Marcella: Troubled Detectives, Green Parkas, and Fringes

Last June I started watching ITV’s new show Marcella after some people on my Twitter timeline mentioned it. Three episodes down the line bad reviews started to appear, with even The Pool criticising how Marcella’s parka was used to turn her into a television icon like Sara Lund and her jumpers. By that time I was travelling a lot and did not have much time to watch and enjoy the series. As I returned to them in my last week of my summer break, I rediscovered a fantastic television show with a defined aesthetic, and a new female detective to join the ranks of my television role models.

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International viewers will probably be surprised at Anna Friel’s performance, since the British actress is not really well-known in other countries. Friel does an amazing job at giving life to Marcella, stay-at-home mum and wife who returns to her job to the Metropolitan Police after her marriage falls apart and her children move to a boarding school. Right from the beginning Marcella identifies a pattern in a series of apparently random killings in the city when a colleague visits her to ask for some information from an old case she worked on in 2005. As the pictures of these new killings pick her interest she decides to return to the Met while her new colleagues question whether Marcella is actually a good detective or someone who cannot leave the past behind.

Rather than present these killings as a procedural series, Marcella‘s season 1 cleverly entwined police work and the characters’ personal lives in ways that sometimes seem confusing and may leave audiences wondering what is really happening. I highly suggest binge-watching this first season, as it is easier to make the connections between the vast number of characters and their sometimes secret lives. I was really happy to see some familiar faces such as Downton Abbey‘s Laura Carmichael in a very different role, as well as prolific television actress Nina Sosanya. The series was originally written in Swedish and later on translated into English by Hans Rosenfeldt, who was also in charge of the Scandi sensation Bron (The Bridge). This Scandi influence is overtly reflected on the night settings and the darkness that generally floods every scene.

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MARCELLA EPISODE 7 Pictured: RAY PANTHAKI as DI Rav Sangha, CHARLIE COVELL as DI Alex Dier, JACK DOOLAN as DC Mark Travis, NINA SOSANYA as DCI Laura Porter and ANNA FRIEL as Marcella.

The first season focuses on a series of murders that resemble one of Marcella’s most challenging cases. As she brings together her past and the present, her team of colleagues will post some very interesting moral questions to the audience with Marcella’s responses being the most extreme. How are can the police go to solve a crime? Is it right to harass a criminal on parole in order to prevent him from doing more harm? In questioning suspects, where is the line between pressure and torture? The feeling of instability and blurred lines is made more intense by Marcella’s blackouts and the stress she is under, both professionally and personally.

In the glimpses we are given into Marcella’s personal life, we get to discover a middle-aged woman, a terrific yet complex DS, and a troubled mother and wife who is dealing with her recent separation. It was refreshing to see a female main character come undone at times yet returning to work with all her strength, because that is what really drives her. Motherhood plays a key role with Marcella’s kids struggling with the separation as well, and blaming their mother for it. One of the most interesting relationships was the attempt at a civil relationship between Marcella, her husband and their kids. Despite her betrayal, Marcella herself recognises her partner’s good parenting and tries to make the situation as easy for the children as she can. However, this does not mean she lets herself be a martyr, and she comes up with the truth when she decides she does not have to carry the weight world on her shoulders.

Marcella’s personal life also includes her house and her closet, full of practical and comfortable clothes with her green parka being an icon. The Pool criticised the way Marcella’s parka is used to construct the character and sell clothes to the series’ female audience. I must disagree after I bought myself one for this winter completely unaware of where I had gotten the idea of replacing my worn out and ragged parka with one that looks uncannily like Marcella’s. Clothes have become iconic in crime fiction, a genre that is more a character study than a mere procedural, with the main characters’ clothes becoming references to the general public: Sherlock’s hat, Sarah Lund’s jumpers, Temperance Brennan’s jewels, Stella Gibson’s blouses. And now Marcella’s green parka, with that wonderful fringe of fur framing the hood, protecting its wearer of the cold London weather.

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The same could be said about Marcella’s deep auburn hair, which comes out with some coppery highlights depending on the light. And her fringe, which I am sure has inspired more than one woman to get that shoulder-length and fringed hairstyle that can so easily become a comfortable ponytail yet look glamorous. I also appreciated how the colour worn out throughout the season, so that by episode 8 Marcella’s roots were easily visible. It is sometimes difficult to connect with female main characters when they have been working for weeks without a break and they still look red carpet perfect. Marcella’s hair is almost always up, trying not to get in her way, and looking dry and not so-done and one would expect on a television show.

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Marcella is a new step forward in crime fiction television shows with a female lead. The dramatic turn of her personal life gives Marcella depth and a story the audience can relate to. Her return to work after her stay-at-home period is also something to highlight, as some of her colleagues openly show their reservations at Marcella’s return. Is she still a good detective? And can she cope with her personal traumas and the new investigation? This first season is a successful attempt at constructing an iconic and troubled female detective with needs and failures and a non-normative morality, with a personal and professional life in which female sexuality comes out as something natural that only Marcella herself can define.

It was recently announced that ITV is producing a second season to be broadcasted in 2017. I cannot wait to see the challenges and moral dilemmas Marcella has to face. If season 1 finished with her admitting ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, one can only expect season 2 to be yet another character study of a beloved character that, I’m afraid, we haven’t gotten to know at all yet.

Top of the Lake by Jane Campion

Last May I helped organize a conference in my university and after talking about our research fields I was recommended two TV shows for the crime lover in me: Top of the Lake (2013) and The Bletchley Circle (2012). One of the things that called my attention was that Top of the Lake was written and produced by Jane Campion whose movie The Piano changed something in non-sexist representation of women. So, as soon as I got home I got Top of the Lake and started watching it. Beware! This review contains some minor spoilers.

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To sum up the main premise, I would only say that detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) moves back home to New Zealand to spend time with her mom, who suffers from cancer, and ends up investigating the pregnancy and posterior disappearance of Tui, a local a 12-year old girl. These are the events that set the action in motion and, as the series progresses, new information is discovered about both Robin and Tui. I think this structure of a case taking up a whole and only season is becoming more and more fashionable because the audience get to know and become familiar with the characters. As a consequence, the detective becomes a central character so that the writers and the actors/actresses can explore a human psychology more deeply. This allows for more complex and realistic portrayals of investigators, both men and women. In Top of the Lake, Campion explores Robin’s sexuality, mind, psychology and body, something that is not so common on TV crime fiction where investigators are mere tools to solve the crimes. She is a daughter, a fiancée, a girlfriend, a detective, a friend, a native and an outisder, all at the same time. But above all, she is a woman and Campion will center on the joys and perils of this.

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Elizabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin

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Detective Robin Griffin

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Robin talking to Tui: she was the only one who understood Tui and fought for her.

But, despite this amazing main character, I had quite a few problems with the series and I have been waiting for weeks to write this review because I cannot make up my mind about it. If I ask myself: “Elena, did you enjoy the series?” I would say that I did, from a crime fiction point of view. Robin was also a masterfully written and performed main character, quite different to what we are used to see on TV nowadays. And the scenery? That was amazing! Check it for yourselves:

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Dart river valley.  Rees-Dart Track in Mount Aspring National Park, NZ

However, I think I am missing something, or maybe I am trying to over-analyze a good crime TV show as a masterful, feminist and life-changing production. Along with the case we are presented with a group of women who moved to a land called “Paradise” to heal themselves from what I would broadly call the patriarchy. They are divorced, they are abandoned, they are what society would sadly call “crazy bitches/witches”. Throughout the series I fell in love with their leader, GJ (Holly Hunter), because she was androgynous, strong and opinionated. However, does a female character need to be like that to be interesting? And what about the name? GJ? As in God/Jesus because they are in Paradise and she has disciples? I am not the best at figuring out religious connections, so I will leave this to those of you who are.

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Holly Hunter as GJ talking to her disciples

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The women’s camp led by GJ

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The entrance to Paradise on Toplake

Top of the Lake also makes a great effort to explore rape, rapists and how women are affected by this crime. Robin herself was the victim of a brutal sexual crime back in her teens and now she has returned home a grown woman, a great detective, and above all, healed and in charge of her life. There is no self-pity for her, she is aware of what she went through and condemns it, but she has moved on with her life and has tried to make the best of a horrible situation. It is not very often that rape victims are presented like this on TV. I am a huge fan of Law and Order: SVU and although they made a great job at exploring rape, victims are usually presented as shocked and weak, but doing the right thing: denouncing their rapists to the police. But not here: Robin has gained back agency: it is her life and she proudly claims it after the attack.

And, finally, patriarchy, sexism, classical male values and brutality are embodied by Matt (Peter Mullan), Tui’s father. He represents everything that is wrong with how society raises men with men’s values in a classical way. I was made sick by everything he said, everything he did and every place he stood at. Campion also makes him a complex character showing how he was raised and how he has raised his two adult sons, but she never portrays them as victims.

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Matt’s sons at their typically male house

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Peter Mullan as Matt

So, I do not really know what more to say about Top of the Lake. It is a good TV show and it makes a different with women’s representation is these new productions. After the women’s representation fiasco of True Detective, I think it is great to see that women have a place on crime TV shows.  But, I do not see it as the masterpiece that everyone says it is. Both Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter gave standout performances and I do hope they are recognized for their work.

Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? Here are some questions that helped me think and are still unanswered (spoilers):

  • Why is Robin running away from her fiancé in Sydney?
  • Why does Robin’s mother tolerate her partner’s violence against her?
  • GJ’s camp means a return to nature, a feminist idea born in 1970’s France and that, broadly speaking, associates women with nature. Why did Campion use this idea to, finally, discard it in the very last episode?
  • Related to the previous question: Why is Tui’s birth in the forest presented as positive?

Top Ten Favorite (Crime) TV Shows

I am sucker for crime fiction, in any form and that includes TV shows. I usually joke that I spend way too much watching TV, and not all of it is crime fiction, but I would say a great majority is. So, here you have my ten favourite crime TV shows. I decided to list those that have been broadcasted for a while, are easy to find and basically mean “comfort TV”.

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Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created here at The Broke and the Bookish. This feature was created because we are particularly fond of lists here at The Broke and the Bookish. We’d love to share our lists with other bookish folks and would LOVE to see your top ten lists!

1. Castle.- A crime fiction writer follows a strong, opinionated and super cool NYPD Homicide female detective. Is there anything not to love about this?

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2. Bones.- Love Temperance’s passion for her job. Also, I don’t think we were that familiar with forensic anthropology before we met her, were we?

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 3. CSI: NY.- My favourite on the CSI series. This is the most comfortable you can get watching crime TV shows. But, nothing works like it to relax and unplug from daily life’s worries and struggles. I can’t believe it’s no longer in the air…

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4. Rizzoli & Isles.- This may actually be my favourite on the list (or second, see number 6). A medical examiner and a Boston homicide detective work hand-in-hand to solve crimes. One is blonde, the other is brunette. One is super brainy, the other is super practical. I actually wrote my MA thesis on them.

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5. Code 37.– I just recently discovered this Belgian TV show with one of the most complex, complete and kick-ass female detectives I have ever seen. Hannah Maes has taken female detectives to yet another level.

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6. The Closer.– My another favourite show. Brenda Leigh Johnson is transferred from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Los Angeles Police Department where her Southern accent, charm and ways seem to crash with her new – all male – subordinates. But she is so good, she finds a way.

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7. Criminal MInds.– I really like this show, but after a few episodes I feel uneasy. Some of the themes are too dark and twisted, but they cases are really good and interesting.

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8. Law & Order: SVU.- The Special Victim Units centers on sexual assault and crimes. I know it sounds pretty dark, but they treat the victims with total respect and the show has helped inscribe sexual violence and the need to denounce it on TV. Good job!

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9. Crossing Jordan.- I first saw this TV show when I was 16 and I thought I would totally rock at being a medical examiner (clue: not sure, probably not). Dr. Jordan Cavannaugh moves back to Boston where she gets involved with her victims’ police investigations.

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10. Law & Order: UK.- If there was a way to make Law & Order even better, it was moving it to London. I was not familiar at all with British laws and procedures, so I was really happy to learn a bit while watching the breath-taking London landscapes.

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True Detective by Nic Pizzolatto

The following is a spoiler-free review of True Detective. Enjoy!

Some time in early spring my Facebook wall got a lot of “you have to watch True Detective” messages, all of them coming from people I trust and who know my tastes pretty well. Mr. B&R insisted as much, saying it was really good and I would love it. So, during my Spring Break, I thought I should watch it, totally aware that if it were as good as everyone said, I would have the time to just stay at home and watch as many episodes a day as I would love. Turned out my timing worked amazingly: no one spoiled me the finale and I pretty much stuck to one episode a day.

I started watching the series with an open mind, only knowing that it involved two detectives and that one of them was played by Matthew Mcconaughey, whose acting talents I had only discovered with Dallas Buyers Club (previous reference I had of him was Failure to Lunch, mind you). So, I sat down to watch the pilot episode and an hour later I was in awe.

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For one thing, the writing is really good. But what made me fall in love with the show, apart from Mcconaughey’s character, but we will get there soon; was the setting. I love the Southern states, and although my heart belongs mostly to Tennessee, Louisiana proved to be a phantasmagoric, suffocating and dangerous setting. Just the perfect one for the murder they are investigating.

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See what I mean? Louisiana’s flat, humid and wasted landscape echoes the crime, but also the main characters’ internal lives, or at least, Mcconaughey’s one. Regarding the crime, dealt with during the whole season, and without giving too much away (just what the trailer does): Cohle and Hart investigate the murder of a young woman whose body shops up under a tree in strange circumstances. And that is all you need to know to watch it. If you are curious, you can see the crime scene here.

Now, returning to my infatuation with Detective Rust Cohle: Mcconaughey plays a philosophical and introvert man who has moved to Louisiana from Texas and does not get along well with Woody Harrelson’s character, Detective Marty Hart. So, we have a mysterious character, with an unknown past and working issues, because let’s be clear, being all philosophical back in 1995 was not fashionable for a cop. He is also defined in opposition to Detective Marty Hart, who stands for a traditional and patriarchal cop. Yes, I hated him.

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But, because there is a “but”, I had one big problem with True Detective and it was women’s representation. I knew when I sat down to watch it that it was not Rizzoli & Isles or Bones. I knew the main character were two men, yet I was clearly disappointed. I will not give away anything, but there is more to women than wives, girlfriends, secretaries and prostitutes. Even in Louisiana. Even in 1995. However, I read somewhere that there were no detective women in the Boston Police Homicide Department until 1988. I do not know if it was time for Louisiana to have a female cop in 1995, but I wish it were. More importantly, I wish writer Nic Pizzolatto would have thought there could have been and written a female character that does not fit intro a traditional role. Meanwhile, Kate Mara and Ellen Page have already offered themselves to star in the show’s second season.

So, did I love True Detective? Yes. Would I recommend you to watch it? Totally, and you would better do before someone spoils the ending for you. However, since the seasons are self-contained, the second season will have different characters and a different crime to investigate, so do not be afraid of not being able to catch up later on. Just think of True Detective as a long movie. A long, beautiful and haunting movie.

Now, here’s the trailer: