How Women Finally Got The Airtime They've Long Deserved On Primetime

If you’ve so much as turned on your television in the last six months, at some point, you are guaranteed to have seen a primetime drama anchored by a strong female lead.

While some may lament the demise of broadcast television, there is much to be said about is happening to the previously unserious role of women.

I know that Netflix does not count as “primetime,” but I’ll assume most of us are watching our favorite binge-worthy shows between 7 pm and 10 pm on weeknights (when we’re not devoting whole Saturday afternoons to marathons).

Therefore, we're slotting them into our lives the way we do with any other evening TV show (which, thanks to DVR, also provides us Saturday marathoning optionality).

That said, the sheer number of women playing main roles on television right now is itself notable, but the development of these roles into power characters and strong women with dynamic, complex stories and personalities, is one of the real triumphs of today's television landscape.

In previous eras, we were treated to women as sidekicks, wives and girlfriends, spunky and colorful, like the women of "Friends" or "How I Met Your Mother," but lacking in depth and certainly in strength.

Yet now, from Olivia Pope of "Scandal" pulling the strings behind the political scene in Washington, to Alicia Florrick of "The Good Wife" running for State’s Attorney of Illinois, an office formerly held by her unfaithful husband, these characters are not only real, they’re spectacular.

Add to the fold the tenacious and pragmatic "Madam Secretary" Elizabeth McCord, and you would be forgiven for thinking our entire public policy sector were run by intelligent, charismatic, flawlessly dressed women. (Oh, if only.)

Annalise Keating on "How to Get Away with Murder" gives us a taste of the more complex heroine — flawed and sinful and secretive — by being a quasi-villain you just can’t help but root for. And, who can talk about Frank Underwood without discussing Claire?

To speak of one is to speak of the other, and "House of Cards" would be hollow, perhaps even unwatchable, without the power of Claire’s ambition, cunning and desire, all rolled into one incredibly complicated (misunderstood, impossible to understand) character.

"Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," the latest of these TV super heroines, puts to test the idea that powerful women can also provide the impetus for a titillating comedy series.

It is the enduring strength of Kimmy, after a decade and a half of what we, as an audience, can only imagine as the most appalling, traumatic and psychologically damaging experience a person could undergo, that allows her to see the world with fresh eyes and free of the contemporary cynicism that defines most of our lives.

Kimmy is not only optimistic about her future, but in finding the good in every person, too.

Her shenanigans are silly, plot lines goofy and unrealistic, but the character who pulls the show together is, in a novel way, an emotionally powerful and inspirational woman.

Even "New Girl" Jessica Day anchors her show because despite her zany, off-the-wall sensibilities, she is still saner and stronger than the other residents of her apartment: three insecure men who are socially and professionally incompetent.

Looking back over the last two decades of television, it is encouraging to see the trend of engrossing women taking over primetime.

These women aren’t Debra from "Everybody Loves Raymond," or even Elaine from "Seinfeld," though those characters were nonetheless entertaining.

The new TV women have experienced painful divorces, abortions, sexual assaults, abduction, torture and imprisonment. They run for and have been appointed to political offices, or are the puppet masters behind the elections of others.

They run drug rings, homicide investigations and international summits.

And, the point of these shows is not that they are women (with the exception perhaps of "Madam Secretary," which makes its own feminist point about women in power), but that they are great characters and powerful people who happen to be women.

Shows of the last decade that featured prominent female characters tended to be for women and about women. They were soap opera dramas like "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey’s Anatomy."

Supporting roles, like that of CJ Cregg on "The West Wing," gave us a taste of powerful women who are given prominent placement and taken seriously by not only on-screen fellows, but by the audience as well.

Over time, we’ve reached a point of perfect combination: great female characters at the forefront of shows that generate wide appeal and succeed in primarily lead actresses driving them.

A debt here is owed to Shonda Rhimes, who, after all, began her television writing career by giving us the enigmatic characters of "Grey’s Anatomy," whom we could simultaneously root for and despise.

There was Meredith Grey, who was brilliant and asinine all at once — a self-acknowledged “dark and twisty,” yet a hopeless romantic; Christina Yang, who was ambitious and unapologetically ruthless, but a generous and understanding friend; Callie Torres, who was idealistic but damaged, sexuality-questioning but steadfast in her ultimate life goals.

Compared to the handsome eye candy ensemble of the male characters in the show, these women were multi-dimensional and intriguing, laying the groundwork for this current era’s explosion of female characters with layered personalities, desires and motivations.

Ms. Rhimes took her talents further by giving us Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, potentially two of the greatest female characters ever written.

These shows are not only becoming commonplace, but extremely popular. In the weeks leading up to the NCAA basketball tournament (which tends to dominate television viewership this time of year), four of the top 20 network TV shows were dramas featuring female lead characters: "Scandal," "Grey’s Anatomy," "Madam Secretary" and "The Good Wife." (Source: Nielsen)

And, these shows are more than popular — they have proved to have staying power as well.

Wrapping up their fourth season, 10 season and sixth season respectively, "Scandal," "Grey’s" and "Good Wife" are three of the most enduring dramas on television today.

It begs the question whether the success of such shows is due primarily to the influence of women as television viewers. Beginning in 2012, Nielsen data showed that women watch more 40 minutes more TV per day than men.

Add to that a Boston Consulting Group study that showed women make 73 percent of household purchasing decisions, and you can begin to understand why so much network programming appears to be skewed toward women; it’s the audience which advertisers most want to be tuning in.

But is it only women watching these shows?

Despite the financial necessity of providing content to a core audience with high purchasing power, what most of these series show is that we are, as a culture, increasingly comfortable with women in power positions.

How far we've come from the days of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," with plucky women trying to make it in the big bad world, or the screwball women sitcoms like, "Suddenly Susan" and "Caroline in the City," which made the same point, with a depressing 20 years in between. The only bright spot of which was Candice Bergen’s phenomenally on-point "Murphy Brown."

Not only is it fascinating to see women leading in roles that are smart and powerful, but we are also witnessing a trend against the old adage that there are no good roles in Hollywood for women over 35.

Audiences appear to feel differently, as they tune in weekly to see 38-year old Kerry Washington, and Téa Leoni, Viola Davis and Julianna Margulies — who are all in their late 40s — kicking ass and taking names.

Seeing women as heart surgeons and ambassadors, strategizing, calculating and working around social, political and institutional barriers in the world’s halls of power is an encouraging sign for how we view women in our own society.

Is art imitating life? Is life imitating art? Either way, it seems like a healthy trajectory to me.

We now have women in big-budget primetime television shows who are not the usual one-dimensional, completely predictable wives and mothers we’re used to seeing on sitcoms or in ancillary and almost equally predictable roles on television dramas.

They alive, dammit!

Now here’s hoping someone can convince Jennifer Garner to do an "Alias" reboot.