Television fans can go back and forth over whether we’re still in the “golden age of TV,” or if that ended with the “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” finales. But there’s still plenty of great shows both on the air and, increasingly, on streaming services. And the leading roles available for women on television are as good or better than they’ve ever been before.
With the influx of more and more female writers, directors, showrunners, and producers, the narrow space for female characters to operate, is rapidly expanding. Women are no longer resigned to just playing the wives and mothers of the lead characters. What’s more, there are so many more different types of female protagonists then ever, and they’re all worthy of celebration.
10. Jen Harding, “Dead to Me” (Netflix)
In “Dead to Me,” Christina Applegate plays a wife grieving after the recent, unexpected loss of her husband in a hit-and-run. But while she’s certainly sad about her husband’s death, the primary emotion that comes through in this Netflix sitcom is anger, a surprising source of dark comedy. Applegate’s grieving widow hasn’t come to terms with her grief in a way that you might call graceful; it’s biting, sarcastic, caustic, and entirely unrepentant.
9. Midge Maisel, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)
Loud, funny, utterly committed to her comedic bits, and occasionally tone-deaf, Rachel Brosnahan plays recent divorcee-turned-comedienne Midge Maisel as proudly walking the line between hilarious and abrasive that her male counterparts never seem to worry about. Over the seasons of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” we’ve seen Midge come into her own both on a personal and a professional level, as she carves out space to live a life for herself that doesn’t just revolve around her ex-husband and two children. And it’s been incredibly rewarding to watch her career develop, from a drunken stream-of-consciousness stand-up bit to a respected national tour.
8. Ruby Richardson, “Run” (HBO)
Frankly, whenever we see that Merritt Wever is going to be on a new show, we can assume that we’re going to get a standout female performance. “Run” is no exception. Here she co-stars alongside the equally impossible-to-dislike Domhnall Gleeson, as a pair of ex-lovers who follow through with a pact to run away and use a singular train ride to determine whether they want to stay together or part ways for good. She is, as usual, a delight, bringing charm and sensuality as well as humor to the role of Ruby.
7. Anne Lister, “Gentleman Jack” (HBO)
In “Gentleman Jack,” Suranne Jones plays Anne Lister, a British woman in the mid-1800s who is often credited as the first modern lesbian. Her extensive diaries (mostly written in code) leave a detailed legacy of her romantic and sexual liaisons, and thus provide the perfect material for an LGBT period drama with an unusual amount of textual support. But really, the show succeeds on the strength of Jones as Lister, who brings a wonderful energy and quirky sense of humor to the larger-than-life historical figure.
6. Issa Dee, “Insecure” (HBO)
Based on Issa Rae’s critically acclaimed web series “Awkward Black Girl,” “Insecure” gives her the rare opportunity for Rae to put both her experiences as a black woman and her own unique sense of humor at the center of a major television show. And three seasons in, she hasn’t missed a trick once. She brings a quirky style to the lead character as she navigates through the complexities of her late 20s, and has one of the most distinctive voices in television today.
5. Erin, “Derry Girls” (Netflix)
When we look at the structure of “Derry Girls,” an ensemble comedy designed to give each of its characters their own moments to shine, it’s especially impressive that Saoirse-Monica Jackson has been able to carve out such a memorable space as the show’s leading lady. Jackson plays Erin, a young Catholic girl growing up in 1990s Northern Ireland during the Troubles. She imbues her with such an endearing quality that even as her misadventures reach comical extremes, Erin still feels relatable and human.
4. Eve Polastri, “Killing Eve” (AMC)
When has Sandra Oh ever let us down? She’s had a lot of great performances over the years, but the role of Eve in “Killing Eve” feels tailor-made for her. Eve is a brilliant, underutilized MI5 agent who spends the majority of her time at a desk, developing a pretty unsettling obsession with murder. But all that changes when a serial killer comes into her life, and the two engage in a cat-and-mouse game that gradually evolves into an unhealthily codependent relationship. “Killing Eve” is a drama, and Oh plays that element of the show incredibly well, but she creates a multi-faceted performance with wit and humor.
3. Devi Vishwakumar, “Never Have I Ever” (Netflix)
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s performance as Devi on Netflix’s newest teen comedy “Never Have I Ever” is a breath of fresh air, somehow both surprising and entirely familiar at the same time. Devi, still reeling from the sudden and unexpected death of her father the previous year, is determined to put the past in the past and keep pushing forward with the relentless force of a hurricane. These sorts of comedies have more awkward teens than you can shake a stick at, but there’s a manic, loose cannon energy to Devi that makes her uniquely compelling.
2. Shiv Roy, “Succession” (HBO)
On another show, the cold, calculating Shiv Roy might be cast as the antagonist. But as far as “Succession” is concerned, she barely stands out as especially reprehensible among the amoral Roy clan. Ambitious, ruthless, and utterly brutal even with those she’s closest to, the traits that make her undoubtedly an infuriating relative or colleague are exactly those that make her such a delightful character. Sarah Snook brings a fascinating, mercurial quality to Shiv, giving her constantly evolving motivations and perpetually wrong-footing the audience.
1. Esty, “Unorthodox” (Netflix)
“Unorthodox” is the story of a young Hasidic woman, Esty, who makes the extreme and courageous decision to break away from her strict religious upbringing and start a new life for herself in Berlin. Shira Haas is a revelation in the role, beginning soft and gentle and unsure of herself, but with hidden reserves of strength beneath the surface. The quiet intensity and almost inexpressible pain she displays, especially in one moving moment late in the first season, are unbelievably powerful.