A lot has changed since the movement by women in Hollywood started some three years ago. A new paradigm shifted, rippled through, and filtered into creative processes and we have since entered a new age in screen and cinema where the roles of women have become significantly meatier and moved from side and behind to front and center.
Exciting new roles have been created for ingenue and seasoned actresses alike to sink their teeth in, each one now completely aware and newly empowered, just like any hero story before them. We are now seeing the birth of the new heroines.
A handful of accomplished and acclaimed actresses have made the transition from the silver to the small, with streaming being the new main screen. Quite notably, Lily Collins of Love, Rosie fame, and two-time Oscar Best Actress winner for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank—the pedigreed and the top tier A-List. And then, of course, there is the streaming siren, Victoria Pedretti, who is rapidly rising to the surface with Netflix Hits, The Haunting of Hill House and You, tucked securely under her belt.
Three actresses that star in three new Netflix Originals that vary from the larger-than-life to the out-of-this-world to the afterlife. Three new shows that are as entertaining as they are different, as whimsical as they are deeply insightful—the Gen Z fish-out-of-water fashion extravaganza that is Emily in Paris, the moving family drama that is Away, and the Goth romance that is The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Sex and Another City
Think Carrie Bradshaw, only this time, she’s an influencer. From the Creator of the culturally phenomenal HBO hit Sex and The City, Darren Star, comes a very modern-day tale of a plucky young American girl set out to conquer a city famous for romance and fashion—Paris!
Emily in Paris is totally bingeable. And all 10 episodes go down pretty easy—like champagne, indulging us with very watchable lifestyle porn that feels like a throwback to the time when we could still travel, explore exciting new cities, go out to bars to meet guys, and dress like we’re going somewhere important.
It’s about Emily Cooper played to perfection by Lily Collins who is a savvy social media strategist and, apparently, a marketing genius—a young woman from Chicago who moves to Paris when her boss unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, unable to fulfill a lifelong dream. And she has to go in her stead. It’s the ultimate lazy millennial fantasy where you luck in on a job because the person who worked for it suddenly becomes unavailable, and you just happen to be next in line. And so, Emily’s life changes literally overnight. And isn’t that a charming new development?
So Emily flies to Paris to take on a new world where everything surprisingly works in her favor. Now isn’t that empowering? A girl who can have everything? And she really doesn’t have to do much but post selfies, attend parties, and charm womanizing clients.
Covered in the flashiest fashion by legendary costume designer Patricia Field of Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada fame, Emily goes from frumpy flannels to fabulous confections from French fashion houses as she adapts to her new life and new success in the City of Lights. Field, now 78, quite popular and notorious for making costumes an extension of the character’s personality and narrative, is responsible for a generous part of the fun of Emily’s character, displayed in her carefully curated and sometimes coordinated outfits.
I understand why critics have such strong feelings about the show, commenting about the misrepresentation of both Paris and Parisians alike, noting the arrogance of the lead character for not even speaking the language yet succeeding at every work endeavor and landing every hot French guy she comes into contact with. It can be quite unrealistic and therefore be a bit infuriating.
But I, on the other hand, found it so refreshingly fun and absolutely delightful.
It’s important to note that the show is made from an American point of view, so it is a bit uncultured and unfiltered compared to the French perspective and partial to the American hero archetype. It is clearly a fantasy world we can escape to, created to make us dream of better things—a better life and a better time ahead. I mean in what world is everything handed to you for free and with a French accent? In a fantasy world, of course! Because wouldn’t it be nice to move to a place where you get everything you want, and where every man falls adoringly at your feet?
Sure, it would take an undeniably charming woman to play this plum role—and Lily Collins is the role. She is so current. She’s bright-eyed and waif-like, yet full and sure of herself, and is able to create chemistry with all the actors in the cast—even with her way more experienced nemesis, boss, and femme fatale Sylvie Grateau, played by French actress Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu. Their first encounter kicks off the proverbial mentor-tormentor relationship and Emily is put in her place, an outcast in an incredibly chic and undisturbed old world. But, Emily is relentless. She is the pesky disturbance that wiggles her way in no matter how many times doors are (literally) shut in her face. She simply doesn’t take “no” for an answer and fights tooth, nail, and stiletto to get her foot in the door. And that is what I like about her. She stays true to herself, is unfazed by the seemingly impossible tasks before her, and always gets her way.
Emily commits to documenting her new life in Paris and quite instantly, grows a following on Instagram simply by postings selfies, bread, and flowers. I mean who among us isn’t guilty of posting a photo of food or our OOTD? Emily eventually gets the attention of French First Lady Macron who retweets her. This is where her success begins—through a series of social media strategies that she cleverly whips up at the last minute and at the right time, in the exact moment she lives them. All her new experiences become the catalyst to successful campaigns proving her to be integral to the French agency she works in. And as much as Sylvie resists, Emily persists.
And then there is, of course, the matter of romance. You can’t be single in Paris and not have sex. From her absolutely gorgeous hunk of a downstairs neighbor to the hot young sommelier to the wealthy heir of a fashion house, all have been smitten by Emily’s pushy and pedestrian appeal even when her self-proclaimed “basicness” and over-the-top fashion choices are on full, flashy display. Sacré bleu!
Think Sex and the City only all the men are French.
Gabriel, played by Lucas Bravo, plays her love interest, and he is as naturally charming as the French get, plus he just can’t stop flirting with Emily! The chemistry Gabriel and Emily create is just so magnetic you can’t help but cheer them on even when Gabriel is revealed to have a girlfriend—Camille, a chic French gallery curator and a champagne heiress, played by Camille Razat, who just happens to be Emily’s first French friend in Paris. And that is the only conflict in the entire series—it’s really that light and breezy. Emily tries to stay away from Gabriel with respect to Camille and beds as many men as she can but always seems to find her way back to him—even when he eventually decides to leave Paris.
The season ends with the complication of a newly formed love connection and an unresolved romantic hang-up when Emily and Gabriel finally hook up and Camille still seemingly is in the picture even after their breakup. Will season 2 see the formation a throuple? Little scenes throughout the series hint at this when Camille accidentally kissed Emily saying “Oh I’m not sorry” and Gabriel “liking” a photo of Emily and Camille in bed together. I guess we’ll see…
Part of what makes a Darren Star series very Darren Star are the relationships of the female characters in the show. From the push and pull, mentor-tormentor relationship of Emily and her boss Sylvie—her nagging need to impress her, her complicated mess of a friendship with Camille, and her total dependence on her new Chinese best friend, failed Chinese Pop Idol and Paris immigrant Mindy, played by Ashley Park. If Carrie had a Samantha, Emily has Mindy—her equally effervescent, fashion-forward, potty-mouthed sounding board. She steals some scenes with her singing prowess, tongue-in-cheek humor, and impeccable comedic timing. Girl has pipes too!
All in all, the show is a powerhouse of diverse women characters—a plethora of newly minted archetypes—a Gen Z social media influencer, an empowered mistress, a (maybe) bisexual heiress, and a fabulous secretly rich nanny. Characters that are otherwise overlooked but now given new garb in a world completely devoid of drama and just so full of élan.
And this is why Emily In Paris works for me. It is the well-heeled women that run the show. The men are mere accessories.
First (Wo)Man on Mars
Set in a time in a realizable future, where space travel is normalized and the first mission to Mars is underway, Away is a sci-fi drama and a visually stunning masterpiece featuring stellar performances, outstanding special effects, and a beautiful narrative about a woman willing to separate from her husband and teenage daughter for a substantial amount of time to embark on a journey to an uncharted region of space to become the first human to land on Mars.
Makes you think, especially in a time of the global pandemic, “When Earth fails us, is the search for another ‘liveable’ planet really the next frontier?”
At the center of the mission is ambitious NASA astronaut Emma Green, ably played by Hilary Swank, who takes the place of her husband and fellow NASA astronaut Matt Logan, played by Josh Charles, when he is grounded due to having CCM (Cerebral Cavernous Malformation), a condition detrimental to space travel. Emma takes over to fulfill her and her husband’s lifelong dream to travel to Mars. She leads the first crewed expedition, a Mars joint initiative of five of the most powerful nations in the world, as Commander of a team of five of a Russian Cosmonaut, Misha (Mark Ivanir), a Chinese chemist, Lu Wang (Vivian Wu), an Indian medical officer, a British botanist, Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), and Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), second-in-command pilot.
The mission to Mars launches from Earth to land on the moon then relaunches from the moon to journey to Mars. The entire mission will take three years which means that Emma would be away from her husband and teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman) for three years.
The pilot establishes how deeply in love Emma and her husband Matt are, how hot and heavy they still are even when they’ve been together for over a decade as evidenced by their teenage daughter, Alexis. Alexis seems to have a good head on her shoulders, supporting her mother’s dreams even if it meant not having her physically with her during the most crucial moments in her teenage life.
Everything is a go and Emma is launched with her very competent and very diverse crew of astronauts in an incredible human feat and achievement and global cooperation.
But then, things start to go wrong the moment the voyage to Mars begins—malfunctions in the spaceship endanger the mission and risk the lives of the crew so Emma has some quick thinking to do, risks her own life to make sure that everyone is safe and that the mission succeeds at every stage.
And if that isn’t complication enough, Emma’s husband Matt suffers a heart attack back on Earth rendering him paralyzed from the waist down. Their teenage daughter Alexis puts it upon herself to carry the responsibility of taking care of the family and stepping up to take the role of her mother Emma. She begins to act out soon after.
This becomes the real character struggle of Commander Emma Green as her eyes are set on the mission but her heart remains back home where her paralyzed husband and teenage daughter need her the most. And the farther away to space she goes, the more helpless she feels about helping her family. But yet, her husband tells her to soldier on and keep her eyes on the prize—it is after all, both their dream she is going to fulfill.
The challenges of the mission, the complex and layered relationships with the crew members and the situation at home takes a toll on Emma making her want to go back to Earth and abandon the mission altogether. This is when it becomes a real working mother story—where a woman is brought to a point where she has to choose between her job and her family—only the stakes are much higher and the emotions much more heightened.
Imagine all the working Moms abroad separated from their family who can’t even go home when a family member gets sick. Now imagine being far away in space with virtually no way home… for three years. This is the level of internal conflict the lead character goes through the entirety of the season while being trapped inside a small spaceship for hours, days, weeks, and months on end. Much like what we all went through during quarantine, not being able to leave our homes or see our loved ones for extended periods of time.
But no matter how deep into space the mission goes, the human drama is always, always grounded. And Hilary Swank, the consummate actress delivers every nuanced performance with emotional accuracy like no other. The rest of the cast also rise to her level with each episode devoted to character flashbacks and backstories of each of the five crew members.
There is a father-daughter forgiveness story, a brother story, a mother-son dynamic, and a lesbian love affair thrown into this beautifully thought out interweaving of lives that come together to fulfill the greatest ambition of man—to conquer space and land on Mars.
The series is perfectly paced in 10 episodes, with a very quiet and steady rise in tension, each progressing into heart-pounding action and heart-wrenching drama as Commander Emma Green and her crew face the threat of imminent death at every turn while they chase the thrill of reaching where no man has gone before.
It is unlike any drama I have seen, a story quite literally out of this world but very much hits home.
It celebrates diversity, encourages all kinds of love in the face of the most sophisticated age of human advancement, and puts a woman at the center of the future of humankind.
And this is why Away is something very new and groundbreaking and important. It is a kind of triumph of the spirit that tells of the resilient and the remarkable—it is a kind of show that stays with you always. It teaches faith, prayer, and hope at, God knows, a time when we need it the most.
The Lady in the Lake
We’re all familiar with the concept of a haunted house, we grew up hearing stories about them. But very rarely do we hear about haunted people.
Haunted by the ghost of her heartbroken fiancé, young American woman Dani Clayton carries with her the guilt of causing his death for calling off their wedding a mere moment before an accident kills him, right before her very eyes—a secret only she knows.
She flies far away to escape her guilt, across the pond to 1987 London where she takes a job as an Au Pair hired by wealthy manor owner, Henry Wingrave to look after his nephew and niece at Bly, Essex. The moment Miss Clayton arrives at Bly Manor, she is greeted with a warning never to leave her room at night, a warning she of course ignores, which leads her to slowly discover that the house holds deeper secrets as she does
The Haunting of Bly Manoris the much-awaited follow up to 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, breathed new life by Mike Flanagan. The 9-part series has less of the jump scare of Hill House, less iconic ghosts like the Bent-Neck Lady, the floating William Hill (the scariest of all for me!), and the Toasting Ghost, but has the same gothic story feel and the same somber tone that creeps up under your skin rendering you to scream soundless at the most unexpected moments.
A few of the cast of Hill House return in totally different roles in a completely unrelated narrative including Carla Gugino as The Ghost Storyteller, my childhood crush Henry Thomas as Henry Wingrave, Kate Siegel as Viola Willoughby, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Peter Quint, and Victoria Pedretti in the lead role as Dani Clayton.
There’s something about the expression on Victoria Pedretti’s face as her turn as Miss Clayton that makes the viewer feel so invested in her—she’s sympathetic and quietly strong, a very shaken, unstable, and ultimately tragic character.
In starting her new life at Bly Manor, Miss Clayton carries with her the hope of a fresh new start and the return to her innocence manifested by her devotion to taking care of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. She takes to them rather quickly with a particular liking to young Flora. What Dani (Miss Clayton) doesn’t know is that apart from her, the housekeeper Hannah Grose, the cook Owen, the gardener Jamie, and the children, there are other occupants in the manor that have taken residence there for many centuries—the ghosts of Bly Manor.
Unlike Hill House, Bly Manor’s haunting is not fast-paced and episodic, it is a continuous slow burn and a thematic revelation of backstories. It is not a Gothic thriller but rather a Gothic love story centering on the ill-fated romance of butler Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and governess Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif). Peter’s love for Miss Jessel is so possessive he becomes consumed by the idea of escaping to America with her even if it meant embezzling from the Manor’s owner Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas).
And even with his best-laid plans, Peter dies in the manor under the hands of the Lady in the Lake, the first ghost to ever haunt Bly. But even in death, Peter’s obsession for Miss Jessel lives on and they pursue a love affair—as ghost and living being—with a plan of being reunited in the afterlife and reincarnated through the possession of the bodies of the two children Miles and Flora.
This is where Dani Clayton comes in. Her devotion to Flora meant that she would save her from all the ghosts at Bly Manor even if it meant her sacrificing her own life. And even if it meant letting go of the love that she found in the headstrong but beautiful gardener Jamie. The reason why she couldn’t marry her fiancé was because she never knew she sought the love of another woman until she met Jamie.
The entire series is woven around the stories of women who have at one time resided at Bly and suffered the curse of never leaving Bly because anyone that dies in Bly, stays in Bly for all eternity.
From the first ghost, the Lady in the Lake to its last occupant, Dani Clayton, a woman’s love is both the captor that imprisons and the force that sets free.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a different kind of horror—one that lingers and repeats like a quiet nightmare. It is mesmerizing and hypnotic but the scare is not what stays with you, it is the transcending strength and power of love that knows no death, love that haunts forever.
In the course of watching these three female-led series and the diversity in cast and characterization, there is much more to expect in terms of how far roles of women have gone and still will go. And no matter where these shows take you, whether to a foreign country, to a distant planet, or even to the afterlife, a strong woman’s narrative has become the very new way to tell the story.
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