The wonderful world of TV drama has been showing us a lot of people we’ve never seen on TV before, from the Macbeth-ian Walt of Breaking Bad to serial-killing Dexter and the zombies of The Walking Dead. But what kind of women has it been showing us?

These holidays I’ve watched all of Series 1 of Homeland, and also dipped into Laura Dern’s Enlightened. Obviously, these are very different shows, in terms of subject matter, tone, and focus of the drama: Homeland is a serious drama about the CIA and terrorists – man territory – while Enlightened is a sort-of workplace comedy that kicks off with the catastrophic end to an office romance. (Those who haven’t finished watching Homeland Series 1 yet should be aware that there are some mild spoilers ahead.)

The thing they have in common is that they are both dramas centred on a thirty-something professional woman who’s struggling with mental health problems. This is not new in itself – the first ep of The Sopranos showed Tony Soprano having a panic attack and going into therapy, and the progress of his therapy was one of the structuring elements of that show. That was interesting because it allowed the writers to destabilise a stereotypical stock male character and open up a space for questioning and doubt.

These shows also destabilise their women, but for female characters, that has a different effect.

There is a new female type in TV drama which you can trace back at least as far as Agent Scully in The X-Files. That show used a double-act that gave the hard-nosed, rational, science-based role to the woman, while the wild, intuitive, emotional, brilliant-but-emotionally-damaged character was male. This figure recurs in shows like Bones, and also in the very X-Files-like Fringe, where Anna Torv’s low-key cool rationality helps to anchor the silliness and scenery-chewing.

Homeland’s Carrie (Claire Danes) is a super intelligent, hyper-work-focused CIA agent who also happens to be bipolar. She has kept her condition a secret from her work because if they knew, she would lose her security clearance forever, so she’s sneaking meds from her sister (a doctor) and her father. Carrie is more of a Mulder than a Scully – intuitive, prophetic, driven, but also less wily than Mulder, more of a hostage to her emotions.

At my house, we’re not quite convinced by Claire Danes’ Golden Globe-winning performance as Carrie. My partner finds her too beautiful to be quite believable in the role; that doesn’t bother me, but I think the qualities she brings to a role are not quite right for this woman. Danes has a solemn, wide-eyed gaze that conveys a sense of emotional depth and an underlying sorrow, even when she’s playing upbeat and enthusiastic – that solemnity and melancholy is the thing that anchors her performances. I don’t believe she’s a woman of scintillating and exceptional intelligence, with the ability to make very fast connections that comes when she is still in the sweet spot this side of mania. I also feel that the character we see onscreen has her emotions so close to the surface, and so poorly under control, that it’s difficult to believe she’s been a successful spook and field agent, skilled at spycraft and manipulation and all those sneaky, slightly sociopathic dark arts. During the series we see her doing lots of that stuff – as in the scene where she blackmails the Iranian diplomat, and talks her contacts into risking their lives for information – but I’m not sure I believe it. Somewhere between the writing and the performance, there is a lack of steeliness.

(Then again, there are very few TV shows which put really steely, ruthless people of either gender at the centre of the drama. It’s the thing that makes Breaking Bad and The Sopranos so disturbing. And the point of a show like this is that we, as an audience, do want the spooks to feel bad about the bad stuff they do.)

You could get all feminist about the decision to hobble a smart professional woman with a debilitating mental illness which, if (when) revealed will kill her career. It’s tempting to read this as an allegory about the woman in the workplace, with “bipolar” standing in for “female”: Carrie’s   intelligence and professional ability is constantly under threat from the forces of irrationality which could take her over at any time. It’s like all the old beliefs about women – that they’re hysterical, irrational, unable to cope with pressure, unprofessional – have been repackaged and rebadged under a new name. It’s not because she’s female, it’s because she’s bipolar. But the effect is the same.

You could also argue that there’s something inherently yuck about the decision to get Carrie and Sergeant Brodie romantically entwined. She’s a  girl, he’s a boy – what else are they going to do but get off at some point, right?

But I don’t want to get too simplistic. The show’s themes of alienation and doubt, surveillance and too-closeness, mystery and suspicion, an uncertainty about boundaries and a mistrust of, and inability to read the emotions and allegiances of others, are the classic themes of the Gothic. Carrie, with her sense of being too open to all these threats, is a classic Gothic heroine. She is enmeshed in a world of dangerous secrets, and she has a double, Brodie, who is also enmeshed in a different world of dangerous secrets. Unravelling the mystery of their two overlapping worlds, and their mutual attraction, is what this show is all about.

The other genre that it resembles is film noir. The world of Homeland is shadowy and malign, filled with schemes and plots and plans and secrets, usually violent, corrupt and dangerous.  In a reversal of the usual gender roles, the character at the centre of it, usually a male gumshoe charged with unravelling some kind of mystery, is female here, and instead of a mysterious femme fatale, the dangerous but unknowable object is male.

Lurking underneath it all, though, is the awareness that even though Carrie has institutional power on her side at the beginning – she is a spook, she works for the CIA – she is still vulnerable and fragile, not only because she’s bipolar, but because she is still a woman in a man’s world. She is an outsider in this world, while Brodie, who is a marine as well as a terrorist, for all his ambiguity, is still a man in a man’s world – in fact,  he’s a man’s man in a man’s world. Which means that the dice are doubly loaded against Carrie. Can she win? The rules of narrative say that she will, but the costs will be high.

Enlightened is a very different show. I have to confess here, I haven’t seen the whole thing, so my remarks, perhaps unfairly, are based on early episodes. Enlightened is difficult to place generically: it’s notionally a half-hour comedy, and the opening scenes of the first episode seem to place it firmly in the comedy camp. (Laura Dern has also just won a Golden Globe for best actress in a TV comedy, which makes it a double win for TV’s crazy ladies.) But it’s not a straightforward comedy, which turns Dern’s Amy into a character to laugh at. It also invites us to sympathise with her struggles to change, to be a better person, and to change her workplace in the process.

The first few episodes of Enlightened make it very clear, both from what Amy does and more interestingly from the way everyone around her reacts to her, is that she is a difficult, high-maintenance – actually pretty awful – person. Laura Dern has a face that lends itself to anguish, but one of the things that the shows is very good at suggesting is how awful it must be to be someone other people avoid; someone who can’t quite help being overly demanding, and whose friendships and relationships all go wrong and you’re not quite sure why. There are moments when you can see Dern’s panic because she’s being a crazy lady, and she knows it, and she can’t stop; and then there are the equally awful moments, as when she returns to work in a not-very-corporate yellow sundress, optimistic and  determined that things are going to be different this time,  when she knows, and we know, that they’re not. You feel for her, but it’s such an uncomfortable feeling you don’t really want to be put in that position.

Ricky Gervais’ The Office also focused on an office monster and the horrors of the workplace, but The Office was a very, very different kind of comedy. Gervais is a comedian of lacerating cruelty, who isn’t afraid to make himself look monstrous. He doesn’t want our sympathy. He wants us to laugh, and he’s merciless about human frailty. The more we see of Gervais, the more it becomes clear that his  early TV creations – The Office’s David Brent and Extras’ Andy Millman – are exaggerated versions of Gervais himself, with the self-importance and vanity turned up to 11, but without the crucial defining difference: success. Gervais found an outlet for his enormous ego; David Brent hasn’t, and Andy Millman’s acting success never delivers the satisfaction he’s looking for either. Gervais’s great subject is the rampant ego thwarted, frustrated, denied an outlet, and mocked. Gervais’ characters lack the self-knowledge that Gervais himself brings to his writing. They don’t change, and they can’t change.

Whereas Dern’s Amy is all about trying to change. The comedy and the pathos of this comes from our awareness, as viewers, that she probably can’t change, and neither will her co-workers. And she certainly won’t be an agent of change in the multinational organisation she works for. The scenes where she’s sent to the basement to join all the other weirdos risk taking us into a much broader style of comedy, where all the lovable weirdos perform their catch-phrases and routines each week. (That comedy can be very funny – just look at Community.) It will be interesting to see where Dern and her co-creators take Amy, her fellow losers, and the corporate world. Will they be able to resist making her more likeable, more conventional, and giving her some wins? Or will they take things in a different direction and make her more risible, more of a comic target? For example, is her vague desire to make the world a better place, and her commitment to self-help tenets, a joke, or something we should take seriously? Are we supposed to laugh at them, or embrace them? Or both? It’s this uncertainty that makes this show so uncomfortable to watch, but also interesting. It suspends judgement, not telling us exactly where we should stand when we think about Amy.

While Carrie’s mental illness has a name and a function in a larger drama, Amy’s problems are ill-defined, general, but all-pervasive. And that’s what makes Amy interesting and unusual: it’s a way of bringing the mess of real life to TV. Carrie’s bipolar disorder is a plot strand; Amy’s inability to stop bringing the crazy, her disarray and chaos, is the drama. This is easier to sustain across half an hour than a full hour. Amy’s stumbling from disaster to disaster could get wearing across a full hour (and as for a whole season. well…)

So what to make of the crazy ladies on cable TV? Do you need to be mentally ill before you can carry a show? (United States of Tara, anyone?)  Cable TV explores the kind of risky territory mainstream network TV can’t address, including a more sophisticated and complicated take on character. That often seems to mean exploring criminality or criminal behaviour (on the male side, as well as Dexter, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, there’s Hung, Sons of Anarchy, and to a certain extent, The Wire, just for a few examples). On the female side, what have we got? The supernatural nuttiness of True Blood, the drug-dealing Weeds.

Makes you wonder what a girl has to do to get her own show.

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