Screen Test

Bad Moms star Mila Kunis worries her daughter will grow up spoilt

Anna Friel stars as a murder squad cop in Netflix series Marcella.
Anna Friel stars as a murder squad cop in Netflix series Marcella.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Marcella, about a former sleuth who goes back to her job, is a hot mess while The Fall is a subtle yet intense thriller pitting a superintendent against a killer

Forget Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock or Idris Elba in Luther - some of the best British crime dramas in recent years have been three shows far fewer people know about: The Fall, Broadchurch and Happy Valley.

All are impeccably written character studies of female detectives who become personally entangled in the horrific crimes they investigate.

Heavily influenced by moody Nordic noir procedural thrillers such as The Bridge and The Killing, The Fall, Broadchurch and Happy Valley are about very different women, but each is more layered, vulnerable and real than Sherlock's Teflon-coated savant or Luther's crime-fighting antihero, which is now a thoroughly overused trope.

Yet a new eight-part series, Marcella, is not quite as successful - clearly, there is more to making this sub-genre work than simply writing a gritty drama about a female cop. Anna Friel from the television comedy Pushing Daisies (2007-2009) is Marcella Backland, a former London detective who asks for her old job back when a string of homicides reopens a case she worked on 11 years ago.

She is still the best sleuth in the squad, but her marriage is crumbling and this affects her ability to crack the new murders, which are somehow connected to a construction company her husband works for.

  • VIEW IT / MARCELLA SEASON 1

  • Netflix

    2.5/5 stars

    THE FALL SEASONS 1 AND 2

    Netflix

    4/5 stars

    BROADCHURCH SEASONS 1 AND 2

    Netflix

    3.5/5 stars

    HAPPY VALLEY SEASONS 1 AND 2

    ITV (also available on Netflix in the United States but not Singapore)

    3.5/5 stars

As a whodunit, there is enough narrative momentum to hook you, but the show appears to borrow many elements from similar series - along with films such as Silence Of The Lambs (1991) and Memento (2000) - without quite knowing how to string them together convincingly. The result is a hot mess that lurches from one story arc to another together with wildly uneven shifts in pace and tone.

The Fall, which first aired in 2013, is expected to return for a third season later this year. It pits police superintendent Stella Gibson (The X-Files' Gillian Anderson) against serial killer Paul Spector (50 Shades Of Grey's Jamie Dornan), who is targeting young women in Belfast.

But both the hunter and hunted defy stereotype in this intense yet subtle thriller, an elegant character drama disguised as a procedural.

Spector is a sociopath and also a devoted father and bereavement counsellor who tries to rescue one of his clients from an abusive partner. Then there is the steely Gibson, whose demeanour is basically The X-Files' Dana Scully at her po-faced best, only with a not-entirely-convincing British accent. There is more to her than meets the eye, though - not least because she is a woman quietly shrugging off gender expectations in the workplace and the bedroom, where she unapologetically seeks out sex with married men and, occasionally, women, before discarding them.

The Northern Ireland setting and accents also make for a nice change from the London-centric British productions, Broadchurch and Happy Valley. The former uses the Dorset coast and cliffs as its dramatic backdrop and, its first season, at least, is as close to a perfectly crafted murder mystery as you can get (a third season is reportedly in the works this year).

When the body of an 11-year-old boy washes up on the beach of a small town, local police woman Ellie Miller (The Night Manager's Olivia Colman) reluctantly teams up with curmudgeonly new detective inspector Alec Hardy (Doctor Who's David Tennant) to investigate.

Colman is the real star here, turning in a deep and powerfully empathetic portrayal of a woman struggling to balance her professional responsibilities with her role as a wife, mother and friend of the victim's family.

It is not dissimilar to Sarah Lancashire's impressive performance in Happy Valley, where she plays tough-as-nails police sergeant Catherine Cawood, who kicks butt at work, but is still reeling from the suicide of her daughter Becky eight years ago.

Set in an economically depressed area of West Yorkshire, the family drama alone would be compelling enough: Cawood and her sister, a recovering addict, are now bringing up Becky's son Ryan, who was conceived when a man named Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) raped Becky and drove her to kill herself. When Royce is freed from jail, Cawood is determined to keep him away from Ryan, only to realise that the ex-convict is also involved in a local kidnapping that has spun out of control.

The briskly moving plot maintains the suspense of this show well, although the expediency of it all strains credibility at times.

Yet Happy Valley is grounded by its well-observed character moments that embrace human frailty and the messiness of relationships - whether it is Cawood's affair with her former husband, who left because he could not deal with their daughter's death, or the motives of a woman who falls in love with Royce and helps him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Female cops mixed in crime'. Print Edition | Subscribe