WASHINGTON — The new year always brings new hope, but I'm even more hopeful than normal this January about the 2013 television landscape. Could this finally be the year that, after more than a decade of prestige cable television dedicated to the anxieties of amoral, middle-aged men, women finally get their shot at star billing, both in front of the camera and behind it?
Women have always done well on cable comedies. Showtime built its brand on "Weeds' " drug dealer Nancy Botwin and "The Big C's" cancer patient Cathy Jamison. And this month, HBO is pairing up the Brooklyn twentysomethings of "Girls" with the midlife crisis of "Enlightened's" Amy Jellicoe. But female leads have always lagged behind in dramas. "Homeland" was a breakout in part because of its novel decision to make its main character a woman with a full sexual, mental and professional life, rather than hitching female stars and stories to male main characters like "Mad Men's" Don Draper.
Now, it seems as if the balance is about to shift. On Jan. 30, FX will premiere its drama "The Americans," which features Keri Russell as a steely Soviet spy living and working deep undercover in suburban Washington, D.C., in 1981 under the alias Elizabeth Jennings. FX is also remaking "The Bridge," originally a Danish and Swedish collaboration about the police forces of those two countries investigating the death of a woman whose body is found on the border between them: Diane Kruger will play the American detective, paired with Demian Bichir as Mexico's investigator. And then there's Showtime's upcoming "Masters of Sex," a dramatization of the collaboration between sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson that's at least being billed as a star-making moment for Lizzy Caplan.
These are all unusual opportunities for women to step into territory that's traditionally been dominated by men — for Kruger to take the role of top cop defined in this era of television by the men of "The Wire" or "The Shield," for Caplan to be a visionary on a new frontier, as Al Swearengen was in "Deadwood," or Walter White is in his meth kingdom on "Breaking Bad."
It's no mistake that some of these roles were created by women. Michelle Ashford, who worked on the miniseries "The Pacific and John Adams," is the creator of "Masters of Sex." Meredith Stiehm, who created "Cold Case" and has been one of the lead writers on "Homeland," is heading up "The Bridge."
And they're not only giving good roles to women. It's Ann Biderman, the creator of "Southland," who cooked up Ray Donovan, the story of a Los Angeles fixer, that's actually part of Showtime's attempt to move away from a slate of shows dominated by female characters. (Imagine that!)
Giving more women a chance to create their own shows isn't just about getting parity in roles. It's a chance to bring in new perspectives that can revitalize the tropes of the Golden Age of TV for men and women alike.
Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate's XX Factor. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com. @AlyssaRosenberg