In The Bridge, FX’s new drama about a Mexican police officer and an El Paso, TX detective who have to work together when a body is found on the exact border between their countries on the Bridge of the Americas, Diane Kruger plays the Texan, Sonya North, whose approach to the collaboration she’s thrust into by circumstance is complicated by her Asperger’s syndrome. Kruger’s had a very successful career as a movie actress, but on a recent conference call promoting The Bridge, she was unequivocal about why she’d decided to take a television role, even though those parts often involve less money and–if a show is successful–more work than a movie shoot.
“I find myself watching the shows like House of Cards, and Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and feeling like they’re better than most movies I watch these days. The quality ofthe writing surpasses so many movies,” she said. “I am very excited to be part of this show. The writing is superb. A character like this has never been offered to me in the movies…I feel like it is a really exciting time for directors and actors to come to cable television.”
Specifically, Kruger argued that cable television is a better place for female characters than the movies are right now.
“From Mad Men, to Homeland, to Robin Wright in House of Cards, those female parts are so well-written and unafraid,” she told me when I asked about cable’s perceived gender disparities. “It seems to me that they thrive and the audiences are looking for characters like that. It’s very exciting for women in general. I’ve never been offered an in-depth character like this in movies.”
That’s telling for what it says about the opportunities for women in movies, where the number of female characters in top-grossing movies just hit a five-year low. Just 28.4 percent of characters in those movies are female. And just six of the 100-highest grossing movies in 2012 had gender-balanced casts, where between 45 percent and 54.9 percent of the speaking characters were female. It makes sense that even an actress like Kruger might feel that her prospects of a speaking part, much less a substantive or interesting role, in a hit movie aren’t particularly good. And for less successful actresses, the prospects are even worse. Under those circumstances, it makes all the sense in the world that actresses might light out for television, where the sheer amount of content in production is growing dramatically, and where longer story arcs require more characters of multiple genders.
And that Kruger sees cable as a particularly good place for women also suggests that we might finally be breaking through the perception that the only way to tell a successful, creatively interesting story for prestige television is to focus on a male anti-hero. In an odd, condescending piece in the Globe and Mail, John Doyle suggested that the weariness with the repetitive execution of that genre was simply the subject of a gender war, a complaint wages solely by female critics who are tired of not seeing themselves reflected on-screen. He was wrong to suggest that female critics, many of whom have been enthusiastic about great anti-hero shows from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, are being parochial about the genre, or that our complaints aren’t joined by plenty of male critics when a show feels more derivative than striking.
But more to the point, the answer to Doyle’s question “Where are the complex women on premium cable?” is, especially in 2013, everywhere! Showtime garnered accolades for Claire Danes’ performance as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Homeland. HBO has the young women of Girls, and an enormous, intergenerational cast of female characters in Game of Thrones. The Sundance Channel gave Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss a leading role in crime miniseries Top Of The Lake. Netflix may have done more to promote Kevin Spacey’s turn as Frank Underwood in House Of Cards, but it’s got women’s prison drama Orange Is The New Black up next, and has renewed the show for a second season ahead of its premiere. Tatiana Maslany’s performance in Orphan Black on BBC America has been so acclaimed that there’s some hope she might overcome the Emmys’ bias against genre fiction. And on basic cable, FX, which is producing The Bridge had a major critical success earlier this year with The Americans, a Cold War drama that stars Kerri Russell and Matthew Rhys as married Soviet spies, and that set Russell’s character as the colder and tougher of the two.
It’s true that even as the number of terrific roles for women for women on cable has expanded beyond the traditional part of a bad man’s wife, we haven’t quite found the female equivalent of the anti-hero archetype that’s garnered a huge audience and a score of imitators on other networks. But what’s exciting about this moment in prestige television is that it’s a time of experimentation. Any one of these female characters could become a breakout. And in the meantime, it’s a treat to see women get to do everything from hunt down missing girls in the New Zealand Wilderness, to meander around New York in search of themselves, to explore their sexual orientations in jail.
In a way, the anti-hero archetype’s become a bit of a prison for talented male actors of a certain age. Riffing off Tony Soprano, Don Draper, or Walter White may be a great way to secure a steady job and to score some awards nominations. But there are limits to trying to test an audience’s devotion to a bad man with charming qualities. And prestige television will be better off the more kinds of stories we can successfully tell about both men and women.