TV's Powerful, Complex Women

The Emmy noms are in! Here’s why so many of them have gone to midlife women.

"TV is the Wonderbra for actresses over 40," says "Ugly Betty" Emmy nominee Vanessa Williams.
Photograph: Photo by: ABC

The tube is alive these days with acclaimed actresses such as Holly Hunter (TNT’s Saving Grace), Glenn Close (FX’s Damages), Kyra Sedgwick (TNT’s The Closer), Mariska Hargitay (NBC’s Law & Order: SVU) and Edie Falco (Showtime’s Nurse Jackie), all playing powerful characters who represent a sea change from the saintly matriarchs and ditzy housewives we grew up with. “We’re making real women relatable, as opposed to the perfect mom,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal’s cable entertainment. These heroines may have messy personal lives, but they’re smart and complicated, and they look fabulous.

Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives led the charge. When television executives saw the cash brought in by these risk-taking, female-centric shows, they loosened the rules that once boxed women in. “Desperate Housewives was the biggest display that women over 40 can be a viable industry,” says Vanessa Williams, who plays the scheming editrix on ABC’s Ugly Betty (a show executive-produced by Salma Hayek). “TV is the Wonderbra for actresses over 40.”

The women of ABC’s Brothers and Sisters are “a far cry from TV mothers on The Waltons, Donna Reed and The Partridge Family,” says the show’s star, Sally Field. “For me, it’s an amazing opportunity as an actor to take a look at women of my generation. I don’t want to be 25 or 35 anymore; I did that already. I want to have character.”

Law enforcement is an especially fertile area for strong female roles. Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson has been solving crimes for 10 seasons now, and Kyra Sedgwick’s LAPD deputy chief, Brenda Leigh Johnson, is a cable queen. Greer Shepard, The Closer’s creator, says she thought a lot about how a diminutive woman would coax a confession out of a suspect. “What are the weapons if you don’t have the physicality?” she asks. “Brenda sheathes that edge with Southern honey.”

The U.S. marshal played by Mary McCormack on In Plain Sight is more in the Saving Grace mold. “She’s not that likable; she’s got a lot of jagged angles,” McCormack says. Adds Hammer, whose USA Network airs the show, “We don’t see her as a fantasy. A lot of women in tough positions know how to be ballsy.”

Nurse Jackie, which premiered in June, is the latest series to showcase a prickly and fascinating midlife character. Edie Falco plays a lifesaving nurse who pops painkillers, does the right (but not always the legal) thing and has a lover as well as a husband. “She’s like a Robin Hood vigilante doing a high-wire act,” says Linda Wallem, one of the two women who originated the series. Adds Liz Brixius, the series’ cocreator, “We just let her fly. This is where age and experience win.”

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