The Women of Fall TV Can’t Keep it Together

Powerful professional women pack the fall TV schedule—but they may not be as empowered as they seem


Detective Debra Messing grabs some family time in The Mysteries of Laura (CTV)

About five minutes into The Mysteries of Laura (CTV), a new pastiche of family drama, romcom and police procedural, hardened homicide detective Laura Diamond (Debra Messing) steps onto a blood-splashed crime scene, sinister violins screeching as she surveys the carnage. “This is a depraved, unspeakable act,” she snarls. “Get ready to be inside for a very long time.” The camera cuts to the culprits: her pug-faced six-year-old twin boys, who have soaked their classroom with red paint. Wah-wah-waaaah.

Laura is the sharpest sleuth in New York, blessed with that supernatural crime-solving ESP that exists only in TV precincts. She’s also a Liz Lemon–level hot mess: she frumps around in shapewear, eats old burritos out of her desk drawer and feverishly juggles her work and family. Every professional triumph is undermined by domestic hijinks or embarrassing pratfalls. The new television season is packed with these powerful, disastrous female savants. On How to Get Away With Murder (CTV), the latest project from Shonda Rhimes (Scandal), Viola Davis plays a criminal lawyer, law professor and possible sociopath. Madam Secretary (Global) stars Téa Leoni as a brusque, all-business stateswoman anxious that she’s abandoning her husband for work. And on State of Affairs (Global), Katherine Heigl is the preposterously named CIA analyst Charleston Tucker, a-flail after her boyfriend, a fellow agent, is murdered by terrorists. There’s also a cyber-crime specialist (Patricia Arquette, CSI: Cyber, CTV), surgeon (Jennifer Beals, Proof, Bravo) and judge (Kate Walsh, Bad Judge, Global).

These women continue a storied tradition of troubled TV geniuses—nearly all men, like Gregory House, Don Draper and Walter White. (One glaring exception, of course, is The Good Wife’s formidable Alicia Florrick.) These characters prove their brilliance in every episode, demonstrating subversive thinking, encyclopedic expertise and never-fail bullsh-t detection. But while shows like House, Mad Men and Breaking Bad focused on the drama created by the work itself—the diagnoses, the ad campaigns, the meth empire—these new series stop at depicting the existential angst of being a woman in the workplace.

State of Affairs - Season Pilot

CIA analyst Katherine Heigl meets with POTUS Alfre Woodard on State of Affairs (Global)

On the surface, it’s a triumphant feminist moment. Bad Judge is, after all, one of the first efforts from Will Ferrell’s newly established women-focused production company. Female showrunners are rare, but Rhimes has three shows on this fall. Like Olivia Pope, Rhimes’ PR warrior princess, our new heroines present the image of regal alpha-women, in command of their staff, their work and their sexuality. Underneath their glam façades, however, they’re volatile basket cases whose hangups bleed into their careers.

Take Messing’s Laura, for example. She left her cheating police captain husband (Josh Lucas) but still submits to him on the force, stuttering and stumbling every time he enters the room. On How to Get Away With Murder, Davis’s middle-aged Annalise—who may well be Olivia Pope’s aunt, with her luxurious pantsuits and elegant alcoholism—eases her insecurity by hitting on her students. Heigl’s character, brittle and sour following the death of her boyfriend, insists she’s fine, self-medicating with booze and anonymous sex—but when she has to save a victim who resembles her dead boyfriend, she can’t disentangle her grief from her responsibility. On Madam Secretary, Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord is probably the most professional of the bunch, but even she anguishes over whether her position of power makes her less desirable to her husband, played by Tim Daly. “Are you not attracted to me? Is it my masculine energy?” she whines.

The new TV prototype is really just an update of an old myth: the female hysteric. For her, every case is personal, every comment is a trigger, every confrontation has emotional resonance. Her feelings are changeable, erratic, explosive—and so is her job performance. These shows claim to champion female empowerment by reminding us at every moment that this is a woman in the workplace, as if it’s still a novelty. The office becomes just another setting for the same old feminine plots—romance, sex, motherhood—rather than the inspiration for more inventive story­telling and fresher characterization. As any good management manual will tell you, it’s time to take the emotion out of it.