Girl Power: Best Shows With Women on TV Now

Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION
Published in
5 min readAug 21, 2023

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Licensed iStock illustration by nicoletaionescu

Deep in the heart of the sixth season of “Grey’s Anatomy,” there’s an episode that ends with a total girl power moment. After some high-stakes surgical maneuvers, the leading female characters get together for a rousing game of baseball. The sheer joy of working and playing hard together is embodied in that moment.

The scene came to mind this past week when I heard about some good news for women involved in making entertainment, and those of us who love TV shows with strong women characters.

During the 2022–23 TV season, more women held lead roles in TV shows than ever before, according to an analysis by ReFrame, a coalition founded by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles. The improvement comes after decades of “girl power” work on the part of organizations and individual women. It’s taken a lot to get Hollywood to seriously focus on stories that feature strong, funny, engaging, off-the-wall, whip-smart, and otherwise enthralling females. And those tales are all the more authentic when the creative people behind the scene are female, too.

Of the 200 series under the ReFrame microscope, 108 (54%) have women in top-billed roles, and of that 108, 10.5% were women in color. There was other encouraging news about the number of women who are TV series showrunners, directors, and writers. You can read about them at this link.

BEST SHOWS TO WATCH

Some of the TV series highlighted in the ReFrame report are favorites of mine. So I wanted to share the ones that get the “Janet Stilson stamp of high praise.”

“Dead to Me” — Do you find foods that combine salt and sugar addictive? I certainly do. (Talkin’ about you, trail mix and chocolate peanut butter ice cream!) In a similar way, that’s why I love shows that balance really funny comedy with crime. Such is the case with this Netflix series, which explores the unlikely friendship of two markedly different characters played by Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Some of the crimes might seem improbable. But that just adds to the humor.

“Fleishman Is in Trouble” — This Hulu miniseries features Claire Danes and Lizzy Caplan along with Jesse Eisenberg. It surprised me, because I wasn’t a fan of the bestselling book that it’s based on. The author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, played major roles in bringing it to the screen. And I really got on board her TV “Trouble” train.

“The Diplomat” — Kerri Russell is renowned for her role in FX’s “The Americans” and much further back in time in “Felicity” — among many other shows. Lovers of taut political thrillers should check out her performance in this Netflix show, created and written by Debora Cahn. Another standout in the series is Rufus Sewell, who portrays Russell’s husband.

Poker Face” — I haven’t watched many episodes of this comedy crime-drama, but for the same reasons I loved “Dead to Me,” I’m really attracted to this Peacock show. It stars Natasha Lyonne, whose credits also include the lead role in “Russian Doll.” The premise reminds me of a really old series, “The Fugitive.” In “Poker,” a woman with special gifts tries to evade people who want to kill her, encountering new characters and mysteries with each town she visits.

“Grey’s Anatomy” — I’m far from alone in loving this time-honored Shonda Rhimes show that just keeps ticking along. The baseball camaraderie moment I mentioned earlier is just one small example of why it works so well. The series’ reruns on Netflix have been some of the most-watched shows on American TV this summer. One of the reasons it has such staying power (now going into its 20th season) has to do with the strength of the characters, and the people who portray them. I may not like it when certain actors get the boot. But the replacements mostly grab my loyalty. At least they have so far.

There are two other shows with strong female characters I’ve enjoyed recently that didn’t make the ReFrame cut.

“Full Circle” — The Max miniseries, featuring Claire Danes and Zazie Beetz, may not be on the ReFrame list because the main forces behind it are men (creator/writer Ed Solomon and director Steven Soderbergh). Beetz and Danes’ performances had me hooked. If you like mysteries and thrillers, this is definitely worth checking out. It revolves around three interlocking sets of characters who each try to solve puzzles that relate to a botched kidnapping attempt. There were many other standout performances, including Dennis Quaid as a famous chef.

“The Wheel of Time” — The first episoes of this series debuted prior to 2022–23 season, which is probably why it wasn’t on the ReFrame list. And the second season won’t drop until September, apparently. It’s based on the Robert Jordan book series, and stars Rosamund Pike, who also serves as a producer. The fantasy world involves a quest, reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings,” and a world has a medieval vibe, similar to “Game of Thrones,” but without the same level of eroticism or violence. I was pleased to see that the list of writers includes Celine Song, who wrote, directed and exec produced a poignant film released recently that was enthralling, “Past Lives” — set in South Korea and New York.

This isn’t the first time that the roles for women have captured my attention. For some ideas about TV shows to watch featuring older women, check out my earlier story here.

MORE GIRL POWER NEEDED

The results of the ReFrame TV series study were striking to me not only because it included some of my favorite shows, but also because the situation isn’t as positive for women performing in theatrical movies. A recent report from the University of Southern California makes that clear.

Maybe, just maybe, “Barbie” will change that. It’s now the highest-grossing domestic movie in Warner Bros. Discovery’s 100-year history — besting the Batman film “The Dark Knight.” Then again, it seems like Hollywood should have made more progress long ago.

The studios certainly can be intractable. As I write this, the strikes by the Writers Guild of America and actors union SAG-AFTRA continue to drag on. Maybe there will be positive news that comes out of that soon.

Meanwhile, we continue to wait for (dare I say it? oh yes I do) the dunderheads in charge of Hollywood to treat actors and writers fairly — and greenlight movies that spotlight more women. At least the latest ReFrame study has given those of us looking for girl power moments some reason for hope.

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Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.