Collateral, Broadchurch, Happy Valley — limited series with female cops in charge make for evolved stories

Archita Kashyap

Mar 17, 2018 12:23:36 IST

There are a lot of women cops running the show on TV these days. Collateral, a new limited series that Netflix introduced without much ado this week, brings you Carrie Mulligan as Kip Glaspie, a pregnant, calm and in control police officer, in charge of solving a murder that magnifies present day British politics and its impact. True to the BBC’s focus on highbrow entertainment, this four-part series appeals because it is set in present day post-Brexit Britain, where immigrants are a serious ‘issue’.

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A still from Collateral. Netflix

David Hare, the Oscar-nominated writer of The Hours and The Reader, writes this consciously un-dramatic police drama. From being integral to the development of Britain, immigrants from war torn regions like Syria and Iraq, are viewed with suspicion and disdain by the British establishment. Entangled with this murder are the effective side stories of a woman priest, an idealistic and suffering British politician and the present day conflicted British army professional. Together, Collateral comes to life when Glaspie (played by Mulligan with calm, composed conviction) ties up all threads to solve a murder that is closely impacted by politics. The subtlety and sincerity of this pregnant woman cop, not once drawing attention to her physical state, makes Collateral a compelling view. True to form, Hare has stated that there are no plans to make a second season, just for the sake of repeating the first time’s success.

Netflix and other streaming platforms have made it simple to access quality police procedurals where women lead from the front and play  a range of characters as cops. In the last three years, women police officers have become ideal protagonists for gripping crime thrillers and dramas. Refreshingly, none fall in the cliché of a deliberately flawed character (say a smart cop with a drinking problem or sex addiction) but are represented as efficient, confident cops, humane in their imperfections but great at their jobs.

These series highlight an important change in storytelling. These shows underline the empowered female protagonist; more convincing because she is not different from a male cop just because she is a woman. It is this aspect-making, that the cop in the woman stands out before her female identity, which makes these shows so engaging.

Quite a few of these female cop-led shows originate in the United Kingdom. In Broadchurch (streamed on Netflix), yet another British cult classic, Olivia Coleman is the morally upright, wronged woman whose investigation of a shocking local murder leads her to the stunning realization of her twisted husband. Coleman stands shoulder to shoulder with David Tennant in solving crimes that shake a close-knit local community, all this while trying to stay optimistic and be a good mother. Coleman’s character is easy to relate to as a tense mother and exhausted police officer in charge of a crime on a ticking clock.  

Then there’s Happy Valley, where Sarah Lancashire has delivered a pitch perfect performance as Catherine Cawood, a police officer in a picturesque middle England valley town marred by hatred and crimes against women. Having lost her daughter to rape, Catherine takes care of her recovering addict sister and her grand son, a product of the rape, while chasing down misogynistic killers. Two seasons on, audiences are hooked and the third season hangs in the air. Lanchashire has carved a standard as the honest, tough and grieving female police officer with Happy Valley. As audience, you are affected by the underlying tension that marks Catherine at all levels — including her body language and taut behavior.

Then there is Marcella, where Anna Friel returns to policing a series of murders after a career break to start her family. As her husband announces that he will leave her soon, Marcella must cope with her family breaking up, and keeping a clear separation between her professional life and personal mess. Friel’s angsty performance makes one sympathise with Marcella even as her abilities as a cop come to the fore.

Although Gillian Anderson’s British accent drew its share of giggles in The Fall, the cold, super efficient and subtly bossy female police officer Stella Gibson is a memorable character. Gibson is passionate but quite capable of freezing anyone out. Her sole focus is on solving a complex crime. Having brought Jamie Dornan to the limelight, The Fall plays on her uncompromising commitment to her job, breaking clichés and strongly underlining the abilities of a woman leader in a job typically filled by men.

Similarly, the character that Vicky McClure plays in Line of Duty (Kate Fleming) stands on equal footing as a police officer investigating police corruption with her male colleague. Her home life slowly turns to shambles but that bit is a side bar. In her proficiency at her job, Fleming’s character is shown as a brilliant policewoman, capable and committed despite an unstable personal life.   

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Vicky McClure in a still from Line of Duty. YouTube

A brilliant British series that still is not available in India is Unforgotten, where Nicola Walker, along with her partner Sanjeev Bhaskar, solves cold cases from decades ago with steely determination. Unforgotten focuses with such keenness on its cases that the strength of its lead character, played by Walker, is almost not noticed; until you realize that she is its human element.

American television has had female police officers in key roles for decades. A few recent ones stand out for their contemporary connect. Netflix’s co-production, The Killing, featuring Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden, is all about a sincere, dedicated female detective. Enos brings quiet power and utter conviction to her part, systematically sifting through scattered details to build a shocking case. This rain-soaked thriller based in Seattle, adapted from the Danish series Forbrydelsen, is fascinating in its simplicity and stark deployment of a brilliant plot.

Then there is Fargo, the TV series. Having drawn from the original film with its Oscar winning pregnant police officer Marge, played by Frances McDormand, this black comedy meets crime drama retelling has presented inherently American stories interpreted through the prism of black humor. In seasons one and three, Alison Tolman and Carrie Coon play honest, committed small town law enforcement officers having to deal with crimes above their pay grade. They battle prejudice, and political and financial muscle to bring justice. Fargo’s women cops are about women power, without any fuss or drama. They just ARE.

Around the time that Wonder Woman had raised hopes of female super heroes, it is interesting that the female super cop has manifested on the longer format, indulgent small screen. Bringing career best chances to perform for talented actors, these parts have inspired solid performances and characters that one loves to remember. As seasons get renewed and new shows come up, the woman cop, in her various shades and personas, holds potential for more fine viewing and evolved storytelling in future.

Updated Date: Mar 17, 2018 12:26:56 IST