By Caryn James | James on Screens June 7, 2013 at 9:00AM
Early in her enthralling new series The Fall, Gillian Anderson -- as a detective named Stella Gibson -- indulges in what she calls a "sweet night," a concept she has borrowed from an African tribe. A woman asks a man to her bed for the night, knowing she'll kick him out for good in the morning. Of course it's a lot harder to escape a sweet night without repercussions if you're a London detective in Belfast searching for the serial killer of young professional women.
We know where she can find the killer because we've seen him from the start: he's a handsome young family man and grief counselor named Paul Spector (played by Jamie Dornan, who's also the Sherriff on ABC's Once Upon a Time).
This fantastically creepy thriller is shaped by Gibson's feminism, which becomes less of an underpinning and more overtly announced as the series goes on. That combination of elements -- the sheer fearfulness of watching the killer in action and Gibson's development as a heroine -- makes the series smarter and richer than any ordinary detective show. The five episodes of The Fall premiered in the U.S. and are streaming on Netflix, and although it has gotten less attention than high-profile originals like House of Cards and Arrested Development, this BBC-made series is the kind of addition that makes Netflix an indispensable source for the best television around.
Dornan is both horrifying and sinister as Paul, whom we see as the loving Dad with his small children, and also stalking, raping and murdering young brunette women with high-powered jobs as architects or lawyers. Jakob Verbruggen's taut direction maximizes the tension; at one point the police are on the street leaving a message on the struggling victim's voicemail during an attack.
Gibson is tough, smart, no-nonsense; she's also a single woman in a male-dominated profession, and unapologetic about her sexual allure. At times Gibson announces the series' themes too bluntly, but Anderson's delivery is always as sharp as her features. As she says to a male colleague who has learned about her sweet night with another detective: "Man fucks woman, OK. Woman fucks man -- that's not so comfortable for you."
The supporting cast is terrific, including John Lynch as Gibson's superior officer and former (married, naturally) flame. And the series is unusual in its range of clearly-defined women characters. Archie Panjabi plays a pathologist (slightly softer than her role as Kalinda on The Good Wife), Niamh McGrady is a young lesbian police officer who becomes Gibson's right-hand in the investigation, and Bronagh Waugh plays Spector's wife, Sally, a neo-natal nurse and working mother made to look unglamorous -- a few extra pounds, practical pulled-back hair -- especially next to Gibson and Spector's polished, svelte victims. The series doesn't call attention to that, but it's no accident of costume or casting; Sally represents Paul's desperate attempt at an ordinary life.
The Fall was created and written by Allan Cubitt, who worked on the British Prime Suspect and wrote the film The Boys Are Back. (When I interviewed Clive Owen recently, he mentioned that film as the one he wished more people had seen.) It has just been announced that The Fall will have a second season, which is hinted at and set up as episode five ends . . . . mysteriously.
Here's a good way to watch: an episode or two of The Fall, followed by a palate-cleansing
episode of Arrested Development. You
may want something light and funny to wash the creepiness away.