‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Feud,’ ‘Girls’: Was Sunday the Best Female-Driven Night of TV Ever?
Sunday saw the phenomenal Big Little Lies finale, the big Oscars episode of Feud, Lena Dunham’s best acting to date, and the best night of TV starring women possibly ever.
Big Little Lies had everything.
A tart-tongued Reese Witherspoon, career-best work from Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern in a My Fair Lady hat, the coolest soundtrack on TV, beachfront real-estate porn, kitchen island porn, a character study of complicated women that masqueraded as a murder mystery, and thrilling, challenging, hoot-worthy and cry-worthy direction.
And now it’s over.
It’d be tempting to hold a grudge—and tend to it like a little pet—over the fact that HBO’s sensational series lasted a mere seven episodes.
Few shows arrive so assured in its identity, unfold so engrossingly, and then end so satisfyingly (though with maybe one Elvis performance too many). But while briefly pondering what reason there is to go on now that Big Little Lies is over, we realized that Sunday night was actually a reason for celebration, not mourning.
In fact, surveying all of the series that aired and the spectacular performances from actresses starring on them, it became clear that Sunday night was the best night of female-driven television in a long time. Possibly ever.
For decades now, Sunday night has become the TV night. The night of appointment viewing. The night where prestige television lived. When networks aired their best shows. When Emmys were won. When if you were a fan of good TV, you knew to watch.
Many of the best shows in the history of television aired on Sunday nights: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones.
If something aired on a Sunday night it was a signal that it was worth paying attention to. But over the years, that came to mean a very specific thing, particularly with the rise of cable original programming: dark dramas with male antiheroes as protagonists.
There were, as there always are, exceptions to that rule. Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Downton Abbey, and The Good Wife all thrived on Sunday nights, while Touched By an Angel is still one of the most successful Sunday night programs ever.
But as networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, and, more recently, FX doubled down on their efforts to turn Sunday nights into a TV fan’s dream—and TV critic’s nightmare—with endless options of prestige series to watch, you also began to expect a certain something when you tuned in. Specifically, a white guy doing amoral shit, but then feeling bad about it.
But not this Sunday night.
There was Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoe Kravitz putting dramatic punctuation on what has, at this juncture, unequivocally been the TV event of the year.
Girls continued its astounding creative resurgence, kicked off with last season and extending into this year’s swan song and the unexpected ways in which it is dealing with Hannah’s pregnancy.
Sunday night’s episode, the third-to-last of the series, saw Lena Dunham undulate through the entire spectrum of emotions from joy to devastation in one diner scene with Adam Driver that marked her best work to date on the series.
Dunham gets her due credit for writing, directing, and conceiving Girls, but it’s often lost in the conversation how much she has grown as an actress. And while she has excelled, especially in recent seasons, in her unusual line readings, Sunday night saw her do the best—and there’s really no other, less wonky way to describe it—“face acting” she’s done.
Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy’s delicious Feud: Bette and Joan, his chronicling of the rivalry between Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), aired the pièce de résistance of the first half of its season: a meticulous recreation of the 1963 Oscars ceremony.
The attention to detail was expensive, obsessive, and as ambitious as any more action-oriented epic drama on TV, setting the stage for Lange and Sarandon’s explosive work humanizing one of the wildest Hollywood stories in history. Enjoyable supporting turns from Judy Davis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Sarah Paulson only added to the fun of the episode.
Depending on how early you logged in to your CBS All-Access app, you could’ve kicked off the entire day with another standout episode of The Good Fight, the pitch-perfect spinoff of The Good Wife centering on Christine Baranski’s regal Diane Lockhart.
This week’s episode, “Reddick v. Boseman,” continued The Good Fight’s streak as the series that has most powerfully and explicitly confronted the Trump administration.
While so many TV series right now are being interpreted through the lens of what their content means in the age of Trump, The Good Fight is among the few to mention the president by name and provocatively dramatize how his administration’s policies and general mood, almost in real-time, affects society and the legal system.
On ABC, the fourth episode of the current season of American Crime aired Sunday night. Of the four episodes that have aired thus far, it’s the one with the greatest emotional payoff, showcasing performances from Regina King, Felicity Huffman, and young breakout Ana Mulvoy Ten.
The social justice series is one of the most underrated shows on TV, but the way it tackles immigration, sex work, fertility, race, and privilege while leaning on these actresses to lend dignity to those stories and issues demands attention—this past Sunday night more so than ever.
Plus, Lili Taylor speaks in delirious, unsubtitled French.
And those are just the best of the best. Sunday night also saw Claire Danes giving a typically outstanding performance on a strong season of Homeland—the kind of work so reliably impressive that it’s become expected and often forgotten. Jennifer Lopez’s Shades of Blue is hardly Emmy material, but it’s extremely good at what it is, a gritty cop procedural. In fact, in a sea of gritty cop procedurals on broadcast, it might be the best in the genre.
Hell, even Keeping Up With the Kardashians has been more interesting than ever this season, with more fallout from Kim Kardashian’s robbery recounted in Sunday night’s episode.
And that’s not even mentioning streaming services, where, depending on how quickly you binge, episodes of Hulu’s Harlots and Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and 13 Reasons Why were ready to fill out your already-packed viewing schedule Sunday night.
Even family-friendly viewing is at a high, thanks to Julie Andrews’s Julie’s Greenroom, a well-timed, Jim Henson puppet-assisted screed against the Trump administration’s proposal to defund arts and the humanities.
It was one of the most rewarding nights of television I can remember. And it was all starring women and largely produced by women. That’s a monumental thing to appreciate, especially because of the ways in which the respective series thwarted convention when it comes to how relationships are portrayed.
A simple survey of Big Little Lies headlines after Sunday night’s finale attests to that:
There’s no denying that, generally speaking in the industry, there’s been a rise in female-driven television—whether it’s auteur-driven comedies like Insecure and Fleabag or diverse ensembles like Orange Is the New Black or the upcoming Handmaid’s Tale. This weekend’s Sunday night domination, bucking the trend of male-despair porn on the night, might be one of the greatest signals of the normalization of that.
But gains and progress are, as a recent Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film report indicates, just that: gains and progress. This last weekend was an anomaly, not the new normal.
The beauty of the last moments of the Big Little Lies finale is everything it leaves up for interpretation: Five women and their children, bonded by a secret, together on a beach. One Vulture take on the finale praised it as a “‘ban all men’ ending.”
After Sunday night, we’re more in support of the sentiment than ever.