The British detective story is enjoying a golden age unparalleled since the days of Agatha Christie or perhaps even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The heroes of the current era are not the preternaturally gifted, idiosyncratic dabblers of old—not, as Sherlock Holmes preferred to describe himself, “consulting detectives.” They are professional detectives—or to be more precise, detective sergeants, detective inspectors, detective chief inspectors, and so on. And they are principally found not on the written page, but on the small screen.
While American viewers shake off the hangover from our long bender of forensic TV franchises (did I only imagine Law & Order: Special Veterinary Unit and CSI: Wichita?), Britain has been doing a booming export business in tidy, ruminative detective series: Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Shetland, Unforgotten, River, Vera, The Loch, Hinterland, and more. Reliable viewership numbers are hard to come by, but if you begin questioning friends and family, before long you’re likely to discover a semi-fanatical devotee of the genre among them.
These series are police-centered, featuring one or two officers operating within a larger departmental structure of (mostly) able lieutenants and (frequently) obstructive higher-ups. Many of them are concerned with the ugliest of crimes—murder, forced prostitution, pedophilia. Yet what makes them distinctive is their refusal to wallow in grimness, instead stepping back to make room for emotions such as grief and guilt and faith and redemption in a manner not at all typical of American cop fare. To watch these shows during a period of real-life police turmoil has only made the transatlantic contrast more vivid.
Common to the British imports is a leisurely pacing that usually means each case unfolds over the course of a season. Many series focus intently on a particular out-of-the-way locale. Shetland takes place in the northernmost isles of Scotland, Broadchurch on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, Hinterland in Mid Wales. These communities—and the ties within them that bind and fray—can be as important as any individual character.
Notably, the principal investigator is more often than not a woman. The ur-text of these programs is Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, which launched in 1991 to a British audience of 14 million, and continued on and off until 2006, garnering awards along the way. In Esquire, David Denby called Mirren’s performance as Tennison—driven, ambitious, sharp-elbowed—“the most sustained example of great acting in the history of television.” The program was a biting cross-examination of sexism in an overwhelmingly male profession. And although it also explored subjects such as racism, homophobia, child abuse, immigration, and alcoholism over its long run, the gendered undertow was ever present, tugging at Tennison in spite of her successes.
Prime Suspect has been followed by a remarkable array of British police dramas that are gritty but not heartless, realistic without being nihilistic. The best-known is Broadchurch, an exceptional program that ran for three seasons from 2013 to 2017. The show stars Olivia Colman in an unguarded, occasionally heartbreaking performance as Ellie Miller, a local cop in a cliffside vacation town, and David Tennant as Alec Hardy, the out-of-town officer who swooped in to steal the promotion she thought was hers. Opening with the discovery of the body of an 11-year-old boy—the former best friend, it so happens, of Ellie’s son—the tale quickly expands beyond the specifics of the investigation into a portrait of a village wracked by grief. The victim’s family, Ellie and her husband, the local priest and the tiny newspaper staff, the proprietors of the tobacco shop and the bed-and-breakfast—all harbor mutual suspicions as the town’s bonds of trust begin to unravel.
Like Tennison in Prime Suspect, Ellie—she hates being called “Miller”—faces sexism at work, though thankfully far less, a couple of decades of institutional diversification having done some of their intended work. Her gender is presented as a humanizing influence, especially on her partner, who requires frequent reminders that the suspects he’s grilling are townsfolk experiencing extreme trauma.
This heightened sensitivity is still more evident in Cassie Stuart, the principal detective in the superb series Unforgotten, which has run for three seasons with a fourth in the works. Played by Nicola Walker, Stuart handles cold-case murders decades old, and displays a rare attentiveness both to the victims’ long-bereft loved ones and to the now-middle-aged or older suspects. (What’s more, I don’t believe I’ve seen another show on any subject in which a boss is so committed to offering positive feedback to subordinates.) This aptitude for empathy enriches the themes of the show: Does grief fade over time? Does guilt? Does justice have an expiration date? Should it?
Watching these shows—as well as police series from elsewhere around the globe, such as New Zealand’s Top of the Lake and Scandinavia’s The Killing and The Bridge—one can’t help but note that the tonal contrast with American police series reflects a very different law-enforcement reality. Specifically, in the British shows, closed-circuit television surveillance is everywhere, and handguns are nowhere to be found.
Crime shows set in Britain may offer the best way—apart from actually moving there—to appreciate how much the nation has become a quasi-benevolent surveillance state. If the police need to determine someone’s whereabouts at a particular hour on a particular night, they will dutifully interview witnesses, check phone records, and otherwise establish alibis much as they would in the United States. But they will also—as any fan of these shows can readily attest—check the CCTV. (According to the BBC, Britain has one CCTV camera for every 11 inhabitants.) That’s true even on Shetland, which follows Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) as he and his team bring justice to the tiny sub-Arctic islands (population 23,000), more than 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland. Those distant hamlets and lonely roads sit under the watchful eye of CCTV, too.
This pervasive video footage is an obvious boon not only to British police, but to the writers of British police dramas as well. Is your plot missing a link in the chain of evidence, a way from narrative Point A to narrative Point B? Just check the CCTV footage, and discover a familiar face exiting a pub or a telltale license plate on the highway. More notably, this panoptical scrutiny changes the atmosphere of the shows. The awareness of supervision lends British series a greater sense of control, of order, relative to the urban chaos that prevails on American television. Crime is experienced as a deviation from the norm—something that fell into the cracks between the cameras—rather than the norm itself.
The more glaring contrast between American and British law enforcement—both real and fictive—is the near-total absence of handguns in Britain. (In 2018, for example, London—home to 9 million people—reported just 15 gun homicides.) There are a few American-style TV exceptions that deal with terrorism (Bodyguard) or serial killers (Luther), in which guns are prevalent. The anti-corruption team in Line of Duty sees its share of trigger-happy “authorized firearms officers”—although even they are required to sign their guns back in after each assignment. But on TV as in life, the prospect of gun violence, either by or against the police, is remote.
The cumulative effect on British police shows can’t be overstated. Everyone weaned on American cop dramas, for instance, knows the right way to approach a door behind which a suspect might be waiting: His gun drawn, an officer stands to one side before knocking and declaring himself loudly. The anticipation of violence is so primal that it dominates almost every interaction that involves the police. In your typical British police show, by contrast, a visit to a suspect can resemble a social errand, as unarmed detectives wait patiently in front of a door after ringing the bell. The absence of gunfire—and, more important, of concern about the possibility of gunfire—almost invariably leads to more actual detective work.
At times, British crime shows can seem quaint to an American viewer. The tragic incident that kicks off the excellent miniseries River (starring the magnificent Stellan Skarsgård and, as his partner, Unforgotten’s Walker) would hardly cause a stir on a show on this side of the Atlantic; on River, it creates a use-of-force issue. Skarsgård, on foot and unarmed, chases a suspect who makes an unsuccessful leap from a balcony and falls to his death. This will be treated not only as a police scandal, but as a genuine ethical quandary. Did the cop really have to chase this suspect? Couldn’t he have waited for backup?
American police shows, of course, have their own distinctive strengths. But they tend to play in a different key altogether, raising moral questions that are more flagrant—and, often, more systemic. One of the central themes of HBO’s The Wire, the greatest crime series of all time, is the ubiquity of gun violence. For the first four seasons of the show, the antiheroic stickup man Omar Little is portrayed as the most lethal, invulnerable criminal in all of Baltimore, famous for his taunt “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Then, in Season 5, he is shot and killed in a convenience store by a prepubescent boy whom he’d scarcely noticed. An accidental fall is a tragic exception in the London of River; a deliberate killing is the tragic rule in the Baltimore of The Wire.
A nation’s crime shows are bound to reflect the nation itself. So it is perhaps little wonder that at a moment of police-abuse videos and spikes in gun violence, American viewers are eager for alternative visions—ones as concerned with the victims of violence and their communities as with the perpetrators. Who isn’t hungry for a more humane depiction of law enforcement?