The Top 3 Women-Led British Detective Shows

TV Lists

Last year we all shared one major thing in common: we got hooked on True Detective and the powerhouse performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. So much so, that we even learned to spell McConaughey’s name properly. This year, I hope we can all come together over a new addiction, namely the British crime drama Broadchurch. The scenery, opening credits and characters may not be quite as intense as what True Detective fans are accustomed to, but each episode leaves you with a cliff-hanger so frustrating, the inhabitants of your living room will undoubtedly all join together in a chorus of “Aaah, nooo!” Aside from its obviously intriguing storyline, the backbone of this show is the indisputable contrast between grumpily harsh DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), and the gentle and goofy DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman). While Hardy might have the upper hand in Season One, Ellie takes over in Season Two, with the kind of adrenalized, coffee-infused determination only true detectives are capable of.

This new shift on Broadchurch got us thinking about recent shows that have put female detectives back into the driving seat—series like The Killing and Wire in the Blood still heavily rely on the male counterpart, but without pushing the female detectives into the background. And then there are a select few detective series that have women running the entire show. So here are our picks for the three best British women detectives on TV right now!

3. Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood, Happy Valley

We’re first introduced to the kind-hearted, but strong-willed Yorkshire police sergeant Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) when a love-sick loon decides to set himself on fire on the playgrounds of a local estate. While grandmas and neighbors panic, and drunken youth egg the desperate pyromaniac on, Cawood adopts a pretty lax approach. She decides to prepare for the worst case scenario by going to a supermarket first, to equip herself with chords to hold her sunglasses: “He can send himself to paradise—that’s his choice—but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him.” She comes across as a bit of a hard ass but, as she reaches the heartbroken man, she tries to level with him by sharing her story, revealing that there’s much more to her than a don´t-mess-with-me attitude: “I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m forty-seven. I’m divorced. I live with my sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown children—one dead, one who don’t speak to me—and a grandson. So.”

Cawood handles the emotional man flawlessly and moves on to her next pressing case: Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), the daughter of successful business man Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan), has been kidnapped. When long-term employee and life-long friend Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pumberton) asks Nevison for a raise in order to put his daughter through college, he is angered by Nevison’s unwillingness to grant it. Feeling betrayed and unappreciated, he comes up with a plan to kidnap Nevison’s daughter with the help of Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong). Kevin soon regrets his decision, but Ashley refuses to back out. Cawood leads the investigation but finds herself distracted when she sees Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man she believes drove her daughter to suicide—who also happens to be the father of her grandchild. She becomes consumed with her need to put him behind bars, though we’re quite sure she’d much prefer to kill him. It’d be an understatement to say that she’s having a rough time of it at home, at work and even in her own mind, but this character’s brilliance and sheer perseverance makes the series an absolute must watch.

2. DS Ellie Miller, Broadchurch

Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) is a devoted mother and a beloved detective who wears her heart on her sleeves. Her maternal instincts reach far beyond her own household and she is known to look out for everyone in her department as well as her hometown, Broadchurch. But all this is about to change when her son Tom’s best friend Danny Latimer is murdered. The Latimers and the Millers have been friends for a long time and Ellie finds herself torn between her commitments as a Detective Sergeant and her love and sympathy for Danny’s grieving family. On top of that, she is forced to work alongside the incredibly grouchy DI Alec Hardy. At first, Ellie has difficulty believing that someone from her friendly, close-knit community could be a suspect, but the investigation soon has her waking up to those dark realities she had hoped never to deal with.

Inspired by the hit-series Twin Peaks, writer and creator Chris Chibnall explores the impact the horrendous loss of a child can have on a small town. As the investigation comes into full swing, respected members of the community are questioned, scrutinized and blamed for wrong-doings. Finger-pointing and name-calling intensifies the case and Miller tries her best to find a balance between the hard facts and her increasingly growing sympathy for her close family friends. But when the investigation leads the detectives to Ellie Miller’s own husband Joe, all hell breaks loose. Season Two shows us the aftermath of some major developments in Joe’s story, but we also watch as Miller soldiers on, and throws herself into Hardy’s old Sandbrook case.

1. Superintendent Stella Gibson, The Fall

Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) did for detective series what Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City) did for all the single ladies on TV: she convinced the general public that male detectives were no longer wearing the pants. Unlike Broadchurch’s Ellie Miller (who is open, friendly and charming in a sweet sort of way), Gibson follows more in the classic tradition of female detectives. She is emotionally unavailable, stern, stoic and somewhat broken, without being a complete wreck. In The Fall, Superintendent Stella Gibson is assigned to review a murder investigation that has been active for more than twenty-eight years. During her stay in Belfast, a new case starts developing and she prolongs her stay. Stella is highly respected by her colleagues but doesn’t show any further interest in developing personal relationships. That said, she has no problem engaging in casual sex for the sake of pressure release rather than any particular longing or need. She knows what she wants, and she gets it, even if that certain “it” is supplied by one of her colleagues.

As Gibson carefully studies the small clues the killer leaves behind, she slowly starts delving deeper into his psyche, putting together the pieces of a broken personality. Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) may look like a content family man and professional bereavement counselor on the outside, but his sadistic fantasies have gotten the better of him. Although he seems to love his children, you can practically smell a quiet kind of apathy and resentment he holds towards his family life, particularly his wife. When Gibson comes to understand what it is he seeks, it’s not long before they’re following each other’s footprints.

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