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Brave new dawn for female sleuths

Repressed trauma: Elisabeth Moss faces demons in Top of the Lake.Easily the most fascinating collection of protagonists on television in 2013 were female law enforcement officers.

From the bustling Texas border with Mexico to the pristine wilderness of New Zealand, these women redefined what it was to symbolically wear a badge. They fought their quarries, their colleagues, and often themselves. In the retirement home for old TV cops, Andy Sipowicz and Taggart must be exchanging confused glances.

The lineage of contemporary characters such as Elisabeth Moss’ Detective Robin Griffin in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Diane Kruger’s Detective Sonya Cross in The Bridge, and Gillian Anderson’s Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson in The Fall can be traced squarely back to Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren’s formidable London police officer in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect.

Across seven series, beginning with Prime Suspect in 1991 and ending with Tennison’s retirement in 2006’s Prime Suspect: The Final Act, the character had to break down barriers that began with her own mocking, plotting male colleagues.

As Tennison earned their respect on screen, other writers found the confidence to bring forth their own female-oriented storylines.

Kyra Sedgwick’s Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson in The Closer was one example, lifting in part her no-nonsense attitude and determination from the example set by Jane Tennison. But what’s become noticeable in recent years is how the recent generation go to extremes, both within their own lives and their careers, in ways that Tennison, who struggled with alcohol, would never have allowed herself to even contemplate.

At the end of the first season of Homeland, Claire Danes’ obsessive CIA agent Carrie Mathison undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, and that image of her body convulsing as a plastic separator in her mouth prevents her from communicating is perhaps the show’s defining moment. Here is a woman whose dedication to her job leads to her agreeing, out of both regret and self-loathing, to the inducement of seizures, to the complete disruption of her own brain.

If all the revered male characters of television drama, such as Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Mad Men’s Don Draper, are anti-heroes who put others before themselves to satisfy their needs, then television’s true heroes are the underrated women who are drawn to notions of sacrifice. They’re willing to give up everything they’ve gained, and that is as deep a dramatic wellspring as the one the bad boys’ club has.

There is a risk, however, that their flaws become how they’re defined. Much was made in The Bridge, an American remake of the Swedish-Danish series that highlighted the distinction between those two Scandinavian nations, about the almost cruel commitment to professionalism of Kruger’s Sonya Cross, the El Paso police detective who refuses to even let an ambulance with a heart attack victim inside pass through her crime scene.

Although it was never stated in an episode, Kruger, the writers and the show’s viewers all believed that the character had Asperger syndrome. The show, which returns for a second season later this year despite not distinguishing itself ratings-wise in 2013, found grim reality in qualities that in certain ways are joyfully duplicated by Benedict Cumberbatch’s master detective on Sherlock. One man’s eccentricity is another woman’s struggle.

One of the fascinating elements of these female characters was how they combined a professional outlook with personal pleasure. The Fall, which was a hit for the BBC and recently screened here on Foxtel’s UKTV, followed Anderson’s Stella Gibson through an assignment pursuing a serial killer in Belfast. When she asks a local detective to her hotel room one night, she controls his hands, laying him down in scenes that were interspersed with the murderer ritualistically arranging a victim’s corpse.

Anderson, who has added layers of nuance to her technique since The X-Files era, was a typically driven outsider, but Top of the Lake turned on the repressed trauma of Elisabeth Moss’ Australian police detective, heading up an investigation in the New Zealand hometown where her high school formal ended in a gang rape. Misogyny was a violent reality in fictional Laketop, and Moss was outstanding as a character buffeted by memories.

These are the women who fought for the law, but no one won.

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