Yup! The difference with this list/article, though, is that I’d only seen two of the entries below before watching these titles. The other three had been suggested to me via friends, family, critical buzz, or Internet forums. Instead of doing separate (largely repetitive) posts for each of these shows, I decided to round up the top dogs, R.I.C.O. style, and put ‘em all on trial at once.
“A Train Wreck of a Woman Somehow Solves a Murder” has become a go-to premise for prestige cable shows over the past decade. For the better part of a century, a drunk detective who crosses the line to solve a personally important murder, gets his badge and gun revoked, then goes rogue to solve the case has been a laughable, hackneyed plot line. TV creators realized, however, that all these out-of-control cops were MEN. If that drunk detective were a woman, would the clichés seem fresh once again? The answer is an emphatic “yes.” Below are five shows led by women who need someone to graphically die in order to finally try therapy.
Robin Griffin is a Sydney detective specializing in underage assaults. While visiting her home in Laketop, New Zealand, she agrees to investigate the pregnancy of a Tui Mitcham, the daughter of a local crime lord. This becomes personal for Griffin when she discovers the pregnancy was a result of rape. The reason Griffin left Laketop in the first place was to escape her traumatic past after she was gang raped by her classmates. After teaming up with local detective Al Parker, the two uncover unspeakable secrets all leading back to the Mitcham family’s crime dealings and Robin’s past.
2013 marked the return of Jane Campion (The Piano, Power of the Dog) to television. She created and wrote Top of the Lake, starring Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Invisible Man). If you didn’t already know, that sentence is such a gloomy warning sign, it may as well have read “Click here to see terminally ill puppies!”
By all accounts, New Zealand is supposed to be an idyllic duo of islands dotted with gorgeous vistas and populated entirely by hobbits. In Top of the Lake, however, every human male is either a sexual predator, a cavalier crime lord, or a drugged-out man child. While, in reality, the amount of men who fall into those categories is unacceptable, Top of the Lake skews that lens almost to the point of parody.
I say almost because, through strong direction and strong performances, Top of the Lake sold me on its extreme perspective. Robin was a victim of a horrible crime. She understandably would see threats everywhere. Additionally, as a detective investigating underage assaults, those threats would prove to be real more often for her than the average person.
The other reason the show works is because of its scale. In a rural town an hour outside Christchurch, the locals have fewer prying eyes and can get away with literally murder. Season two, which retains its fabulous direction and supercharges its cast, takes place in Sydney but tries to keep the small-town, secretive intrigue. The premise falls flat, and the scale not only tips into parody, it clatters off the table.
All in all, the first season of Top of the Lake is worth your time—just watch something happy afterwards, like videos of cancer-free puppies.
Camille Preaker could use a win. She was an insightful crime reporter but had to take a sabbatical because of her alcoholism and a stay at a psychiatric facility following a suicide attempt. When a girl gets murdered in her hometown, Camille decides to investigate, hoping the resulting article will be her career comeback. In order to stay in town, though,she’ll have to confront her mother, Adora, the reason for Camille’s suicidal and alcoholic tendencies.
Sharp Objects is an adaptation of a Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) novel, and is the final directorial effort by Jean-Marc Valleé (Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies). With Amy Adams as the star, the pedigree made the show irresistible. Troublingly, however, I wasn’t hooked until episode three. Sharp Objects is certainly the moodiest of this bunch, featuring long shots of Amy Adams looking forlornly out a car window followed by a sudden time jump to Adams sleeping in the same car with an empty bottle of liquor.
The other issue that may keep viewers at bay is Patricia Clarkson’s character. Yes, Clarkson is ominous and foreboding, but the show makes her so dreadful that she’s obviously the killer, which means she’s the obvious fake out. Thankfully, the viewer eventually understands that Clarkson’s character was always like this and is the reason that Adams’ character is the way she is. With that suspicion out of the way, Sharp Objects becomes much better, presenting four or five good suspects. Cleverly, the mother character was so looming that, even though I knew she wasn’t the killer, I was forced to pay attention to her. By then, the show had slipped two episodes of set-up in, and I had to play catch up on figuring out the mystery.
So, if you like atmospheric drama, the entry fee for this eventually good mystery won’t seem so expensive. Otherwise, stick with it if you can; the end result is worth it.
Marianne Sheehan was a hometown hero—until 25 years went by since her high-school basketball team won state. Mare was a hell of a detective—until she bungled a case involving her friend’s missing daughter. Mare was holding her family together—until her son committed suicide, her husband divorced her, and her heroin-addicted daughter-in-law tried to take custody of Mare’s grandson.
Suffice to say, Mare has a lot going on, so the murder of a local teen mother is the last thing she wants to deal with. With the help of a plucky county detective, though, Mare just might make right—nope, wait, her bitterness freezes everyone out. She’ll have to learn to heal herself if she’s ever going to make headway.
Of all the characters in this list, I felt the most sorry for Mare Sheehan. While the other women are self-medicating a childhood trauma or punishing themselves for past mistakes, Mare had all of her troubles foisted onto her by expectations from her friends, family, and town. At the beginning of the show, at least, Mare’s only mistake is believing she actually CAN take on everyone’s problems. Also, she gets slapped the most.
Kate Winslet makes Mare into someone who’s tried to carry too many yokes. Her jaw and shoulders are a massage therapist’s nightmare, and her intense gaze has a constant look of “What the hell do I have to deal with now?” Jean Smart adds her much needed brand of acidic comedy as Mare’s vicious live-in mother, but Smart wisely spices her insults with a dash of maternal concern. These moments of honesty push the audience through the mildly convoluted murder scheme because I believe everyone in Easttown is just bare-knuckling through life, so they’d just expect dark family secrets and murder as par for the course.
Cassie Bowden’s life is a non-stop party. She gets to travel internationally for her job, stay in nice-enough hotels, and have her fill of high-class nightlife. The nightlife aspect is especially appealing because Cassie’s a barely functioning alcoholic and uses her one-night stands to ignore her dysfunctional family life. This makes her the perfect target on which to pin a murder. On a flight to Bangkok, one of her flight passengers asks her on a date that she’ll never forget—because she wakes up next to his dead body. Even worse, for such a supposedly unforgettable date, Cassie can’t remember much of it because she got blackout drunk.
Back in New York, Cassie will have to team up with her best friend/reluctant mob lawyer, and her best friend’s boyfriend/reluctant hacker in order to find the real culprit before the frame job sticks.
Like its main character, The Flight Attendant loves to have fun, but it can get a little too crazy, revealing sadness and devastation underneath. Kaley Cuoco’s decade-long stint on The Big Bang Theory has given her the ability to pull off the “wacky hijinks” mode for which the beginning of both seasons have called. Cuoco and the show pack an extra wallop, then, when Cassie can’t “Party time!” her way through a situation and has to deal with the unpleasant realities before her. The tragicomic truth Cassie begins to understand throughout the two seasons so far is that she would rather be framed for murder and hunted by both assassins and the CIA before dealing with her drinking problem.
Another appealing aspect of the show, at least for a cinephile like me, is the constant Alfred Hitchcock references. Hell, the tagline at the top of the poster to your right references The Man who Knew too Much. Season two leans into the “Hitchcock Blonde” archetype pretty hard with a trippy scene in an Icelandic city street. My only advise before watching this show is to brush up on a few of Hitchcock’s films first, especially Rear Window and North by Northwest. That way, you’ll get an extra layer of enjoyment out of this already enjoyable show.
Erin Bell is a hard ass who used to be a top-notch undercover officer. She and her partner, Chris, infiltrated a bank robbing gang, led by the charismatic Silas, sixteen years ago, and things didn’t end well. Ever since, Erin’s been looking for a chance at revenge. She gets her opportunity when she finds a stained $100 bill on her desk that matches a dye pack from a robbery carried out by her old gang. Bell uses what contacts she has left to tie up her loose ends. Knowing this is her last chance, she’s going in without holding anything back.
For the past decade, Nicole Kidman has become a not-so-stealthy force in high-profile streaming miniseries. In Nine Perfect Strangers, The Undoing, Big Little Lies and even this own list’s Top of the Lake, Kidman has cornered the market on barely-holding-it-together women that know something. In Destroyer, though, Kidman’s character gets to know EVERYTHING.
Each woman on this list so far has made bad decisions because bad things happened to them—rape, parental abuse, loss of a child—but Kidman’s Erin Bell is the architect of her own misery. Without spoiling too much, Erin goes undercover, then violates one of the cardinal rules of that work, then violates another one of the rules, and things blow up in her face. It is extremely hard to feel sorry for her.
Then again, the movie knows this, so we don’t see the full extent of Bell’s misdeeds until later. At first, we see her hunting down bad guys who truly deserve what’s coming to them. The crux of Kidman’s character, therefore, hinges on an interesting wrinkle in the classic revenge story: by seeking revenge, Erin Bell is also atoning. This mixture of motivation adds a breathtaking depth to Kidman’s performance, and she navigates expertly.
It’s a shame, then, that not as much work was put into the main villain. While this film is worth recommending, I found Silas, Bell’s adversary, woefully miscast and tedious. This criticism hits doubly because the script constantly refers to Silas’ charisma and magnetism—two traits I found nonexistent. There’s no better evidence for this argument than Petra, Silas’ girlfriend, played by Tatiana Maslany. If you haven’t heard of Maslany yet, you will soon, as she’s the star of Marvel’s upcoming She-Hulk series. Maslany, as usual, imbues an electricity into Petra, making her an emotionally unstable, cackling goon. The tensest scenes in the movie by far are Erin and Petra’s interactions, which leads to quite the letdown when Erin does confront Silas.
Like the women in this list, though, you can’t help but root for Destroyer despite its flaws.
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Obligatory Animated Viewing from 2023
Obligatory Live-Action Viewing from 2023
Rocky: Yo, Adrian!
Midnight Cowboy: Hey, I’m Walkin’ Here!
Road House: Pain Don’t Hurt…
The Big Sleep: “You’re Cute.” “Gettin’ Cuter Every Minute.”