If You’re a Woman in TV, 4 is the Magic Number

After weeks of cancellation speculation, Netflix announced last month that they would be ending their original series GLOW after an upcoming fourth season. The Emmy award-winning wrestling dramedy, which follows a group of down-on-their-luck actors in 1980s Los Angeles, has been praised for its talented ensemble and their high-flying stunts, as well as its exploration of how Hollywood perpetuates racial stereotypes. Although GLOW’s three seasons have been met with critical acclaim, the announcement that the show’s fourth season would be its final was largely met with a resigned appreciation. Fans and critics alike took to social media to applaud a show with concise storytelling that knows itself well enough to know when to end.

There’s something to be said for tight, specific, and well-planned storytelling on the small screen. In our era of endless TV, it can be refreshing to find something we can binge in a few weeks, not a few years. Knowing when to kill your darlings can benefit both writer and viewer, and if the golden age of mini and limited series has proven anything, it’s that fans can get over the sadness or supposed premature ending and move on to the next big thing.

But even if you prefer your shows limited—whether they were planned to be from the beginning or wrapped up nicely after a handful of years—it’s important to take a step back and examine how this trend affects women in the industry. Why is it that shows created by, marketed to, or about the complex lives of women tend to get the axe so early?

Sometimes creators pitch a show with a set number of seasons in mind. That’s what Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna said of their musical dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which wrapped on the CW this year: they had always planned to depict four different stages of the protagonist’s life before putting her to bed. Even though the show was successful, garnering media attention for its honest portrayal of mental illness and launching a musical tour, Bloom and McKenna stuck to their plan. The rise in American popularity for the British series Fleabag, which brought creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge multiple Emmys last month, has prompted journalists and studios to ask Waller-Bridge to prolong it. Waller-Bridge, who originally wrote the comedy as a play, has been resolute in her commitment to leave it be.

While Bloom and McKenna talked about the overarching plan for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before the official announcement of their cancellation, the creators of GLOW, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, have not publicly stated that the show was meant to be four seasons (some believe the magic number four is simply a Netflix preference). Jennie Snyder Urman, show-runner of CW gem Jane the Virgin, said in an interview that she had planned the telenovela-inspired show to be four seasons, then later adjusted to five, but then again, that could have been simply saving face after cancellation.

Both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin follow young women through experiences both heightened (like getting accidentally artificially inseminated, or bursting into spontaneous choreographed musical numbers) and grounded (navigating friendships, mothers, marriage, depression, grief). Both shows were critically acclaimed in their early seasons, and both leads garnered the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a musical or comedy in their rookie seasons. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showcased unprecedented representation of mental illness, exploring everything from the adjustment to antidepressants to psychiatric breaks, gaslighting and abuse, and suicidal ideation. Jane the Virgin balanced its telenovela twists and turns with emotional sincerity, and has been praised for its authentic depictions of abortion and the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Despite accolades from various corners of the pop culture media world—New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum says that Jane the Virgin inspired her book of essays—, both shows ran for five years or less, with only Jane hitting the 100-episode threshold often needed for syndication.

And this isn’t an inherently bad thing. Like with GLOW, polished characters and storytelling served CXG and Jane throughout their runs, and neither show suffered much from the mid-series lull so common to even the most popular or highly-rated shows. Snyder Urman claimed to have stuck to her original ending concept over the years, which may have been more difficult if the show had continued longer; Jane’s finale was incredibly well-received, while the 2014 finale of How I Met Your Mother, which the creators had planned from the comedy’s first season, was met with widespread backlash after nine years of character development.

But in this pop cultural battle for better storytelling, women seem to have lost the war. Shows by us and for us have borne the brunt of it, and cancelling only or primarily women-created shows in the name of tighter TV is just institutional misogyny dressed up in new clothes. TNT announced this month that Claws, the Rashida Jones-produced show about the tolls of violence in a working class community, will end after an upcoming fourth season, adding to the massacre of shows with diverse casts that tell difficult stories.

It would be naive to pretend the game has changed all that much, that women are allowed to experiment, adapt, or grow their creative content the way men are. There’s more TV than ever before, in more forms than ever before, but men still overwhelmingly dominate. The fact that a woman (and woman of colour at that), the incomparable Shonda Rhimes, is behind the longest running prime-time medical series is an anomaly; Rhimes’ success represents an outlier, not a trend (if you’re counting off women TV creators on your fingers right now, that’s probably because the amount of men who make TV exceeds the capacity of human memory). Of the six longest running prime-time shows still airing, only one (Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy) was created by a woman. 322 scripted series aired in the first six months of 2019, with analysts predicting that the industry will reach 500 by year’s end; the latest available data suggests that between 22 and 23% of broadcast or cable scripted series were created by women, with roughly 35% of digital scripted series created by women. This means that if there are 500 scripted series in 2019, 390 of them will have been created by men. TV continues to adhere to niche marketing models, grouping women creators and consumers as a monolith and placating us with a sort of slow-but-steady mentality.

What about the shows that seem to ramble on and on, exhausting their premises and plots? The Big Bang Theory, created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, concluded last season after twelve years, despite near-constant criticism of its unintentionally cringe-worthy comedy and its gender, racial, and neurodivergent stereotypes. Supernatural, a show created by Eric Kripke that is known for depicting graphic and often sexualised violence against women and people of colour, is set to end in 2020 after 15 seasons. And CBS, one of the parent companies of the CW, has seen key players in its long-running shows alleged of harassment and assault. Criminal Minds director of photography Greg St. Johns is facing a sexual harassment lawsuit after multiple crew members allegedly filed complaints; St. Johns was allowed to work on the show throughout 2018 despite a state investigation, and it is unclear if he will return for the 15th season. Earlier this year, NCIS actor Pauley Perrette alleged that her former co-star Mark Harmon was involved in the assaults that caused her to leave the show; NCIS is the second-longest running scripted prime-time series still airing. The only longer-running scripted prime-time show still on is NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show about sex crimes mostly perpetrated against women.

It’s easy to feel discouraged by the data about women in film and TV: we take two steps forward, then someone pushes us one step back. The idea that the #MeToo movement or what some have dubbed “cancel culture” has ruined the lives of men in the industry accused of misconduct is simply inaccurate (seriously, just look at CBS), and it’s common knowledge that men in the entertainment field are given more second chances than women. The achievements of women in TV should not be dismissed or belittled, no matter how long our shows run, but it would be a false reassurance to suggest that the accomplishments of a select few mirror the progress of all. I’d like a world where women-created series are allowed to continue for upwards of ten years, even when some seasons aren’t as strong as others. Better yet, I’d like a world where we allow ourselves to pitch our work that way.


by Amelia Merrill

Amelia Merrill is a writer and theatre artist from Baltimore, Maryland. An aspiring screenwriter, Amelia is a senior at Dickinson College studying Theatre Arts and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is an ambassador for Alma, where she writes about Jewish culture. Her favorite films include Love & MercyMarie Antoinette, and Cléo de 5 à 7. You can follow her on Twitter @Miajmerrill.

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