These days, empowered women are far from a rarity on television, thanks to shows like Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and, currently, NBC’s Good Girls. Which is not to take anything away from those that pioneered the way before, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer among them. But there definitely seems to have been a line drawn in the sand beginning in 2004 with the debut of Desperate Housewives, which has continued to this day, becoming even more pronounced over the years. And what many of those shows have in common is writer/producer and creator of Good Girls, Jenna Bans.

“So many writers sort of write what they know,” Jenna offers in an exclusive interview, “and I think, for me, obviously I’m a woman, but it’s also been a happy accident that I’ve been on these shows that are constantly giving a voice to these female characters.” She points to Shonda Rhimes, creator of many of the series she’s worked on — who she calls “the boss” — and adds, “Shonda would always say, ‘Listen, I just write the world I live and see.’ And that’s so true. I think of myself as a writer, but I’m just lucky enough to be coming up in a time where the people that make the decisions at the networks are more amenable to putting on shows with strong female characters.


“In another time,” she notes with a laugh “I’d probably be banging my head against the wall, asking, ‘Why can’t I get a job?’, because I keep writing these scripts with women in the center roles. So, again, I think it’s been a happy accident that the world is changing, and what we’re putting on TV is changing. I sort of came up as a writer as that revolution was happening, so, weirdly, it’s not something I’ve been super conscious about. But when pointed out to me, I see the phenomenon as it happened.”

Jenna got her first job as a staff writer on Jerry Bruckheimer’s Fearless, a TV pilot that starred Rachael Leigh Cook as an FBI field agent that never went to series. A few years later, she became a writer and then executive story editor for Desperate Housewives, involved with 51 episodes of the series and finding herself nominated twice (with co-writer Kevin Murphy) for a Writers Guild of America Awards. In 2007, she became a producer on Private Practice for 10 episodes, before rising up the ranks to co-executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy and, then, Scandal. In between, she created (for Shonda’s production company) the short-lived medical drama Off the Map, and, on her own, the thriller The Family. This, in turn, has led to Good Girls.

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Desperate Housewives,” says Jenna, “while I don’t know if it changed the landscape, it was the first time that women weren’t just housewives or girlfriends. Their parts were much more realized and full, so I guess in my career span it was the show that started it. And given that it premiered to 35 million viewers, maybe that was a signal to programmers saying, ‘Listen, it doesn’t have to be the hard-as-nails detective with the female sidekick to get an audience.’”

What’s interesting is that as far removed as a show like Desperate Housewives was from, say, I Love Lucy in terms of the relationship between husbands and wives and the idea of empowered females, the ladies of Wisteria Lane still spent an awful lot of time trying to manipulate their husbands, sneaking around and pulling the wool over their eyes. Whereas the trio of characters on, say, Good Girls, are taking no prisoners (well, actually they do briefly take one, but that’s besides the point).

“That’s probably been a gradual evolution, too,” Jenna notes, “and that stretching of boundaries of what we as a society feel that female characters on TV can and cannot do. Cable has definitely bled into the networks in that respect, because before network television was doing it, cable had Damages and Weeds, and all of those really female-leading shows with complicated — and not necessarily morally squeakily-clean — women at the center. That phenomenon has really shaped broadcast as well.”

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Described as a mix of Thelma & Louise and Breaking Bad, Good Girls is about three suburban moms (two of them sisters) who, when they find they can no longer make ends meet, decide to stick up for themselves by robbing a local supermarket. And what they think is a clean getaway is anything but. Complications arise from there, impacting their marriages and threatening their lives. Christina Hendricks is Beth Boland, mother of four and married to a cheating husband; comedian Retta is Ruby Hill, a waitress struggling to pay for her daughter’s kidney disease treatments; and Mae Whitman plays Annie Marks, Beth’s younger sister and a single mom who works as a cashier at the supermarket they target.

Season 2, describes NBC, “is all about our women dealing with the consequences of their criminal behavior. When we last saw Beth, she had just returned home triumphant — her plan to have Rio and the gang arrested, a success, or so she thought — only to find Rio in her dining room, with a gun trained on her bloodied and beaten husband, Dean. As the season came to a close, a shaken Beth was left holding Rio’s gun as he taunted her to pull the trigger and shoot him: the only way out if she and Dean wanted to walk away alive. What happens in the wake of the trigger being pulled will have life changing consequences that ripple through the entire season for Beth, Ruby and Annie. Meanwhile, Stan’s discovery that Ruby and the others robbed the grocery store will test the strength of their marriage and endanger his new position as a police officer, especially when FBI Agent Jim Turner uncovers Stan’s connection to the women.”

What’s really interesting about the series, especially when talking about the idea of empowered women, is the fact that there is a constant shifting of power. At the start, the ladies have little of it, so they take it and they’re riding tall, until circumstances and people take that power away and it’s up to them to reclaim it. This happens a number of times, and remains one of the most fascinating aspects of the show.

“When I first pitched it,” Jenna explains, “power was a key word for me. That these women felt like they had completely, through various financial and emotional circumstances, lost any and all power in their lives. So they do this sort of insane thing to try and get it back. Whether they’re conscious of it or not. So that’s a running theme through the show: what is power? What is self-actualization? How do we get it? And when it gets taken away from us, how do we fight back to try to get it back? It actually makes for good comedy and good drama on TV. It’s a happy dynamic for the writers and I to play with.”

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(Photo Credit: NBCUniversal)

Not so happy were the circumstances from which Good Girls was born, in particular the last presidential election.

“It was actually born out of a conversation I had with my mom, who is a lawyer in Minnesota and was one of the first female graduates of the University of Minnesota Law School,” clarifies Jenna. “During one of the rallies when people were shouting, ‘Lock her up’ and all of that, people — myself included — were shocked by society’s attitude toward women. I remember saying to my mom, ‘I don’t remember it ever being this overt; it feels like sexism is in the air all of a sudden.’ And she was, like, ‘Where have you been?’ She just thought I was so naive for thinking it had gone away. And the problem for me wasn’t just Trump himself, it was seeing all these other people jump on the bandwagon.

“It rattled me,” she admits, “and I wanted to channel that into something. I had a pilot I was supposed to be writing at the same time, and was finding it very hard to concentrate on it. I just wanted to watch the news constantly and not write, so I tried to find something that could channel that very helpless anger that I had suddenly, and Good Girls was kind of born out of that.”

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Interestingly, the show was conceived prior to the Harvey Weinstein scandals and before the #MeToo movement really took hold. “When we were in the writers room in the fall, it was, like, every day there was some new insane headline about some really disturbing allegations,” Jenna says. “So the writers and I would talk about that for 20 minutes before we started work, and then we’d jump into these stories about these women who were kind of going through the same thing. The main character, Annie, when the pilot opens, she’s literally being sexually harassed by her boss. By a guy in power. And by the end of the pilot, there’s a rape attempt, so, weirdly, it just felt like life was imitating art in this really, really weird way. And it must have somehow fueled us. But I think it’s cathartic to do the show while everything’s going around, because with this show, as serious as the subject matter is, sometimes we deal with it comedically. As rattled as we all were by certain allegations. And I’m in the writers room in Hollywood, so people would know people who were either making the allegations, or where for the person being accused we’d go, ‘Oh my God, I know that guy’ or ‘I know her. This is horrible.’ So the show, in some way, was a nice diversion from it, where we could channel what we were feeling, but also do it in a hopefully comedic, empowering way.”

Empowering the writers has been the portrayals of the three leading ladies, who have been, according to Janna, “completely influencing” the direction of the show. Part of that is the chemistry they have as people, the actresses becoming good friends off-set almost instantly (partially because, in Atlanta for filming, they were away from friends and family).

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(Photo Credit: NBCUniversal)

“We also let them improv a lot,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of actors improv-ing, and making it their own. So much of what you seen on screen is them just playing around; especially in the scenes where the three of them are together. They just have a lot of fun, so they’re definitely, as actors and people, really setting the tone for the show and the direction we’re taking the characters.You see someone like Retta, who you’ve mostly seen do comedy and who’s a great comedian, and then you see the first glimpse of what she can do emotionally, and you’re, like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have her do more of that.’ Then you write more of that. And the same goes for Christina Hendricks, who we’ve all seen be this genius dramatically in Mad Men. I remember the first time she just nailed the joke at the table reading and I was, like, ‘We have to give her more jokes.’ So you definitely take your cues from what the actors are doing, and if you’re lucky enough to have a cast that gels, it’s like the perfect storm. It’s exactly what you want as a writer.”

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What will be interesting to continue to watch is the way that the noose seems to be tightening around their necks on a regular basis with the possibility of exposure, but then they manage to get some breathing room before the tightening begins again. It does raise a question, though, of how long that game can be played before it starts to get goofy in terms of, “How do they get out of this one?”

“That’s always the challenge,” Jenna admits. “But, frankly, that’s been the challenge for me on every show I’ve been on. Even on Scandal, which just ended its run after seven years. In the first season we were, like, ‘How do we do any more of these?’ We only did seven episodes in the first season and we were, like, ‘That’s all we’ve got. How are we going to do more?’ Which is kind of what drives you as a writer but also keeps you up late at night trying to figure it out.

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“So, yes, this is a show where the noose is tightening, but they have to raise the stakes and get out of it at the same time,” she closes. “And then there will be different nooses, so to speak, that come from more unlikely places. When you’re pitching a show, the broadcast networks and cable really make you sing for you supper. They make you do the homework of knowing where it’s going, so you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants. I’ve got a plan for the next couple of seasons. Of course, if we’re lucky to get to Season 5, talk to me then, because it might be getting just a little bit goofy by that point.”

Season 2 begins on April 3.