The words "gritty cop drama," usually bring to mind the assumption that the flawed, reckless and work-obsessed main character is male. But WGN America's Bellevue is turning that assumption on its head. The new series hailing from Anna Paquin, Adrienne Mitchell, and Jane Maggs explores a small town full of secrets that start to become exposed when Jesse (Sadie O'Neil), a high school hockey star wrestling with his gender identity, goes missing and all signs point to foul play. The mystery of Jesse's disappearance takes on a sinister tone when the potential killer begins playing mind games with Detective Annie Ryder (Paquin, who also stars along with executive producing), and she must put together all the pieces to this gripping mystery before her own life falls apart.
While Paquin believes that the gender of the main character at the heart of cop dramas "ultimately shouldn't" affect the storytelling — "Male or female shouldn't be the deciding factor for how deep or gritty or real it gets," she tells Bustle — she knows that, as an industry and society, there is still a long way to go before that can be true. "Unfortunately, it quite often is a deciding factor," she says with a roll of her eyes.
That's why Paquin was so eager to step into the shoes of Detective Annie Ryder. "She wasn't conceived of as a female character first and a cop second," she says. "It was, she is a really hardcore, gritty, smart, kind of reckless detective who happens to be a woman. What I love is how it wasn't written as a traditional female soapy kind of show. It was written exactly as intensely as it would have been if it was a male protagonist."
Bellevue doesn't hold back with Annie — the opening scene of the series alone proves that, as Annie manipulates a drug dealer while undercover, using her body to get the information she needs while also snorting a line of cocaine to prove herself as a trustworthy buyer, all while she knows her entire team is listening to her on coms. Annie is competent and talented when it comes to her job, but she's also as flawed as the male antiheroes that have come before her in film and TV, so Paquin is ready to break new ground for female characters to come after her.
"Personally I think that's trending in the right direction as far as entertainment and what we're coming to expect," Paquin says. "It's not how traditionally women have been portrayed on these kinds of shows, so I loved everything about it."
Bellevue isn't just female-driven onscreen — the trio of showrunners in Paquin, Mitchell, and Maggs formed a coalition of strong female voices behind-the-scenes and on set. "I'm always interested in giving female characters, female stories a voice, so it's more commonplace for me than may be normal," Mitchell tells Bustle. "That female energy was a constant and main force of this series. It was very gratifying."
As an actor first and foremost, Paquin knows that oftentimes her involvement in the decision-making process is at the behest of the showrunners. "I've always tried to be very involved, as much as they will let me be, in the logistics of filmmaking," she says. But with Bellevue, officially having the power of showrunner was a delight for her. "Adrienne Mitchell, Jane Maggs, and I just had this witchy coven sort of bond of creativity," Paquin says. "We were just so on the same page for so many things from the get go. Getting to be a part of the decision making on a creative and fundamental level is just something I really enjoy."
Having three strong female voices at the top created a vibe that the men on set felt, too. "It only affected it in a positive way — the energy that those three women brought to it," says Allen Leech, who plays Annie's on-again-off-again boyfriend Eddie and father of her child. "We were all there to do the very best job we could and you certainly felt that every single day." And Shawn Doyle, who plays Chief of Police Peter Welland, agrees, adding, "It was just really incredible to feel like we were being taken care of by a team of very sharp individuals."
Having Mitchell, Maggs, and Paquin around to steer the ship was a massive help for newcomer O'Neil, who plays the victim, Jesse. "It was my first TV show and I'm thankful that that is the type of environment that was my first TV show," O'Neil says. "It's so nice, especially with the news lately, I think that made me reflect more on how lucky I was that this was — my joke was that it felt like having three moms on set. They were always like, 'Are you okay? Are you warm?' To be able to work with other women, because I was consulting as well, writing and having input, was a godsend."
Bellevue isn't just breaking barriers when it comes to putting females in positions of power. The series is also looking to tell an inclusive LGBTQ story, as Jesse, the town's hockey star, is contemplating his gender identity in secret. O'Neil is transgender herself, making her portrayal of Jesse more authentic.
"It was important to us to find someone who was a transgendered person to play the role. It was hard to find," Mitchell says. "We did have a few auditions and it was just difficult to find people. When Sadie came in to audition for the role, we were just blown away by her talent, by her courage. She was incredible and very authentic."
And O'Neil doesn't just play a part in the series. She also became a consultant for Bellevue, helping to make sure the show told a trans story responsibly. "What we also got from Sadie is that she's a writer so she was able to help us develop the character," Mitchell says. "We were still at a stage where we could make changes and she was instrumental in making really important changes to the show in terms of the character."
O'Neil was most concerned with "the fact that Jesse is introduced as a victim who has disappeared."
"It was very important to me in terms of the input I was giving to flesh out the character, to add scenes and make sure that this is a person that we get to know and who we care about," O'Neil says, speaking to flashbacks before Jesse's disappearance that show his struggle with his gender identity. Mitchell adds that O'Neil was instrumental in writing Jesse's views about himself and shaping how other characters viewed him.
"It's things that, as you're writing as a cis person, you're just not going to pick up on in terms of implications that you're not thinking about," O'Neil says. "Like turns of phrase that are not the best idea to air on television when you're talking about trans people, stuff that I was able to see and line edit to make it a lot easier to watch and to get behind."
Paquin thinks it's long past due to make stories represent what the world actually looks like. "I'm quite outspoken about all this stuff because I'm bisexual but I just think it's good that entertainment is catching up with what people are really like," she says. "The massive underrepresentation of the LGBTQ communities and people in entertainment is just something that is catching up with reality, that we're all a part of the community already, why does entertainment not reflect that? It's statistically not that unlikely that that kid exists in some small town and may or may not feel like they're able to live their life as their real selves."
O'Neil's biggest hope for Bellevue is that it starts a conversation with viewers. "'Start' being a very important word," she says. "It's very important to think about the issues that Bellevue does talk about in terms of being different, whether in a small town or just in society in general, what kind of forces exist there, what it means to be complicit in cycles of violence. I very much want people to use Bellevue as a jumping off point and have conversations with people in their lives or even just themselves about the issues Bellevue does bring up and what it doesn't, like decriminalizing sex work or even start thinking about if there are trans women in your life that you can be supporting more than you are right now."
She adds, "I hope people can take Bellevue, not just on its own and what it says, but use it to branch out to broader and deeper issues." Bet you didn't think you'd get a healthy dose of productive and enlightening conversation to go along with TV's latest gritty cop drama, huh? In 2018, it's time to expect more from your entertainment.
This story was created in support of Bustle's 2018 Awards Season pledge. Read more here.