As you may have noticed, it’s something of a golden age for TV shows about how invisible middle-aged women are — except perhaps, in all those TV shows about how invisible middle-aged women are.
At first sight, Rules of the Game — a crime drama set in a northern sportswear company — seemed a fairly standard example. The company in question, Fly Dynamic, has a management style that some might consider a little sleazy, run as it is by a group of men who’ve never met a 16-year-old girl they didn’t want to ply with booze and drugs. Meanwhile their neglected wives amuse themselves as best they can with cheese evenings.
Luckily, these early signs that we were in for just another well-meaning but dramatically crude homily about toxic you-know-what proved deceptive. Granted, after two episodes, the blokes remain uniformly villainous. But in a rare and welcome twist, the female characters are pretty flawed too: to such an extent that if Thomas Middleton hadn’t already bagged it in the 17th century, the title Women Beware Women wouldn’t be a bad fit.
The programme began, like many a crime drama before it, with the sight of police tape and white-clad forensic investigators. The location was Fly Dynamic’s reception area where a body had been found by COO Sam Thompson (Maxine Peake), who was then driven away to provide the police with a series of flashbacks — including, impressively, to events she hadn’t been present at. So far we still don’t know whose body Sam found, although we’ve been firmly (maybe too firmly?) led to believe that it was that of Tess Jones, a twenty-something Fly employee much given to drinking heavily and talking about suicide.
Tess’s chief confidante was the company’s new HR director Maya (Rakhee Thakrar), who’s arrived full of fancy London ideas about what’s ‘marginalising’ for people. But she too is neatly nuanced: both an obvious goodie and so po-faced that, if you squinted slightly, some of the scenes of her in action could have come from a satirical sitcom.
But only the early ones — because Maya soon learned that the source of Tess’s unhappiness was the unexplained death of her teenage friend Amy after a night out with the company bosses ten years before. At which point, in a more conventional drama, the Fly wives and women could have been relied on to rally round in a bid to bring the patriarchy to its knees.
Instead, Sam took the rather more bracing line that ‘you’re working for Fly Dynamic, not the Guardian’ and that, anyway, 2011 was ‘a different time’ (one where it was apparently OK to seduce drunk adolescent girls). Her objections to Maya’s PC madness were also shared by Anita (Alison Steadman), the widow of Fly’s founder, and by the cheese-munching wives, whose hostility to silly little Tess is matched only by their nastiness to each other.
Of course, it’s still likely that the blame will rightly lie with those toxic blokes. Yet, by exploring female complicity so intriguingly — and by wrapping the whole thing in a properly twisting thriller — this is a winningly tangled cut above television’s usual post-#MeToo fare.
And continuing with highly visible invisible middle-aged women, my big recent comedy discovery has been Girls5eva. The show is produced by Tina Fey, creator of the matchless 30 Rock, and shows the same ability to combine brilliantly merciless jokes with an essentially warm-hearted feel.
The title refers to a girl group of the late 1990s, who’d ‘been friends ever since we auditioned for a man in a motel in New Jersey’. They had one big hit with ‘Famous 5eva’ (‘cos forever’s too short’) before their career hit the buffers with the release, on 10 September 2001, of the follow-up: ‘Quit Flying Your Planes in My Heart’.
Now, though, that one hit has just been sampled by the famous rapper Lil Stinker and they decide to reunite. Sadly one former member — the one who ‘got us all through our break-ups with Moby’ — died in an infinity-pool accident, but the other four are understandably keen to escape their mundane forty-something lives. Not, needless to say, that it quite works out that way, as they emerge into a completely changed media world which isn’t as excited about a Girls5eva comeback as they are.
The result skewers 1990s pop culture and today’s online influencers with equal vigour, precision and glee — although British viewers may sometimes find themselves wishing for explanatory footnotes. It also features several plausibly catchy songs from their heyday, such as ‘Dream Girlfriends’. (Sample lyrics: ‘Dream girlfriends/ ’Cause our dads are dead/ So you don’t have to meet them./ Happy to drive so you can drink/ And tell me again why Tarantino’s a genius.’) All in all, rarely have cynicism and joyousness been so immaculately intertwined.