Since the clocks changed on Y2K, women’s roles on television have only gotten better. Each year of the 21st century has given viewers more and more deeply complex female characters to love. TV has become the premier medium for meaty women’s roles, attracting into its ranks some of the big screen’s most Oscar-nominated actresses (Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Renee Zellweger, to name a few).
So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, Rotten Tomatoes is rounding up our list of some of the 21st century’s fiercest television drama queens. From Claire Danes bringing to life the struggles of Carrie Mathison, a brilliant CIA agent with bipolar disorder in Homeland, to Davis exploring all shades of gray as criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder; and from Michaela Jaé Rodriguez breaking new ground in trans representation as ’80s ballroom scene mother Blanca Rodriguez in Pose, to Zendaya becoming the youngest lead actress Emmy winner for her raw and gritty portrayal of Rue Bennett, a teenager struggling with addiction in HBO’s Euphoria, there’s no shortage of actresses to choose from.
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Nearly every time Paulson joins forces with producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk she earns an Emmy nomination. That first happened with 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Paulson’s portrayal of Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark, who battled a tabloid media focused on her curly hair and economical fashion choices while she tried to present a strong murder case, was so impactful that it helped redefine public opinion of the real-life figure. Across Paulson’s career, this eight-time Emmy nominee has proved she can do anything, including successfully pulling off playing conjoined twins in AHS: Freak Show.
(Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)
She’s probably best known for her comedic turns as Reno 911!’s Deputy Raineesha Williams or Getting On’s Didi Ortley, two roles that landed her Emmy nominations, but Nash-Betts’ drama resume is equally stellar. Nash-Betts gave a heartbreaking performance as Delores Wise, the distraught mother of Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome), in Ava Duvernay’s powerful story about the exonerated Central Park Five, Netflix’s When They See Us. And more recently, she played the important role of reporting neighbor Glenda Cleveland in the streaming mega-hit Dahmer. Currently, Nash-Betts is using all of her talents as the star of ABC’s The Rookie: Feds.
Peabody Award–winning Unbelievable was a hub of extraordinary female talent with Emmy-winner Toni Collette (four-time Emmy nominee, most recently of HBO’s The Staircase) and two-time Emmy winner (three-time nominee) Merritt Wever (Godless) as dogged detectives determined to track down a serial rapist. Collette has had one hell of a TV run going from, going from playing an aid worker trying desperately to help survivors in the 2006 HBO mini-series Tsunami: The Aftermath, to nimbly shifting characters in Showtime’s United States of Tara (about a mom with dissociative identity disorder).
Wever, too, can do no wrong. She had a breakout role as young hospital nurse Zoey, who saw Edie Falco’s Nurse Jackie as a mentor – until she didn’t. In addition to a lead role in Netflix Western Godless, Wever spent a season hunting zombies and trying to survive on The Walking Dead. She’s next up on every critic’s current favorite drama, Severance, for season 2.
As a preteen, Kaitlyn Dever had her first breakout dramatic role, playing the lone survivor of a family of pot farmers in FX’s Justified. Since then, the Last Man Standing alum earned Critics Choice and Television Critics Award nominations for playing Marie Adler, a sexual assault victim who recants after being turned on by investigators in Unbelievable. She followed up that role with another dark dive in Dopesick, playing a coal miner who becomes addicted to opioids at the start of the opioid crisis, and received her first Emmy nomination for it.
Rodriguez (previously MJ Rodriguez) put in three seasons of heartrending work as House of Evangelista mother Blanca Rodriguez in Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking FX drama Pose. Rodriguez brought to life the deeply compassionate HIV-positive Blanca, who found ways to give her adopted children incredible opportunities (like dance school) despite living in poverty in 1980s New York City. In its final season, Emmy voters honored Rodriguez with a nomination for outstanding lead actress at the Emmys, the first time an out trans actress was featured in the category.
Toss the tissues! Just thinking about Mandy Moore, Chrissy Metz, and Susan Kelechi Watson as the Pearson women in NBC’s This Is Us is enough to bring on the waterworks. Whether it was Rebecca (Moore) dealing with the loss of her husband Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), Kate (Metz) splitting with Toby (Chris Sullivan), or Beth (Watson) living her childhood dance dream as an adult, the women of the show and the actresses who played their younger counterparts (Moore played younger Rebecca, though), gave a collective acting tour de force.
Danes has set a high acting bar throughout her career by accepting the kind of roles that would terrify most actresses. A year after wowing the critics (and award show voters) as the titular character in the 2010 HBO biopic Temple Grandin, Danes took on her most challenging character to date – Homeland’s Carrie Mathison. Danes gave an astounding performance across eight seasons of the Showtime drama, playing one of America’s most gifted CIA agents, who secretly struggled with (an oftentimes untreated) bipolar disorder. It won her the forever respect of her peers and audiences and two Emmys. She has since appeared in Fresh dramatic turns in Fleishman Is in Trouble and The Essex Serpent.
In the 2010s, How to Get Away With Murder was arguably the twistiest show on TV, but ABC wouldn’t have gotten away with it for six seasons without the acting mastery of eventual EGOT club member Davis (she joined the venerable Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony-winners list in 2023 with a Grammy for narration of her autobiography, Finding Me). As a woman with an evolving (or perhaps more accurately, deteriorating) moral compass – college law professor and brilliant criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating – Davis awed audiences week after week. A role that only Davis could pull off, playing Annalise eventually landed the actress her first Emmy in 2015.
Shondaland had an infectiously delicious primetime hit on its hands with Scandal, starring Washington as fixer Olivia Pope. Washington gave an iconic performance as the wine-loving, brilliant DC-based crisis management firm boss Olivia. Emmy-nominated Washington moonlighted during Scandal’s TV run, showing off even more of her dramatic talents as Anita Hill in the HBO movie Confirmation. And by the time Scandal’s gladiators went “over a cliff” as the show concluded, Washington had lined up another powerful (and eventually Emmy-nominated) performance – opposite Reese Witherspoon in the Hulu limited series Little Fires Everywhere.
About Witherspoon, she and fellow big-screen heavy-hitter Nicole Kidman helped make Big Little Lies the ultimate in event television in 2017. Not finding the kinds of roles they were looking for in the film world, the two teamed up as executive producers to help bring Liane Moriarty’s bestseller to the masses alongside Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz (who stuck around in the TV world for Hulu comedy High Fidelity). Enlightenment and Twin Peaks alum Laura Dern also joined in a chef’s kiss of casting perfection. The quintet each played a seemingly perfect Montecito mom — all of them with dark secrets — who got caught up in a web of mistruths during a murder investigation. The show was such a success that despite it being a limited series based on a single book, the women came back for another season and brought the ultimate big-screen drama queen Meryl Streep into the fold.
Bassett joined Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story troupe for season 3 – Coven, sinking her teeth into the role of New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau. It landed her a 2014 supporting actress Emmy nom, a nomination she received again a year later after carrying off playing the three-breasted Desiree Dupree in AHS: Freak Show. Bassett has since gone on to Murphy and Falchuck’s network hit 9-1-1, bringing her massive talents to LAPD field sergeant Athena Grant. She picked up an NAACP outstanding actress award in early 2023 for the role (the same year she was nominated for an Oscar for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever).
Chilling crime drama Ozark was like an acting masterclass from its leading ladies. Emmy winner (for The Big C) Linney broke bad as Wendy Byrde in the Netflix drama, going from an adulterous woman in a bad marriage to active participant in money laundering, drug running and several murders. Before Garner gave her now-iconic performance as Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna, she made her mark as Ruth Langmore in Ozark, going from petty criminal to drug queenpin and putting three Emmys on her shelf. And let’s not forget the work of Ozark’s women co-stars and guest stars – Sofia Hublitz as daughter Charlotte Byrde, Lisa Emery as Darlene Snell, Janet McTeer as Helen Pierce, and Jessica Frances Dukes as special agent Maya Miller.
Whether it was Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary squabbling with her sister, Laura Carmichael’s Lady Edith, or those witty barbs from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess Violet, Downton Abbey was an addictive hit from its premiere episode on PBS’ Masterpiece in 2010. The series was filled with pitch-perfect performances from its fierce females both upstairs and downstairs, also including those of Jessica Brown Findlay, Siobhan Finneran, Joanne Froggatt, Lily James, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nicol, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, and Penelope Wilton. Mixing comedic moments, with heart-wrenching drama, the women of the cast helped propel the show to two big-screen installments, and there’s still a hunger for more. It’s also worth noting Smith received five Emmy noms for playing Violet, taking home three statues.
It took three actresses to step into the shoes of Britain’s longest reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown. Claire Foy set an incredibly high bar (and won two of the three Emmys she was nominated for) masterfully imagining what it was like for a 25-year-old Elizabeth to be named monarch, one learning the power of her voice. Olivia Colman seamlessly took over, strengthening the portrait of a maturing monarch weathering changing times and public missteps (Colman also won an Emmy). Imelda Staunton stepped in for season 5, bringing a touching fragility to the aging queen.
Vanessa Kirby brought a vivaciousness to young royal Princess Margaret, a woman in love with falling in love, while Helena Bonham Carter deftly navigated the character’s transition from socialite to a woman facing mental health struggles. Season 5 brought the inimitable Lesley Manville onboard as she dug into the older Margaret who confronted her sister over keeping her from marrying a divorcee in a deeply emotional scene.
Promising Young Woman Oscar-winning screenwriter and Killing Eve season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell brought to life Camilla Shand (later Parker Bowles) in seasons 3 and 4. While Olivia Williams as Camilla in season 5 turned cringe-y phone sex with the prince into high drama.
Emma Corrin (who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns) nailed their portrayal of a doe-eyed naive Lady Diana Spencer, netting their first Emmy nomination. And Elizabeth Debicki, a co-star of Colman’s in excellent 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, managed to bring a real freshness to the events in Princess Diana’s life that carried out in front of the world.
After spending her early teens working on shows for the mouse house (Disney Channel’s Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover), Zendaya graduated to big things, including playing MJ in the latest incarnation of the Spider-Man movie franchise and an ongoing role in the new Dune film series. Playing Rue Bennett, a teenager battling serious addiction problems in HBO’s Euphoria, has landed Zendaya two lead-actress Emmys, the first of which made her, at 24, the youngest woman ever to take home the statue. Her future is bright, indeed.
Have we started calling it the Reginaissance yet? The adorable daughter from ’80s comedy 227 grew up to be one unstoppable leading lady. King’s outstanding work in prestige television, in particular her projects with Damon Lindelof, proved she is one of the best in the business. After helping to tell the heart-wrenching story of HBO’s The Leftovers, King won nearly all the awards available for playing Angela Abar/Sister Night in Lindelof’s 2019 limited series Watchmen, which used a comic book-inspired framework to explore multi-generational trauma in the Black community.
Moss has made an indelible mark on American TV. She continues to stun (and win awards) as June Osborne, a handmaid (aka a child breeder for Gilead politician Commander Waterford) with an unbreakable spirit. Earlier in her career, she made a splash in political drama The West Wing, and then reminded viewers of her fierce talent as advertising industry secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy in Mad Men, adding in Top of the Lake (with a New Zealand accent) and the uber-twisty Shining Girls. Honorable mention to her starring role in 2020 horror film The Invisible Man, which is Certified Fresh at 92% on the Tomatometer, made over $64 million at the box office, and quickly became a hit on demand due to the pandemic forcing shortened theatrical windows.
Under his eye and in front of yours (via Hulu), The Handmaid’s Tale has been the setting for some truly incredible work from Moss and her costars. Ann Dowd is remarkably terrifying as handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia. Yvonne Strahovski has brought a crucial complexity to Waterford’s wife, Serena. Samira Wiley has spent most seasons intelligently crafting two versions of June’s best friend, handmaid-turned-sex-worker-turned-escapee-turned-activist Moira. Alexis Bledel broke us as Emily, a lesbian handmaid forced to bear a child for a Gilead commander and driven to a mental breakdown. Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel, McKenna Grace, Kelly Jenrette, Cherry Jones, and every other woman in the cast — the list is long, as is the list of Emmy nominations — have given their all to this show, offering devastating portrayals of the women of Gilead.
(Photo by Elizabeth Goodenough/Everett Collection)
And speaking of The West Wing, as press secretary–turned–White House Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg, Janney helped kickstart the 21st century by making prestige-level television on a broadcast network (NBC). She was on form across every political and personal storyline, and won four of the six Emmys she was nominated for. Later, when Janney guest starred on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, playing a housewife who takes part in and has major breakthroughs from a sex study. The role led to another Emmy win for the actress.
Seven-time Oscar nominee Winslet (she won one for The Reader) has managed to find her own lane on television, and in particular on HBO. She captivated viewers week after week during the pandemic in her Emmy-winning role of small-town detective Mare Sheehan in HBO’s limited murder-mystery drama Mare of Easttown. The Mildred Pierce alum also has two more HBO projects on the way we can only assume will be spectacular: Trust, based on the Hernan Diaz novel of the same name, and The Palace, a series focused on one year under an authoritarian regime.
BBC America’s spy drama-with-a-twist, Killing Eve, boasting standout performances from Comer, Oh, and Shaw, was a critical and award show darling from its first season (written by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Comer took home an Emmy during the show’s run for playing the conscience-less Russian assassin Villanelle, who falls in love and becomes obsessed with British intelligence agent Eve (Golden Globe winner Oh). Shaw was fabulous as intelligence boss Caroline, whether giving commands to agents or going rogue following a demotion. Every frame of these women’s work in Killing Eve is masterpiece-level.
Since Law & Order: SVU debuted in 1999, Hargitay’s Det. Olivia Benson has been at the heart of the show. A TV badass, across 24 seasons, Benson has helped bring justice to countless victims, faced down her own multi-episode stalker-turned-kidnapper, lost and gained several SVU partners and become a mom. Now captain of the unit, Olivia Benson has become a legendary television character, the role netting Hargitay eight Emmy noms and one win — and inspiring the name of music superstar Taylor Swift’s cat.
Thumbnail image: Euphoria by Eddy Chen/HBO; The Crown by Robert Viglasky / Netflix; How To Get Away With Murder by ABC/Craig Sjodin; Unbelievable courtesy of Netflix; This Is Us by Annie Leibovitz/NBC; The Handmaid’s Tale courtesy of Hulu