In the wake of the fantastically dark and delightful Killing Eve, which premiered on BBC America this month to critical and commercial success, we’ve decided to dig into the detective drama canon and create a list of the most badass and brutal female led-detective shows for your viewing pleasure. Whether you’re looking for a chilling Scandinavian noir or a horror-tinged serial killer thriller, we’ve got you covered. So without further ado, enjoy this collection of complex, intelligent women and the brilliant shows that they lead!
Gillian Anderson’s starring role as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson makes The Fall one of the most engaging, dark, and disturbing detective offerings in recent years. She stars opposite Jamie Dornan, who plays the brutal serial killer Paul Spector. The pair become entwined in a terrifying game of cat and mouse as Stella finds herself inexplicably drawn to the man she’s hunting. A total treat for fans of Anderson, great detective dramas, and strikingly powerful performances.
A total trailblazer for female detectives, Helen Mirren starred as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in this groundbreaking procedural, which explored the structural sexism within the Metropolitan police force. Offering a uniquely interior and personal look at a woman defined and increasingly frustrated by her job, the show was also remarkable because it was developed (and occasionally written) by crime writer Lynda La Plante, a rare woman behind the scenes of a primetime British drama.
This French offering from 2017 is an utter triumph of slow-burn atmospheric storytelling, with a great conceit at its center. Set in contemporary Paris, the show focuses on Carole Bouquet’s incredible performance as Jeanne Deber, a notorious serial killer who’s called on by the police after a copycat begins to wreak havoc. She agrees on one condition: that she’s teamed up with her estranged son, Detective Damien Carrot. A great twist on the Hannibal Lecter-style story of a murderer helping to catch one of their own, La Mante is a hidden gem.
Though Netflix’s Seven Seconds differs from the rest of our entries as it’s a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about police brutality and corruption, the show’s supremely talented lead Clare-Hope Ashitey is a brilliant addition to our list. Ashitey plays K.J. Harper, a prosecutor who’s tasked with the case of a young black man severely injured in a hit and run. The audience knows from the outset that the victim was hit by a police officer engaged in a cover-up, but it’s up to Harper to uncover the injustice as the show goes on.
It’s almost painful to watch Olivia Colman’s powerhouse turn as a vulnerable, strong, and confused local detective thrown into the middle of a devastating murder case in which the victim is the best friend of her son. Backed up by David Tennant, the first season of Broadchurch will keep you guessing until the horrifying reveal, and Colman’s incredible performance is at the center of it all.
This bleak and brilliant show introduces us to Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood, a tough-as-nails detective whose life was torn apart by the rape and suicide of her daughter Becky. When the man who assaulted Becky is released from prison (after having been sentenced for a separate crime) Catherine becomes obsessed with finding him, and unwittingly gets entangled in a kidnapping connected to her daughter’s attacker. Happy Valley is relentlessly distressing yet powerful, but it’s worth watching for the incredible performances from Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, who plays her sister Claire.
Though you might be aware of the AMC remake of this Scandinavian cult classic, we’ve decided to highlight the radical original series that garnered international success for its detailed exploration of a murder investigation. Starring Sofie Gråbøl as the gruff, isolated Detective Sarah Lund, each episode focuses on 24 hours of the ongoing investigation into the murder of a young woman in Copenhagen. The Killing is notable for its bleak tone, unexpected twists, and slow-burn atmosphere that explores both the personal and political ramifications of the murder at the center.
Another great Scandinavian export, this brilliantly dark series sets up a great central conflict: a body is found under a bridge that runs between the Swedish and Danish borders, so the two precincts must work together to solve the crime. At the center is headstrong Swedish detective Saga Norén, played fantastically by Sofia Helin, who must put aside her differences with her Danish counterpart in the interest of collaboration. The killing seems simple at first until the pair begin to unravel a huge plot by a Machiavellian mind who’s been planning their vengeance for a very long time.
Do you have a favorite female detective? Got a great hard boiled tale that we missed? Spotted a show you can’t wait to watch? Let us know below!
Images: Netflix, BBC America, Sveriges Television, DR, ZDF Enterprises, BBC, ITV, Artists Studio, RTE