Two Fall TV Series Have Cast Unlikely Women In Unexpected Roles, And It's Giving Me Hope For Television

I’ve spent my whole life starving to see women in strategic political positions, taking decisive action with massive, international impact, making bold choices.
Publish date:
November 20, 2014

In "Killers," Katherine Heigl starred as the clueless and incompetent pawn, caught in the power struggle between her romantic comedy co-star, assassin Aston Kutcher, and her controlling father Tom Selleck. She shrieked and fumbled a lot with a gun.

As for Debra Messing, prior to this year I had never seen her with a gun, although she did wield a mean book of carpet samples in "Will & Grace."

Like most female actors, both Messing and Heigl have more experience in romantic comedies and more traditionally female television roles. However, this fall, both women are starring as TV action heroes: Heigl in the CIA drama "State of Affairs," and Messing in the cop procedural comedy "The Mysteries of Laura."

Adapted from a highly successful Spanish series, the US version of "The Mysteries of Laura" follows the life of Laura Diamond, a single mom and homicide cop whose ex-husband is also her boss at the precinct.

I think this is Messing’s best role since the aforementioned "Will & Grace." W&G’s tight comedy ensemble was the perfect vehicle for Messing, then in her 30s, showing off her acting as well as her physical comedy. Messing graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University in Theater Arts, and got her MFA from the elite Graduate Acting Program at New York University. She has a high level of talent, and the writing on "The Starter Wife," the USA Network show she did after "Will & Grace" just wasn't sharp enough to fully showcase her skills.

"The Starter Wife" was most effective as a miniseries, but the subsequent episodes, as the title implies, positions the protagonist to be forever in the shadow of her Hollywood husband, and ever-stung by his trade-in for a younger model. This is in contrast to a similarly titled show, "The Good Wife," written and structured to be a smart, political, action-packed series about a woman finding herself after the sham of her marriage is revealed.

Messing’s second TV role after "Will & Grace" as a playwright, mother, and philandering wife in "Smash" found her in a better place. Unfortunately, the meatier roles went to the younger women -- the two actresses vying for the lead in the show’s Marilyn Monroe musical. Also, with so much sexual drama among the younger characters, Messing’s own romantic subplot was always secondary.

In contrast, her new role in "The Mysteries of Laura" has her cast as the stealth hottie at age 46. In the pilot, she and her young hunky partner, Laz Alonso, go undercover to a pool party. When Messing appears in a designer bathing suit, Alonso’s character remarks “Dayum! Where you been hiding that?” Laura replies dryly, “Don’t be so surprised.”

While Laura has dumped her handsome husband for cheating on her, he refuses to sign the divorce papers and is committed to winning her back. But he has competition as another law enforcement guy shows interest. While the writing has no shortage of predictable, catty, and self-deprecating moments for Messing as a woman in her 40s, she’s ultimately both the brains and the beauty of the operation. I also like how the younger woman cop who was positioned as an opponent in the pilot is becoming a badass in her own right, particularly in recent episodes where she excelled in the traditionally male fields of gaming (and around the time of #GamerGate) and athletic strength, skill and endurance.

Adding further opportunities for comedy and complexity, Laura Diamond is a single mom of mischievous young twin boys. In this context, we see her battling the ubiquitous sexism of mothering, particularly after a breakup, and she has the inevitable chaotic purse, house, diet and schedule of a single mom of rowdy kids that make for good comedy. This in strong contrast to the smooth exterior of, say, Alicia Florrick in "The Good Wife," whose children are older, and who stood by her philandering husband instead of throwing him out. Florrick’s character makes for a great political drama. "The Mysteries of Laura" makes for a great comedy. The balance of action, romance, and mom humor give Messing a great range to work with, and she’s fabulous in the role.

In contrast, Katherine Heigl shows her very un-funny side in "State of Affairs." Heigl’s role as Stephanie Plum in the 2012 movie "One For the Money" may have served as a gateway from romantic comedy to serious action. Heigl made a strong showing in Monday’s "State of Affairs" pilot episode. The series opens with her flashback of being attacked by terrorists in Kabul, and the death of her fiancé. We later see her drinking and picking up guys to distract herself from the PTSD.

By day, however, she’s a shrewd and decisive CIA analyst. Her fiancé’s mother, who happens to be the President, is played by Alfre Woodard, also in a breakout role. I appreciate how Woodard’s character is not simply colored black. At her son’s memorial, she has the lone saxophonist play John Coltrane instead of Taps.

Some critics have dismissed the show -- the New York Times called it “a watered-down version of Carrie Mathison from “Homeland.” The LA Times complains “the more amped-up the action…the more hilarious ‘State of Affairs’ becomes.” Overall, the LA Times calls the show “uneven” and ends with several quotes from the cemetery scene where Heigl and Woodard’s characters vow to get revenge on the terrorist who killed the man they both loved.

However, I think the critic missed the most important line: “His death will make killers out of both of us,” Woodard’s character says. I love how this line acknowledges that, unlike men in action stories, women are not socialized towards violent solutions. We have been socialized to be rescued and to wait for men to take action.

There have been women in cop shows since the ’60s. The stakes in these shows are about keeping the streets of the neighborhood or city safe. But women are just beginning to appear widely in spy shows and high voltage political dramas. These shows are about keeping the nation and the world safe. In this context, I also love Keri Russell in "The Americans," because the series portrays her as passionate in her vision of making the world right.

These characters represent some of the highest corridors of power, and women in the US are still just beginning to gain entrance to these positions in real life. At the end of the day, I can forgive a few over-the-top action scenes or clichéd dialogue or convoluted plots.

Up until the recent generation of shows with women protagonists, I’ve spent my whole life starving to see women in strategic political positions, taking decisive action with massive, international impact, making bold choices. I want to see our scope of decision-making stretch beyond wearing white or ecru for our wedding, and to be measuring the impact of our actions for generations to come beyond a personal decision about whether or not to have kids. These more traditionally female stories are also important, but they shouldn’t be the only stories we tell about women.

That hunger I have to see powerful women on the screen will allow me to forgive Piper Perabo in USA Network’s "Covert Affairs" for always wearing in high heels to every spy job, and Kerry Washington in "Scandal" for gazing doe-eyed into the camera a lot, and now to give the benefit of the doubt to "State of Affairs." Because the bottom line is that these women are high-powered and excellent at their work. As Olivia Pope puts it, “it’s handled.”

The show I cannot forgive, however, is "Revenge," for that very same reasons. Emily Thorne, the badass girl, came to the Hamptons in the first season to avenge her father’s death. She was off to a good start, and really the show would have been fabulous as a miniseries. However, in order to keep the show going, the plot twists have become more and more absurd. Perhaps I could even forgive that. I certainly accept certain absurdity in other shows. But what soured me for "Revenge" is the basic fact that every episode that continues past the first season, every new dramatic complication, is a testament to the protagonist’s failure to seal the deal. She’s not a closer. She’s like the 1970s comic characters, Gilligan and company, in every new episode with a zany new plan to to get off the island and always failing. The show has no sense of comedy, but she’s become a joke.

As the non-traditional writing of women as TV action heroes continues to expand, I hope we get to see more women break out of the traditionally female roles and show a high level of skill and success. Looking at the casting of Alfre Woodard as the president in "State of Affairs" and Viola Davis in "How To Get Away With Murder," I wonder if maybe Whitney Cummings wasn’t too far off in her "Money Shot" standup comedy monologue when she joked about the change she’d like to see in Hollywood: “Our new sexy action star? Oprah. Bam! She blows some shit up. And everyone gets a car.” Cummings laughs at her own joke and then says, “I would see that movie.” I think a lot of us would.