Based on the number of police TV shows with women in starring roles, you would never know, in real life, women are underrepresented on police forces. Thanks to a couple of trailblazers, fans of police procedurals and crime dramas find that women are particularly successful – and popular – as police detectives, both on foreign TV series and here in the US. In general, the foreign shows are more complex, compelling, and believable.
Cagney & Lacey was the first cop series on American TV to feature, not just one, but two, female leads. It ran from 1982 to 1988, and was a top 10 series for at least one of those years. The show won a long string of nominations – and several awards – from the Emmy Awards and the Golden Globes. Though the series starred women – Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless – as police detectives, in most other ways it stuck to standard American TV conventions.
In 1991, the British ITV network took a giant step forward for womankind with Prime Suspect. The show featured Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a tough, no-nonsense cop. In addition to solving cases, she had to contend with the difficult terrain of a male-dominated police force. She was often frustrated. Over six seasons, Mirren’s complex, realistic portrayal paved the way for many of the characters on our list.
Here, in no particular order, are seven of the best foreign police TV shows featuring female leads.
Stella Gibson is a direct descendant of Jane Tennison. Fifteen years after Prime Suspect, Gillian Anderson’s Gibson still contends with institutionalized sexism. She faces it directly, on her own terms, without compromise. Gibson has a fondness for bedding younger men on the police force who – some would say – bear similarities to the main suspect in a serial murder case that stretches through three seasons.
Though it tips a hat to Prime Suspect, The Fall, which is from BBC TV, stands on it’s own merits. (It’s worth noting that the creator of The Fall, Allan Cubitt, was part of the Prime Suspect writing team.) Few TV shows reveal the culprit in the first episode. Of those that do, The Fall may be the only one that manages to sustain interest and – for the most part – believability through 18 episodes.
The Fall TV series on Netflix is dark and tense with psychological suspense. It’s also one of the best foreign TV series of the last few years.
Where Stella Gibson is cool, aloof, and sophisticated, Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood is plain, working class, and a little rough around the edges. She is also every bit a savvy as Gibson. Sarah Lancashire’s performance as police sergeant Cawood is one of the best things about this TV series from Britain’s BBC One, but there is plenty more to like.
The two seasons involve kidnapping and murder cases that become intertwined with Cawood’s personal life. Her family is soap-opera-worthy, but nothing is overwrought or played for cheap thrills. We see the everyday life and struggles of the working class in England. It just happens that a few of them are particularly nasty characters caught in a life of crime.
The netTVwatch team enjoyed Happy Valley every bit as much as The Fall, though the two shows are very different. Happy Valley will probably return for season 3, but not before 2018 – maybe later. In the meantime, we have seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix to watch again!
In most French cop shows that make it to the US, the plainclothes cops dress in grubby jeans and well worn leather. Not so, lieutenant Sandra Winkler (Marie Dompnier). She is more Gibson than Cawood, but warm and likable, not to mention beautiful. (Based on reader comments, she is the most popular female investigator among our male readers!) She is also one smart cop. No detail escapes her detective’s eye.
Witnesses has one of the more interesting storylines in a genre where it’s hard to be original. The case puts her in an awkward situation, both cooperating and competing with her former mentor, Paul Maisonneuve. The six-episode series from France 2 TV takes a couple of convenient shortcuts in believability, but they are easily overlooked.
Visually, Witnesses is artistic and stylish. There is not much not to like about Witnesses, which is why, for a long time, it was our most popular review. Keep an eye out on Netflix for season 2 later in 2017…we hope.
The Suspects TV series shares some similarities with Happy Valley. It’s regular, working class folks serving as dedicated, police investigators. In this case, it’s two women and one man. The boss is DI Martha Bellamy (Fay Ripley), but most of the investigating work is done by Jack Weston (Damien Molony) and Charlie Steele (Claire Hope-Ashitey).
Suspects has the most realistic feel of any police procedural currently on TV. The actors’ efforts are based on research with retired police and investigative techniques. The dialogue is improvised based on scenes outlined in the “script.” There is little time spent delving into the personal lives of the characters. The result is a tense, fast-paced police drama, with two women – free of glamour and artifice – in leading roles.
Suspects, from Britain’s Channel 5, is one of the best reasons to subscribe to AcornTV.
In Marcella, the lines between guilt and innocence, investigator and culprit, dedication and obsession are all blurry. It makes for an interesting police TV series, one where Marcella Backland – newly returned to the police – may not be on mentally stable ground.
Anna Friel plays the title role of this ITV series billed as a Netflix Original. A former detective sergeant, her character is lured back to the police force to help track down a serial killer. At home, her husband has left, and Marcella is suffering from blackouts. Maybe not the best time to go back to work? Of course, her personal and professional life become intertwined.
Marcella, the TV series, is a little inconsistent, but it’s a good ride. The show is moody, dark, tense and psychologically gripping, perfect for a binge watch. Friel is effective in her role; the series is well-directed, with an ambient soundtrack that matches Marcella’s mental state.
Released at the peak of her Mad Men popularity, Elisabeth Moss is the main reason many viewers made their way to Top of The Lake, a cinematic mystery set in New Zealand. Once there, a different side of Moss was revealed, slowly, layer by layer, one secret at a time in deep, intense performance.
Her character, police detective Robin Griffin is a variation on the classic story of a hometown girl who left for bigger and better things. When she returns for professional reasons, she is forced to confront her past. Though it sounds cliched, the result is not.
Top of the Lake is visually stunning, but it’s also a rich, complex story about a missing girl – and much more. Like many of the series here, this show makes no secret of its feminist viewpoint. Written and directed by Jane Campion, Top of the Lake also stars Holly Hunter as the leader of a strange, all-woman clan living in the wild.
The series is a co-production from Sundance and BBC. Season 2 is in the works. The popularity of our original review of Top of the Lake on another website was part of the reason for starting netTVwatch.
The netTVwatch team thinks Scott & Bailey is a good-not-great series, but still worth mention on our list. It’s like an updated, British version of Cagney & Lacey, free of early 1980s television network constraints. Though the narratives stick with typical TV mystery techniques, there is an attention to detail and character that kept our interest through several seasons of episodes.
Scott is married with children and commitments; Bailey makes the most of her life as a single woman and enjoys wine – a little too much. Their boss is also a woman – the show is a feminist tour de force – but despite (because of?) their dedication to their careers, all three have problems in their personal lives. Along the way, Scott & Bailey directly addresses cultural issues and attitudes while keeping case-solving as the main focus.
Though most of the series discussed here are on Netflix, Scott & Bailey is currently on Hulu.
Scrolling through the netTVwatch archives, you will find several more foreign police TV shows with female leads, but the ones listed here are the best of the lot. It’s also no accident that women are responsible for writing and/or directing responsibilities on about half of these series.
The netTVwatch team turned to foreign TV series out of frustration with the simplicity and predictability of most of the police procedurals and crime dramas on the US networks. It’s characters and stories like those described above that keep us searching for best foreign TV series online.