Strong Women as Show Leads: This Is Great Television

female leads

What do Alex Parrish, Jane Doe, and Elizabeth Keen all have in common? They’re all strong female lead characters in popular television suspense dramas. Actually, Dr. Joan Watson fits into that category, too.

I’m loving this new genre of series that suddenly appeared on our television screens in 2013 with the premiere of THE BLACKLIST when FBI most-wanted master criminal Raymond Reddington picked profiler Elizabeth Keen to join him in hunting down the world’s creepiest and most dangerous bad guys. The big mystery behind the series was why Reddington picked Keen, and the mystery pervaded the drama throughout its three season run and continues to this day, despite continual hints and suggestions that he is somehow related to her.

This year we were introduced to two new mystery heroines. Alex Parrish is an FBI agent accused of a terrorist act while searching for the real culprit from among her fellow classmates at the FBI Quantico training facility. Jane Doe is a body full of clues that lead to stopping or solving a series of criminal acts, while she herself is clueless to how she was left naked in the center of Times Square or how the tattoos that are the body of clues came to be on her body. Jane Doe is the lead character in BLINDSPOT and the Alex Parrish is the lead character in QUANTICO.

What all these female characters have in common is that they have been mysteriously thrust into a world of intrigue by unknown forces, required to act by instinct to solve a conundrum that deeply and dangerously affects their lives. As viewers, we share in their uncertainty and lack of clarity, as on the one hand they try to solve crimes or stop disasters yet on the other they try to bring light to the great unknowns in their lives. The suspense and the intrigue are palpable.

In a similar, although not altogether same, way, Dr. Joan Watson lives out ambiguity in her dealings with a modern day Sherlock Holmes in ELEMENTARY. Holmes was thrust into her life by his father to watch over Holmes as he attempted to overcome a heroin addiction, while she joined Holmes in his private detective consultancy. He trained her in deductive analysis, while she trained him in becoming more humane. But behind these main themes there were mysteries behind their personal and professional relationship and the motivations behind the father’s involvement. And Joan Watson proved to be more than equal to the challenge a brilliant Sherlock Holmes might face in solving crimes and dealing with ordinary human beings. She was a strong female character able to get along fine on her own, as she proved when during the off season Holmes moved back to London and Watson took on her own detective consultancy. When he returned to New York City, she didn’t really need him, although she did finally rejoin him out of concern for his well-being.

It wasn’t that long ago that it was hard to find a strong female lead in a drama series. Today there are at least four. You can probably also add Shaw and Root from PERSON OF INTEREST to the list of enigmatic women superheroes, as well as Olivia Benson from SVU.

I’m drawn to these new dramas far more than the old-style cop and law shows. They feature compelling characters with flaws and weaknesses that tease out their inner strengths and immense skills, which far surpass the morality plays that we often find in the cop shows and law dramas. Alex Parrish, Jane Doe, Elizabeth Keen, and Joan Watson are complex characters of depth that we come to know week by week, building on clues that the shows’ writers and producers have not been shy to fill out, to the excitement of fans. This is great television.

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