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TV's Most Kick-Ass Female Detectives

Shannon Peace Shannon Peace
February 16th, 2009 9:00am EST
Cagney and LaceyOnce upon a television season, fans of police dramas and crime procedurals didn't think detectives could ever get more hard-boiled than Vic Mackey of "The Shield" or Andy Sipowicz of "NYPD Blue." Thankfully, we were wrong. Not only are there an increasing number of take-no-prisoners police detectives and home-sleuths on the case, but many of them are wearing skirts. From Poppy Montgomery, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Roselyn Sanchez in "Without A Trace" to Kathryn Morris in "Cold Case," "Law and Order's" S. Epatha Merkerson and the women of the CSI franchise, powerful, well-written female protagonists have set the lady detective prototype on its ear. Let's take a look at some of television's most kick-ass girl gumshoes, past and present:

Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko - "Saving Grace" (TNT)
This chain-smoking, booze-guzzling, hard-bodied hussy sleeps with her married partner (and anything else in jockey shorts), drives recklessly and keeps company with a disheveled, tobacco-chewing angel named Earl. When she's not hitting convicts in her Porsche or cursing God, Oklahoma City police detective Hanadarko is leading her young nephew astray and constantly straddling the line of ethics at work. Before you dismiss her as merely damaged goods, consider that she lost a sister in the Oklahoma City bombings and was abused by a priest as a child. Self-destructive, sexy and irreverent, Grace is redeemed by her hunger for justice and an innate sense of decency. Whether or not this licentious lost lamb ever takes Earl's advice and cleans up her act, one thing's for sure: We always save Grace on our DVR.

Saving Grace



Kyra Sedgwick as LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson - "The Closer" (TNT)
Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson never met a vending machine she didn't like or a suspect she couldn't break. Because of her ability to read people and gain confessions, the Georgia peach was plucked out of the south and handpicked to solve high-profile murders in Los Angeles' Major Crimes Division. Despite being a fish-out-of-water and meeting resistance from local brass, Johnson soon astounds fellow officers with her perception and thick skin. Don't let the accent fool you: Behind the Southern-fried charm and sweet tooth is one tough little cookie. Brilliant and fidgety, Sedgwick's portrayal of Johnson earned her a much-deserved Golden Globe in 2007. Now in the show's fourth season, Brenda is set to marry FBI beau Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) and faces a new set of struggles: The demands of her job vs. the demands of her heart. When it comes to having it all, something tells us this ballsy broad will crack the case.

Mariska HargitayMariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson - "Law and Order SVU" (NBC)
In police sex crime divisions, officers last an average of two-three years before burnout. In the fictional Manhattan Special Victims unit, which specializes in sexual abuse and crimes against children, Detective Olivia Benson is still hanging on, albeit by the skin of her teeth. The product of a distant alcoholic mother and the man who raped her, Olivia relates to the abused in a unique way. A champion of victims' rights, don't mistake her empathy for weakness; Benson is just as quick to draw as she is to console. She has no personal life to speak of - her partnership with Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) is her one constant - she internalizes each case and struggles with being impartial. The sheer weight of her loneliness sometimes drives her over the edge, as when she's suspended from the force for aiding and abetting a wanted man she believes to be her half-brother. Still, her flaws render her vulnerable which only makes her more relatable. Who knew compassion could be so kick-ass?

Angela LansburyAngela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher - "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS)
Granted, when you think kick-ass, you don't automatically leap to the veteran Hollywood actress who voiced the twinkly-eyed teapot 'Mrs. Potts' in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. But stay with me: Retired English teacher and best-selling crime novelist Jessica Fletcher was no cupcake. Sure, Fletcher passed her days in the sleepy, bucolic (fictional) fishing village of Cabot's Cove, Maine… Of course, the place might as well have been called 'Murdertown,' USA! The middle-aged dowager may not have been exactly in the kind of shape to pursue a suspect on foot, but consider the mental acuity and impressive crime-solving chops: Like a law-avenging Dr. House, the most mundane visual clue or casual comment could make the puzzle pieces come together in that steel trap Jessica Fletcher called a mind. Imbuing the character with unforgettable charm and chutzpah, Angela Lansbury won multiple Golden Globes for the role. Still not convinced a winsome widow can be kick-ass? Consider the disarming gentility that could quickly dissolve into a firm set of the mouth and steely gaze. Futz with Fletcher at your own peril.


The cast of "Charlie's Angels" (ABC)
So what if it was critically panned at the time? Airing from 1976-81, the premise (three attractive -and ofttimes scantily-clad - detectives solve undercover crimes for Charlie, the unseen boss who gives orders via speaker phone) was conceived by late television visionary Aaron Spelling. Foxy police academy graduates Kelly Garret (Jaclyn Smith), Jill Munroe (blonde, feather-haired Farrah Fawcett) and Sabrina Duncan (Kate Jackson) solved crimes with a beguiling mix of humor and fantasy. Despite some controversy - those who felt the series objectified women deemed it "Jiggle TV" - and cast shakeups (Cheryl Ladd joined the cast after Fawcett departed and eventually Jackson left as well) the show was a bonafide hit and the first of its kind. The 'Angels' managed to be sexy, alluring, smart and powerful, while outsmarting wily criminals and thwarting frumpy female foes. Sure, detractors still argue that the show exploited its female leads and set women's liberation back eons. However, as evidenced by a whole generation of young girls who once toted original Charlie's Angels lunchboxes, the cult classic tapped into the American female consciousness. Empowerment never looked so good.

Charlie's Angels 1976



BonesEmily Deschanel as Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan - "Bones" (Fox)
It's a good thing Dr. Temperance Brennan is brilliant; the girl is a complete social misfit. Luckily for her, intellect is kick-ass, so her place on this list is solid. A novelist and forensic anthropologist, 'Bones' as she's known to colleagues, has a day job at the Jeffersonian Institute in Washington DC and a side gig assisting smoking hot Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanz) of the FBI solve past and present murders. Bones channeled her unhappy childhood in foster care into achievement; she's a martial artist trained in 3 disciplines, accomplished - but ethical - hunter and acrobatic high wire performer (yep, you read right). The determined Doc's unusual character traits give us a glimpse into a unique antihero: She's sexy (in a geeky egg-head kind of way), hyper-rational and focused, bringing her scientific insight and truly individual point of view both to the cases she solves and her complex relationship with Booth. She may be uncompromising and unapologetically superior, but her strange ways really do it for Booth. We're not far behind.

MediumPatricia Arquette as Allison Dubois - "Medium" (NBC)
Allison Dubois is a wife, mother of three and happy homemaker. She's also a psychic who can read people's thoughts and commune with the dead… All in a day's work. Since 2005, Emmy-winner Patricia Arquette has painted a portrait of a circumspect clairvoyant, devoted mother and unhesitating defender of victims struggling to keep all balls in the air. Dubois works as a consultant in the Phoenix District Attorney's office solving mystifying cases while worrying that her own daughter has inherited the gift - and burden - of telepathic sight. A woman bound not by the obligations of a job, but by integrity, duty and the enormous responsibility that accompanies her powers, Dubois is a real woman, balancing the metaphysical with the mundane. What makes her a real hero: At the end of the day, when saving the world is done, she quietly goes about taking care of those who need her most: Her family.

Cagney and LaceySharon Gless & Tyne Daly as Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey - "Cagney and Lacey" (CBS)
Walking the beat long before these other Jane-come-latelys, acclaimed 1982 procedural "Cagney & Lacey" is considered America's first serious drama starring two female leads. Single, driven New York policewoman Christine Cagney (Gless) had little in common with partner Mary Beth Lacey, a sensitive married mother. Yet over the course of the series six year run, the women's realities intertwined professionally and personally, as they backed each other in the field and in life. While the show wasn't action-packed and had little of the gritty realism that crime shows boast today, the battles Cagney and Lacey fought with perps, misogynistic superiors and a prejudiced system were gripping drama and had social impact outside of the tv screen. In fact, when the series was cancelled by CBS in 1983 due to low ratings, fans of the show, organized by Ms. Magazine and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, managed to convince the network to restore the series to the schedule. The show went on to earn thirty-six Emmy nominations, a staggering fourteen wins and to influence an entire generation of viewers - male and female. Talk about girl power.

Helen MirrenHelen Mirren as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison - "Prime Suspect" (PBS)
In one of the most complex portrayals on television, the incomparable Helen Mirren - who won two Emmys (1996, 2007) for the role - brilliantly gave us a glimpse into the compromise and sacrifice of a woman who chooses a life pursuing justice. World-weary, alcoholic Scotland Yard detective Jane Tennison has the kind of overly-expressive eyes that have seen too much. She's terminally lonely, brittle but fragile, fulfilled when she solves a case yet discontented in life. With little family, no lasting relationships and alcoholism taking an increasing hold on her life, it is bittersweet to watch her shake off the regret to hold onto the one thing that keeps her going: Her job. Premiering on PBS in 1992 and concluding three years ago, this indelible British series took a gritty, unflinching look at controversial social issues and the ravages police work takes on its officers.

Prime Suspect - Behind the Scenes



Mirren is heartbreaking as a woman who has reached the pinnacle of success in her career at the expense of everything else. Barks Tennison to one of her underlings, "Don't call me a mum. I'm not the bloody queen!' That's where you're wrong, D.S. Tennison: When it comes to kick-ass detectives, you wear the crown.


Story by Shannon Peace

Starpulse contributing writer


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