Women as partners in crime dramas

Veena Sud was tired of watching female cops in Louboutins chase down bad guys.

"In cop dramas, there's a preponderance of female cops who wear stilettos, and it drives me nuts," says the television writer and showrunner, a veteran of CBS' procedural "Cold Case." "I mean, I'm not showing up to work in a poodle skirt." So when Sud adapted the AMC series "The Killing," which is based on the Danish hit "Forbrydelsen" and was also a smash hit in the U.K., she decided that the heroine should wear sneakers. "It was like, let's take every cliché of female detectives and ground them in reality, right down to their shoes."

Fittingly, the first glimpse viewers get of Sarah Linden, the soft-spoken detective played by Mireille Enos, is a shot of her Asics as she goes for a morning jog along a tree-lined lake where, she'll soon discover, 17-year-old Rosie Larsen was murdered. Her footwear not only underscores the horror of this crime — that a teenager was tortured to death in a town so safe, the cops take time off to go running — it also says a lot about her character. A single mom who wears sensible shoes, Sarah seems like an ordinary woman, maybe because she was created by one.

Once viewed as an escapist fantasy for men, crime dramas are now attracting more women, as showrunners, characters and fans. Many of these shows are now written or executive produced by women, including Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue and Pam Veasey of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY," Janet Tamaro and Tess Gerrittsen of "Rizzoli & Isles," and others joining Sud. Meanwhile, the clichés of the tough-talking, just-one-of-the-boys sidekick and the token hot lady cop trying to make it in a man's world have given way to more complex female leads, like Sarah Linden, Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson of "The Closer," and Jane Tennison of "Prime Suspect," the British procedural starring Helen Mirren that NBC plans to reboot in the fall. The audiences for these programs skew female too, partly because women generally watch more television than men.

Policewomen are taking over films and books too, with actress Kangana Ranaut playing a private investigator in the action movie "Game" and Detective D.D. Warren, the heroine of Lisa Gardner's "Love You More," inching up the bestseller list. But just because crime stories are getting more female-friendly doesn't mean crime dramas are getting any softer. You can still find a good old-fashioned grisly mutilation on television most nights of the week. "There's no feeling of 'Hey, we've got this female audience, so let's put a pot of flowers on the desk,'" says Sud. "Female audiences are capable of watching really tough, dark dramas as much as anybody else."

As the showrunner of "Criminal Minds," a series with a core audience of 35- to 40-year-old women, Ed Bernero believes that procedurals have started to appeal more to women as they've shifted away from lone-wolf protagonists. "When I was growing up, it was stuff like 'Mannix' and 'Rockford Files' where you had one man against the world," he says. "There was always this boy fantasy of 'I'm gonna be the hero.'"

Over the past few decades, with the rise of crime dramas such as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire," ensemble casts have slowly replaced star vehicles. Even "The Killing" focuses less on Sarah Linden than on her interactions with the town and the effect of the murder on Rosie Larsen's family, her school, the local government and the police precinct. Bernero believes that to accommodate this ensemble model, TV police now tend to work in teams.

"That's more of a female way of problem-solving," he says. "Everyone's working together. Those shows are really about families. If they're done well, you can easily identify who the father is, who the mother is, who the sibling rivalries are between, and who's the younger sibling that everyone takes care of."

Mendelsohn has a different theory. Like Sud, she's one of many female showrunners hired by Jerry Bruckheimer's production team to work on "CSI" and other procedurals, but like Bruckheimer's production chief Jonathan Littman, she's also a veteran of "Melrose Place." When she first started on "CSI," she wondered whether female viewers were drawn to crime dramas for the same reason they were drawn to the soaps she'd worked on.

"I think there's a great romance to crime procedurals," she says. "They're all these good-looking guys, and a character like ['CSI' investigator] Gil Grissom, he'll protect you and put his arms around you if he has to deliver bad news. How heroic!" There's a reason, she says, that during the early days of "CSI," T-shirts sold in New York said "Feel safe at night, sleep with a cop."

More than a decade later, Mendelsohn thinks women don't feel that same need for protection — they can protect themselves. She believes that watching "CSI" has inspired many women to go into the forensics field and notes that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's forensics lab, the real-life inspiration behind the "CSI" franchise, boasts more female than male employees. (Indeed, a representative at the department confirmed that 32 out of 47 scientists in the forensics lab and 27 out of 55 crime-scene analysts are women.) And the wealth of strong-willed female characters on crime dramas reflects that change. "Now when you say, 'Feel safe at night, sleep with a cop,' you're talking about ['CSI' protagonists] Catherine Willows or Sara Sidle," says Mendelsohn.

You could also be talking about Sarah Linden. According to Sud, "The Killing's" strong, silent detective has already reached icon status overseas. "The woman who plays the lead detective in the Danish series has become this role model for Danish girls," she says, referring to the actress Sophie Gråbøl. "She's just this regular woman who is very driven and wears jeans and a sweater." In fact, Gråbøl recently told the Guardian that she chose to wear her own sweater in the series to show that her character didn't need to use her sexuality to get what she wanted; she was so sure of herself, she didn't even have to wear a suit.

Viewers picked up on that message: When the series aired in Europe, the Faroe Islands company that made the sweater couldn't keep up with demand from fans who wanted one of their own. "In today's Paris Hilton world," says Sud, "it's good to know that you can put a real woman out there and young girls will emulate her."

As traditional plot-oriented, action-driven procedurals give way to richer character studies such as "The Killing," there's room for more real women out there too. "There's more female characters who aren't cops in the traditional sense that they will shoot you," says Mendelsohn. "They have magnifying glasses and tweezers. As a woman, I find that empowering, because you don't have to be bigger than the suspect, you just have to be smarter than him." She laughs. "And don't we always think, as women, that we're smarter than men?"

melissa.maerz@latimes.com

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