A brothel in 1760s London might not be the obvious setting for a feminist tale of women wrenching back control, but Hulu’s period drama Harlots does just that.
Starring Movern Callar‘s Samantha Morton, Phantom Thread‘s Lesley Manville and Downton’s Jessica Brown Findlay, it features not only a female-heavy cast, but an all-women writing and directing team too. The second season started last night (July 12), prompting us to celebrate our other favorite female-led shows.
In no particular order, here are our top picks:
11. Grace and Frankie (2015- )
It’s rare to see one woman over the age of 50 leading a TV show, let alone two. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin star as frenemies forced to confront their long-term shared animosity when they discover their husbands have been in love with each other for years. This show from Friends creator Marta Kauffman manages to undercut plenty of myths about female friendship and rivalry, and that — at least in part — is down to the number of women in the writers’ room.
10. One Mississippi (2015-2017)
Comedian Tig Notaro was inspired to write this series after a life-changing four-month period in her own life that saw her lose her mother, break up with her girlfriend and be diagnosed with breast cancer. Aided by Juno scribe Diablo Cody and an all-women writing team, she created a bleakly funny show that’s honest in the face of heartache and small-town prejudices.
9. GLOW (2017- )
This show about an unlikely band of female wrestlers has a large, diverse cast of strong characters, which is no surprise, given Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan is among the show’s executive producers. Like that show, GLOW benefits from a largely female writers room, led by showrunners Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive who cut their teeth on shows like Weeds and Nurse Jackie. At its heart is this question: were the women of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling league being exploited or empowered?
8. Girls (2012-2017)
The show that made filmmaker Lena Dunham a household name (although she did get some backlash for not featuring people of color) eschews the patronizing idea of a “strong female lead,” and replaces it with Hannah Horvath, a monumentally self-absorbed 20-something who’s closer to Curb‘s Larry David — or his alter ego and Seinfeld legend George Costanza — than any multi-tasking superhero. Written by Lena and co-creator Jenni Konner, it also made stars of Alison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet, not to mention an as-yet little known Adam Driver.
7. Insecure (2016- )
Unapologetically bawdy and bold, Issa Rae‘s series offers some uncompromising and hilarious insights into what it’s like to be a modern day African American woman. Having got her start with a web series called Awkward Black Girl, Issa twists her unease into a subtle portrait of female friendship, ambition and independence, aided by a female-led directing and writing team (the legendary Debbie Allen even directed one episode).
8. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
This sparkling new comedy-drama from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is the latest show to center on a female comedian, this time the eponymous stand-up Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) in 1958 New York. Billed as the tale of a housewife who turns to live comedy when she is dumped by her husband, it is in fact an unlikely “womance” between the glamorous Midge and tough-talking Susie (Alex Borstein).
5. Killing Eve (2018- )
Fresh from bowling us over with Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge showed her versatility by penning this shrewd spy drama about two ferocious women (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) in a savage game of cat and mouse. It’s sharp, unforgiving and exactly the female-led narrative we’ve been waiting for.
4. Alias Grace (2017)
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t the only Margaret Atwood book to be adapted for the small screen in recent years. Her 1996 novel Alias Grace was turned into a six-part miniseries by Sarah Polley, directed by Mary Harron and starring Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks, a real-life servant convicted of murder in 1843, in a story every bit as subversive as Atwood’s dystopian tale.
3. SMILF (2017- )
Actress and filmmaker Frankie Shaw adapted her own Sundance award-winning short film to create this new show, picking up writing, directing, producing and acting duties in the process. The result is a dark, gritty, semi-autobiographical comedy series about a young single mom struggling to balance her libido, her toddler’s tantrums, her unpredictable mother, and her own ambitions.
2. Happy Valley (2014- )
Screenwriter Sally Wainwright had already made her mark with dramas such as Unforgiven and Last Tango in Halifax, but it was this hard-hitting drama, one she directed as well, about a female police sergeant (Sarah Lancashire) living with her alcoholic sister (Siobhan Finneran) and looking after her dead daughter’s son that really made us sit up and take notice. She followed it up with a tale of three other remarkable women: the Brontë sisters, in 2016 film To Walk Invisible.
1. Big Little Lies (2017- )
Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon were famously among the executive producers as well as the stars of this miniseries, which had us riveted to our screens last spring. Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz and Laura Dern rounded out the majority female cast, for that rarest of things — a domestic crime drama that treated women as more complex than simply “wife” or “mother.” It was a man behind the camera though, something that will change for the second season when American Honey director Anthea Arnold takes the helm. Oh, and they’ve thrown in Meryl Streep for good measure.
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