellow KGB spy, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys).
In part, that's because she was the true believer in the Soviet cause when she and Philip came to live together in the Washington suburbs as sleeper agents. Remember in Season 1, which opens in Ronald Reagan's 1980s America, when she told her superiors she was worried that Philip "liked it here too much"?
She was afraid he might get soft or consider defecting. In fact, he discussed just such a scenario of defection from their undercover KGB lives in the first season.
But not Elizabeth. Russell's eyes literally flash with passion when her Elizabeth talks about the "motherland." And when things get complicated on a mission, she kills for Mother Russia without hesitation.
Philip can be strong, but, let's face it, he is kind of drip. And he does regularly slide into patriarchal Father-Knows-Best-role with their two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), at times when it is all too clear that he knows anything but what is best. Death to patriarchy.
3. “Broadchurch” Season 3 (BBC America)
The third and final season of this sublime series started Wednesday, and it is not to be missed. What a perfect summertime drama with its setting of coastal cliffs in an English seaside town.
Nothing idyllic here, though. The series started on the beach with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer. The aftershocks of his death reverberate through every frame of Season 3 as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Detective Sgt. Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) investigate a sexual assault.
Tennant rightfully gets a lot of praise for his performance, but Colman is the one to watch. Miller and Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker), the dead boy's mother, are the heart and soul of this series.
And it is only in watching this last season that I came to understand how much "Broadchurch" is about community in the face of tragedy — and the dominant role women play in establishing and maintaining ties that hold a town and its people together.
4. “The Keepers” (Netflix)
This docu-series about the unsolved death of a Baltimore nun in 1969 has been the subject of raves here and elsewhere. It is in class with "Making a Murderer" and "The Jinx" — maybe even better given the way it also explores the larger societal problem of sexual abuse of children and teens at the hands of Catholic priests.
As I said in my preview, one of the greatest sources of power in the series is the storyline of baby boomer Baltimore women coming together as a community — both to talk about sexual abuse and to take on the roles of amateur sleuths investigating and attempting to chronicle it.
This is easily the most compelling mini-series of the year, so far.
Based on the best-selling novel by Liane Moriarty, the story centers on three financially well-off women (Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon) and a newcomer to town (Shailene Woodley). Their lives are coming to crisis points in big and little ways, and one crisis touches off another in wave after wave of great melodrama.
The standout is Kidman, as woman married to an abusive man. Another rich tale about women and community.
6. “The Rachel Maddow Show” (MSNBC)
As cable TV's unofficial leader of the resistance against President Donald Trump, Maddow has become the patriarchy slayer of prime-time cable. And her ratings are through the roof. The election of Trump brought a new energy and urgency to Maddow's nightly show.
7. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)
If you think I am pushing this death-of-patriarchy theme too hard, watch 10 minutes of this chilling, dystopian take of a world in which women have no rights, and then let me know what you think. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding — again. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, this is a big series for Hulu.
8. “Saturday Night Live” Season 42 (NBC)
Melissa McCarthy as White House press secretary Sean Spicer was the breakout performance. Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump wasn't bad either. Even after all these years, "SNL" still delivers the keenest political satire on TV or streamed video. I wonder if much of the ugliness at the White House press briefings these days isn't partially the result of Spicer and Trump still stinging from the way they were depicted.
9. “Shots Fired” (Fox)
The fictional story it tells of two racially charged police shootings in North Carolina is compelling. But the production also seeks to capture the zeitgeist of all the real police-community conflicts stretching from the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in Florida and Ferguson, Mo., respectively, through Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago.
This 10-part limited series came close enough to achieving that goal that to warrant a place on this list, even though it did not find enough of an audience for Fox to extend the concept into another season.
The intensity of Sanaa Lathan as Ashe Akino, a Department of Justice investigator, drove the series.
10. “Veep” Season 6 (HBO)
I miss the comic madness of creator Armando Iannucci, who left as showrunner before this season. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus is still there as former President Selina Meyer, and that's good enough for me. Happily, HBO renewed it for another season, with Meyer heading back to the campaign trail. Go, Selina, go.