I’m typically the first to bemoan the dearth of smart, powerful women on the big screen. I complain about it to my family in the car, to strangers at dinner parties, and to you, gentle readers, in frequent WVFC movie reviews. But no matter how many feature films fail the Bechdel test, there’s some good news coming out of Hollywood. These days, the best vehicles for actresses can be found at home, on your television screen, and there seem to be more of them than ever.

In the past few years, the most diverse—and hotly contested—Emmy categories have been the Best Actress ones. In Drama, two-time winners Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and Claire Danes (Homeland) have by no means been shoe-ins. The also-rans have included the popular and critically acclaimed Robin Wright (House of Cards), Kerry Washington (Scandal), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), and others. Not a shrinking violet among them. And, for three consecutive years, the Best Actress in a Comedy has gone to Julia Louis-Dreyfus for HBO’s Veep.

This fall, the networks have unveiled a number of new shows based on strong women characters. These may be attempts to capture the female audience (Nielsen reports that women watch an average of 40 minutes more per day than do men) or the efforts of studio heads to create the next Good Wife or Scandal. The trend is surely based on economics rather than a commitment to feminism. But it doesn’t matter.

More smart women on television mean more reasons for smart women to watch. Who cares if producers are capitalizing on the next big thing? It’s still a good thing. And two very good examples premiered in the past week: Madam Secretary, on CBS, and How to Get Away with Murder, on ABC.

MADAM SECRETARYTéa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord in Madam Secretary on CBS

Madam Secretary, despite social buzz to the contrary, isn’t about Hillary Clinton (or, for that matter, Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright). The show stars Téa Leoni as the purely fictional Elizabeth McCord, a professor and retired CIA analyst, whom the president recruits after his secretary of state dies in a suspicious plane crash. As the new secretary, McCord must negotiate a hostage crisis, parry with a resentful chief of staff, dodge a personal stylist, and host a dinner party for an African dignitary and his ten wives. And that’s all in her first week! Of course, since she’s a working woman, she also has to diplomatically deal with two teenagers and keep the home fires burning in bed with her husband.

Stylistically, Madam Secretary owes more than a little to West Wing. But for many fans of that popular bygone show, this will be seen as a positive. The dialogue is crisp and clever. And the cast is first-rate. It’s clearly Leoni’s show (she’s a co-producer), but her efforts are well-matched by Zeljko Ivanek as the controlling chief of staff, Keith Carradine as President Dalton, the always impeccable Bebe Neuwirth as the head of the secretary’s staff, as well as Tim Daly, Patina Miller, and Geoffrey Arend.

As exciting as it is to watch a new show centered around an authoritative leading lady, it’s also encouraging that there are a number of powerful women behind the camera. Executive Producer Lori McCreary admits that some inspiration came from Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi hearings. She and actor Morgan Freeman pitched the idea of a female secretary of state “and how it translates overseas, when rights for women are not what they are here” to CBS Entertainment head Nina Tassler. Tassler brought in a writer with a decided feminist touch, Barbara Hall (Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia),  and the series was born.

how_to_get_away_with_murderViola Davis as Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder on ABC.

A great deal of the promotion around another new show is focused on its producer. How to Get Away with Murder is part of ABC’s “TGIT” or “Thank God it’s Thursday” line-up, along with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. The evening is being billed as “Shondaland.” The network is showcasing writer/producer Shonda Rhimes; this has already caused some controversy. Alessandra Stanley, in her New York Times piece about How to Get Away with Murder, wrote, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,'” and added that “Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable.” Rhimes, along with industry insiders of virtually every color and gender, was quick to call out the Times through Twitter. In truth, Rhimes’s shows are noted for good writing, solid performances, and a trailblazing degree of diversity and integration.

That said, the central character of How to Get Away with Murder is black, and she is often angry. Of course, she’s also brilliant, passionate, and tremendously sexy. The magnificent Viola Davis plays criminal law professor and practicing defense attorney Annalise Keating. A sheer terror in the classroom (“I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point, but clearly your karma is out of balance to get assigned to my class”), she selects five of her best students to intern at her firm. There, they learn quickly that the successful practice of law isn’t necessarily about truth or justice. It’s this dark interpretation that makes the show so interesting, even as viewers match their wits against Keating and her team to figure out not only “whodunit,” but how the perpetrators are going to get away with it.

Again, there’s no question about whose show this is, but Davis is working with an energetic ensemble that includes Tom Verica as her husband, Billy Brown as her lover, Charlie Weber and Liza Weil as her associates, and Alfred Enoch, Jack Falahee, Aja Naomi King, Matt McGorry, and Karla Souza as her enterprising students. A mysterious neighbor, Katie Findlay, was introduced, along with two unsolved murders. You get the sense that future episodes will include backstories on each person and that multiple storylines will somehow be woven together. If the resulting tapestry is as sharp as that of the premiere, we’re in for an intriguing treat.

In conclusion, if you’re tired of women’s small roles on the big screen, you may want to avoid the box office this fall. Instead, you can stay in—and tune in. You can catch the early episodes of Madam Secretary and How to Get Away with Murder on demand or online.

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  • sedayedarya August 15, 2015 at 11:28 am

    I like to watch it !
    I am from Iran

  • Leslie in Oregon September 30, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Even though I usually do not watch network television, I have enjoyed the first two episodes of “Madam Secretary.” That is because the main character, in the hands of excellent writers and as portrayed by Tée Leoni, is compelling and fascinating. My only question: why has CBS scheduled this decidedly-adult program to air before most of its audience usually turns on the television at night (i.e., 8-9 p.m. on both coasts)?

    I have reservations about “How to Get Away With Murder.” Its first episode was horribly overdone and seriously implausible. That’s too bad, because the character portrayed by Viola Davis could be interesting…. How about one good storyline at a time?