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Holly Hunter told a story recently about secretly convening seven years ago with other top actresses, including Kyra Sedgwick and Mary-Louise Parker, who hatched a plan to take over cable television.


She’s joking, but the truth is even more improbable: Without any strategizing or scheming, women 40 and older are the hottest, hippest stars of summer.


cover art

Damages

Cast: Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Ted Danson, Tate Donovan, Anastasia Griffith
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm EST

(FX; US: 24 Jul 2007)

Review [24.Jul.2007]
cover art

Saving Grace

First Episode
Cast: Holly Hunter, Leon Rippey, Kenny Johnson, Laura San Giacomo, Bokeem Woodbine, Gregory Norman Cruz
Regular airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET

(TNT; US: 23 Jul 2007)

Review [16.Jul.2008]
Review [29.Jul.2007]
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The Closer

Season Three Premiere
Cast: Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons, Corey Reynolds, Robert Gossett, G.W. Bailey, Tony Denison, Jon Tenney
Regular airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET

(TNT; US: 18 Jun 2007)

Review [20.Jul.2008]
Review [18.Jun.2007]
Review [13.Jul.2005]

Hunter’s first TV series, TNT’s “Saving Grace,” premiered last month to the best ratings for any new cable show this year, beating out Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” a show cast primarily with women old enough to be empty-nesters. Lifetime is also scoring with the new drama “State of Mind,” led by 40-year-old Lili Taylor. FX’s “Damages,” starring Glenn Close, 60, has garnered universal praise. “Weeds,” starring Parker, 42, has grown into the smartest, most successful comedy in Showtime’s history. And odds are high that “The Closer” now in its third season, will net Sedgwick, 41, an Emmy next month.


“It’s undeniable that something is going on,” said Hunter, 49. “People often say, `We’re on the threshold of a big change’ and it never really holds true. It’s always just a trend. Hopefully, that’s not the case here.”


The TV landscape in general has gotten better for women, thanks to the success of the cosmo-swilling gals of “Sex and the City” and the lovesick doctors of “Grey’s Anatomy.” But there was no guarantee that women between the ages of Ally McBeal and the Golden Girls would get to come along for the ride, let alone sit in the driver’s seat.


“I was a new mom a couple years, so I sat out of the business for a while, but I still had one foot in the water, and that water got really, really cold,” said Lorraine Toussaint, who turned 40 between the 1998 debut of her last cable series, “Any Day Now,” and her next one, “Saving Grace.” “These mandates would come down that there was no interest in actresses over 35 for lead roles.”


That was before Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson joined the force.


Sedgwick’s lead character in “The Closer” solves complex crimes, struggles with her love life and routinely bumps heads with her bosses, common traits for series’ stars, with one delicious twist: She’s no spring chicken. The show’s success proved that you can cast someone as your top dog who’s practically older than the Olsen twins combined and still churn out a hit.


“When you have a movie about robots that makes a lot of money, they’re going to make more movies about robots,” Sedgwick said. “So if they have a show about a woman in her late 30s or early 40s that’s done well for the business and gotten critical acclaim, they’ll want to make more of them. If this has paved the way for other good actresses to get work, that’s a great gift for me.”


Sedgwick’s success comes at a time when many established film and theater actresses are looking for meatier, challenging work that still allows time to raise families and tackle other projects. Most cable seasons run for 13 episodes, a much more appealing schedule than the 23 installments usually required by broadcast networks.


Cable execs are also likelier to accommodate a star’s personal needs. “Damages” is being shot in New York at Close’s insistence.


“There are a lot of women who weren’t interested in doing television until they reached my age,” said Parker, citing fellow Emmy nominees Sedgwick and Patricia Arquette (of “Medium”). “I think television is writing for that.”


The scripts offer far richer parts than ones in film. Close’s character, Patty Hewes, may be the most morally ambiguous, intimidating lawyer the small screen has ever offered. By the second episode, she has manipulated the career of a young associate and ordered the killing of a key witness’ dog. Close promised that it gets “much worse.”


“Older women who aren’t there just to be pretty are much more problematic,” said Close, who got her first taste of series TV by playing a morally ambiguous, intimidating chief on “The Shield” two years ago. “I try to find these real authentic, complex, strong female parts, and I think that kind of writing is being done for television.”


In “Saving Grace,” Hunter plays an emotionally corrupted cop, one with a bottle of whiskey on one side of the bed and a married man on the other. In the pilot, she runs over a pedestrian while driving drunk, an act that will be wiped from history if she puts her shaky faith in a guardian angel.


“Could I see this in film? No,” Hunter said. “Film doesn’t have this kind of character-development opportunity and the chance to live this life with people week after week. I’ve always wanted to work with the same actors and directors in different films, but nobody wants to do that because they want to author their own chemistry. So this has been a privilege. It’s like repertory theater.”


Powerful women on the small screen often rely on powerful women behind the scenes. “Weeds,” “Grace” and “State of Mind” were all created by women. Mary Kay Place, the actress/writer/director best known for a role in “The Big Chill,” said the 1990s series “My So-Called Life,” created by Winnie Holzman, set the template for a new generation.


“That was the first real coming-of-age story about a female that actually reflected the female experience,” said Place, currently directing and appearing in episodes of IFC’s “The Misadventures of Jackie Woodman,” created by and starring 38-year-old comic Laura Kightlinger. “The rest of them were written by 45-year-old men who had no idea what it was like to be a young woman and they would project all this weird stuff.


“The fact that there are women writers now means these shows are more truthful and explore all the areas, not just the most polite, clean version of what it’s like to be a good girl.”


Cable television has embraced these new voices, Place added, because they can’t afford to do anything else. “There are all these venues that need material, so there are increased opportunities, as long as you can do it for 59 cents,” she said.


Michael Wright, executive director of programming for TBS and TNT, said cable is looking for stories that haven’t been told in the past.


“We’ve come lately to exploring unexpected, complicated women, and I think that’s an offshoot of cable’s exploration of provocative subject matter,” he said. “That’s fantastic.”


Fantastic for cable, fantastic for middle-aged actresses, fantastic for viewers.


“Eventually you run out of ideas and you’ve got to try something new. I, for one, am happy that they’re trying it with women,” said actress Diana Maria Riva, currently appearing on the Lifetime dramedy “Side Order of Life.” “You know, we have a lot to say. You guys are always saying we talk too much. Well, then come and listen. We talk a lot on this show.”


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