When I was growing up, the only person in our extended family who had air-conditioning (and cable TV) was my great-grandmother. On sweltering summer days, she would herd the grandkids into her frigid house and sit us in front of her favorite show, “Murder, She Wrote” — which follows novelist-turned-detective Jessica Fletcher as played by Angela Lansbury — and my twin obsessions with crime dramas and well-crafted female characters emerged in tandem. “Murder, She Wrote” is on Netflix now, and while it does feel dated, it stands out as an early example of women kicking ass in a sea of gun-slinging, doorway-leaning, hot-damsel-rescuing men. The Jessica Fletchers and Miss Marples of television paved the way for more recent female-lead, crime-solving dramas like the four below, many of which have been renewed for continuing seasons or have been revived after years of dormancy.
For those who preferred Velma to danger-prone Daphne, here are four fantastic feminist crime dramas to stream ASAP.
Twin Peaks (1990 to 1991)
At first glance, “Twin Peaks” does not have a stand-out female lead. The show begins and revolves around the now infamous question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” But those doing the most to answer that question are not the men of Twin Peaks, Washington — Agent Dale Cooper and his rag-tag team of local police officers — but the women. Laura’s classmates Donna and Audrey consistently throw themselves into solving the case, wandering in the surreal Washington woods and infiltrating brothels. David Lynch’s post-modern soap opera explores a range of female experiences, from domestic abuse to unplanned pregnancy, and gives weight to the experiences of teenage girls, who are often relegated to the shallow end of the emotional swimming pool. Additionally, David Duchovny (see #2) made guest appearances on the show as a DEA agent named Denise, a transgender woman whom Agent Cooper knew formerly as “Dennis.” Without hesitation or prying, Denise is enthusiastically embraced by Coop — something television 20 years later still struggles with. Aside from its cringe-worthy beauty pageant episodes, “Twin Peaks” was ahead of its time in its portrayal of a wide array of unique women.
A new season of “Twin Peaks” will supposedly air in 2017, making good on a prophecy foretold in the series finale 25 years ago — but famed director Lynch has already joined, left, and rejoined the project since its initial announcement. Fans are cautiously optimistic about the show’s return.
The X-Files (1993 to 2002)
Few shows have so permanently shaped television and influenced pop culture quite like “The X-Files” has. The show pioneered the monster-of-the-week episode structure, built an enviable internal mythology spanning nine seasons and two movies, and created one of television’s first truly feminist characters: Dana Scully. “The X-Files” flipped the traditional male detective, female side-kick script, depicting Scully’s male counterpart Fox Mulder as intuitive and overly-emotional to Scully’s cool, scientific realism. Shoulder pads and slow-burning sexual tension aside, Scully is an actual person — she can kick secret-government-cover-up ass and break down in fearful tears in the same episode. She also has a (sometimes frustratingly) platonic but deep relationship with her partner at the FBI. In so many ways, Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Dana Scully made possible all the crime-fighting female characters who came after her — without her and “The X-Files,” the rest of the shows on this list might never have been made.
Mulder and Scully — everyone’s original OTP — will return to the small screen for six episodes on January 24, 2016.
Top of the Lake (2013)
After binge-watching “True Detective” last spring, I was thoroughly sick of macho-man detectives and pseudo-misogyny. The streamable antidote? “Top of the Lake,” a mini series written and directed by Oscar-winner Jane Campion. The show is helmed by Elizabeth Moss (“Mad Men”), playing a detective who returns to her native New Zealand to investigate the unexplained pregnancy — and subsequent disappearance — of a 12-year-old girl named Tui. Women, and the hurt men consistently cause them, are at the heart of this drama, but the show steers clear of self-pity, instead letting raw anger, vulnerability, and fear drive the motivations of its female characters. The search for Tui plays out against the backdrop of an isolated New Zealand town, tucked away amongst canyons of trees and still lakes — every slow, methodical shot of the series stuns. “Top of the Lake” is simply haunting.
It’s rumored that Elizabeth Moss turned down a starring role in the second season of “True Detective” in favor of continuing “Top of the Lake.” I’d say she dodged a bullet there. “Top of the Lake” does not have a definitive release date for its second season, but expect to see it in late 2016 or early 2017.
The Fall (2013)
Gillian Anderson returns to top off this list with her recent British drama “The Fall.” Anderson plays London-based detective Stella Gibson, who is flown into Belfast to review a mishandled murder case. The show pits Gibson against a serial killer played by Jamie Dornan — their stories unfold in tandem, her stalking him, him stalking female victims to torture and kill. Though the characters rarely share the same physical space, they have a palpable tension, and while the show tempts its viewers to fall a bit in lust with its handsome Irish killer, Gibson never bites. When a male colleague suggests that Gibson is sexually attracted to her prey, she replies, “A woman, I forget who, once asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied that they were afraid that women might laugh at them. When she asked a group of women why women felt threatened by men, they said, ‘We’re afraid they might kill us.’ He might fascinate you. I despise him with every fiber of my being.”
“The Fall” is scheduled to release its third season at the end of 2015 — meaning the feminist television gods have graced us with two powerhouse Gillian Anderson crime-fighting characters to kick-off the new year. Hallelujah.
As fantastic as all five of these shows are, we still have a way to go: This list is dominated by white, middle-class cisgender women. Other shows that might offer some diversity to this list are either not on Netflix or are a bit out of the crime-solving genre, but are certainly worth watching for their female characters: “How to Get Away with Murder,” starring a commanding Viola Davis; Marvel’s “Agent Carter” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which feature a whole range of spin-kicking women; and “Hit and Miss,” starring Chloë Sevigny as a transgender assassin raising four children.