Propulsive thrillers, slow-burn procedurals, and more for your every quarantine mood
Maybe it begins with a body in the woods, half-buried under bracken. Or with a glimmering shot of a city skyline. Or with a furtive deal, carried out at dusk, before an unknown character heads toward an untimely end. The clichés and conventions of crime dramas are their own strange reprieve because of what they tend to guarantee: After a trip into the murkiest corners of the human psyche, an arc will be completed, a villain (or several) will be captured, and the system will prevail.
Over the past two months at home, the shows I’ve craved have either been mindless sitcoms (the televisual equivalent of a bowl of ice cream) or a certain subgenre of crime procedural, many of them British, unfailingly bleak, and loaded with top-tier actors wearing baggy woolen knits and surly expressions. These kinds of shows, as Matthew Gilbert wrote in the Boston Globe a few years ago, aren’t simple TV diversions in the Law & Order mold as much as they’re “haunting reflections on tragedy.” They’re clear-eyed when it comes to the rot in the fabric of humanity, but they typically offer some consolation in the end. The detectives here are as fascinating as the people they profile, and occasionally almost as dark.
With this peculiar type of comfort in mind, here’s a list of some of the superlative crime-drama binges from the past decade that are available to stream. There are plenty of high-profile shows with similar attention to psychological depth (Better Call Saul, Unbelievable, American Crime, When They See Us, Fargo, Mindhunter, True Detective), but for the most part I’ve tried to stay away from obvious choices, to highlight some undersung options instead, grouped according to the things crime series do best. Not all are strict procedurals. Nor is this list exhaustive (The Bridge, Wallander, Borgen, and Trapped are among those deserving of their own inventory). Hopefully, though, you’ll find at least one or two new options to consider.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale tends to get the lion’s share of the attention when it comes to painterly, feminist adaptations of Margaret Atwood novels. But Alias Grace, Mary Harron and Sarah Polley’s six-part miniseries from 2017, is still undersung for its riveting, ambiguous portrait of a woman accused of murder. Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is a notorious prisoner in 19th-century Canada who’s become an object of fascination to wealthy housewives. Wishing to prove her innocence, they recruit an American psychologist, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) to assess her; this is when Grace’s story begins to unfold. Grace is astute, beguiling, and untrustworthy—the pieces of herself that she reveals to Jordan don’t always match the fragments the viewer sees in flashback. The tension between what’s hidden and what’s exposed sustains the drama, as does Gadon’s luminous, unpredictable performance.