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I’d be hard-pressed to think of an activity I enjoy more than watching TV. I watch a LOT of TV, and I recently realized my favorite shows of all time were often led by women.
So then I started seeking out more shows that featured women front and center. Problem with that plan: Women only account for 39% of TV characters (total, not just 39% of main characters). Did I give up? No. I doubled down on my mission to watch as many lady-led shows as possible. Here are 18 you should be binge-watching.
How to Get Away With Murder
No list of women-led TV would be complete without a Shonda show. Viola Davis slays as Annalise Keating, a brilliant lawyer and professor. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to get bored while watching HTGAWM — there’s always a dozen things going on at once. Each episode, Keating and her interns tackle a new homicide case while also getting tangled in larger mysteries of their own.
Once Upon a Time
If you like a good fairytale but always kind of wished the princess would get her act together and save her own damn self, give Once Upon a Time a try. Emma Swan, main character and general badass, is teen-criminal-turned-bail-bondswoman-turned-savior-of-all-magic and she always fights the good fight.
Emma isn’t the only strong female character on the show — Regina (The Evil Queen), Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Mulan, and basically all of the women on this show show up to kick ass and take names. OUAT has romance, friendship, and magic, so what else could you want?
Cookie Lyon. If you’ve seen the show, then ‘nuff said. If you haven’t, Cookie (played by the incredible Taraji Henson, who won a Golden Globe for her Empire performance in 2016) is the fierce matriarch of a family at the center of a hip hop dynasty. She’s a protective mom, but she’s also a boss who’s going to make sure she gets her cut.
She’s sexy, confident, and all-around inspirational as hell and Empire is worth watching for her alone. She’s not alone — Anika and Tiana are forces of nature in their own right.
The mysterious Eleven “El” is the main character of the show, without a doubt. The boys are important (and can always be relied on for a solid one-liner), but “El” is the key to it all and she only gets more powerful (and fascinating) as season one goes on. She’s far from the only female driving the plot; Joice, Nancy, and even Barb are crucial. I could go on for days, but there’s only so much I can say without giving away spoilers.
This show has more twists and turns than The Smiler (some rollercoaster famous for having the most loops, duh), but the suspense isn’t what keeps you watching — Alex Parrish is. Played by Priyanka Chopra (who is the most freak-of-nature combination of being both out-of-this-world, breathtakingly beautiful AND a badass), Parrish is an FBI candidate-in-training at Quantico.
Flash-forward, and Alex is being framed for a devastating terror attack in New York City. Throughout the first season, past-Alex works her way to the top of her class at Quantico while present-Alex is trying to clear her name.
If you haven’t watched Jessica Jones, get on it. Jessica Jones is a private investigator who just so happens to have superpowers, who is also being stalked by her own personal supervillain. She’s far from perfect — notice that I said she “happens to have superpowers” and not “is a superhero,” but you root for her even when you hate her a little.
There’s some occasional comedic relief (some truly excellent one-liners), but you should really just buckle in for an emotionally intense ride. If that doesn’t convince you, you should watch just to see Marvel make history with the first sex scene between two superheroes.
The Mindy Project
I’ve been watching The Mindy Project since Day 1. That doesn’t automatically mean I have better taste in TV than you, but if you haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity to catch up since it’s been on Hulu, then I definitely have better taste in TV than you. Dr. Mindy Lahiri is an OB-GYN with a ridiculous addiction to bear claws.
She’s loud, she’s energetic, she’s bold, she’s dramatic. She’s also great at what she does and unapologetically ambitious. It’s honestly one of my favorite shows on all of television, and I would be Mindy’s best friend if I could. (Literally, I’ve done the next best thing: ESL co-founder/my other-half Elise is most definitely the Mindy of our office).
Broad City isn’t the lady-led buddy comedy I would have asked for, but that’s only because it’s beyond what I could have ever imagined. Broad City started out as a web series Abbi and Ilana wrote based on their lives trying to live in New York (while being young and broke, of course).
Abbi is an illustrator, but to pay her bills, she works for a bougie fitness club. Ilana tries to avoid real responsibility and loves being spontaneous almost as much as she loves Abbi, which makes for amazing on-screen shenanigans, but also means that the show is packed with #relatablemoments.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The only thing more tenacious than Kimmy Schmidt is the earworm of a theme song (although “Pinot Noir” is also a close second.) If you ever need a show that will help you look on the bright side, turn on Kimmy Schmidt, stat. Kimmy is rescued from a bunker after being held hostage by a doomsday cult for 15 years. She seizes her new life and heads to NYC (a lot of TV is written about NYC…). Despite all of the bright colors, things aren’t always sunshine and roses, but the dark comedy keeps the show grounded.
Bear with me — believe me, I know the title is off-putting, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is so much more than its title. Rebecca is an overworked, stressed-out lawyer who is very unhappy, but also very successful. One day, she runs into her summer camp crush/first love on a street in NYC and decides to move to West Covina, California to live closer to him, because, logic.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg though — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a musical, and all of the songs are super relatable. Also relatable? The actual people on the show — the only size 0 is the yoga instructor. Normal humans unite.
Liza Miller (played by Sutton Foster, who’s amazing) is a recent-divorcee with a teenage daughter and no money because her ex had/has a gambling addiction. Liza tries to make the most of her fresh start and get a job following her college passion — publishing. Unfortunately, the gap in her resume from her stay-at-home mom years doesn’t do her any favors and she found companies reluctant to put a 40-year-old in an entry-level position.
So what does she do? Gives herself a make-younger, pretends she’s 26, and befriends a hip twentysomething BFF (aka the fabulous Hilary Duff). Between all the laughs, Younger is a heartfelt show about sacrifice, starting over, and how shitty the world can be to anyone a day over 26.
If you’re #ReadyforHillary, you’re going to be #ReadyforSelina. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Selina Meyer, Vice President (VEEP) of the United States. She’s smart, she’s poised, she’s successful, and she’s tough as nails. I promise you’ll have at least three new favorite insults by the end of the first episode.
Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is a show by women, for women, about women. Piper Kerman is a typical suburban gal living a typical suburban life when she’s forced to serve a prison sentence for a crime she committed in her younger, wilder days.
Suddenly, she has to adjust to her new life in Litchfield Correctional Facility. Lest you think Orange is the New Black should really be called “The Piper Show,” rest assured that each of the amazing women on the show has her moment.
If you read Earn Spend Live, you know we have a deep, abiding hate-love for The Bachelor franchise. UnREAL is the best kind of embodiment of that hate-love. Rachel and Quinn work on the set of Everlasting, a show that all-too-closely mimics The Bachelor.
Their goal is to make good TV (and good careers), whatever the cost, and sometimes that works out for them better than others. The comedy is more of a dark, satirical comedy, so don’t expect big belly laughs. Just expect clever commentary on America’s love for reality TV (and lots and lots of drama).
Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce
Because I am not a mother, I’m not in my forties, and I’m not divorced, I almost didn’t give this show a shot. But once I started watching, I couldn’t stop. Literally. I watched the first episode on a Saturday and finished the first season by Sunday. Eventually, I decided that it’s because at the heart of the drama and the romance and whatnot, Girlfriend’s Guide is a story about a successful woman, being successful, and having successful friends.
#Goals. Sort of. It’s definitely a drama, but don’t let that scare you off — there’s some comedy sprinkled in there.
Jane the Virgin
If I could only pick one show to watch forever, Jane the Virgin would be near the top of that list. It’s got everything — humor, drama, love, crime, friendship, family, dreams, and even a secret evil twin. Just to give you a taste: The first major drama? When Jane finds out she’s pregnant even though she’s never had sex (¡imaculada!).
They untangle that, but the drama keeps rolling in. Throughout it all, the Villanueva women stand together and are just the absolute best. Also the best? The Latin Lover Narrator, even though he isn’t technically a “female lead.”
In Beverly Hills, the maids have all of the good dirt — on the families they work for and on each other. While the powerful people are dreaming of new ways to gain even more power (or just new ways to screw each other over), Marisol, Rosie, Carmen, and Zoila are working for their dreams.
Female friendships, motivated women, and dramedy galore — what else could you want?
Liv Moore was living (ha) a super life. She had a gorgeous fiance, was almost done with her medical residency, and had a great relationship with her family. Then she becomes a zombie, breaks up with Major, quits her residency, and starts working at her local Medical Examiner’s Office where she has access to a humane source of brains.
When she eats brains, she also gets glimpses of their memories and personality traits of that person and leverages that as a “psychic” consultant to help solve local murders.