The British are coming and they're bringing the cops along.
The finale of the BBC's Happy Valley — a dark and at times brutally violent, six episode series that followed a single kidnapping case — scored 8 million viewers in the United Kingdom, a number U.S. network executives would envy. According to Soumya Sriraman, the BBC's executive vice president of home entertainment and licensing, talks are happening with several outlets about carrying the show in the U.S.
The series, from British Academy Television Award-winning writer Sally Wainwright (Last Tango In Halifax), is part of a recent wave of British cop dramas that not only generate big ratings but also obsessive morning-after chatter. The trend was kick-started by ITV's Broadchurch, which had the nation buzzing over who killed Danny Latimer. "The conversation is mandatory, otherwise you look like a cultural shut-in," says Rich Ross, CEO of Shine America, which is producing the U.S. adaptation, Gracepoint, for Fox this fall.
Other British crime dramas finding their way to the states include Hinterland, which set viewing records in its home country of Wales and will soon stream on Netflix. The service is already running several recent British hits including the BBC series The Fall, which stars Gillian Anderson as a flawed detective determined to stop a serial killer in Belfast. Police corruption drama Line of Duty, starring Jericho's Lennie James, is available on Hulu. Scott & Bailey, Wainwright's 2011 police series for ITV that will remind American viewers of Cagney & Lacey, airs on PBS stations, streams on Hulu Plus and will be released June 17 on DVD.
American crime dramas such as CSI and Law & Order are hugely successful due, in part, to closed-ended stories that bring cases to a conclusion at the end of the hour. But the Brits are making their mark with story arcs that typically stretch over a season of five to 10 episodes. "They can afford to do characterizations and don't have to add so many subplots," says Sriraman.
Technology is also helping sustain the viewing habit necessary to keep up with the serialized format. Sriraman says U.K. viewers play back previous episodes on the BBC and ITV app iPlayer at a much higher rate than Americans use DVRs.
The promise of fewer episodes (a trend U.S. networks have started to embrace, as Fox has with The Following) is a key reason U.K. viewers will commit to the emotionally intense whodunits. "They are not geared to long seasons," says Ross. "So the creativity that is pumped into episodes is electrifying."