How to Watch Your Favorite Female-Led Crime Series on Every Platform
By Stacy Lambe
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When it comes to bingeing a series, the main character really has to be worth following -- even more so when it specifically comes to crime TV, which is not to be confused with courtroom dramas and other female-driven spy or espionage thrillers. On these types of series, it all hinges on the harden yet relatable main detective or central character investigating the mystery at hand. And there’s no one more compelling than the female leads of genre favorites, like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit starring Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson or the British crossover Broadchurch with DS Ellie Miller played by Olivia Colman.
Life in a small town is disrupted after the discovery of a dead boy becomes the focus of a police investigation and media madness. And tensions rise in the police force after an out-of-town Detective Inspector (David Tennant) is made the lead over Detective Sgt. Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman). Now Miller has to put aside her ambitions in order to create a working relationship with Alex Hardy.
Orange Is the New Black breakout star Yael Stone switches sides of the law to play a detective investigating the brutal murder of a gay man, uncovering a series of unexplained deaths in Stone’s native country of Australia. She’s is barely recognizable as Tori, shedding Lorna’s Natalie Wood-inspired prison makeup and harsh Boston accent for the gritty crime drama. “That's my first really strong lead,” Stone says of the role that’s akin to Elisabeth Moss’ turn in Top of the Lake (see below). “That's pretty intimidating for me.”
Creator Rebecca Cutter’s gritty drama follows National Marine Fisheries Service Agent Jackie Quinones (Monica Raymund), a hard-partying lesbian living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, whose life is upended by the discovery of a dead body in Cape Cod Bay. Instead of letting the local police find the people behind the drug-related murder, she tries to solve the case on her own. "When Jackie came on my desk, I could see that she was a broken, pained woman who relies on sex and drugs and alcohol to avoid dealing with her vulnerability, to keep from having to address her trauma or her pain head on and continue living in this alternate reality of glamour, party fun and indulgence," Raymund tells ET. "I was interested in living in that character, because as a human being, I also have oscillated between darkness and lightness."
In 1999, creator Dick Wolf exposed another side of New York City, where crimes were “especially heinous,” in the first (and sole surviving) spinoff of the Law & Order franchise. SVU introduced viewers to a new team of “dedicated detectives” led by Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) who were tasked with bringing justice for sexually based crimes. “At its heart, it's a show about good versus evil,” says Michaela McManus, who played ADA Kim Greylek on season 10. “In a world that's increasingly scary and uncertain, people want to believe there are tireless champions like Benson.”
From the creator of The Bridge is another addictive crime series, this time following former London Metropolitan Police Service detective, Marcella Backland (Anna Friel), who returns to work after her husband abruptly leaves her. She quickly gets back to work, investigating three unsolved murders that may mark the return of a serial killer. But things get complicated when she starts experiencing blackouts on the job.
After the kidnapping and death of her younger sister, Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) becomes determined not to let the same thing happen again. Set in late-1920s Melbourne, Fisher becomes a private detective and quickly takes to solving various crimes and misdemeanors around the Australian city, much to the chagrin of local Detective Inspector John Robinson (Nathan Page). The series was so successful that it spawned a contemporary spin-off, Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries, and the 2020 film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears.
For 12 seasons, Angela Lansbury famously played mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher, who has an uncanny ability to catch an unlikely high number of criminals lurking around idyllic Cabot Cove, Maine. Despite efforts to remake the series, none have come to fruition -- meaning there will never be another Fletcher. “Murder, She Wrote will always be about Cabot Cove and this wonderful little group of people who told those lovely stories and enjoyed a piece of that place -- and also enjoyed Jessica Fletcher -- who is a rare and very individual kind of person,” Lansbury says of the series’ lasting legacy.
Lucy Lawless plays a fearless private investigator named Alexa Crowe, who is lured back into the world of solving crime by her former boss, Detective Inspector Keiran Hussy (Bernard Curry) on this Aussie import. “What’s cool about her is that she’s released from caring what anybody thinks about her,” Lawless says of Crowe, who tragically lost her husband years prior and left police work to grieve. After being drawn back in, she’s reminded how much she enjoys this world. “She’s hooked again.”
For seven seasons, Helen Mirren played the intensely dedicated Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in this British crime procedural. In addition to leading the investigation into various murders around town, Tennison often found herself battling for respect among her male colleagues who don’t hide their displeasure of having to work for a woman.
The game of cat and mouse takes on new meaning in The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson as she hunts down Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a husband and a lunatic who revels in tying up women before murdering them. While only three seasons, each installment is increasingly more intense than the past one as Gibson gets closer to catching the sexy and titillating Spector. “I'm so glad to be a part of that project and to play Stella It's just a wonderful series,” Anderson says.
This American remake is a moody, character-driven crime procedural following Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), a dedicated detective with the Seattle Police Department who is tasked with investigating a murder under the watch of her mentor Detective Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). But the further the pair gets into solving the mystery at hand, the more their styles clash.
The Tunnel is one of several successful remakes of the Swedish crime series, The Bridge. Starring Clémence Poésy as Captain Elise Wassermann and Stephen Dillane as Det. Chief Inspector Karl Roebuck, the British-French remake follows the two detectives as they try to find a serial killer who left the upper half of a French politician and the lower half of a British prostitute in the Channel Tunnel at the midpoint between France and England.
In Top of the Lake, Elisabeth Moss plays Detective Robin Dunn, whose search for a normal routine is buoyed by her traumatic experience investigating the disappearance of a New Zealand girl. In the second installment, China Girl, “she’s more closed off than ever in the beginning,” Moss says of Dunn, who is called back into service to find the killer of an Asian woman, whose body washes ashore on a Sydney beach. Further complicating matters is Dunn’s decision to find the daughter she gave up at birth, the “only thing that’s going to save her from this prison that she’s built for herself,” Moss adds.
Based on real events, the limited series recounts the stories of a teenage girl named Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) who is charged for lying about an assault while two detectives, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever), investigate a serial rapist in another state who may be connected to Adler’s attack. While the series proved to be a surprise hit at the time of its release, Dever is not surprised that the series resonated with so many people and landed big here. “I’m just so happy that so many people got to see this story,” she says, adding that because the series addressed issues of assault, social and police injustice “in an honest way, we opened a lot of eyes.”
This short-lived but beloved series centers around the titular Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), a teenaged private investigator who solved mysteries with her detective dad (Enrico Colantoni). Initially running only three seasons, Mars eventually spawned a Kickstarter-funded movie and a fourth season, a grittier, grown-up version of crime-fighting life in Neptune, California. Despite some dramatic changes in the continuation, the series doesn’t stray too far from its main theme. “I knew I wanted to put Veronica into the ‘haves-and-have-nots’ world that we frequently gone back to,” says creator Rob Thomas.
Carrie-Anne Moss plays FBI Special Agent Maggie Griffin who is brought in to help a homicide detective track down an American serial killer in Norway. The dramatic chase to bring down the notorious killer, who previously got away from Griffin 20 years prior, unfolds over 10 episodes. The actress reveals what hooked her on the series was the fact that it’s this multilingual show, bouncing back and forth between English and Norwegian. “When I read it, I thought, ‘Wow. This is really different.’ And I really liked Maggie a lot,” she says.