10 Female Detective TV Series That Helped Set the Bar

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Kate Winslet is set to star in Mare of Easttown as a small town detective, which premieres this coming Sunday (April 18) on HBO. We are intrigued, with this being the first time Winslet is portraying a law enforcer. Her character, Mare Sheehan, definitely has the makings of an on-screen detective — she's down and out, working to get her life back together, all the while trying to solve a murder.

This may be a first for Winslet, but there have been a number of genre-defining series that came before:

1. Vera

Vera kicked off in 2011, with Brenda Blethyn taking on the title role. DCI Vera Stanthrope is not your typical law enforcer, saying it how it is and even being a bit rude on some occasions. But, with her time dedicated to solving murders, there is no time to mince words.

Crime writer Ann Cleeves, who created Vera, talked about Blethyn bringing the character to TV, saying in an interview with Radio Times, "I think what they (viewers) mean is they love having this strong, competent, authoritative woman they can identify with who doesn’t mind putting people down and doesn’t need a man in her life to be independent and happy."

2. The Fall

We saw Gillian Anderson as DCI Stella Gibson in The Fall (2013-2016), starring opposite Jamie Dornan as a serial killer. Gibson is brought in to help track down and arrest a mysterious murderer, as the current squad of police officers are stumped.

While Gibson is as brilliant as she is serious about her work, she becomes fixated with the killer himself.

3. Prime Suspect

Helen Mirren took on the role of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the series Prime Suspect from 1991 to 2006. DCI Tennison was not welcomed by her male counterparts, with their sexist behavior at the London precinct getting in the way of solving cases. Even so, she didn't let any of the nonsense throw off her focus.

The Guardian describes the evolution of Tennison, saying, "Mirren’s sensitive and realistic performance ensured the character changed over time, becoming both hardened by the job and softened to other people’s pain."


4. Top of the Lake

The first season of Top of the Lake (2013) saw Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin. Griffin is brought in to help with the search of a missing 12-year-old girl. Her disappearance isn't the only mystery, since the young girl is also pregnant. Griffin specializes in cases involving children and the hope is that she has the background and insight to find the missing girl.

We also saw Moss in the second season, picking up with a new storyline, Top of the Lake: China Girl, which premiered in 2017.

5. Marcella

Marcella (2016-2020) follows a former police detective, portrayed by Anna Friel, who returns to the force after her husband abruptly leaves her. While work can definitely be a distraction from personal problems, Marcella (Friel) needs to keep it together, assigned to a cold case that has now reopened.

She's investigating a murder, but strangely enough, she fears she may be a suspect. She's unsure, as her memory is compromised. 


6. Scott and Bailey

Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones star in the British series Scott and Bailey, which first aired in 2011. Jane Scott (Sharp) and Rachel Bailey (Jones) do their crime fighting in the Greater Manchester area of England. Scott is married, has children and thinks things through before acting. Bailey is single, hotheaded and argumentative. The two are extremely different but absolutely trust each other.

Jones talks about the characters being relatable, saying, "They’re very three-dimensional, they have great jobs and they’re complicated," reports The Belfast Telegraph. 

7. Miss Marple

Agatha Christie's detective Miss Marple hit the pages in 1930, first appearing in the novel The Murder at the Vicarage. All 12 of Christie’s Miss Marple novels were made into a TV series by the BBC, starring Joan Hickson in the title role. The amateur sleuth goes out of her way to help neighbors and friends, solving crimes that keep popping up in their neighborhood.

The series (1984-1992) kicked off with "The Body in the Library," when Marple's neighbors find a dead woman in their home.

8. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries 

Set in the 1920s, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is based in Melbourne, Australia. Heiress Phryne Fisher, played by Essie Davis, may look glamorous and put together, but is haunted by the kidnapping of her younger sister when they were children. Now a detective herself, she works to solve crimes, ranging in all sizes. She has a way about her, able to persuade those to confide in her by using her charm.

Davis talked to The Mary Sue about playing Miss Fisher, saying, "She’s had great tragedy in her past, yet she lives life with such joy, and she loves life so very much, in a way...  I really do love stepping back into that kind of joyous, naughty, upbeat way of living."

9. Cagney and Lacey

The show Cagney & Lacey kicked off in 1982, starring Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, running for seven seasons. Partners Chris Cagney (Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Daly), police the streets of NYC, and while Cagney’s focus is entirely on her career, Lacey balances work and family life as a wife and mother. The partners lean on each other for support.

In the obituary for the show’s co-creator Barbara AvedonThe Independent wrote, “The feminist and peace campaigner helped to break the mold of small-screen American police series. For the first time, two women were featured in the lead roles and presented as equals.”

10. Murder, She Wrote

And, of course, we couldn't leave off Angela Lansbury, who takes on the role of amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996). Jessica is a retired English teacher, who turns to mystery writing and in her downtime... solves crimes. The local authorities are on the scene to conduct their own investigations, but seem to go with the obvious.

That's where Jessica comes in, and digs a little deeper.

Do you think Mare of Easttown will live up to its predecessors?