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Critic's Notebook

On TV, a new breed of Modern Woman

Addict, political wives, bipolar CIA operative and more: TV's female leads are breaking ground with their unexpected choices. Thanks to the feminist revolution and TV's increasing ascendancy, women are allowed to make mistakes without paying the ultimate price. It's all quite refreshing.

April 20, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times TV Critic

A ruthlessly self-aware political wife reconsidering her choices. A sensual socialite facing down an oppressive age with informed good humor. A group of young women so busy defying social expectations they've forgotten to have any of their own. A working mother with a gift for passionate stillness. A recently recovered drama addict determined to save the world. A bipolar CIA operative, an optimistic bureaucrat, a frightened sex slave turned canny warrior.

The female leads of "House of Cards," "Parade's End," "Girls," "The Good Wife," "Enlightened," "Homeland," "Parks and Recreation" and "Game of Thrones" are very different sorts of women who share one important trait: We have never seen their like before. While everyone was fixated by the rise of the television anti-hero, on "The Sopranos," on "House," on "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad," female characters quietly went post-archetype.

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More than 40 years after Mary Richards and Maude Findley made their Modern Woman debuts (and 130 since Ibsen's Nora slammed the door heard 'round the world), another group of groundbreaking women has emerged on television. They work and they parent; love but don't always marry; betray or suffer betrayal but don't necessarily divorce; have flaws, including mental illness, but are not destroyed by them. Most important, they falter, they despair, and then they move on .

Although lacking in demographic diversity — they are all white and mostly middle class — these characters are the fruits of both the feminist revolution and television's increasing ascendancy. Shut out of the new blockbuster economics of Hollywood, the middle-aged actress and the creators of midlevel films have turned their attention to TV, especially cable series, creating leading ladies of a whole different caliber.

How else to account for Robin Wright's terrifyingly splendid Claire Underwood in "House of Cards"? Having made a deal with the devil to avoid boredom, she finds the devil himself boring. Or Tom Stoppard and Rebecca Hall's Sylvia Tietjens of "Parade's End," so different from her literary progenitor, with her insights into the era's sexuality, laughing as she batters herself against the brick wall of Edwardian society. "Good Wife" Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in "Game of Thrones" may live in worlds apart, but each accepts the inevitability of compromise and twists it into a new source of power.

They are refreshing because their choices are so unexpected, and their choices are unexpected because they actually have them.

For centuries, female characters were for the most part allowed two endings: marriage and death. Early feminists, including Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and later Kate Millet created memorable women who often railed against the narrowness of society, but in the end they either got married or died, often by their own hand. Alcott did her best to have Jo March remain "a happy spinster," but in the end, even she capitulated to the demands of her audience. In "A Doll's House," Nora left her narcissistic husband, and that is where we left her — even Ibsen couldn't quite imagine what would happen next.

Now we can. Through characters such as Claire and Sylvia, Alicia and "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), we can imagine Anna Karenina if she believed she had a future, Jane Eyre with self-esteem, Elizabeth Bennet granted a real education and maybe a trip or two to London. We can see Tess of the d'Urbervilles provided legal counsel or Jo March allowed to run away and be a soldier.

Access to birth control, equal pay for equal work and the invention of Lycra are all important hallmarks of increasing freedom for women, but so is the existence of "Parks and Recreation's" Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), an unrelenting optimist with goals both lofty and ludicrous and whose marriage was worth an episode or two before the show moved on. Or "Enlightened's" Amy Jellicoe, whom Laura Dern infuses with all the hope, anxiety and awkwardness that comes with conscious personal transformation.

Being a modern invention, television had a starting point a bit further along the liberation timeline than "The Taming of the Shrew" or Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." Lucy Ricardo was certainly quite unhappy with the limitations of being a housewife rather than a singing star or even a career gal, but she stopped short of throwing herself under a train.

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