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Streaming Services Put Female Characters At The Center With 'Anne' And 'Dick'

Kathryn Hahn (center, with Lily Mojekwu and Roberta Colindrez) plays a filmmaker who is infatuated and infuriated by the title character in Amazon's new series<em> I Love Dick.</em>
Leann Mueller
Kathryn Hahn (center, with Lily Mojekwu and Roberta Colindrez) plays a filmmaker who is infatuated and infuriated by the title character in Amazon's new series I Love Dick.

On Friday, two different streaming services present the first seasons of new drama series. Both are based on novels written by women, both have female characters squarely at their center — and both come to TV with accomplished women producers overseeing their adaptations.

One of them, on Amazon, is a fairly modern story, with Jill Soloway, the creator of Amazon's groundbreaking Transparent, adapting Chris Kraus' provocatively titled 1997 novel, I Love Dick.

The other, a Netflix co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is a new, somewhat less glossy version of a children's classic. Moira Walley-Beckett, an Emmy-winning writer-producer from the Breaking Bad team, adapts the long-cherished 1908 Lucy Maud Montgomery novel, Anne of Green Gables.

Set a century apart, these two different stories, and two different TV series, actually have a lot in common. Both are adapted in creative and exciting ways. Both are exceptionally good at getting into the heads of their main characters. And both of the protagonists in these stories are fighting, almost with every breath and every word, to free themselves from the confining norms and rules and expectations of their surroundings — especially the ones aimed at suffocating or limiting their gender.

Anne of Green Gables was made into an outstanding miniseries shown by PBS in 1985. I adored it, and so did my young daughter. This new version, called Anne with a E, can also be shown to, and enjoyed with, young children. But it's a few shades darker and deeper, injecting occasional flashbacks showing the young orphan Anne's traumatic experiences before being sent to live with an elderly brother and sister at Green Gables.

These brief but disturbing scenes — the equivalent of Cinderella being abused by her family — explain why Anne escapes into books and has a vocabulary and imagination as large as her heart.

Matthew Cuthbert, the soft-spoken elderly brother, escorts Anne home by horse-drawn cart after meeting her for the first time. He barely gets a word in edgewise. But by the time that trip is over, Matthew is charmed by her completely — and so are we.

R. H. Thomson plays Matthew, and Amybeth McNulty, in a perfectly nuanced star-making turn, is Anne. Red-haired, pig-tailed and freckled, Anne is so eager to love and be loved that she even sees trees as friends.

The orphanage, though, had sent Anne to Green Gables by mistake. Matthew and his flinty sister, Marilla, played beautifully by Geraldine James, had requested a boy. When Anne arrives at the farmhouse, Marilla tells the girl they must return her tomorrow — but Anne, and her feminism, won't give in without a fight. Why, she asks, can't she do what a boy can do? What if, suddenly, there were no boys?

Over at Amazon, on Soloway's I Love Dick, a wannabe filmmaker named Chris fights a similar fight. Played with admirable rawness and perfectly timed humor by Kathryn Hahn, the rabbi from Transparent, Chris' fight is against one man — the successful and charismatic artist named Dick, who runs a residency artist program in Marfa, Texas, to which her husband has just been accepted. And her fight is complicated, because, paradoxically, she's extremely attracted to him — immediately, and almost to the point of obsession.

That mixture of infuriation and infatuation is easy to understand when Dick is played, playfully and perfectly, by Kevin Bacon. When Dick, Chris and her husband, played by Griffin Dunne, have an introductory dinner together, Dick starts talking to the husband — but pivots, almost immediately, to confront Chris.

Dick plays with Chris by pushing her buttons — and it works. He tells her that maybe she hasn't made a film because she doesn't have the passion to — and besides, that women just don't seem to make very good films. She responds by spurting out names of female filmmakers she respects — and leaving the table. But his fiery combativeness stays with her.

Chris begins to take out her frustrations and explore her fantasies by writing letters to Dick that she doesn't send. That's her verbose way of coping, at first. And back at Green Gables, Anne talks herself into, and out of, every situation that comes her way.

By the end, Anne's won her way into the hearts of everyone around her. Chris, on I Love Dick, not so much. But both of these new series are as strong, and as dynamic and entertaining, as the female characters at their center.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.