Complex characters and long, slow-moving mystery plots are the hallmarks of these crime dramas from across the pond. The charming accents are just a bonus.
Through its Watching newsletter, What to Watch page and many curated lists, The New York Times looks to guide readers through the chaotic world of streaming services and offer recommendations of the best films and TV shows to watch.
What is it about? In the modest northern metropolis of West Yorkshire, the police sergeant Catherine Cawood finds herself pursuing cases that have ties to her own troubled past.
Watch… if you like character-driven crime stories. There’s a strong procedural element to “Happy Valley,” as Catherine finds clues, asks questions and tracks her prey. But the show’s creator Sally Wainwright is just as interested in her heroine’s complicated home-life (where she lives with her emotionally unstable grandson and her ex-junkie sister), as well as the social conditions that fostered this series’ cast of drug-dealers, kidnappers, rapists and serial killers. “Happy Valley” is mostly about this community, where beautiful landscapes are marred by pockets of extreme poverty, and where everybody seems to know everybody else’s business.
What is it about? Everyone becomes a suspect when a young boy’s murder turns a British seaside town upside down.
Watch… if you like dark British mysteries. “Broadchurch” is not reinventing the wheel — it’s still centered on a murder that takes the entirety of Season 1 to solve — but the location (gorgeous British coastline) and committed actors (David Tennant and Olivia Colman are fantastic) are what raise the bar here. The murder sets off a series of revelations that unearths deep secrets, and this layered approach gives the show more than enough plot points for viewers to enjoy.
What is it about? A retelling of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories that envisions Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in modern-day London.
Watch… if you don’t mind a Sherlock Holmes who uses a smartphone. Transported from the 1800s to the present day, this Holmes and Watson live in a world where terrorism, globalism and mass media are growing concerns. This Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is aloof but charismatic, a dazzling, anti-social genius who freely refers to himself as a sociopath. Despite the presence of modern technology — Watson has a blog now instead of a diary; Sherlock tracks killers using GPS — the most important crime-solving device is still the one whirring between the ears of our deductive hero. Far more humorous than its source material would suggest, “Sherlock” is fast-paced, full of clever visualizations for Holmes’s brilliant deductions and loaded with charm to spare.
What is it about? A dark, disturbing iteration of the British brilliant-detective genre.
Watch… if you like murder shows or Idris Elba. “Luther” is an excellent murder show — absolutely frightening, with a combination of sultry intrigue, genuine jolts and, of course, Elba as the gifted yet troubled detective. This isn’t new territory exactly, but “Luther” gets it right, achieving the kind of intensity other cop shows can only dream of. It also plays up its characters’ intelligence, and not just in the way that all TV serial killers seem to be geniuses of some kind. (True here, too, though.) The claustrophobic, murky streets of London have rarely seemed more menacing, and Elba’s charisma adds a necessary humanity to the show, giving it a sense of liveliness, or at least of a sliver of liveliness that’s fighting against the growing fog.
What is it about? A detective prone to rage and blackouts tracks a serial killer who has emerged after eluding her years earlier.
Watch… for a hotheaded British cop who makes Idris Elba’s Luther look like Andy Griffith. Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) is a crime-solver in TV’s “brilliant mess” tradition: She’s a gifted London detective who also slips into fits of unhinged fury and fugue states, during which she may or may not be violent — she can’t remember which. The show contains subplots involving things like real-estate shenanigans and Marcella’s relationship troubles, and while the main whodunit murder case suffers from lapses in plausibility and too many convenient coincidences, “Marcella” makes up for it with complex and struggling characters (a trademark of creator Hans Rosenfeldt, who is also behind the original version of “The Bridge”).
What is it about? The police and criminals simultaneously investigate the murder of a crime boss, revealing a conspiracy that spans both sides of the law.
Watch… if you like gorgeous, complex British crime dramas with distinctive characters. Like a take on the first season of “The Wire” from the other side of the pond, this mini-series embroils a huge cast of criminals and cops in an investigation whose many surprising turns expose deep-seated institutional corruption. But instead of photocopying gritty realism of “The Wire,” creator Hugo Blick (“The Honorable Woman”), who wrote and directed every episode, embraces old-school cinematic artifice. Shadowy lighting, stylized dialogue and eccentric villains evoke classic noir films, while the timeless question of what makes a person good or evil lends the narrative moral weight.
What is it about? A young, freethinking country vicar moonlights as a detective in 1950s England.
Watch… if you cherish the time-honored tropes of British mysteries and historical drama. Adapted from a series of novels by James Runcie, “Grantchester” combines a classic subgenre — the cozy murder-of-the-week mystery — with a beloved archetype: the righteous, handsome hero who is haunted by his past. That hero, Sidney Chambers (James Norton), isn’t your typical vicar. He drinks, loves jazz, fought in World War II and carries a torch for his childhood friend (Morven Christie). Investigating homicides alongside the hard-boiled police detective Geordie Keating (Robson Green) gives Sidney the opportunity to practice the radical empathy he preaches from the pulpit as he weighs the law against religious doctrine and his own sense of right and wrong.
What is it about? Four women who worked as codebreakers during World War II reunite nearly a decade later to solve crimes.
Watch… to see brilliant female detectives subvert the patriarchy in 1950s London. Nine years after they cracked enemy codes at the secret intelligence center Bletchley Park, the show’s restless heroines escape their comparatively constricted postwar lives by untangling complex crimes through collaboration, pattern recognition and tenacity. There’s a feminist angle inherent in this premise, and each multi-episode mystery plays it up without reducing the characters’ struggles to simplistic empowerment narratives. Along with fighting the violence and corruption that often spring from misogyny, the women of Bletchley persist in their investigations despite constant condescension from men who always underestimate them.
What is it about? Set during (and after) World War II, this British police procedural follows small-town detective Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) and his driver Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) as they solve murders on the home front.
Watch… for a battle-free World War II-set drama. A spinoff from the equally long-running “Inspector Morse” series, “Foyle’s War” artfully explores the lives and crimes of those who stayed behind in England as hundreds of thousands of their neighbors were dying overseas. There’s a remarkable attention to period detail, and its mysteries offer a fascinating glimpse into how profoundly the war shaped the lives of ordinary citizens and how everyday violence and vice continued unabated.But what holds the show together and brings you back for more is Foyle’s quiet, unflappable sense of decency, and insistence on the value of all human life — even in the shadow of unthinkable carnage.
What is it about? A hedonistic criminal psychologist cracks the toughest cases while working as a consultant to the Greater Manchester Police Department.
Watch… if you love a good antihero crime series. Six years before “The Sopranos,” “Cracker” introduced us to another overweight, profane, adulterous, abusive — and surprisingly endearing — TV protagonist: the criminal psychologist Dr. Edward Fitzgerald (Robbie Coltrane), also known as “Fitz.” But unlike Tony Soprano, Fitz uses his powers for good instead of evil. Coltrane brings the same larger-than-life charm to Fitz that he did to the half-giant Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” movies. The stellar supporting cast includes a number of recognizable British actors, including the former “Doctor Who” star Christopher Eccleston as the detective chief inspector and Geraldine Somerville as Fitz’s love interest. (She later played Harry Potter’s mother.) Although the depth of Fitz’s flaws set him apart from most TV detectives, “Cracker” is still a pleasingly old-fashioned mystery — he’s like Columbo with multiple addictions.
What is it about? Helen Mirren stars as one of the first female detective chief inspectors in London, a brilliant, uncompromising woman determined to rise through the ranks of a chauvinistic police force.
Watch… for a groundbreaking crime drama whose troubled detective was ahead of her time. Like a lot of television cops, D.C.I. Tennison (Mirren) is plagued by personal demons like depression and alcoholism, though unlike her male peers she has to contend with institutional sexism, a crude, constant pressure that’s always trying to push her down and out of London’s Metropolitan Police Service.Through seven television mini-series aired over nearly 16 years, we get to see Tennison age into a gray-haired but still canny detective superintendent. More personal than political, “Prime Suspect” remains a masterful portrait of a complicated woman fighting tooth and nail for both justice and the respect she deserves.
What is it about? A vampire and a werewolf, resolved to overcome their monstrous natures and live among humans, unwittingly become roommates with a ghost.
Watch… if the idea of a grown-up “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” appeals to you. The two shows take similar approaches to supernatural story lines, pitting scrappy casts of crusaders against various forces plotting destruction on a global scale — and lightening the mood with lots of witty banter between friends. Characters’ personal struggles are even more important to “Being Human” than their external battles. Ghosts wrestle with past trauma, werewolves have anger issues and vampires are essentially addicts.
What is it about? In Belfast, Northern Ireland, an icy, intelligent female cop leads the investigation to capture a serial killer targeting professional women.
Watch… if you’re looking for a noir-tinged procedural with feminist leanings and complex characters. “The Fall” subverts our expectations about detective shows in which women are killed to advance the plot with some of the genre’s most rich female characterization in years. But it isn’t just lead character Stella Gibson (an excellent Gillian Anderson) who is wonderfully crafted. The victims, the wife of the serial killer and various female police professionals are among the series’ highlights. Also, the choice to reveal the villain’s identity in the first episode and peel back the layers of his family life creates an atmosphere full of ominous suspense.
What is it about? In this BBC procedural, a detective investigates his former partner’s murder with help from apparitions of the deceased, uncovering a larger, more sinister plot.
Watch… for a cop potboiler that redeems what could be a silly premise with intelligent writing and a well-studied lead performance. Stellan Skarsgard brings a vital dose of realism to John River, an inspector who often speaks to the spirit of his slain partner as he unravels the mystery behind her death. Creator Abi Morgan parcels out information at the same stingy pace that made her series “The Hour” so engrossing, gradually widening the scope of the show until what begins as a standard case becomes a more politically charged indictment. With Morgan’s mordant wit and sharp insight, the show’s supernatural hook matures into a curious perspective on grief and how we forestall dealing with it.
What is it about? Good cop catches bad people in the Scottish Isles.
Watch… for a BBC police procedural with a Scandinavian noir vibe and likable characters. Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), a Shetland detective, is not another moody, edgy cop, but rather a genuinely good guy who sticks to the right side of the law. (A widower, he even gets along with his teenage stepdaughter.) The cases tend to be realistic, rooted in small-town life — no crazy serial killers here, but regular people who make tragic mistakes or are driven by bad impulses. The scope is grander in the ambitious Season 3, when Perez finds himself embroiled in the Glasgow drug underworld; the ace supporting cast includes Archie Panjabi (“The Good Wife”) and Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder on “Game of Thrones”). Also, few police dramas use location as well as this series does, with its perpetually overcast skies looming over a slate-gray sea and wild, rocky shores.
What is it about? The elite, tight-knit anti-corruption unit AC-12 ferrets out crooked cops — some of whom are buried deep inside the police force’s highest ranks.
Watch… for the best British police show since “Prime Suspect.” While lacking a central figure as strong as Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, this series makes up for it by spreading the goods among several characters and doubling down on the moral ambiguity. The detectives in AC-12 have their work cut out for them: They go after colleagues who have all of the police department’s resources at their disposal to cover their tracks. Further complicating matters, one finds oneself rooting for unlikable characters who are unfairly accused, while some crooked ones actually help solve unrelated investigations. Suspensefully plotted and wickedly well acted, this is British crime drama at its finest.