The air is electric with courageous women striking back at the awful acts of powerful men. Disgrace is being dragged out into the harsh light of day and, in very short order, we’ve seen boldface, showbizzy media names inducted into a newly built Hall of Shame. There’s more to come, no doubt, with little guarantee that when the dust settles our society will have somehow vanquished centuries of sexism and piggish behavior. But if what’s going on in some way affects how we view gender in media (particularly on television), then it’s all for the better.
Grace Marks, the antiheroic murderess at the center of Netflix’s quietly compelling and beautifully rendered six-episode miniseries “Alias Grace” (premiering Friday), could have benefited from the current enlightenment on workplace harassment; unfortunately, she’s stuck in an Ontario prison in the late 1850s. Forget what you’ve heard about woke Canadians — the men in Grace’s life have all been predatory beasts in one way or another. Having arrived as a teenage immigrant with her wee siblings (their mother died on the ocean crossing), Grace first suffers at the hands of her alcoholic, abusive father, who sends her off to find gainful employment.
A job as a serving girl and maid in Alderman Parkinson’s mansion initially seems like an upgrade. Grace (played by Sarah Gadon, who brings both luminosity and a creepy inscrutability to the role) is instantly befriended by another servant, the whip-smart Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), who takes a sisterly interest in Grace’s well-being and self-confidence. “You may be very young and ignorant as an egg,” Mary tells Grace, with affection. “But you are bright as a penny, Grace Marks. The difference between ignorant and stupid is that the ignorant can learn.”
Grace soon learns too much about harsh class dynamics and womanly despair when (spoiler alert) Mary has her heart broken by the Parkinsons’ lascivious son and dies of a hemorrhage after an illegal abortion. Seething with grief and rage (and now fending off the son, who has turned his attentions her way), Grace quickly accepts a job offer in another town to assist Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), the head housekeeper for a wealthy widower, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross).
Eventually Grace realizes that Nancy is Mr. Kinnear’s mistress and therefore feels entitled to treat the help like dirt. Soon enough, a temperamental stableman (Kerr Logan) is conspiring with Grace to murder both Nancy and Mr. Kinnear.
“Alias Grace” is another recent adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel (along with Hulu’s magnificent “The Handmaid’s Tale”), and, as it happens, the series is produced and written by actress, director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley, one of many women who stepped forward last month to recall their bad encounters with film producer Harvey Weinstein. (Polley called him “a festering pustule in a diseased industry” in a New York Times op-ed.)
It’s hard not to think about that while noticing the measured, methodical way that “Alias Grace” takes its story beyond the “did she or didn’t she?” ambiguity of the double murders and instead becomes a thoughtful and provocative exploration of gender as a stacked deck. Although it initially looks and moves like a PBS period drama, “Alias Grace” dares to suggest that Grace is the product of a culture that uses and disregards women — especially poor, working-class women. Expecting the series to behave strictly like a murder mystery probably isn’t the best way to watch it.
“Alias Grace” is structured as a recollection of events: 15 years into her sentence, Grace agrees to meet each day with Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), an American psychologist hired to evaluate her mental fitness for possible parole. Jordan quickly realizes that Grace is an unreliable narrator, yet he’s also obsessed with her and imagines rescuing her — with his penis, naturally.
Which means yet another man has objectified Grace, using her to some selfish purpose. The doctor takes copious notes yet doesn’t know the first thing about Grace’s life, which he proves by naively asking about her duties as a servant, as if he never knew housework existed.
“You were not making a joke,” Grace observes. “You really don’t know. Men such as yourself do not have to clean up the messes you make. But [women] have to clean up our messes and add yours into the bargain. In that way, you are like children. You don’t have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what you do.”
You tell him, Grace.
The addictive second season of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s psychosexual anthology drama “The Girlfriend Experience” (returning Sunday on Starz) approaches gender and abuse from a whole other perspective, with disturbing yet obsessive results.
Produced by Steven Soderbergh and based on his 2009 film, “The Girlfriend Experience” explores the world of highly paid escorts who offer their clients the illusion of attentive companionship. Nothing is off the table sexually, and the transaction may extend to repeat encounters and a sugar-daddy relationship.
Season 1 featured Riley Keough in a knockout performance as a cool-tempered Chicago law student who gets into the business to make extra money. Although she masters the fake emotions and sexual athleticism that the work requires, her rigorously maintained exterior begins to crack and she is consumed by a scandal.
Watching the first and now the second season of the show is both depressing and undeniably captivating, even if just from a purely visual perspective: “The Girlfriend Experience” takes place in antiseptically clean settings that softly hum with the buzz of ventilation systems and fluorescent bulbs — a series of expensive hotel rooms decorated in minimalist furnishings of gray and white; office buildings devoid of both people and clutter; sleek apartments with no trace of color or personality.
While the show is necessarily focused on the sex (of all the cable-ready canoodling I watch in this job, “The Girlfriend Experience” is the only show that makes my jaw drop with its explicit, unsentimental portrayal of the act), the show seems to also be warning us, with its Stanley Kubrick-like eye for framing, about the consequences of living in a soulless, futuristic present that encourages cruelty and deplores love.
Kerrigan and Seimetz have divided this season’s 14 episodes into two stories of seven episodes each. The first, “Erica & Anna,” is a political tragedy set in Washington, where an escort named Anna Gardner (Louisa Krause) approaches a steely operative at a conservative super PAC, Erica Myles (Anna Friel), with graphic video evidence of a male rival’s abusive treatment of prostitutes.
Asked why she’s offering the video for sale, Anna quickly replies: “Because he’s a misogynist and a . . . pig. He gets what he deserves.” (Anna, it turns out, endures a fair amount of right-wing pap from her clients. One gives her an angry pre-sex lecture on class warfare: “How many people on minimum wage have ever produced a single job?”)
Recently stung by a breakup, Erica reaches out to Anna for a date. Refusing payment, Anna instead enters an intense and ultimately abusive relationship with Erica, while maintaining her usual work with other clients. A subplot heats up as Erica becomes embroiled in illegal campaign contributions from foreign donors, while a subzero chill settles over everything else.
The second story (“Bria”) shifts gears almost too wildly, exchanging the show’s studied monochromes for a “Breaking Bad”-like desert palette, where Carmen Ejogo plays a former escort in New Mexico who has turned federal witness against her criminal sugar-daddy.
Installed unhappily in a nondescript safe house with the criminal’s teenage daughter (Morgana Davies) and an overprotective U.S. marshal (Tunde Adebimpe), a restless Bria finds a way to start secretly rebuilding her life as an online escort. She lands a creepy but potentially long-term client (Harmony Korine) who works as a smarmy self-help guru. As with the other “Girlfriend Experiences” we’ve seen so far, this situation grows more tense as Bria’s scheme for escape and her desperate need for safety work at cross-purposes.
Like “Alias Grace,” “The Girlfriend Experience” is another reminder that a feminist story need not be a positive or even remotely noble one. The typical requirements for triumph and comeuppance don’t always apply; the more useful themes here are about survival and perseverance. “Nevertheless she persisted,” to put it in 2017 terms.
Alias Grace (six episodes) is available for streaming Friday on Netflix.
The Girlfriend Experience (30 minutes) returns Sunday at 10 p.m. at Starz.