Why ITV’s Karen Pirie is the clever female-led detective drama we’ve been waiting for

ITV’s Karen Pirie premieres this weekend and blends real-life sexism, true crime podcasts and dry humour to create a detective drama unlike any other. 

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the first episode of ITV’s Karen Pirie.

When you think of detective dramas, it’s often TV classics like Line Of Duty, Luther, The Wire and True Detective that spring to mind.

While our relationship to police dramas may constantly be changing, the genre itself is making room for new faces to refresh the tired trope of the middle-aged, male detective. Introducing: Karen Pirie.

The new ITV drama centres on an up-and-coming female detective (played by Outlander’s Lauren Lyle) who is tasked with reviewing a cold case. A career-defining and joyous moment, right? But it becomes clear very early on that Pirie has been hired to save face for a police department that has been hit with allegations of negligence.

The murder case of young barmaid Rosie Duff is now 25 years old, and after Rosie was found brutally murdered in the Scottish university town of St Andrews in 1996, suspicion immediately fell on the three drunken students who were discovered at the scene of the crime and claimed to have found her body: Sigmund ‘Ziggy’ Malkiewicz, Tom ‘Weird’ Mackie and Alex Gilbey.  

Lauren Lyle stars as Karen Pirie in the new ITV crime drama.

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Through the use of flashbacks and present-day scenes, we see the trio of friends as they were and how they’ve ended up. Because of a lack of forensic evidence at the time, no charges were brought against them and their names were never made public. So we’re left to watch on as they move about their current lives clearly harbouring a secret about that night and, like Pirie herself, are left to wonder how the three men slot into it all. They’re shifty and not as trustworthy as they seem, but if you’re looking for instant answers, this isn’t the drama for that. Instead, you’ll be left mentally jotting down question after question and left stunned by one hell of a shocking end to the first episode.

The surprising and welcome thing about this crime drama, though, is that it pays homage to the time period we’re in now. 

Not to sound all futuristic and ultra-modern, but often in crime dramas, there’s no real discussion as to how the changing tone of media impacts cases today. Podcasts are an entity in and of themselves and can often lead to renewed interest in underrepresented and ‘forgotten’ stories. Serial is a case in point. In Karen Pirie, it’s only because of a new podcast, Echoes: The Rosie Duff Case, that the historical case is reviewed by the police. 

Like any egotistical detective in a drama, the immediate comment that is made about the podcast leaves no surprises: “This is what passes for journalism now, is it? A sultry voice and a bit of a jingle?”

And soon the conclusion is drawn that “given the angle of the podcast, I think it would help the optics if it was a female officer. You got one of them?” So, of course, Pirie is hired to helm the review, and while acknowledging that this tokenism is a bitter pill to swallow, she uses it to motivate rather than deter her.

We soon find out that there are many closed doors when it comes to Rosie’s life. We learn of a past pregnancy that was understood to have had fatal complications but could in fact point to a surviving adult daughter. Rosie also lied about the father’s true identity and was understood to have had a secret romance – all things Pirie manages to unearth, adding substance to the claim that the case wasn’t handled appropriately at the time. 

Karen Pirie premieres on ITV on Sunday 25 September.

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Pirie is quietly ferocious in her dedication to re-interview as many people as possible, not backing down from awkward silences or shifty personas. Instead, she manages to draw out small details that, when pieced together, could finally give an answer about what happened on that tragic evening.

It’s the kind of drama that doesn’t give answers to burning questions straight away; rather, it’s a slow burn of a series intent on casting a light on cases concerned with violence against women. It’s timely, but while watching, it sucks you in with its ability to throw up multiple possibilities and a lot of distrust in the characters we meet. It’s part of the reason why you’ll be unable to stop watching, desperate to find out what actually happened to Rosie and how all of these people slot into it all.

But the main reason to watch Karen Pirie is for the lead detective herself. While she may exhibit relatable themes for many women watching – imposter syndrome, dealing with workplace aggression and sexism – Lauren Lyle excels in the role and manages to bring quick wit, slight humour and fearlessness to the detective drama genre. And it’s a long time coming, we say.

The first episode of Karen Pirie airs on Sunday 25 September at 8pm, with the episodes airing weekly on Sundays and available to watch on ITV Hub. 

Images: ITV

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