Monday, 17 December 2012

Live-Action Television Recommendations

Once Upon a Time

First things first: this show is probably the best thing to arise from Hollywood’s recent obsession with fairy tales. Seriously.

Once Upon a Time (created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, of Lost and Tron: Legacy fame) takes place in the fictional town of Storybrooke, Maine, a town populated entirely by characters from various fairy tales who have been banished from their homeland and can’t remember a thing about their past lives - the result of a curse laid on them by the evil Queen-cum-mayor, Regina. The town’s only hope of having the curse broken lies with Emma Swan, bail bondswoman, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, biological mother of Regina’s adopted son Henry, and skeptic. Each episode focuses on a selected character’s actions in present-day Storybrooke, paralleled by that character’s back story, ultimately revealing the characters’ connections both to each other and to the curse.

The awesome thing about this show is that it’s full of, well, awesome female characters. According to Wikipedia, eleven out of twenty-one main and secondary characters are female. Kitsis and Horowitz have done an amazing job with steering the women of the show away from traditional damsel in distress roles and firmly into strong female character territory. Along with Emma and Regina, there’s Snow White, the ex-forest bandit; Mulan, a warrior who guided Prince Philip to the princess he rescued; and Aurora, who (in a refreshing change of trope) is motivated into action by the death of a male. Throw in some realistic and positive portrayals of relationships between women, and I think we have a winner.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Popular culture tends to remember the Terminator movies in terms of lines spoken by the title character. Although the films have been immortalized in endless repetitions of “Hasta la vista, baby” and “I’ll be back” and even “Come with me if you want to live,” we think that the most important contribution the Terminator franchise has made to society comes in the person of Sarah Connor.

In the original films, Sarah Connor is a modern-day Mary, a woman fated to become the mother of humanity’s saviour in the future war between humans and robots. In order to prepare her son, John, for his destiny, she makes herself into his mentor and example. While the third and fourth films focus on John, the television show expands its own focus to explore the character of Sarah as she struggles to train a reluctant chosen one and, if possible, destroy Skynet before it brings about the robotic apocalypse.

In addition to Sarah and John, the show features Cameron, a Terminator who is sometimes a little too human. The complicated relationship between Cameron and Sarah is one of the show’s major achievements; both of them seek to keep John safe, but Sarah cannot help but be suspicious of a robot programmed to protect a man who will eventually lead the fight against robots. The show is a rather philosophical addition to the franchise, using its episodic structure to address issues of fate and human nature that were less profoundly explored in the films. Unfortunately, it was a victim of the writers’ strike and Fox’s whims, so there are only thirty-one episodes to enjoy.

The Good Wife

I have to begin this recommendation by admitting that all of my knowledge about The Good Wife comes from fannish osmosis and watching the first season. It’s the show I’ve always intended to see, but never (until recently) managed to catch. Fortunately, I recently began watching it, just in time for it to make its way onto my Christmas list.

The show takes as its focus a wife wronged when her politician husband is caught frequenting prostitutes. After her husband, the Cook County State’s Attorney, goes to prison, Alicia Florrick returns to work as a lawyer to make ends meet. Hired at the law firm of Stern, Lockhart, & Gardner while the effects of the 2008 financial crisis were still being keenly felt, Alicia quickly learns that she will be in competition with another junior associate for a single position. In order to win cases and secure this job, she must use her husband’s connections, no matter how reluctant she is to do so.

What makes this show stand out is the care with which each and every female character is crafted. The principal women, Alicia, Kalinda Sharma, and Diane Lockhart, are all compelling characters who take control of their own lives. This depth of characterization extends as far as one-time characters. It is very rare for any woman on the show to come across as anything less than a genuine person. Given, it seems only right that a show that revolves around a figure like the politician’s wife, often silenced or censored for the good of her husband’s career, would make a point of giving every woman it features a voice.

Dead Like Me

This is the opening credits sequence from Dead Like Me. Watch it. If that doesn’t convince you to track it down immediately, you may as well stop reading now.

Created by Bryan Fuller, the man behind the whimsical, gone-too-soon Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me tells the story of George Lass, an eighteen-year-old girl killed by a toilet seat as it fell from the de-orbiting Mir space station. But, as in all shows where the protagonist is killed in the first episode, death is only the beginning. George learns that she is now a Grim Reaper and must collect an unknown quota of souls before she can move on to the “great beyond.” Of course, moving on -- from this world and from her family -- is a lot harder than it seems. Luckily, there’s a whole new dysfunctional reaper family to take George in and teach her how to go on living now that she’s dead.

Like Bryan Fuller’s other shows, Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me is full of excellent female characters. In fact, based on my calculations, the ratio of women to men among the main cast is something like 7:2. Among George’s fellow reapers are the fearless Betty, the badass Roxy, and the melodramatic Miss Daisy Adair. In addition to her new job, the show focuses on George’s family, particularly her mother and sister, as they try to cope with their grief. Finally, in her other day job at a temp agency, there is Delores Herbig, George’s endlessly entertaining and perpetually surprising boss.

Bomb Girls

While the first four episodes of the show were airing, I had no urge to watch the Canadian World War II drama Bomb Girls. The advertising made it seem like what Lumpy Space Princess might call “a trashy show for ladies.” Then the Internet told me what I’m telling you now: I was wrong. This show is so good.

The show revolves around the women working at the Victory Munitions bomb factory in 1940s Toronto. Gladys, a wealthy young woman with a need to prove herself outside the boundaries of her privileged life, quickly parlays a position in the office into a job making bombs on the factory floor. There she meets Lorna, the shift matron coping with her husband’s emotional neglect and her two sons’ potential deaths overseas; Betty, the model worker who struggles with her inability to live a model (heterosexual) life; Kate, the mysterious new girl whose identity is a lie concocted to help her escape her abusive father; Edith, Lorna’s right-hand woman; and Vera, the group’s social butterfly, particularly social with the men left at home. Together, they must learn to enjoy their new freedoms and challenge the old rules.

This show is the cure for the common costume drama. It doesn’t use the historical setting in order to excuse and perpetuate sexist attitudes. Instead, it uses the situations of yesteryear in order to address the problems of today. I personally fell irrevocably in love the moment it became clear that they were going to address the media’s representation of women (with particular emphasis on the concepts of heteronormativity and the male gaze) in the world of the show. Yes, that is an actual thing that happened and yes, it was glorious. If you like reading this blog, you’ll almost certainly like this show.


  1. Can't wait for the new season of Bomb Girls to air this January; it's so good. Once Upon a Time is also a great show with all it's different Princesses. Even the "evil" characters have complicated and compelling back stories that don't ruin their evilness (unlike Darth Vader).

    1. Five days and counting. Not that I've had a countdown going or anything...

      Once Upon a Time is definitely on our radar. Maybe we'll celebrate our anniversary with a return to the Disney princess.