A few of the best female leads in recent TV shows, main characters that are well written and powerfully performed.
This Netflix original mini series tells the story of a young Ultra Orthodox Jewish woman who escapes arranged marriage and attempts to start a new life abroad. Not only do I think she’s one of the best female leads, but this is one of my favourite shows ever, it is unique, it is culturally diverse and it depicts the levels of religious faith that people can experience, and their process of finding which level is right for them.
Shira Haas gives an astonishing performance as the lead character Esther, including one singing performance that may make you cry. Her character develops significantly throughout the show, moving from a traditional, old fashioned housewife, desperate to get pregnant to please her family, to an independent and ambitious person on her own path. The mini series is based on the memoirs of Deborah Feldman ‘Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots‘.
Lady Dynamite (2016-2017)
Maria Bamford plays herself in this somewhat autobiographical series about her life and her experience of living with Bipolar II Disorder. The series has a unique narrative style, switching between timelines seemingly at random, using very experimental storytelling techniques. Maria is an important female protagonist, firstly because there’s still a serious lack of female leads in comedy, and Bamford goes against audience expectations of female comedians. She embraces all her ridiculousness, her silliness and absurdity and really gets weird with it.
I also consider her one of the best female leads because she represents various aspects of mental ill heath, with a focus on her manic depression. We see what triggers her episodes, the positive and negative effects of medication, and the way her disorder affects her life, career and relationships. She is an eye opening character which reminds us to keep an open mind with people, since we never really know what they’re going through. This show was also mentioned in my previous blog about great cancelled TV shows.
Ratched (2020- )
Sarah Paulson as Nurse Ratched is one of the best female leads, in a very different way to the previous examples. She may not be raising awareness about mental health or female oppression like the others mentioned, but she is, without question, an absolute badass. The show is a prequel to Miloš Forman‘s film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and focuses on nurse Mildred Ratched who arrives in California and gets a job in a psychiatric institution.
Her motives and goals are not immediately clear, so we follow the character as she becomes darker and scarier, but also at points more human. Ratched is such a well developed protagonist that the audience can switch suddenly between empathising with her and thinking she’s a monster. But nobody can deny how strong, powerful and cool she is.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created and performed one of the most iconic and best female leads on TV. Fleabag, adapted from the award winning play, is about a young woman trying hard to cope with life in London, after experiencing a tragedy. The protagonist, who is only ever referred to as Fleabag, is a complex and outspoken character.
Women are still often depicted as passive, submissive and traditionally ‘feminine’ in television, which is why Fleabag’s personality became so loved by its audience, because she presents a more realistic representation of women. She is never afraid to speak her mind, with no worry of being perceived as rude or crude. She always stands up for herself and speaks openly about sex and her own sexuality. She does all of this while also being incredibly funny and she is not afraid of even being disgusting.
I May Destroy You (2020)
Many of the best female leads seem to have been created by the women who performed them, which might explain why they are so impactful. Michaela Coel created and performed another great example of this with her recent mini series. This show could potentially be quite triggering for some people, so I would not recommend watching it unless you’re emotionally prepared.
The series addresses modern perceptions of sexual consent, and what truly counts as real consent, in the context of casual dating and also relationships. The show has been described as ‘brave and delicate’, as it tries to make the distinction between liberation and exploitation, we experience deeply uncomfortable scenes, along with moments of dark humour.
If you found this interesting, check out our other blog about some of the best female leads in film.