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.