Maybe you started with reruns of Law & Order: SVU. But then, it wasn’t enough. True Detective came on the scene, with its season-long plot arcs and gritty visuals. Still, you ached for more crime dramas. The regular suppliers weren’t providing enough for nights of endless binge-watching. It was time to turn somewhere else without skimping on quality. It was time to go across the pond.
While shows like Cracker and Prime Suspect were beloved, the British crime drama genre hit its stride in the 2010s. It began to integrate the hallmarks of prestige TV. That means serious, sometimes socially-focused themes, accomplished actors, and high production values. Of course, this was also when streaming services brought them stateside.
It’ll be those type of shows that we focus on here. The criteria will be the strength of the lead, how compelling the case(s) and/or villain(s) are, and a third category: the appeal, that little extra something that sets it apart from the competition. We’ll do our best to avoid major spoilers. And so, ranked from worst (but still really good) to best, here are Factinate’s favorite British crime dramas.
The Lead: The Fall, despite its utterly generic name, comes in strong with a lead recognizable to viewers all over the world: Agent Dana Scully. Okay, it’s not actually Scully—it’s Gillian Anderson finally letting her English accent get some air as Detective Superintendant Stella Gibson. She’s poised and has a take-no-prisoners attitude—and, like most detectives on this list, her personal life isn’t sunshine and roses.
The Crime: There’s little mystery in the “Who” category. We meet the villain in the first episode: Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan, a seemingly normal family man who stalks and takes the lives of young women in his spare time. The series is spent watching him commit these attacks, with Gibson close behind him.
The Appeal: As mentioned, what sets it apart is that the “mystery” at hand isn’t the “who” or “how,” it’s the “why”—the reasons for which unfold over the series. Also, the two show leads, and much of the rest of the cast (hello, Archie Panjabi), are super-duper knockout hot.
The Verdict: When The Fall gets suspenseful, it gets really suspenseful. But unfortunately, it often fails to strike the balance between those edge-of-your-seat moments and less dramatic scenes, which can sometimes make it feel like a slog. And unfortunately, even the two hottest leads in the world can’t make up for that.
The Lead: Perhaps more so than any other detective on this list, Marcella Backland, played masterfully by Anna Friel, is a big hot mess. It’s the trope of the detective or policeperson with a chaotic personal life taken the nth degree. Her husband’s left her for another woman, and she’s been experiencing mysterious blackouts which only get worse as the series progresses.
The Crime: Well, there’s the disappearance of her husband’s girlfriend…that Marcella herself may or may not be responsible for. Each season has its own plot arc, and both are compelling in their own way—but often not as compelling as the crimes that Marcella herself commits in pursuit of the culprits.
The Appeal: The trainwreck nature of Marcella’s professional and personal life, as well as the question over what exactly happens during her blackouts, is the appeal itself—the rest is somewhat secondary. Also, the layers. Not the layers of the plot—Marcella is constantly wearing a great sweater/coat combo.
The Verdict: While the appeal of the show is Marcella’s absolutely deranged behavior and choices, that’s also its downfall. It’s simply too unrealistic that someone that unhinged, and who is constantly covering up her own illicit behavior, would continue to work for the force. It goes beyond suspension of disbelief—but man, what a ride along the way.
Line of Duty
The Lead: In Line of Duty, the lead is DS Steve Arnott, recently reassigned to the Anti-Corruption Unit—but his boss, Superintendant Ted Hastings, and partner, DC Kate Fleming, also play huge roles. Their effective yet often tense dynamic drives the show—especially when they’re suspicious of each other, as they often have reason to be.
The Crime: The team gets the double whammy of regular offenders and corrupt officers willing to do anything to protect their position. This is usually tied up into a season-long arc where they investigate one officer.
The Appeal: Line of Duty is unrelenting and ruthless in its shocking twists and turns, which can come at an utterly brutal pace. If you’re ready to trust no one and see characters you’ve thought were central kick the bucket, it’s the show for you.
The Verdict: Line of Duty was a sleeper hit for BBC2, and the low production values in the first seasons make it look more like Coronation Street than a prestige TV show (shots fired). Also, the detectives can be unlikable. No one likes a narc, and their principled crusade makes them just that.
The Lead: Broadchurch gifted us with not one but two leads, DS Ellie Miller and DI Alec Hardy, both portrayed by prestigious actors (Olivia Colman and David Tennant, respectively). The show immediately puts them in contention with each other. Throughout the series, their differences often complement the other—what one has, the other lacks, and vice-versa—making them into the most somber “buddy cop” trope of all time.
The Crime: The first season focuses on the murder of a local boy, Danny Lattimer, and exposes how tight-knit—and toxic—the community of Broadchurch is. The production went to extreme lengths to ensure that the identity of the killer didn’t leak until the final episode of season 1—so yes, it’s as suspenseful as you could imagine.
The Appeal: There’s so much to say about Broadchurch. Some of the most striking features are how the breathtakingly beautiful setting of Dorset contrasts against the brutality of Danny Lattimer’s demise. The supporting cast is also outstanding.
The Verdict: Broadchurch is likely the most “prestige” entry on this list. Its look, feel, casting, and writing all contribute to this. It may also be the most gut-wrenching. However, after a strong first series, it didn’t necessarily stick the landing on season 2 or 3. Season 1, though? Sheer perfection.
The Lead: Idris Elba as DCI Luther. Need we say more? He did it first and he did it best. Troubled and smoldering, he often crosses the line into obsession and brutality in his work, but he has a distinctly human side. He wants to do better—but unfortunately, he’s besties with a sociopathic killer.
The Crime: DCI Luther chases his fair number of villains—some more sinister than others—throughout the series. But the real (other) star of the show is Alice Morgan, portrayed by Ruth Wilson. Within the first episode, he fingers her for the murder of her parents, but is unable to prove it. She’s infatuated by him, and he uses this to get her to help him catch other killers. She also “helps” in her own way, performing illicit tasks that he can’t—even if he tells her not to.
The Appeal: It would be safe to say that Luther heavily inspired most of the entries on this list, especially Marcella. It was the first of its kind. Beyond the raw appeal of Idris Elba doing anything, it’s got great twists, and five whole seasons to dive into.
The Verdict: Luther is near perfect. I can hear Elba saying “Alice…” in the particular frustrated/furious tone he gets in my dreams. But when I think back, it’s mostly the interplay between Luther and Morgan that sticks out, while all other plotlines sort of fade into the background.
The Lead: Sarah Lancashire may not have the same name recognition as Gillian Anderson or Olivia Colman, but she’s unmatched as Catherine Cawood, a small-town sergeant with a pretty messed-up family life. She’s far from perfect and admits it easily. She also deals with everyday sexism from both her coworkers and the people she serves, who have open contempt for her—and does it all with aplomb, compassion, and humor.
The Crime: Catherine is already weary of the terrifyingly cold and brutal Tommy Lee Royce. From the beginning, she suspected had a hand in her daughter’s dark fate, unknowing that he’s already taking part in a kidnapping that’s snagged a number of hapless locals in its trap. There’s a striking balance between the true evil of a character like Royce, and the banal evil of the frustrated, bumbling accountant who winds up as an accomplice to kidnapping.
The Appeal: Take the best parts of every series on this list. A compelling, sociopathic villain like Alice Morgan from Luther. The dirty underbelly of a tight-knit community coming to light, a la Broadchurch. A female detective pushing back against sexism with a fascinatingly messy personal life like The Fall or Marcella. And the twists and driving moral force of Line of Duty. Happy Valley has all of this and more. There’s realism, a striking setting, high production values, and a troubled yet loving family at its core.
The Verdict: Really, need we say more after all that? Watch Happy Valley and try not to be charmed by Sarah Lancaster. We dare you.