Veep's Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer


Scandal star Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope

mindy project

The Mindy Project's creator and star Mindy Kaling 

desperate housewives

Desperate Housewives stars Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria and Marcia Cross

Fill 1
Fill 1
March 25, 2024
Online Originals

20 Trailblazing Shows Starring Women

From Desperate Housewives to Veep, here are some essential series that made TV history. 

In the last two decades, women have reshaped the art of storytelling through their significant contributions to television, both on and off camera. Women creatives have spent the better part of the past 20 years helping put their unique stamp on various genres while also introducing a new wave of complex and compelling characters that resonate with audiences. Whether executing a soapy comedy or a dystopian drama, these television series have one throughline: women taking the lead to help shape television's future.

In honor of Women's History Month, here's a look at 20 essential live-action shows (a mix of both dramas and comedies) from the past 20 years, in order of airdate, that feature a spectrum of unforgettable leading women, including 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, Scandal's Olivia Pope and Veep's Selina Meyer.

Desperate Housewives (2004–12)

Desperate Housewives has it all: an alluring mystery, suburban discord and a star-studded cast.

Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria deliver as the discontented housewives of Wisteria Lane who struggle to keep up appearances while navigating extramarital affairs, family life and murder. This ABC series' popularity solidified elevated soaps' place in primetime television, with its first five seasons ranking in the top 10 for most-watched series on air.

Weeds (2005–12)

Before Walter White, there was Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a widowed mother who supports her family by selling marijuana in the suburbs. Showtime's dark comedy-drama was propelled by women in front of and behind the camera; the series was created by Jenji Kohan. For the creative team's efforts, Weeds proved to be quite successful as the cable network's then-highest rated show during its first season. 

Grey's Anatomy (2005–present)

At 19 seasons and counting, Grey's Anatomy is ABC's longest running scripted primetime show. Created and executive-produced by Shonda Rimes, this beloved medical drama was one of the first to feature a diverse cast of LGBTQ+ characters and people of color. Despite plotlines involving "McDreamy" and "McSteamy" love interests, the friendship between surgeons Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) is the beating heart of the series.

30 Rock (2006–13)

Creator Tina Fey's sardonic wit and satirical mastery makes 30 Rock one of the most well-written sitcoms of modern times with a joke-density and absurdity reminiscent of The Simpsons, but in live-action form. Perpetually exhausted feminist-failure Liz Lemon, played by Fey, endures as the spirit animal of many millennial women with classic lines like, "Yes to love, yes to life, yes to staying in more!"

Nurse Jackie (2009–15)

Emmy-winner Edie Falco is magnetic as the battle-hardened and drug-addicted titular character in this resonate medical drama from Showtime. Nurse Jackie is frequently applauded for highlighting the challenges that nurses face and for showcasing one of television's most accurate portrayals of addiction. Falco's fearless performance gives audiences a window into a complicated character who is both exceptionally kind and cruel as she fights for her patients and against her own personal demons.

Parks and Recreation (2009–15)

In this mockumentary-style NBC comedy, Amy Poehler brings boundless heart and enthusiasm to lead character Leslie Knope, a mid-level bureaucrat of the Indiana Parks and Recreation Department. Among Knope's best qualities is her unrelenting loyalty to her friends Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza). This dynamic was captured especially well in the legendary Galentines Day episode (S2E16), which the public was quick to embrace and celebrate as the unofficial holiday of female friendship.

2 Broke Girls (2011–17)

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs play the ultimate odd couple in this multicam CBS sitcom, co-created by Whitney Cummings. Max Black (Dennings), a blue-collar waitress, and Caroline Channing (Behrs), the daughter of a Ponzi millionaire–turned–waitress, quickly spark a best friendship as they struggle to open a cupcake shop. Despite the huge gaps in their socioeconomic backgrounds, these women always manage to bring out the best in each other amid rapid-fire one-liners.

Girls (2012–17)

Created by and starring Lena Duhnam, HBO's Girls ushered in the era of Millennial storytelling. Hannah and her friends are a satire of privileged twenty-somethings in New York; they're flawed and very self-centered. Girls explores sex and body image issues with humor and disarming frankness. This caused a stir at the time, but Girls has since been lauded as an important and meaningful contribution to feminist narratives in television.

The Mindy Project (2012–17)

Mindy Kaling created, produced, wrote and starred in FOX's romantic comedy series as a dedicated OB/GYN who is a hopeless romantic on her off-hours. As a character, Mindy stands out for moving through life with confidence and not making herself smaller for the next potential love interest (even if it is Seth Rogan or Bill Hader). The Mindy Project is full of homages to the rom-com genre, which Mindy also critiques, ultimately showing that personal fulfillment comes from within.

Veep (2012–19)

While HBO's Veep showcases creator Armando Innunci's signature dark humor and mind-boggling expletives, this ruthless satire of American politics stands out for Julia Louis-Dreyfus' show-stopping performance as Selina Meyers, the seething and perpetually plotting Vice President of the United States. Louis-Dreyfus perfectly embodies feminist rage and frustration while playing an unrepentant narcissist, and the actor was rewarded for her efforts with six consecutive Primetime Emmys.

Scandal (2012–18)

This political thriller from Shondaland jumpstarted Kerry Washington's career for her dynamic portrayal of Olivia Pope, the first Black female lead on a primetime show in nearly 40 years. As the head of a crisis management firm in D.C., Pope's moral ambiguity and powers of persuasion make her a political force of nature. But, like all great characters, Pope is also human — as evidenced by her messy affair with the President of the United States.

Orange Is the New Black (2013–19)

Based on Piper Kerman's memoir and one of Netflix's first original series, this Emmy-winning comedy-drama series explores the lives of inmates in a Connecticut women's prison. Taylor Schilling stars as Piper, but the series quickly encompasses an ensemble when it dives into each woman's backstory of how they wound up incarcerated. Orange Is the New Black defied stereotypes and added complexity to the stories of its Black, Latina and queer characters, and made celebrities of Laverne Cox and Uzo Aduba.

Orphan Black (2013–17)

This sci-fi thriller primarily follows Sarah Manning, a British con artist and one of several genetically identical clones, as she doggedly fights to uncover the conspiracy behind her existence. Tatiana Maslany stars, and got her big break, for her portrayal of 17 (!) different sister clones in a feat that earned her a much-deserved Primetime Emmy among other accolades.

Broad City (2014–19)

Creators Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer showed us exactly what best friendships are made of in Comedy Central's witty two-hander comedy based off its creators' web series of the same name. As characters, Abbi and Ilana are frequently broke, bored and sweaty, but their undying commitment to each other and unflinching optimism in the face of everything New York throws at them cathartically reflects many Millennial women's hilarious and bumpy transition into adulthood.

Jane the Virgin (2014–19)

Developed by Jennie Snyder Urman and starring Gina Rodriguez as the titular character, this CW rom-com and satirical telenovela follows a devout 23-year-old Latina who becomes pregnant after an accidental artificial insemination. Jane the Virgin's refreshing take on popular soapy tropes like love-triangles, meet-cutes and signs from the universe won the hearts of both audiences and critics. Zany and moving, Jane the Virgin is guaranteed to make anyone who watches fall in love.

Outlander (2014–present)

Starz's historical drama series, based on the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon, follows WWII military nurse Claire Randall (Caitríona Balfe) on a journey through time in one of television's most epic love stories. The undying love and devotion between Claire and Jaime subverts the typical "will they, won't they" trope, demonstrating that plenty of richness — and sauciness — can come from a long-term committed romance.

Marvel's Jessica Jones (2015–19)

Jessica Jones was Marvel's first female-led superhero project, and it left a mark for fans of the one-time Netflix series that can now be found on Disney+. Krysten Ritter stars as Jessica Jones, a private investigator who struggles with PTSD from her days as a superhero. Despite her superpowers, Jessica's greatest strengths are her street smarts and detective skills. However, her grounded (and heartbreaking) struggles with trauma and self-hatred make her a particularly resonant protagonist.

Grace and Frankie (2015–22)

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda's real-life friendship shines in this Netflix comedy series about two aging women who become unlikely best friends after their husbands reveal they are in love with each other. Its stars' formidable comedic talents and heartfelt performances prove that life doesn't end at 70; it just gets funnier.

Fleabag (2016–19) The jumpsuit. Hot priest. Fleabag's smirks to camera. There are many reasons why Phoebe Waller-Bridge's comedy-drama series dominated the conversation in the mid-2010s, but the foremost is its witty, deeply flawed and bewitching antihero. Amazon's Fleabag fearlessly explores human vulnerability with a dark sense of humor and profound empathy, generating some of the most absurd and heartbreaking scenes in recent memory.

Insecure (2016–21)

Partially based on Issa Rae's acclaimed web series Awkward Black Girl, this comedy drama explores the awkward experiences of a Black woman in America. The plot may sound simple, but the series is among the first to give Black women a show that reflects their contemporary experience. Issa Rae defies stereotypes to point out that Black women don't always have to be the strong and confident individuals society expects them to be.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017–23)

Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan stars as Midge, a Jewish single mother who pursues a career in stand-up comedy alongside her tough-as-nails manager Susie (Alex Borstein) in 1950s New York. In Midge, creator Amy Sherman-Paladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads) gave television (and Prime Video) an empowering leading woman who refuses to let anyone control her destiny. Credit also belongs to renowned costume designer Donna Zakowska for bringing Midge to life; Zakowska won multiple Emmys for Midge's dazzling wardrobe.

The Handmaid's Tale (2017–present)

Elizabeth Moss carries the dramatic weight of Hulu's dystopian drama (based on Margaret Atwood's famous novel) with grace as Offred, a woman forced to bear children in the fictional, patriarchal society of Gilead. In Offred, we find an unlikely heroine who has no choice but to fight for a more egalitarian future. This message was particularly poignant for many women in light of the #MeToo movement, which was progressing at the time the series premiered.

Pen15 (2019–21)

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle created and star in this loving tribute to the awkwardness of middle school. The concept of adult women playing preteens might sound strange, but Erskine and Konkle pull it off with unabashed heart and tenderness. The duo truthfully showcases the greatest hits of coming of age in the early 2000s, from AOL Instant Messenger benders to VHS-inspired sexual awakenings.

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