HALLIE EPHRON: Last week, when special agent Dana Scully M.D. of X-FILES came up, it got me thinking about what it was that I loved about her. Smart and beautiful are givens. Gillian Anderson (red hair, blue eyes...) played her, facing apparently inexplicable phenomenon with disbelief and a steel-trap mind. Performing gruesome autopsies with sangfroid. And she was subtle, an eyebrow twitch sometimes all she needed to convey her sardonic cynicism.
To my list of greats I'd add Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick). I missed THE CLOSER the first time around so I'm enjoying the reruns now. Love that candy-coated smile that lets her get away with bullying the officers who work for her and the suspects she interrogates, and that moment in each show when her shell melts and we see her true empathy, even for the person she's about to put away.
And third, BBC's SCOTT AND BAILEY (Surranne Jones as DC Rachel Bailey and Lesley Sharp as DC Janet Scott). Fantastically flawed complex characters, this pair make Cagney & Lacey look like Veronica & Betty. What rivets me is their interrogation techniques. And of course the broader (subtle) social issues the show doesn't shy away from. Why is this show so hard to find? It's easily my #1 favorite of the past 5 years.
LUCY BURDETTE: How about Sarah Lancashire as the detective in HAPPY VALLEY? She's so down to earth, but no nonsense too. (And the first episode did win the Edgar award last year.)
Truth is, I don't watch enough TV to be much help. Though I have gotten hooked on THE GOOD WIFE, only 6 seasons late! Alicia (Julia Margulies) is a terrific lawyer character, and better late than never...
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hands down, the best female detective ever written for TV is DCI Jane Tennison. I mean, even if she hadn't been played by Helen Mirren, one of the finest actresses working today, Tennison stands out as both a hero and an object lesson of what being a law enforcement officer can do to a human being and what being the first woman in a men's-only club actually takes.
I had to go back and check to see that the first season of PRIME SUSPECT aired on ITV in 1991. I couldn't believe it, because the issues are so contemporary. I also think the success of PRIME SUSPECT in the US - it was nominated for/ won 14 Emmys - set the stage for some of the harder edged, more complicated female detectives we've seen since then.
I still think there are way too many shows (coughNCIScough) that have only Quirky Girl. Sexy Girl and Hard Nosed Bitch.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Speaking of Dana Scully, I'd include Gillian Anderson's spectacular turn as Detective Chief Superintendant Stella Gibson in BBC's THE FALL. I've watched both seasons (they're short) twice and will probably watch them again. (Just for the record, Karin Slaughter loves it too, and we had a great conversation about how it subverts all kinds of women/serial killer tropes.) The Atlantic calls it "the most feminist show on television."
Basically, if you haven't watched it, you must stop everything in your life and do so now. I'll wait.
RHYS BOWEN: Like Lucy I don't watch that much TV except for BBC and PBS. My shining example of a female detective is Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren. She is so real and flawed and her detecting process has that ring of authenticity to it. I also enjoy Miss Fisher, but I think it's mainly for the clothes!
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, my brain is failing, I know there are more, but Susan I agree, certainly, with the Gillian Anderson character on THE FALL. We were riveted! (Could you BELIEVE who played the bad guy?)
And Lucy, agree with HAPPY VALLEY, too, and so delighted you could remember the name of the series. By random chance, we watched an episode of ELEMENTARY the other night, and Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson is pretty great. And I am very into MADAME SECRETARY, because although technically not a sleuth, the Tea Leoni character—secretary of state!—is terrific. And I cannot wait for her to play Jane Ryland. (Just hoping.)
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I agree with all of the above, but especially loved Dana Scully and Gillian Anderson is absolutely brilliant in THE FALL. (I haven't seen the second series. Must watch now!)
Also 100% with Hallie on SCOTT AND BAILEY. I LOVE this show. I think it's the best show with female detectives ever done on television--probably best including movies. Scott and Baily are so real and so multi-layered and so fallible and SO good at their jobs. If you haven't see this, find it.
One more, going back to the 90s, and not a cop, so I'm fudging a little. But I loved Jill Hennessey as the investigating medical examiner in CROSSING JORDAN. Great character, great ensemble cast, great writing.
Oh, and yes to Julia on the "One Quirky Girl." So annoying. Although NCIS New Orleans now has two female detectives and a terrific female medical examiner.
And LOVE Lucy Liu in ELEMENTARY!
And can I just add, if you want to see great interview technique, watch Janet Scott in Scott and Baily. I would tell her anything!
HALLIE: So who would you add to this pantheon of great female TV detectives, and if you have any pet peeves on the topic, air away!