Really getting under the skin of a fully realized female character has long remained a challenge in television, but in recent years, the brilliant-yet-troubled heroine has been taking a back seat to someone more authentically human, whose personal struggle is no longer peppered in through lazy shorthand ciphers that check the “complex character” box.
This year’s deep dives into the female psyche, as in HBO’s “I May Destroy You” and “Mare of Easttown” and Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” tackle sexual assault, substance abuse and grief in all its paradoxes.
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Why this is becoming a trend rather than just a passing fad, at least according to “Mare of Easttown” creator Brad Ingelsby, is because “viewers demand more now. So, if something isn’t complex or honest, they’re going to switch the channel.”
In his television debut, Ingelsby’s approach was to shape the titular character (played by Kate Winslet) first and let the mystery come second.
“I came up with Mare as a character and I didn’t know what the story around her was going to be,” says Ingelsby, whose female characters in the drama series are primarily an homage to the women in his life. “There’s nothing particularly unique about the murder. What interested me about the story is, ‘How do we make people that feel real?’”
Mare Sheehan, whose repressed grief is both triggered and deferred by the case of missing and murdered girls from her hometown, was never intended to be depicted as a brilliant detective. Instead, she is a resilient woman full of contradictions.
“I wanted to subvert the Sherlock thing,” Ingelsby says. “Mare is dogged, she’s committed, she’s a good detective, but she’s not a genius. I think there’s an honesty about her that makes an audience appreciate her and makes her relatable. When Mare makes bad decisions over the course of the series — and God knows she makes bad decisions — I think the audience is always with her.”
If HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” demonstrates that a character can be realistically inconsistent while still competently driving a murder plot forward, Disney Plus’ “WandaVision” shows that even the parameters of a superhero franchise do not have to take away from a character’s emotional journey. That, however, doesn’t mean balancing all the elements isn’t a challenge.
“One of the mandates was [that] we were going to explore Wanda as the Scarlet Witch, so it was going to be essentially a leveling up of her power,” says series creator Jac Schaeffer.
Schaeffer used the opportunity to delve into the title character’s internal resilience after the tragic loss of the love of her life, while also making sure to avoid an oftused trope of someone needing to come to her rescue.
“It was very important to me that we not go into the territory of the climax [with Wanda saying] ‘It’s too much power and I can’t stop it’ and someone has to kill her,” says Schaeffer. Instead, she wanted to tell a story about “what happens if she can handle the power.”
To balance emotion and action, Schaeffer often relied on lead actress Elizabeth Olsen to guide her. “Anytime I was doing writerly stuff, even when I didn’t even know I was doing it, she would always come to me and cut through it. Wanda is a very cut-to-the-chase character and she is very reactive and very propulsive,” says Schaeffer. “For Lizzie, it has to make logical sense.”
Any early concerns Schaeffer might have had that she would be forced to tone down Wanda’s journey through the stages of grief, because of the action-adventure backdrop it was set against, were thankfully unfounded.
“It was one of the things that I worried about on this show: Are we really going there? How far do we go? This is a show for Marvel. This is a show for children,” she says. “But I feel that I got to carve out the moments that mattered to me. I think all of the writers on ‘WandaVision’ were as invested in the comedy and the spectacle and the emotion equally.”
Authenticity in character quickly takes on additional gravity when the troubled heroine is not only a real-life person, but also a beloved icon. Even when the events of Aretha Franklin’s life read like a page-turner, balancing trauma and triumph was occasionally a high-wire act for those behind National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha.”
“We have got to tell the truth, but success — and the craft, really — lies in the picking and choosing,” says creator Suzan-Lori Parks. “We didn’t want to show every single bad thing that happened. I don’t want to see every single time she and her husband, Ted White, had an argument in public. I also don’t want to whitewash it. That would be a lie.”
Parks and series lead Cynthia Erivo set out to show Franklin’s fortitude, but also moments of despair in a life that was defined by groundbreaking success but equally domestic abuse, teenage pregnancy and social injustice.
“We were really on the page together about how strong Aretha is,” Parks says. “I wanted Cynthia to get Aretha’s, what I call African American Black girl exuberance. The Black women in my family, my friends, we have this, ‘Keep on keeping on’ joyousness even in the midst of difficult struggle. Aretha Franklin is the life of the party, but she’s not a superwoman who feels nothing.”
And the key, she continues, is to not worry about whether the audience is on board with the contradictions that often define the human experience.
“I make authentic Black characters and authentic Black stories,” says Parks. “Sometimes these characters are difficult to swallow and to understand, but I’m going to tell the real authentic story beats of this woman’s life and let the understanding of, ‘She’s a complicated character’ come from that.”
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