Like Sex Education and Four More Shots Please, 5 shows that are opening up repressed mindset
It’s ironic that the wisest show this year was one that was shackled with a phenomenally blunt title: Sex Education. True, it’s still early days, and soon it’ll have to defend its throne in an arena that is rapidly running out of room, but part of the reason the show succeeded was its distractingly basic title.
Sex Education injected this subversive streak in each of its main characters - from the repressed lead, Otis, to the misunderstood bully, Adam. These were characters who appeared to have been disguised under decades of genre tropes, but as they shed their layers, they were revealed to be frighteningly real human beings.
And in Maeve Wiley, the show created one of the strongest modern heroines in recent memory. An early episode has a fittingly direct scene that perfectly captures the show’s fondness for genre tropes, and the rebellious teenage quality that makes it want to upend them. “What are you into?” the handsome jock asks Maeve, who has successfully fostered a too-cool-for-school aura that makes her all the more attractive to simple-minded dudes. “Complex female characters,” comes her smug reply, sending a shock wave through her suitor. Not quite the lip-biting reply he’d anticipated, one that sent him down a path he - being a man - wasn’t quite familiar with. The path of self doubt.
Sex Education has settled comfortably into the same space that the terrific British teen show, Skins, had occupied for many years about a decade ago. Like Sex Education, its title - Skins could be a reference to rolling paper or condoms, or more intelligently, a reference to the superficial lens through which adults view teenage - was meant to inspire thought. Skins was perhaps one of the first shows of the Golden Age of TV to present empathetically written, well-rounded female characters, a trend that has fortunately been encouraged by the empowerment of female writers and directors.
This week, this new wave of enlightenment has arrived on our shores. Amazon Prime Video’s Four More Shots Please, like so many shows like it, aims to portray modern, city-dwelling women as they are. And keeping with the trend, it boasts a devastatingly dumb title.
Being neither a woman nor particularly funny, I understand that there will be more qualified persons to talk about these issues, and there is a danger of coming across as a know-it-all on matters that I have little idea about. But I understand TV, and so it is with only the best intentions that I list my favourite female-driven television of recent years. And because we’re taking off from Sex Education and Four More Shots Please, I’m going to restrict this to comedies, and not dramas such as Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Perhaps the closest cousin to Four More Shots..., Lena Dunham’s generation-defining HBO series transcended its rather restrictive title and had the courage to suggest that girls can be just as aggravatingly self-centred as men. In fact, for a show called Girls, its most relatable characters were the guys, who’d often find themselves in messy situations of the central foursome’s making. From offering blazing insight into female bonding - the characters shared everything from body grooming sessions to boyfriends - to capturing its characters in their most vulnerable moments - dealing with unwanted pregnancies and unresponsive parents - Girls is mandatory viewing.
Of the many renegade women creators working in television these days, few are quite as talented as Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Her breakout show, Fleabag, tells the story of a young, working woman navigating life in London. From launching into uncomfortably frank (and hilarious) takes on periods, to having the flat-out manic imagination of making its heroine begin touching herself to the sounds of Barack Obama making a rousing speech (while a man lies unwanted and unused in bed next to her!), Fleabag is confrontational comedy at its best.
Surprisingly, sitcoms are a terrific breeding ground for strong female characters, despite the obvious constraints of their form. From Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope to The Good Place’s Eleanor, modern sitcoms prove that 20 minutes is often perfectly adequate time to tell honest stories. Broad City is a particularly loony example of a show that doesn’t gloss over certain traits of its characters. Abbi and Ilana can be positively insufferable at times, but that’s what makes them and their painful desperation so relatable. Bonus points for matching Parks & Rec’s Michelle Obama cameo by bringing Hillary Clinton to the party.
Starring the supremely talented Micaela Coel as a repressed young girl, raised under the restrictions of a strict religious household, Chewing Gum is a surprisingly insightful comedy that isn’t afraid to talk about serious issues like body image and sexual identity.
Raised by Wolves
Created and written by one of the most prominent feminist voices of our generation, Caitlin Moran, Raised by Wolves was a semi-autobiographical telling of her own childhood in Wolverhampton. The short-lived show’s greatest success was balancing a bright young cast of teenage girls and their equally well-written mother - a fiercely independent woman played by Rebekah Staton. It’s a personal favourite, cancelled after two seasons. Even a last-ditch Kickstarter campaign couldn’t save it. Seek it out.