And I’ll tell you about Romanko’s ABC of an all-star female list of spies, crime fighters and the shows they starred in…
It’s back to the first of Romanko’s encyclopedic books based on those female characters from the small screen from the 1950s to 2014.
Women of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, and Espionage: TV Pioneers, Karen A. Romanko
Recently I read author Karen A Romanko’s entertaining tribute to those female characters in fantasy and sci-fi TV series in her book Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television (2019). This book gave me a valuable insight into an alphabetical array of these characters from every decade since the 1950s. Now, I can gladly report thanks to her, this sometimes Sci-fi watcher can tell Beverley Crusher from Captain Janeway and has got a few more series titles to hunt down.
Today, I’m going back in time to review the first of her tributes to those characters we know and love in Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters: 600 Characters and Shows, 1950s to the Present (2016). I found it easy to fall into Romanko’s friendly writing style in this book. However, any newcomer to her writing is welcomed like a long lost friend who is superexcited to tell you about her latest telly finds from past and present.
This book is a short but detailed 254 pages in length. In addition to her ABC encyclopedia, it includes a detailed introduction, index, appendix and a list of sources that were used in writing the book. These are along with a list of Romanko’s recommended DVDs in the espionage and crimefighters genres.
Romanko writes an engaging preface describing how the content of the encyclopedia is set out. She (shockingly) adds that this is the first reference book for this subject. She then outlines the subject of this book, which has an extensive and thorough alphabetical guide that;
covers television series which feature female spies, private investigators, amateur sleuths, police detectives, federal agents and crimefighting superheroes as lead or noteworthy characters.
She reinforces that this in-depth book does not just mention those characters, but also the notable shows from the 1950s until 2014.
These character types and date ranges include something for everyone in the family. If it is you as a superheroine series completist or your retro-loving partner, you both will love this engrossing guide to many of those TV series. It’s possibly the only encyclopedia you will be able to read in a few days. But that’s only as when reading this delightful book you will take regular breaks to hunt clips of the series shows on the internet after reading Romanko’s rich descriptions.
Throughout her historical introduction, Romanko skillfully navigates us through the essential must know groundbreaking characters and their series over the decades. These are from the 1950s which introduced viewers to Anne Francis as the Private Investigator Honey West and we travel through the years to Jane Rizzoli in Rizzoli & Isles (2010-).
In Romanko’s descriptions of these genres through the decades, you’ll recognise the shows even if those character names escape you. Many of the characters are seen to be using a similar list of skills as 1950s Honey West, who is listed by Romanko as a woman who used “intelligence, bravery, martial arts skills, and, yes, sex appeal” to win the day. Romanko adds the then-innovative trends of the 1960s and subsequent decades where more often than not these women used their feminine charms.
Romanko tells how The 1960s brought Britain groundbreaking crimefighters to both the United Kingdom with Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) in The Avengers (1961-69) and to America which had the one-season wonder that was April Dancer (Stefanie Powers) in The Girl from UNCLE (1966-67).
She adds that female leading roles came in the 1970s, with women seen as diverse as those with the jiggle factor in Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or those with superpowers such as The Bionic Woman (1976-78). There were also “sleuthing couples” such as McMillan and Wife (1971–1977) and Hart to Hart (1979–1984).
Romanko tells that Hart to Hart;
brought us Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, a self-made millionaire and his sometimes journalist wife, who stumbled upon and solved murders in posh surroundings.
Since the 1980s, Romanko argues more diversity was shown as these years brought in characters who were older, divorced or women of colour. These roles included the older Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote (1984-96) and La Femme Nikita (1997-91), where the titular part was played by a Vietnamese actress.
In the TV Shows of the 1990s, women were in charge of criminal investigations such as Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect (1991-2006). Women with disabilities or mental health problems are now seen in TV leading roles such as the bipolar female character, Carrie Anne Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland (2011-).
This all-inclusive introduction set the scene pleasantly for Romanko’s detailed ABC list which followed. This ABC lists and outlines female characters in the lead, equal or supporting roles to other (usually male) characters. These characters are accompanied by a large number of TV Series entries. Both these entries and the descriptions of biographical characters give a more complete picture of the characters.
Series entries include cast lists, descriptions, notable episodes and fun facts. Romanko often embellishes these with her fun sense of humour. There are a few well-picked photographs interspersed throughout the book which will either jolt your memory or encourage you to watch a series from then and now. Romanko has added characters and shows from many countries, these include the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia. But all these series have been shown on American television.
As a Scot, with Romanko as my tour guide to the shows made by these countries, I found some new series to check out. I was happy to see the inclusion of Counterstrike (1990-93), a Canadian series that starred Christopher Plummer and Simon McCorkindale. This is an obscure series to this Scottish reviewer, which I discovered while reviewing Plummer’s work recently. In Romanko’s short but sweet description of the show, she convinced me this was one to watch.
Romanko adds some great television finds in either one-off series or those shows with just a few episodes. Many of these shows were (sadly) not continued for several reasons. However reading Romanko’s warm affectionate plot descriptions and enticing cast lists, you immediately want to learn more.
These shows included the pairing of Jessica Walter and Helen Hunt, as Walter’s on-screen daughter in Amy Prentiss (1974-75) – where she is seen battling “criminals and male chauvinism”. All the shows are described with enriching descriptions that will appeal to any reader.
Like her other book of this kind, Romanko writes about some recommended episodes from these series in her engaging reviews. These are so enticingly written about you will immediately want to buy the complete boxset or to hunt down an episode. I am now keen to watch the Richard Matheson written episode where April Dancer investigates the mythical Atlantis in The Girl from UNCLE. And I am sure I am not the only one who wants to see Jaclyn Smith undercover as an alien in Charlie’s Angels.
This book is also useful for those completists amongst you. For example, there is every television reincarnation of Miss Marple. These shows include the one from my adolescent days with Joan Hickson in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (1984-92) to the much later more present-day series starring Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie in this Agatha Christie role.
Finally. like me, the retro reader will be delighted to see favourite leads and series from their telly past viewing, These include fun descriptions of favourites like Moonlighting (1985-89), Cagney and Lacey (1982-88) and many more.
I cannot recommend this book enough for the avid telly viewer, as Romanko’s vivid descriptions from later TV Series reviews will engage you to watch some great classics. I have added a few just based on her warm descriptions to the find pile. But my favourite of these descriptions has to be one I have watched in full. This is for her thoughts on The Americans (2013-18) and as she wrote this entry, this series had only just begun, yet perfectly described as;
No one will mistake this Reagan-era family for the wholesome Keatons of Family Ties.
This and others’ apt descriptions beautifully connect those readers keen on past TV classics looking for a later series to enjoy. And will have you switching on to some great past and present greats of the wee screen long after lockdown.
Finally a little about Karen A Romanko in her own words:
Bio: Karen A. Romanko writes books about women and television. Her latest book is Women of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television (McFarland, 2019), a follow-up to Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters (McFarland, 2016). She loves retro TV and discusses it on her blog Small Screen Pop. Karen lives in Los Angeles, where she enjoys walks on the beach and amateur photography.
A disclaimer and personal thank you to Karen A Romanko for asking me to write this post. Financial compensation was not received for this post. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you are involved in the entertainment industry and would like to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.