True Detective’s first season was gorgeous. It’s beautifully shot, the kind of evocative camera work that makes Louisiana look like something ancient – the only comparison I can come up with is the effect that Daniel Woodrell achieves in Winter’s Bone, a novel set in the present tense but that uses language that reads like it’s from antiquity, mythological, like it has always been in being. It’s stunning – in one episode finale, the viewers are thrown into the midst of a shoot-out, hectic panicky breath-taking immediacy without respite, like nothing else I’ve ever seen on TV. It also needs to (and maybe not in a general sense – but for me, because it was in my mind about halfway through the season, when it became clearer where it was heading) live up to a comparison with last year’s Top of the Lake, which was about an entirely different landscape, but equally portrayed violence (and specifically, violence against women and children) as something so permanent and vile that it was almost inscribed upon the land itself, and inescapable reality of everyone living on it, and a heritance for whole families to bear. True Detective is more explicit in the sense of actually using Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence – it’s a self-conscious evil, an evil that reflects upon itself in concepts that Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle, outspoken existentialist constantly confronted with what he perceives as religious irrationality, understands well. It also has a less satisfying, if that is even a measure for such things, finale, again, gorgeously evocative, turning its attention to the current version of the recurring evil who turns out to be more engaging than either of the detectives (maybe, to stay with the themes the show is so fond of, because it is entirely self-aware, because it has answered “who am I” unequivocally), but also not the rage-fuelled, gut-wrenching descent into the underworld of Elisabeth Moss’ Robin, especially because it relied so much on the idea of ancient evil inhabiting a seemingly ancient place (for Robin, it was one of those expensive architecture-build houses, for Rust and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart, the ruins of a pre-Civil war fortress that looks like it may have been built a thousand years ago, a twist on the thorny maze surrounding the castle in which Cinderella sleeps).
It was also an unsatisfying season as a whole, despite its strengths and its undeniable pull, because it kept introducing female characters, kept indicating that they had interesting stories to tell, but then turned out to be utterly disinterested in either them or their stories, which mostly achieved to contrast Marty and Rust – both set in their ways, until the end – against characters that may have been more captivating than them if only they’d been given the space to tell their own story. It’s an interesting (and frustrating) twist of sorts to have a show that so often talks about misogyny and the particular way in which women are disregarded in this land (land seems to be the appropriate name for what is travelled here), and then turns away from them to see them only through Marty and Rust’s eyes, victims or wives and girlfriends who make their lives complicated. It fits in with the conclusion: having faced this evil but presumably, if all the stories about its persistence and age are true, not even having made a dent in its continued existence, they bond, glad to have finally found a way to connect over both their individual fucked-upness. It’s still a pretty show, but the whole thing is also oddly reminiscent of that film that Matthew McConaughey actually won his big award for (presuming he didn’t in fact win for playing Rust Cohle in a highly discussed and widely viewed TV show): asked if he had looked into actually casting a transgender actress for a role in Dallas Buyers Club, the director responded that he wasn’t quite sure if they existed. “I’m not aiming for the real thing.” True Detective doesn’t seem to be sure if women really do exist if men aren’t looking at them.
But why crime shows, anyway? For being part of a team that solves a riddle (if the show allows you to)? For the dynamics between the characters involved, or what the crimes themselves say about a particular space and time and the people inhabiting it, for seeing a variation of the same thing over and over and finding joy in that variation and comfort in the repetition? The Bletchley Circle: a series about a group of women who used to be code breakers during WW2 and are now expected to lead ordinary existences, barred from every discussing their past because it must remain secret, not just, as it seems, for national security, but also to uphold the assigned gender roles once the war is over. Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) is given a book of crossword puzzles by her observant husband who notices that her active mind isn’t fully occupied by the tasks of a housewife and mother – a little gesture of kindness from his perspective, an act of derision and not taking her seriously from ours, since we’ve seen her run circles around men like him when she was still allowed to do it. So they set their mind to solving crimes, crimes specifically ignores by the police force because they target marginalized women, and are committed by people who hate women. A serial killer in the first season, a criminal organisation exploiting poverty and women wanting a better life for themselves elsewhere in the second. Acting as vigilante detectives allows them to be awesome again, and they are so because each of them brings their own talent to the table (an independent spirit, a photographic memory, toughness, the kind of investigative brilliance that only a kind and empathic mind can have). It’s about a time and a place – post-War, London – but more importantly, about the women and their relationships with each other (even if the full story is sometimes hidden in hints, in wounds that obviously haven’t healed yet).
Scott & Bailey, a more conventional procedural thriving on the chemistry between the two leads, played by Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, a show that perfectly manages to balance diving into the private lives of its main characters as well as following their investigative work, constantly overseen by their boss, DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). The show doesn’t necessarily need to be innovative, it lives on its very good cast and the compelling characters. Line of Duty, with a more confined objective: follow an anti-corruption unit trying to uncover “bent coppers”, a concept with a twist, since each season gives just as much space to the police officers in the crosshairs of the investigative team (played by Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure and Martin Compston), making their guilt or innocence a more personal question than it would be if they were clear-cut villains. The show has its short-comings: an obsession with tying things up too neatly while trying to fit in too many twists on the way to the solution to throw the viewers off, but the performance Keeley Hawes delivered in the just-finished second season is a game-changer: a stoic character struggling against a system dealing her blow after blow, keeping her dignity and strength in the face of impossible hardship, to a point where her guilt or innocence almost becomes irrelevant.
One step further along the line, past the initial investigation, there’s Silk, now in its third season (and having finally really come into its own in its current season), starring Maxine Peake as Martha Costello, QC: constantly trying to figure out how much empathy is necessary to be effective in prosecution or defence, or if it is ever possible to put away the paperwork and have a life outside the courtroom if what she does has such an impact on other people’s lives. Good characters and a fantastic lead, brilliant acting, the cases interesting enough on their own but really enthalling when they impact the conception that either of the involved barristers has of the world or themselves. Janet King, despite the similarities to Silk, but has a singular lead character played by Marta Dusseldorp, constantly frustrated by the limitations that a tight budget and “compromising” with the very involved police force (an involvement that sometimes borders corruption), recently returned to her job and struggling to balance it with twins and a wife who herself is having a hard time settling into her new role. It’s the combination of ambition and empathy in both Martha Costello and Janet King that is sweeping – in the long run, a much more satisfying and riveting than Marty and Rust’s serpent, biting its own tail, which really just leads to characters turning in circles, even if they now at least have each other.
True Detective (2014-), created by Nic Pizzolatto, starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles, J.D. Evermore.
The Bletchley Circle (2012-), starring Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham, Sophie Rundle, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Hattie Morahan.
Scott & Bailey (2011-), created by Sally Wainwright, Diane Taylor, starring Lesley Sharp, Suranne Jones, Amelia Bullmore, David Prosho, Tony Mooney, Ben Batt, Delroy Brown.
Line of Duty (2011-), created by Jed Mercurio, starring Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure, Martin Compston, Craig Parkinson, Neil Morrissey, Keeley Hawes, Lennie James.
Silk (2011-2014), created by Peter Moffat, starring Maxine Peake, Neil Stuke, Rupert Penry-Jones, John Macmillan.
Janet King (2014-), starring Marta Dusseldorp, Ella Scott Lynch, Hamish Michael, Andrea Demetriades, Aimee Pedersen, Damian Walshe-Howling, Christopher Morris, Peter Kowitz, Vince Colosimo.