The women taking over TV crime drama

Lindsay Denton, Robin Griffin, Catherine Cawood… modern TV crime drama is overflowing with great women characters…

“Granny’s been in a fight”.

That’s not something you often hear from young boys on TV, much less followed by a matter-of-fact, “she was chasing this scrote and he kicked her in the face”. “Did he get away?” the boastful grandson is asked. “Hell no”.

That exchange, from Happy Valley’s second episode, sums up a shift afoot in modern crime drama. Women in TV crime are no longer just the sexy sidekick, femme fatale, strangled prostitute or pert corpse on the slab – they’re the leads. Grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters; married, divorced, single; keen runners, pianists, swimmers, cat-owners… They’re not all cut from the same cloth, nor are they empty nods towards diversity or ‘find and replace’ stand ins for male characters. They’re women, flawed and heroic, solving crimes, chasing scrotes, and attracting audiences of millions.

But surely there have always been great women in crime TV. Absolutely. A few. Miss Marple. Jessica Fletcher. Cagney & Lacey, Jane Tennison, Dana Scully (though, admittedly, her remit was mostly lizard people and aliens), Kima Greggs. Next to Cracker and Morse and Frost and Bergerac and Poirot and Luther and Lewis and Rebus and Sherlock and Taggart – just to list the tall poppies – the women in the crowd start looking a little sparse. Until now, that is.

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May we introduce Catherine Cawood, Happy Valley’s detective-turned-local-sergeant played by Sarah Lancashire? That woman in the orange cagoule eating chips behind her is DS Ellie Miller, Broadchurch’s golden-hearted gumshoe, irreplaceably brought to life by Olivia Colman (yes, they have technically replaced Colman with Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn for the US remake, but that’s America). Speaking of which, meet Fargo’s Molly Solverson. We mentioned Dana Scully earlier and while that may look like her, you’re mistaken, it’s actually The Fall’s DSI Stella Gibson.

Skulking in the background and glaring at you to turn your music down is Keeley Hawes’ DI Lindsay Denton, a riddle wrapped in a mystery underneath a badly cut fringe. Chatting in the corner are partners Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp), next to them is Brenda Blethyn in a Paddington Bear hat, playing Geordie DCI Vera Stanhope. Sarah Lund needs no introduction of course, but perhaps you haven’t met Saga Noren from The Bridge, or her Gallic counterpart, Elise Wasserman. And that flash of lycra who just ran past on her way to the New Zealand wilderness? That’s Det. Robin Griffin, Top Of The Lake’s young Kiwi copper (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), a specialist in catching child abusers.

As you’ll have gathered, today’s trend owes more to Sarah Lund than Hetty Wainthropp. The modern female TV detective isn’t busying herself with sabotaged singing contests or the case of the missing ornithologist. She’s investigating drug dealers and punching murderers in the solar plexus. “Catherine, what have you done to your face?” scrote-chasing granny Sgt Cawood is asked in Happy Valley, “Oh” she says wafting the concern away “It’s work”. Because that’s exactly what this new crop of female detectives do: their jobs.

Few are brilliant, trouser-chasing, alcoholics with tragic backstories, as they would be were TV writers just making a Davina out of a Dave. That doesn’t mean their personal lives are uncomplicated. There are enough broken engagements, estranged offspring and secrets in these women’s pasts as befits anyone with the poor fortune of being born to a gritty TV drama. They’re also far from perfect, but then, who’s a lead without a flaw these anti-hero happy days?

Take Sgt Cawood, the creation of writer Sally Wainwright (Last Tango In Halifax, Scott & Bailey) and actress Sarah Lancashire. She gives an efficient introduction to herself in the opening episode of the superb six-part BBC drama: “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-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson”. Cawood makes that speech to a would-be suicide in broad daylight, minutes in to episode one. She doesn’t need a whiskey bottle or some noir-y shadows to confess her deep, complicated trauma. With the school run to do and drug-dealers to rugby-tackle, frankly, who has the time?

Sally Wainwright gave a simple explanation when asked why she chose to make her Happy Valley lead a woman. “I love writing about women, they’re heroic”. She’s not wrong. Cawood may channel Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon when she, puffed out from chasing dealers around the estate, tells herself, “you’re getting too bloody old for this Catherine, love” but with a tide of crime and exploitation to fight on her patch, she’s slowing down for nobody.

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As well as being gripping, tremendously performed drama, Happy Valley also acts as a wish fulfilment fantasy for women who’ve ever wished they could stand up for themselves and other people without fear. The series symbolically redistributes power from a vile young misogynist to a grandmother pushing fifty. In one scene Catherine reduces a street heckler to tears in front of his macho mates and barely breaks her stride doing it. She’s not a bully, understand, that wouldn’t be the attraction. Catherine Cawood is a menopausal Buffy the Vampire Slayer, going where we’d be afraid to and slaying metaphorical monsters. And we love her for it.

Top Of The Lake’s young Robin Griffin is at the other end of her career, but just as satisfying to watch. In the course of six episodes, she kicked a chauvinist rural police station into line, glassed a rapist, confronted a paedophile, went up against the ultimate patriarch in Peter Mullan’s Matt Mitchum, and rescued a pregnant child from her abuser. The character had her own reasons for specialising in child protection – the traumatic origin story now a prerequisite of TV detectives – but Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s creation was another weapon against violence to women and children, five foot two of compact, gendered justice.

Every bit as dedicated to her work is Lindsay Denton, the lead in Line Of Duty’s second series. Her investigation into the disappearance of a fifteen year-old-girl who disappeared from her foster home plays second fiddle to the drama’s main intrigue around Denton’s corruption charges, but it’s another instance of a woman detective on TV going up against the criminals who abuse vulnerable girls and think they’re untouchable.

Crucially, there are also wonderful men in these women’s lives. Caring, loving, justice-seeking men like Top Of The Lake’s Johnno and Jamie, Happy Valley’s Richard and Daniel, even Broadchurch’s grumpy Alec Hardy. This new trend is by no means anti-men – who’d watch such lopsided, untruthful drama? It is righting a patriarchal imbalance though. For years, male characters have been heroic on television, rescuing victims and bringing justice to monsters. Now, women are doing it. They’re saving children, fighting rapists, and protecting people from male violence. After decades of watching men be the heroes, it’s exhilarating and cathartic to see women joining them.

We salute them then, Catherine Cawood, Robin Griffin, Lindsay Denton, Ellie Miller and more. They’re modern crime TV’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, protecting girls and children from misogynist and patriarchal abuses, and making fantastic, ratings-winning TV in the process. Are they going away anytime soon? Hell no.

Read our spoiler-filled review of the Happy Valley finale, here.

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