En español | Edie Falco, 56, who played a mob wife on The Sopranos and an addict on Nurse Jackie, debuts this week as the Los Angeles Police Department's first female chief on Tommy (CBS, Thursdays starting Feb. 6, 10 p.m.). She joins a corps of TV women crime solvers that goes back to the 1960s and gave grownup actresses far greater visibility and impact on our culture.
Angie Dickinson, Police Woman (1974-78)
The phrase “police woman” sounded bizarre to people in 1974, but Dickinson, now 88, made her tough yet feminine crime buster, Sgt. “Pepper” Anderson, a big hit and changed the sexist way America thinks. Yes, Pepper solved crimes by impersonating women trapped in traditional roles: nurse, teacher, flight attendant, prostitute. But when she yelled, “Freeze, turkey!” at a perp — they listened.
Available on: DVD.
Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, Cagney & Lacey (1982-88)
TV had seen crime-fighting females before, but the idea of a female-buddies cop show was revolutionary. Cagney was a working-class mom, Lacey single, gruff and ambitious, but they both knew how to kick crook butt on the street and then laugh about it together in the john (which they called “the jane"). Cagney helped Lacey get through breast cancer; Lacey helped Cagney battle alcoholism. They seemed like real people. Even if they once had to go undercover dressed as a pineapple and a tomato, they got respect.
Streaming on: Amazon, iTunes. Also on DVD, and the four post-series Cagney & Lacey tele-films are on a DVD called The Menopause Years.
Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote (1984-96)
Lansbury, 94, won worldwide fame at 59 as Agatha Christie-like Jessica Fletcher, a smart and successful mystery writer who put all that skill to work for real when her small town, Cabot Cove, became infested by murderers and she had to solve a case a week. Older widow characters used to be demeaned on TV, but Fletcher was sharper, wittier, and more independent and well-traveled than the youngsters. So what if she couldn't drive? She got around.
Streaming on: Amazon, Philo.
Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect (1991-2006)
London's ruthlessly intelligent, cranky (especially whilst quitting smoking) Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison was inspired by real-life DCI Jackie Malton, who also triumphed over sexist colleagues as well as criminals. Tart-tongued, Tennison solved crimes so cleverly that she rose through the ranks of command. She was flawed, alcoholic, tormented by her personal life, yet even the piggiest among the males she commanded called her “Guv'nor.”
Streaming on: BritBox, Hulu, Acorn TV, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play.
S. Epatha Merkerson, Law & Order (1993-2010)
Though Merkerson, 67, who played NYPD 27th Precinct chief Lt. Anita Van Buren, wasn't the star of the show, she gradually rose to become its most enduring character. Van Buren was the earth-mother type, supporting and protecting the other cop characters, who usually got more of the spotlight in the episode's main story. Yet her sheer gravitas, magnetism and moral authority won out, and she faced challenges few TV cops ever had — the guilt of accidentally shooting an innocent, betrayal by a friend in forensics who faked evidence, a lawsuit against racist hiring that caused bosses to retaliate. Her kindly yet take-no-bull persona had staying power: Van Buren became the longest-running character on the longest-running drama in TV history.
Streaming on: Amazon, YouTube, fuboTV, Philo, Google Play.
Mariska Hargitay, Law and Order: SVU (1999-present)
Hargitay, 56, as the feminist heroine NYPD Capt. Olivia Benson, is the dame no perp wants to meet in a dark interrogation room. Benson's not just strong, she's deeply, sensitively devoted to the “special victims” her unit serves, often female sexual assault survivors, having braved assaults in her past. She's risen through the ranks through hard work and unflagging compassion — she doles out plenty of hugs — but it's her dogged pursuit of justice that makes her the perfect modern-day heroine of the #metoo era.
Where to watch: NBC, Hulu, YouTube, Sling TV, fuboTV.
Marg Helgenberger, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015)
As Las Vega stripper/dancer turned blood-spatter analyst Catherine Willow, Helgenberger, 61, was as sexy as she was tough, the type who could pull a graveyard shift, then go pound down beers and banter with the guys. Highly intelligent with a penchant for knowing odd facts, she would do just anything to get a lead on a case — and often did.
Streaming on: CBS, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, fuboTV.
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer (2005-2012)
Sedgwick, 54, played LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, head of the Major Crimes Division, as a woman with a Southern-fried accent, high intelligence and volatile emotions — and not just concerning her passionately beloved snack, Ding Dongs. When men couldn't close a case, she did, by playing on a suspect's heartstrings like a Stradivarius. Intuitive about others yet completely clueless about herself, she was a cop we could relate to.
Streaming on: Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Philo.
Gillian Anderson, The Fall (2013-2016)
In a sharp BBC series created by a Prime Suspect writer, Anderson, 51, played a Jane Tennison-like London detective investigating a Belfast serial killer based on the BTK killer. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson was enigmatic, single, childless, cold and acerbic, and only revealed her inner personality slowly. She engaged in mind games with men who kill women, but she was more like a chess master than an old-school policewoman.
Streaming on: Netflix, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play.
Regina King, Watchmen (2019)
King, 49, played ex-Tulsa detective Angela Abar, who donned a mask when the sun went down and became butt-kicking Sister Night, the scourge of white supremacists in a town still haunted by the (unfortunately real) 1921 Tulsa race massacre. She's the rogue cop you will actually root for.
Streaming on: HBO, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play.