Monday, December 14, 2015

Reds' best female TV detectives

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.

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 can I just add, if you want to see great interview technique, watch Janet Scott in Scott and Baily. I would tell her anything!

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!


  1. Adding to the ones already mentioned, which I really enjoyed . . . "Rizzoli and Isles" with Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander [Rizzoli is the detective; Isles is the medical examiner] . . . Poppy Montgomery as Carrie Wells in "Unforgettable". . . .

  2. Molly Silver son (Allison Tollman) of Fargo season one. She figured everything out despite working for a sexist dope who tried to hold her back. (And who is as excited as me for the season two finale tonight? This show is sooooo good.)

  3. "The quirky girl." Ugh. hate that. Probably why I don't watch many detective shows....

  4. I clearly have to start watching Fargo. And R&I.
    And though I miss The Good Wife's detective Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) they wrote a GREAT part for Jason Crouse (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Wow, is he sexy.

  5. Oh, Susan, some of them are really good and it's mostly the long running network tv series that have the quirks.

  6. Vera Stanhope, Ann Cleeves's character and a police detective on the series "Vera." Pugnacious, loyal, with her own sad backstory, empathy for crime victims. Played to frumpy perfection by Brenda Blethyn.

  7. Just echoing about Helen Mirren! The Fargo detective is great but the show is too violent for me. I had to stop watching it.

  8. Oh! Has anyone mentioned Cagney and Lacey? I used to love that show and both female cops.

  9. Yeah, I have not seen Fargo, but I hear so many good things about it.

    And Hallie --so funny. I think that investigator on The Good Wife is creepy. AH. Chacun, etc.
    And don't you think they are going to give Alicia a drinking problem?

    Can you believe how different R&I are from the books? Whoa. Only the names and jobs and settings are the same.

  10. You are spot on with your choices. I love these shows and these powerful characters. They're always flawed but ultimately good as gold. As far as the quirky girls go, I truly get tired of them, especially Penelope on Criminal Minds. I know they're provided for comic relief, but they just get on my nerves.

  11. Speaking of Poppy Montgomery, she was the best part of the drama Without a Trace, as Samantha Spade. It was about FBI agents looking for vanished people, if you missed it, starring Poppy and Anthony LaPaglia.

    I've enjoyed reading the Rizzoli and Isles books, but haven't watched them. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is in The Good Wife now? I've been missing out!

    As much as I dislike James Patterson, the old fake, I did enjoy the Women's Murder Club series. The women actors were slightly different from the books, but I think the changes were actually better in the shows. I really liked Angie Harmon in the lead, and Paula Newsome as the ME.

    Edith, I'm with you on the violence. I've had to stop watching a lot of TV because it's gotten so gratuitous. I used to enjoy Criminal Minds, but it spiraled down into such a dark place it gave me nightmares, and I had to stop watching long before it went off the air.

  12. Same with me on Rizzoli & Isles, Karen & Hank - so different from the characters in the books whom I love love love.

  13. I think it's interesting how many of the characters we've picked are on British shows. When it comes to mysteries/crime, they're doing much more interesting, inventive television across the pond. Also, they don't insist every actress be a ridiculously beautiful 32-year-old. Some of the actresses actually have - gasp - smile lines and crows-feet!

  14. I love THE FALL and HAPPY VALLEY (is there a second season of HV?) I can't believe no one has mentioned Ellie Miller, the female detective in BROADCHURCH I'm not sure of the actress's name, but she's great. I love that the female characters on British shows are not afraid to be unglamorous. I just finished binge-watching Season 2. Now to wait a year for Season 3!

  15. Speaking of British shows, one called New Tricks features a tough and clever female detective who heads a special squad of retired cops brought back on active duty to solve cold cases. Terrific cast, good writing, and just the right amount of humor. There are eight or more seasons on DVD. My other faves are the Miss Fisher Mysteries, although they change several major plot points from the books by Kerry Greenwood, and the Canadian production of Murdock Mysteries (aka The Artful Detective) in which two female medical examiners play key roles. The Murdock series plays a lot of elements for laughs, but with a darker side that somehow works as a whole. I don't watch crime shows on TV, unless you count Castle. I'd rather binge watch a season at a time of one of these.

  16. I can't believe no one has mentioned the first one that popped into my head - Jessica Fletcher. I loved Murder, She Wrote, and Jessica's warm and caring for her friends and family was a huge part of that.

    Then there's Beckett on Castle. She's a sharp detective and a great character. (Hasn't been too smart this season, but I completely blame the writers for that, not the character.)

  17. I second Ellie on Broadchurch. Her character is so real. I also like the head lady on Major crimes who took over for Brenda Lee on the Closer. I am terrible with names today. I really liked the female marshal on Justified who took over when Art was out of action and had to ride herd on Raylan Givens.

  18. I'm happy to add a pet peeve--and maybe it's a reason why the British cop shows with women detectives are so much better. I can't think of a single British show where the female cop totters around on six inch heels at a crime scene. So annoying!

    For those of you who haven't seen New Tricks, I'd suggest starting from the very first season. One of the best shows EVER.

  19. I loved Broadchurch... waiting for season 2. And New Tricks until Amanda Redman left the show.

  20. One of my pet peeves, as well, Debs! And then they run in them, too.

    Hank could do it, but then she's an advanced high heel wearer. The rest of us are mere mortals when it comes to footwear. :-)

  21. Not even Hank would wear heels at a crime scene! Right, Hank! You'd have your special crime scene shoes in the car.

    And Karen, yes, I miss Amanda Redman, too. But I like Tamzin Outhwaite, too. Just don't like the new guys nearly as much.

  22. New Tricks! Never heard of it--hurray!

    And nope, no heels. I carry flats with me at all times--and have a big stash of all kinds of boots under my desk!

    I did have to run in heels once--I splatted, blam, on the sidewalk, and the bad guy (who was just leaving court) turned as I yelled in pain. I got to my feet and we got him on camera.

    We did not air the part where I fell. :-)

  23. I completely agree with S.W.Hubbard. The second season of Broadchurch was awesome! The actress that plays Ellie is Olivia Colman and she is amazing.

  24. In supporting roles, I also like'Vic' Morettee (Katee Sakhoff) of Longmire (an American(!) series now on Netflix) And Havers (Sharon Small) in the BBCs Inspector Lynley series.

  25. Hallie, I really enjoyed Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer. She reminded me of how Southern women can charm the pants off of you while ripping you to shreds. Strong and sassy is always interesting. Like Mark, I like Beckett on Castle, but I agree with him that this season has not been the best for her due to the writing and direction the show has taken. Hank, Karen, and Hallie echo my feelings about Rizzoli and Isles. I love the books, and these two female characters are tough, smart, and resourceful. However, as you say, Hank, only the names remain the same in the television show.

    Julia, I was noticing how most of the highly recommended female characters and shows are from British shows, too. I love British detective and mystery series, but I'm way behind in these shows. I have the first season of Broadchurch in DVD, and I hope I can watch it sometime during the holidays. New Tricks is one I'm going to have to check out, too.

  26. I heartily second shout-outs for Scott & Bailey and Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley. Wonderful, nuanced roles, taut writing, the best in British acting.

    Only frustration is *finding* the shows...Anyone know when the new seasons will show up on this side of the pond?

  27. Adore Brenda Blethen as "Vera." And I liked Mariska Hargitay as Olivia on Law & Order: SVU, back when I could bring myself to watch it. (I'm kinda done with sexual violence on TV.)

    And who mentioned Tea Leoni as Madame Secretary -- Hank? We love the show. And my, hasn't the relationship between Bess and Henry heated up since Leoni and Tim Daly got involved. Although after last night, someone may be using the guest room...

  28. Many really good female detectives mentioned here but, seriously, no Miss Marple fans? Am I the oldest one here? Don't answer that. A&E did a series with Joan Hickson and to me she is the definitive "old pussy" Marple. (I laugh every time she's called that.)
    Maybe it's my advanced years (cough, cough) but Vera has really grown on me; of course it's Brenda Blethyn, so there you are. I do miss David Leon's Joe Ashworth as I liked the development of his relationship with Vera and hated seeing her lose that.
    I absolutely agree with Julia about Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison. That show was fantastic and I purchased the series on DVD... really, I'm about due for a Prime Suspect fix so thank you for this topic!
    Maria Bello did a nice turn on the American version, which sadly was cancelled after one season. Broadchurch, season one...did not see that coming (love when that happens)! Totally missed season two and can't wait til it's released on DVD. Olivia Coleman is always good, isn't she? Loved her in Rev. opposite Tom Hollander, a completely different turn. Sheesh, for someone who doesn't watch much tv, I have a lot of opinions. Thanks, Amazon and Netflix.
    Sorry, Mark, but Murder, She Wrote...meh. Not a fan. It ran for years so I'm obviously in the minority, as I was for the American Prime Suspect. Alas.

  29. Wendy, YES on Joan Hickson's Miss Marple. A character who has been so miscast so often... Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan each one wrong in her own way.

  30. Anyone remember Diana Rigg as Emma Peel? Betty Thomas on Hill Street? Kim Delaney as the alcoholic detective Diane Russell on NYPD Blue?

  31. I remember them all, Jim! Thanks for the ping!
    Esp Emma Peel/Diana Riggs. She was so not a second banana.

  32. Loved The Closer but also really enjoy its TNT spin-off, Major Crimes, headed by Mary McDonnell as Captain Sharon Rayder. She is very smart, very stylish but doesn't find it necessary to bare everything to prove the point (!) and is not a spring chicken. Very worth successor. Kearran Giovanni as Amy Sykes is pretty nifty, too.

    Jessica Raine was fascinating as the new Tuppence in the first episode of the BBC's Partners in Crime, but I haven't gotten to see the rest, yet.

  33. Love New Tricks, although I liked the original men better. I think the new Sup is fine. Vera is wonderful, and so is Scott and Bailey. Both seasons of Broadchurch were amazing -- looking forward to another one. Miss Fisher is great fun -- I love her clothes, and all the cool cars.

  34. Great discussion! I'm putting several of these shows on my to-watch list!

  35. Late to the discussion (telling stories at the library) but I commend the choices (and have written down a few new ones). I love the strong, competent women in these shows. Such good role models! Sweet dreams, all.

  36. Police Captain Laure Berthaud from Spiral (Engrenages), a police procedural from France.

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