Whether you’re looking for a smart comedy to take your mind off the current state of the world, or seeking catharsis through gripping, unconventional dramas—there are plenty of shows featuring compelling feminist characters streaming on Netflix to carry you through the coming months.
In compiling my recommendations, I tried to stick to a few criteria:
- The shows below pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test with flying colors.
- They showcase multiple well-defined, engaging female characters and at least one (but, in most cases, more than one) major character who is a person of color and/or LGBTQ.
- These shows have story lines that emphasize the wide range of experiences women and girls have, and/or offer narratives in which women’s experiences are primary rather than nonexistent or an afterthought.
- They’re all recent shows that have at least one complete season online and are either still in progress or ended only within the last year. Some popular shows—like Orange is the New Black—are missing from the list because they’re already quite well-promoted, and some promising new shows—like I Am Not Okay With This and Never Have I Ever—are absent simply because they are so new, I haven’t had a chance to watch them yet. (But you should and then let me know what you think!)
- These are all teen or adult shows, some with mature themes and adult language—but if you’re looking for children’s programming, I’ve got you covered.
While all of these programs won’t appeal to every viewer, they do each offer representations of women who are artfully complex, refreshingly intelligent, realistically flawed, and, most importantly, have narrative agency—even if it sometimes comes from an unexpected place.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, my comedy recommendations:
(Trailers are not necessarily appropriate for all ages.)
(4 seasons, 2017-present) | Sitcom | TV-PG
An exceptionally well-updated reboot of the 1970’s Norman Lear show, One Day at Time is an unabashedly feminist, thoughtfully political family sitcom (a tall order in and of itself) about a lower middle class, multi-generational Cuban American family living in a small apartment in Los Angeles’ Echo Park.
Notable highlights include the show’s impressive handling of teenage daughter Elena’s (Isabella Gomez) coming out, alongside broader issues of queer visibility and equality; mother Penelope (Justina Machado), an army veteran and nurse, grappling with PTSD and depression; and matriarch Lydia (Rita Morena) in just about every scene.
(2 seasons, 2019-present) | Comedy | TV-MA
With a premise ripe for one-note raunch comedy—teenage virgin Otis (Asa Butterfield) unwittingly becomes an amateur sex therapist to his high school peers with the help of his gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and notorious bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey)—what’s impressive about the British show Sex Education is the way it threads important conversations about consent, reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues, and sexual health in with the humor.
Also, Gillian Andersen plays Otis’ no-nonsense, awkwardly candid mother, and an actual, licensed sex therapist—really, who could ask for anything more?
(4 seasons, 2016-2020) | Comedy | TV-14
NBC’s The Good Place offers something we don’t often see in network sitcoms: a show both intellectual and unafraid to be bask in its inanity.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has died and finds herself in a Good Place neighborhood—an afterlife especially designed to reward the best people in life with their soulmates, eternal happiness and anything their hearts desire.
The only catch is: Eleanor doesn’t belong there, having been mistaken for another woman with the same name. To save herself from discovery and a one-way trip to The Bad Place, Eleanor begins taking moral philosophy lessons from her soulmate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper).
Bell’s portrayal of the selfish-but-trying-to-be-good Eleanor is brilliant, but she and Harper are also bolstered by stellar costars: Jameela Jamil as self-involved British philanthropist Tahani Al-Jamil; Manny Jacinto as air-headed Florida DJ Jason Mendoza; D’Arcy Carden as the omniscient, ever-helpful A.I., Janet; and Ted Danson as the neighborhood’s divine architect, Michael.
A show with as many twists and turns as it there are frozen yogurt places in the afterlife, The Good Place explores human relationships, ethics, and the merits of all-you-can-eat shrimp with equal aplomb.
(4 seasons, 2017-present) | Comedy | TV-MA
Canadian sitcom Workin’ Moms (a CBC show) takes a no-holds-barred approach to motherhood, beginning with that moment when parents often return to work. (In a stab to the heart for American viewers, mandated parental leave in Canada is far longer than most leaves U.S. mothers—or fathers—receive, even at the most progressive companies.)
As a sitcom, the show plays some moments for laughs rather than absolute accuracy—but many of its characterizations are so funny it hurts.
The show follows the lives of four friends and working moms—high-powered ad exec Kate (Catherine Reitman, also the show’s creator); therapist Anne (Dani Kind); real estate agent Frankie (Juno Rinaldi); and I.T. specialist Jenny (Jessalyn Wanlim)—who each have to grapple with their own challenges as they return to work and negotiate their relationships to career, children and family.
(4 seasons, 2015-2019) | Romantic Comedy Musical Satire | TV-MA
Nothing about the premise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sounds very feminist; in the pilot, wealthy and successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) leaves her outwardly perfect life behind and moves across the country to West Covina, California to follow her long-ago ex-boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) in search of true happiness.
And yet, the self-aware way the show and its characters handle its ostensibly fairy tale romcom narrative, and its satirical treatment of conventions around love and romance, make clear that we shouldn’t judge a show by its title—or, as Rachel reminds us in the opening theme song, “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.”
Have I mentioned it’s a musical? Because with songs like “We’ll Never Have Problems Again” (2.10), “Let’s Generalize About Men” (3.1), and “Don’t Be a Lawyer” (4.3), it’s pretty clear that you have to look beyond the surface to experience Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s genius satire of familiar tropes.
Seeking catharsis through gripping, unconventional dramas?