Asked to name the top male TV cops of all time wouldn’t pose a difficult challenge. The genre is dominated by hard-bitten, good men who push the line to get justice. But these days, it’s really female cops on TV who are driving cult-like fandom for shows including The Bridge, The Killing, Scott & Bailey and Broadchurch.
As a child of the 1980s, my introduction to female cops on TV began with The Bill (June Carver, my first idol). I watched re-runs of 21 Jump Street during my early teens and back-to-back episodes of Law & Order in the 1990s (the theme music still makes me feel like having a all-nighter session).
My criteria for the best female cops on TV is simple: they are truly believable human beings, rather than one-dimensional cops - women with complicated lives and relatable concerns (think single parents, addictions, bad habits, imperfect relationships, mortgages to pay, lack of fashion sensibility…you get the gist). But I also wanted to find women who are seriously dedicated to their jobs, stand by their values and take their ethical duties seriously as authorities of the law. Women who can get sh*t done, even when their male counterparts are vying to win in a battle of one-upmanship.
Here's my top ten:
Saga Noren, The Bridge
If there is a more compassionate and nuanced depiction of a professional woman dealing with autism and a broken family history, it hasn’t yet topped the work of Swedish actress Sofia Helin who plays a straight-talking Nordic detective. The final fourth season of The Bridge recently aired, and there have been numerous remakes from France to the US.
Oblivious to social niceties like small talk or even introductions, Noren is frank, forthright and passionate about her job, to the detriment of personal relationships and her own health. She is paired with men who can’t match her intense dedication to the task of finding and punishing killers, but for whom she proves a compassionate, dependable partner.
Sarah Lund, The Killing
This Danish crime drama attracted cult status among crime TV lovers, largely thanks to its star. Sarah Lund is assigned to a murder case in Copenhagen, right as she is on the brink of moving to live with her fiancé and son in Sweden. Confronted by darkly twisted politics and a misogynistic workplace and community, Lund is seriously challenged to find the rapist and murderer of 19-year-old Birk Larsen.
Lund doesn’t bring the glamour – her lack of pretensions and gloss in favour of practical woolly jumpers and no makeup endear her to women everywhere who roll their eyes at the supermodels-playing-detectives trend, which can be spotted on shows like the CSI franchise and Charlie’s Angels.
June Ackland, The Bill
From 1983 to 2007, June Ackland was a household stalwart both in Britain and beyond. One of the few female “coppers” to walk the beat, Ackland was equal measures compassionate and fiercely intense in her defence of victims.
From car chases to stolen handbags, domestic violence to the death of colleagues, there wasn’t a scenario she couldn’t approach with aplomb. Her chic blond pixie-cut and big brown eyes gave the superficial impression she was a kindly “Aunty June” type, but she had a serious take-no-prisoners attitude during interviews at the station.
Shakima "Kima" Greggs, The Wire
One of Baltimore’s finest, Kima Greggs is “good people” as her detective colleague Jimmy McNulty would say. Openly gay in a predominantly male and heterosexual workplace, Greggs doesn’t hide her sexuality or her failings as a person and a professional. Infidelity, excessive drinking and a history of broken relationships only make her more lovable.
Funny, sardonic, smart-ass – and yet, generous and big-hearted – Greggs is most admirable when she cultivates a relationship with drug-addict Bubbles who proves to be a key police informant. While initially, the script called for Greggs to be shot and killed in the first season, her popularity ensured that she was only wounded and returned for future seasons.
Anita Van Buren, Law & Order
Lieutenant Van Buren was head of the 27th Precinct for almost 20 years on Law and Order, overseeing Lennie Briscoe, Rey Curtis, Joe Fontana, Ed Green and Mike Logan amongst many others to come and go.
Van Buren was almost maternal towards her detectives but proved to be a serious hardass when challenged on her choices, especially by lawyers and judges. Haunted by the accidental killing of an unarmed kid during an attempted robbery, Van Buren was eminently trustworthy, full of the same self-criticism and worries that all women contend with daily. Her family life, with two young sons, never comes across as sentimental or tokenistic.
Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect
A lone woman in a very male, chauvinistic and blokey police force, Tennison was the making of Helen Mirren’s multi-award-winning career. Whatever movie roles she has won accolades for, it is her unwavering, dogged commitment to pursuing criminals as Jane Tennison in the TV version of Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect that she’ll always be remembered for. Her single-minded devotion to seeking clues and defending victims costs her relationships, friends and her own health: in later seasons her issues with alcoholism and abortion are candidly battled. There will never be another actress who can embody Tennison, though attempts have been made.
Hanna Svensson, Before We Die
How many female cops would dob in their own sons for drug dealing? Hanna Svensson would – whether for his own good or hers is open to interpretation. Svensson’s lover is kidnapped in the opening scenes of Before We Die and it’s up to her and a reluctant male partner to find out why.
Quickly entangled in a drugs cartel which was tied to outlaw bikies and European drug traffickers, Svensson and her son are thrown into an unwilling partnership to expose the gang leaders. They also rediscover their trust in one another. Svensson is human, flawed, and totally watchable.
Ellie Miller, Broadchurch
Sure, David Tennant is every thinking woman’s crumpet, but it’s Ellie Miller who women want to wrap up in their arms and tut over. Ellie’s facial expressions tell us a novel’s worth of stories in mere seconds of a camera close-up. She’s a loving mother but a blissfully ignorant wife who painfully confronts her own darkness when her husband is jailed for murdering the young boy he’s groomed over many months. Despite being the wife of a child-killer, there is a centre of pure goodness and belief in humanity that makes Ellie Miller undeniably relatable and sympathetic.
Dana Scully, The X-Files
One of the all-time greats, Scully was the short, red-haired, sceptical partner to alien-conspiracist Mulder. While Mulder hurriedly assumed paranormal causes for almost everything, it was Scully’s intelligent, considered poker-face that viewers relied on for a dose of reality.
Scully is the overachiever we all secretly wish we were: a medical doctor, scientist and FBI recruit. We gain glimpses of her family throughout many seasons of The X-Files: a staunchly Catholic father, mother and sister but it is her bordering-on-obsession, mutually dedicated partnership with the troubled lone wolf, Agent Mulder, that brings us back to the show time and again.
Sergeant Kay Howard, Homicide: Life On The Street
Melissa Leo is best known for playing take-no-prisoners, bullshit-free characters. As Kay Howard on Homicide – a cult series that served as a predecessor to The Wire – Leo was one of the best cops in the precinct, with a record for solving cases that put her colleagues in the shadows. Though often sarcastic, poker-faced and sceptical, she also looked entirely broken by what human beings were capable of at times.
Despite her exceptional record at solving crimes, she wasn’t beyond human weakness: she had an affair with a married colleague and trumped her fellow detectives to become a Sergeant, ultimately alienating many of her friends and workmates.
Well, that's my 10. Do you agree? Am I way off the mark? Your thoughts and votes are welcome...
The Bridge is streaming at SBS On Demand: