LOS ANGELES – Meryl Streep may be the world’s most acclaimed movie star, but she respects the power of the small screen.
Early in her career, she took home an Emmy for her role in the NBC historical miniseries “Holocaust,” which had a big emotional impact when it premiered in West Germany in 1979.
“It was the first time the German audience, young people, had been exposed to the enormity of the subject, a chance to look back at what happened to their fathers and grandfathers. It really created a seismic shift,” Streep said in February. “ ‘Roots’ also came out around that same time and had a great effect. Certain things can have an influence.”
The Oscar-winning actor’s belief in television’s clout helps explain why she took a supporting role in HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” which premiered last year at the height of the #MeToo movement and just 10 months before the launch of Time’s Up, a celebrity-backed effort to support victims of sexual abuse.
At the end of the initial seven episodes, an abusive husband and rapist got shoved down a staircase, with five female co-conspirators agreeing to lie about their vigilante act. In the second season, which starts airing Sunday, the women deal with the repercussions while the dead man’s mother, played by Streep, slowly realizes her son was no angel. The drama’s first season received eight Emmys, including one for outstanding limited series.
“We had no idea there was going to be that kind of public response,” said star and co-executive producer Reese Witherspoon. “It converged with this moment where women sensed the need to be leaders, to step up and talk about their experiences with strength and encouragement from other women. Season 2 is not only a great opportunity for us to get back together, but also to talk about, you know, what now? We’ve dealt with the trauma, but how do we cope with it? How do we carry on?”
The NBC procedural “Law & Order: SVU” has been asking those questions for nearly two decades, with the show’s detectives delving into ripped-from-the headlines cases of sexual assault. But addressing gender injustice only recently became a noticeable trend on the airwaves.
For Amazon’s “One Mississippi,” creator Tig Notaro signaled her awareness of fellow comic Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct with a 2017 story line in which a female radio producer fights back after a male supervisor pleasures himself during a meeting.
The most memorable episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” last season had Sgt. Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) telling her husband about the time a male mentor assumed he’d be rewarded for his support with a tryst.
“Surviving R. Kelly,” the six-part documentary that aired this year on Lifetime, was instrumental in reopening investigations into whether the R&B singer engaged in predatory behavior toward underage women.
“Killing Eve,” which just wrapped its second season on BBC America, continues to fire away at gender inequality, from Sandra Oh’s MI5 security officer being fed up with office “mansplainers” to Jodie Comer’s assassin using her targets’ misogynistic impulses to lure them into her web.
“It’s amazing to be making a show and doing exactly what Time’s Up is trying to do,” Oh said. “I feel our show is examining and taking the female psyche seriously.”
Even “The Bachelor,” the long-running series that has been criticized for reducing accomplished professionals to beauty-pageant contenders, has adapted to Hollywood’s new tone. In an episode from this past season, Caelynn Miller-Keyes became the first contestant in franchise history to speak openly on camera about being the victim of sexual assault.
“It sparked a really compelling conversation in my house,” said Karey Burke, who became ABC’s entertainment president this past November. “My daughters started watching it in their teen years and I wondered, as a feminist, ‘How can I allow my children to watch this?’ Then I sat down and watched it with them, and I realized that if you don’t think those women have power, then you aren’t watching the show correctly.”
Behind the scenes
One of the more intriguing examinations of sexual misconduct in the workplace happened during the 2017 season of Netflix’s “Master of None” in which our hero, Dev (Aziz Ansari), questions his loyalty to a famous chef accused of being creepy toward female employees. But the power of that story arc was diminished months later when a date accused Ansari of inappropriate behavior in real life.
There are no current plans for a third season of the Emmy-winning comedy, although Ansari is back on the stand-up circuit. So is Louis C.K., but no network has shown interest in giving him a show again.
Just last month, onetime rising star Jason Mitchell was dropped from Showtime’s “The Chi” after more than one female co-worker complained to human resources about his behavior. Amazon fired Jeffrey Tambor last year from “Transparent” following an internal investigation of sexual harassment on the set.
CBS is going forward with another season of “Bull,” even after the network settled a lawsuit with guest star Eliza Dushku, who accused lead actor Michael Weatherly of lewd language and toxic behavior. But Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Television company opted not to continue producing the popular series.
Female actors aren’t the only ones with Hollywood horror stories. The Writers Guild of America estimates that nearly 65% of all female writers have been sexually harassed at work and that there remain “significant barriers” to reporting incidents. At least women appear to be emboldened to visit human resources after complaints led to the downfalls of empire builders such as Leslie Moonves of CBS, Roger Ailes of Fox and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“In 2016, I didn’t feel like I had the power to say, ‘I won’t work with that person,’ ” said Monika Mitchell, who has directed more than 15 TV movies including “To Have and to Hold,” premiering this month on Lifetime. “It actually means something now.”
Studios and networks increasingly try to stop sordid incidents, or even misunderstandings, before they can happen by requiring harassment training for many shows. Susan Kelechi Watson is glad “This Is Us” was one of them.
“There was nothing inappropriate, to my knowledge, going on, but people on the set are now more hyper-aware,” said Watson, who plays Beth on the breakout NBC drama. “There are some things that are so ingrained because they’ve gone on so long, even simple phrases of language, that you don’t realize what’s inherent in them. So, there’s become a consciousness about even things like that which I find really respectful.”
“Westworld” and “The Deuce,” HBO dramas with very adult content, have gone so far as to hire intimacy coordinators who are present to make sure actors are as comfortable as they can possibly be before making out with someone they just met at the table read, or stripping in front of a camera crew.
“I always joke that if there’s an animal on set, the Humane Society is everywhere, and yet women are made to get totally naked with no protection mechanism,” said Alyssa Milano, who is becoming better known for her advocacy than her acting. “I think all of that is definitely going to change.”
It’s a movement Streep is proud to be a part of.
“You smell that it’s necessary,” she said. “And you want to contribute to it.”