In a year filled with paradoxes, this might be one of the saddest: 2017 has been a great year for women in TV. But current circumstances sometimes make it difficult to celebrate.
That's because we're in the early stages of a reckoning over sexual harassment in Hollywood that is reshaping the industry in ways that are painful, necessary and tough to predict.
Still, I was calling 2017 an important year for women in the industry last February, long before the #MeToo movement would wake up the showbiz world about sexual harassment and assault. Back then, I could see amazing projects coming down the line for female performers, producers and writers; I knew we were in for some stupendous programming.
Let's start with my favorite TV show of the year, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. Like the best speculative fiction, it takes a topic from contemporary life — the struggle of women to survive male dominance in American society — and uses a fantastical concept to blow it up into a ferociously compelling adventure: life in a dystopian, near-future world where a theocratic government has seized control of the U.S. and is forcing some women to serve as unwilling breeders for their leaders.
This is how you make questions about women's control over their bodies and the effects of patriarchy in politics feel real. Turning mostly middle-class, mostly white women into slaves in a fictional world that looks much like our own, only adds to the impact. The Handmaid's Tale showcases a wide array of amazing performances from talented women, including quality TV queen Elisabeth Moss.
The rest of my best TV in 2017 list is studded with series that not only offer meaty roles for a wide variety of women, but are often created by, produced by or written by women. This year, 2017, was a moment when women had a seriously active role in shaping shows in the "quality TV" space.
Pamela Adlon co-created, co-wrote, co-executive produced and starred in a second, stellar season of Better Things, her FX dramedy on a struggling single mom. (Here's hoping the series will survive the removal of her close, longtime collaborator, Louis C.K.).
Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman executive produced Big Little Lies,HBO's compelling look at five moms caught in a swirl of murder and domestic violence.
Lena Waithe co-wrote "Thanksgiving," my favorite episode in Master of None's breathtakingly good second season. It shows her character coming out to her mom (Angela Bassett) and aunt (Kym Whitley) in a string of successive holiday dinners that mimicked her own coming out story. Sometimes, the banter between Whitley and Bassett was so authentic, I thought I was looking at my own mom and aunt. And when "Thanksgiving" won an Emmy, Waithe made history as the first black woman to win that award for comedy writing.
And the list goes on: Maggie Gyllenhaal as co-star and producer on HBO's The Deuce; Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access; Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on FX's Feud: Bette and Joan;Merritt Wever and Michelle Dockery on Netflix's classic western re-invention Godless; Rachel Brosnahan's Golden Globe-nominated turn in Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
New talent also broke through, including Logan Browning as Samantha White on Netflix's version of Dear White People and DeWanda Wise as Nola Darling in Spike Lee's TV version of She's Gotta Have It. Robin Thede, former head writer on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, shook up late night with The Rundown with Robin Thede — a show on BET that Slate magazine dubbed "Black Twitter personified."
I've always advocated for giving marginalized people more agency and power in the artistic world; you get better and more authentic art. You get work that actually reflects more of the culture. It makes TV in 2017 feel light years removed from the days when the white males of The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad ruled the land and quality roles for women often amounted to well-written girlfriends or wives.
Even the growing roster of powerful men in media who have lost their careers because of sexual harassment allegations feels linked to a greater agency for women, who are speaking up about such situations — and believed — more often. One of the best TV critics in the business, Variety's Maureen Ryan, was a stellar example.
Ryan wrote a poignant story revealing she was sexually assaulted by a TV executive in 2014. Later, she reported two exposés of sexual harassment allegations against powerful producers: NCIS: New Orleans showrunner Brad Kern and Andrew Kreisberg, executive producer of The CW's superhero shows Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow.
I'm hoping such incidents have taught the industry a few lessons. First, that tolerating bullies and toxic people because they are successful can have serious consequences. Second, that there is a long-term cost to supporting a system that marginalizes and exploits some people in favor of others. How many talented journalists or performers have left the field because of toxic encounters with people like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Roger Ailes? How many great movies or TV shows didn't get made? (We faced similar questions at NPR when our senior vice president of news, Mike Oreskes, resigned earlier this year amid allegations of sexual harassment.)
Equality isn't just about being fair; it's about making sure the most talented people can contribute, regardless of who they are. It's simple math: TV and media gets better when the most talented people — regardless of race, ethnicity or gender — can contribute.
The statistics tell us there's still a long way to go. The most recent report on gender diversity in prime time TV from San Diego State University found for the 2016-17 TV season, male characters still dominated speaking characters (58 percent), major characters (58 percent) and major behind-the-scenes jobs like creators and executive producers (72 percent).
It may feel, amid the torrent of sexual harassment allegations, as if the wheels are coming off the media world. But that's only because we have lived for so long with an industry dominated by men and the male gaze. Transitioning to a new time, when different sensibilities shape news, scripted programs and high-profile showbiz projects, will be an uncomfortable, fitful process.
Still, if the reward waiting for us is more of the kind of work we've seen in 2017, I say bring it on. I can't imagine how stellar my list of the year's best TV shows will be at the end of 2018, if women and people of color have even more say in what gets made and celebrated.