Last week, a game little crime mystery series called “American Gothic” premiered on CBS. And by game I mean board game; watching the drama, about a wealthy Boston family whose ranks include a serial killer, is something like playing a game of Clue. It’s not much darker or more complicated than, say, Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with a lead pipe.
That’s how it goes on many American network crime series, including ABC’s “Secrets and Lies,” with all its hints and allegations, all its guilty-looking and suspiciously not-guilty-looking suspects. And there’s a place in the world for light, escapist brainteasers that zigzag — and zigzag some more — on their way to a denouement. Some viewers don’t want to be scared, disoriented, disgusted, and moved as they make their way to the final perp reveal; they simply want to be diverted. At the end of the series, they don’t want to have learned anything troubling about people; they just want to learn the identity of the fictional killer.
For those who do want to be more challenged and confronted by whodunits, those who like crime stories that delve more deeply into the whydunits, the UK has taken the lead. In recent years, Americans have been introduced to a number of very fine — and very grim — imports, including “Broadchurch,” “The Fall,” “Happy Valley,” “The Missing,” and “Luther.” The shows aren’t puzzles, although they can inspire plenty of viewer guesswork; they focus more on portraying the bleaker, more twisted potential in human nature. Rape, serial murder, torture, kidnapping, missing children, they’re all afoot, as well as the trauma of the victims’ families, the specific psychoses of the perps, and the fears and neuroses of the detectives. They aren’t TV diversions so much as haunting reflections on tragedy.
These hardcore British crime series are not an entirely new idea, as anyone who took in Helen Mirren’s seven turns as Detective Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect” knows. That show, which ran intermittently from 1991-2006, refused to prettify anything — Tennison’s temperament, the sexism that surrounded her, the brutality of murder, the wary communities she’d get caught up in. In America, the closest thing to the show was “The Closer,” a well-done but much breezier and easier-to-watch venture.
The newer shows — can I include “Top of the Lake,” which was filmed and set in New Zealand but nonetheless co-produced by the BBC? — all share the dour spirit of “Prime Suspect.” They are sometimes called Nordic Noir, since they look something like “The Killing,” “The Bridge,” and a few other celebrated and influential Scandinavian crime series. The weather is frequently crummy, the nighttime is inky and menacing, the inside shots are low-lit. We are spared no details of the horrific crimes, which can involve pedophilia, the draining of blood, or a hammer to the head. While NBC’s “Hannibal” turned its gore into something artful and visually arresting, the British crime shows resist that impulse and deliver the grit without the kind of artistic zing that Quentin Tarantino is known for. The violence is plain, simple, direct.
But the best justification for the gore on these shows is the way they explore the reactions to the gore. We see the grief and terror of those whose loved ones have been harmed, and, even more consistently, we see the toll that exposure to these cases takes on those who investigate them. The obsessed detective is a familiar trope, but these dramas take it and give it more breadth, showing us the reasons these crime-solvers are so fixated. The more we learn about Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther, whose work in “Luther” has brought him close to the face of pure evil a number of times, the more we understand that he needs to be close to it — thus his friendship with murderer Alice Morgan, played with such creepy élan by Ruth Wilson.
Gillian Anderson’s Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson on “The Fall” and Sarah Lancashire’s Sergeant Catherine Cawood on “Happy Valley” are both middle-age women dealing with male criminals who target young women — a twist that brings out powerful feelings in each of them. Gibson is a feminist who is fine-tuned to misogyny; Cawood takes her ongoing case even more personally, in that the perp is the guy — played with chilling malice by James Norton — who raped her daughter and drove her to suicide years earlier. Both actresses deliver blockbuster performances, with Anderson as cool as Lancashire is an emotional mess. Along with Olivia Colman as Detective Ellie Miller in “Broadchurch,” they do great justice to Mirren’s model.
One reason the British shows have an edge is that they are compact — usually six to eight episodes per season, or even fewer for “Luther.” American shows with elongated plot arcs go on and on, forcing the writers to vamp midway with red herrings and curveballs. Six episodes and out — it’s just the right amount of time to explore all angles of a crime without having to fall back on filler. I bet that, with some shrewd, ruthless editing, ABC’s “The Family” could have been decent instead of ridiculous and trying. AMC’s “The Killing” came close to the British standard in its first season, but it lost momentum across 13 episodes. I’m hoping the latest British detective series to land here, “Marcella,” starring Anna Friel, will be good, not least of all because it’s an appealing eight-episode season. That series arrives on Netflix next Friday.
Does the uncompromising lack of beauty and sweetness on these shows say something about the British temperament? Do Americans prefer a little bit more sugar, a more obvious tone of redemption and promise? Let’s put these questions to the British detectives; they’ll deliver the truth, unadulterated and unadorned.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.