The 11 Best Female Detective TV Shows, Ranked

In a genre dominated by men, these detective TV shows shine with female leads who are unlike the usual detectives you know.
The 11 Best Female Detective TV Shows, Ranked

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From the days of Sherlock Holmes to the era of Humphrey Bogart and film noir to the TV detectives of modern television, the crime genre has long been dominated by men. But that's slowly changing.

During Hollywood's Golden Age, the only parts women had to play in murder mysteries were as femme fatales, murder victims, or sidelined wives of the more important characters. Never did we see a female holding the magnifying glass itself.

Today, it's a lot more commonplace for a woman—usually tougher than iron or cleverer than Holmes—to be doing the investigating. In fact, the upcoming fourth season of True Detective will see Jodie Foster and Kali Reis in the lead roles as a female detective pair.

Here are my picks for the very best TV shows with female detectives spearheading investigations and why they stand out.

11. Top of the Lake (2013)

Created by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee

Starring Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan

Crime, Drama, Mystery

13 episodes (2 seasons)

7.4 on IMDb

The detective genre has a stricter formula than most movie genres, so it's harder to explore new dimensions within it that haven't already been rehashed so many times.

But Top of the Lake manages to elegantly transform the predictable into something haunting, like an impressionist painting come to life against the New Zealand mountains (where the show is set).

At its center is Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a detective from Sydney whose softness and optimism break against her razor-sharp surroundings as well as the cynical detective stereotype.

10. The Tunnel (2013)

Created by Ben Richards and Hans Rosenfeldt

Starring Stephen Dillane, Clémence Poésy, Angel Coulby

Crime, Drama, Mystery

24 episodes (3 seasons)

7.9 on IMDb

The Tunnel sets itself apart from other murder mystery TV shows by immediately opening to a collision between worlds.

One half of a French politician and one half of a British prostitute are left smack bang in the middle of France and the UK, so one detective from each country are called to solve the case together.

Clémence Poésy plays the French detective Captain Elise Wassermann. Elise is smart, anti-social, and detail-obsessed, with a personality type consistent with Asperger's syndrome.

Elise adds a level of intelligence and curiosity to The Tunnel that allows for the much-beloved police odd couple arc to unfold with her polar-opposite partner DCI Karl Roebuck (played by Stephen Dillane).

9. The Fall (2013)

Created by Allan Cubitt

Starring Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan, John Lynch

Crime, Drama, Thriller

17 episodes (3 seasons)

8.1 on IMDb

Clearly, 2013 was a great year for female detectives on TV, and that was further cemented by Gillian Anderson joining the ranks as Superintendent Stella Gibson in The Fall.

Top of the chain of command at the Metropolitan Police Service, Stella must oversee and review other criminal cases. But when the Northern Ireland police alert Stella to an active serial killer, she tries to track down the murderer in Belfast herself.

The Fall was appreciated more by the public than by critics, with fans falling in love with Anderson's performance. The fact that we're shown the killer from the very start, Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan), also gives The Fall an unusually intriguing quality.

8. Line of Duty (2012)

Created by Jed Mercurio

Starring Lennie James, Martin Compston, Vicky McClure

Crime, Drama, Mystery

36 episodes (6 seasons)

8.7 on IMDb

Line of Duty takes the camera right into the heart of the police unit. Although we do, of course, get to solve murders alongside the investigative team, Line of Duty is more interested in cracking the corruption that's happening within the station.

And it's DC Kate Fleming (played by Vicky McClure) who leads the initiative. Her undercover experience, acute instincts, and strong moral fiber are what make her unable to turn a blind eye to the institutional corruption all around her.

Kate remains one of the core characters throughout the show's six seasons, orbited by high-profile British names like Lennie James, Stephen Graham, Martin Compton, Adrian Dunbar, Craig Parkinson, Keeley Hawes, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Kelly Macdonald.

7. The Killing (2007)

Created by Søren Sveistrup

Starring Sofie Gråbøl, Søren Malling, Morten Suurballe

Crime, Drama, Mystery

40 episodes (3 seasons)

8.4 on IMDb

The Killing (originally titled Forbrydelsen) is a Danish detective show that rippled into the TV sets of viewers around the world, and it was so good that it sparked an English remake by AMC four years later.

Its international success was partly thanks to its unique storytelling, which dedicated one episode to each day of the investigation and kept us on our toes for a whole 20 hours!

But it was also due to Sofie Gråbøl's performance as the almost anti-heroic Inspector Sarah Lund. She's cold, driven, and unconcerned with her looks—the opposite to Nordic cinema's favorite crime-solving heroine Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

6. Unbelievable (2019)

Created by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon

Starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever

Crime, Drama

8 episodes (1 season)

8.3 on IMDb

Unbelievable is a critically acclaimed miniseries that doesn't focus on your usual bloody, gruesome, perplexing murder case, yet it's still just as chilling all the same—mainly because it's true and it exposes a depressing narrative about how our society works.

Marie Adler (played by Kaitlyn Dever) is a young girl and foster child. When she reports a violent rape, she's dismissed as "attention seeking" and pressured into retracting her statement. But once the dust settles, a similar crime is reported, and again, and again...

The real-life perpetrator ended up raping five women, as reported in the Pulitzer-prize winning article An Unbelievable Story of Rape, which Unbelievable is based on.

The sixth victim narrowly escapes thanks to detectives Grace Rasmussen (played by Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever), which are pseudonyms for the real women who refused to ignore the victims' claims.

5. Unforgotten (2015)

Created by Chris Lang

Starring Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jordan Long, Carolina Main

Crime, Drama, Mystery

30 episodes (5 seasons)

8.4 on IMDb

Like many of our picks, Unforgotten features two detectives working together to solve a crime. Sanjeev Bhaskar stars as DI Sunny Khan in all five seasons of Unforgotten, with Nicola Walker as his sidekick in the first four and Sinéad Keenan in the fifth.

Well, scratch that. It's actually Sunny who's the sidekick to the women, who are both commendable in their roles.

It seems most women have to be hard-as-nails to pass in the world of detectives, but Nicola Walker's Cassie is subversively sensitive and caring. Her personal life shares screen time with the London murder cases, permitting us a more sympathetic connection to the show.

4. Sharp Objects (2018)

Created by Marti Noxon

Starring Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina

Crime, Drama, Mystery

8 episodes (1 season)

8.1 on IMDb

Technically, Camille Preaker (played by Amy Adams) is a journalist, not a cop. But she's an investigative journalist who's as sharp as any detective and just as compelling to watch.

Recently discharged from psychiatric care, Camille suffers with self-harm, alcoholism, and PTSD. Still, the traumatized crime reporter is sent back to her Missouri hometown of Wind Gap to cover and solve the mysterious story of two murdered girls.

Creator Marti Noxon handles these tough subjects with sensitive care and raw honesty, nagging at Camille with blurry visuals and time lapses that are reminiscent of alcoholic blackouts.

Some viewers will tune out after episode one due to the show's emphasis of atmosphere over speedy thrills, but many love its stylistic take. Amy Adams's performance was particularly lauded in this slow-burning adaptation of Gillian Flynn's stunning debut novel.

3. Mare of Easttown (2021)

Created by Brad Ingelsby

Starring Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart

Crime, Drama, Mystery

7 episodes (1 season)

8.4 on IMDb

Mare Sheehan (played by Kate Winslet) goes against the grain of modern femininity. She's scruffy, obsessive, plagued by her troubled past, and arguably unlikable as a protagonist. Yet, she's shrewd, well-intentioned, and unstoppable in the face of justice.

Torn between being a local hero and a family disappointment, Mare is a celebrated former basketball star who becomes the target of abuse for failing to solve the case of a missing girl.

Now, Mare is faced with another case: the death of a teenage mother. All this while battling for custody of her grandson, grieving her dead son, and two-timing the new young county detective (played by Evan Peters) and a writing professor (played by Guy Pearce).

2. Happy Valley (2014)

Created by Sally Wainwright

Starring Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran, James Norton

Crime, Drama, Thriller

18 episodes (3 seasons)

8.5 on IMDb

The series finale of Happy Valley may not have lived up to the absolute shocker that was the first season, but to be fair, the first season is a tough one to beat. All things considered, Happy Valley is still one of the best British crime shows ever made.

Set in West Yorkshire, James Norton plays the TV villain so well that you'll get shivers down your spine just looking at him. But Sarah Lancashire's Catherine Cawood is an even better hero, delivering some of the best one-liners on television.

Catherine can make us laugh even as the show rips us in two. Having demoted herself from investigator to sergeant, Catherine still ends up on the hunt for her late daughter's rapist Tommy Lee Royce.

Catherine is brilliant, vengeful, sarcastic, honest, assertive, and highly respected—by audiences and the other characters alike.

1. Broadchurch (2013)

Created by Chris Chibnall

Starring David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker

Crime, Drama, Mystery

24 episodes (3 seasons)

8.4 on IMDb

Rewind back to 2013 and you'll see that's when we got perhaps the best female TV detective of all time. Although David Tennant is the technical star of Broadchurch as moody head of police Alec Hardy, he wouldn't be anything without Olivia Colman at his side.

Olivia Colman plays the local inspector DI Ellie Mills, the only person who likes or even talks to Alec despite how much they bicker like an old couple. Mills isn't a genius or a stone-cold fighter, but an everyday family woman with a good sense of humor and a big heart.

The grounded, human element of Broadchurch—exemplified by Ellie—is one of the reasons why it's so beloved. Not to mention creator Chris Chibnall's remarkable talent for making us question ourselves as he gives us several convincing suspects, motives, and false leads.

Broadchurch's focus on community life, the victim's family, and the relationship between Alec and Ellie, all tied up in gorgeous cinematography, are what made viewers buzz for every new episode.