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Gillian Anderson is brilliant as Stella Gibson, an English detective assigned to hunt down a Belfast serial killer in the British crime series The Fall. (Steffan Hill/BBC/Artists Studio)
Gillian Anderson is brilliant as Stella Gibson, an English detective assigned to hunt down a Belfast serial killer in the British crime series The Fall. (Steffan Hill/BBC/Artists Studio)

JOHN DOYLE

The Fall: Adult, slow-moving, chilling – and don't forget Gillian Anderson Add to ...

Gillian Anderson plays the lead role in The Fall (Sunday, Bravo, 9 p.m.), the best British thriller in years. Twenty years after she made her debut in The X-Files, Anderson’s icy strength as an actor is used to perfection.

A U.K./Ireland co-production, The Fall is set in Belfast and is made with the care, craft and depth we’ve come to expect from the best of American cable dramas. It’s adult, slow-moving and utterly chilling. If you watch it at home, alone, you’ll be particularly spooked. And, unusual for a Brit thriller, this is not a whodunit. The viewer knows the killer from the start, knows him intimately, and watching his ordinary life and his killing unfold is what gives the series – there are only five parts – a horror-inducing gravitas.

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An equally compelling reason to watch is Anderson, as Stella Gibson, an English detective sent over to Belfast to look at evidence in two murders that the local police cannot solve. She sees a pattern, suspects a serial killer is at work and sets about persuading the local police boss to act. This might seem conventional, but this is Belfast. It’s not a provincial British city, it’s Belfast post-Troubles, with layer upon layer of tension and antagonism. No one is quite what they seem, not even the hangdog, hard-bitten cops. The city has lived through decades of seething rage, and out of its internal mess crawls a killer, Paul, who isn’t concerned with Catholic or Protestant politics, only with murdering professional young women in their 20s.

We come to know Paul (Jamie Dornan, who is excellent) well. He’s eerily ordinary – a handsome family man who’s married to a nurse and has two sweet kids. He works as a bereavement counsellor – the last man anyone would suspect of being a loner and capable of elaborately gruesome murder.

Part of what makes The Fall gripping is that it draws deft parallels between the killer and the cop. Both are hunters, both are supremely disciplined. Stella’s cold, clipped in speech and also a loner, seemingly lacking in any vulnerability. Just as Paul is drawn to strong young women, Stella is drawn to a handsome, chiselled man for a night of sex. And she isn’t apologetic about it.

What we have in Stella is a next-generation Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren’s character in the Prime Suspect series. (Allan Cubitt wrote The Fall and also Prime Suspect 2.) And Anderson is ideal for it – there isn’t an ounce of weakness in her character, even when her boss is upbraiding her for sleeping with a local police officer. You can’t take your eyes off her. The series also benefits from its Belfast setting – the grey city is menacing at all times, and director Jakob Verbruggen uses it well, filming the streets and homes as places where age-old angst resides, barely hidden.

As much as The Fall is Gillian Anderson’s series, the depth of its cast is admirable, too. There are scenes between Paul and his family’s babysitter (Lucy McConnell, who is terrific in a challenging role) that make your hair stand on end. The Fall was a huge hit in Britain, and little wonder – it’s a pleasure to watch this inventive, chilling journey into evil.

Also airing this weekend

Amy Schumer: Mostly Sex Stuff (Saturday, Comedy, 9 p.m.) is a one-hour stand-up comedy special featuring Schumer doing what the title says – dissing her dating and sex life. And it’s aimed at those who have fallen for her hit Inside Amy Schumer sketch series. Take note, too, that ABC is airing new episodes of two already-cancelled series – Zero Hour (Saturday, ABC, 8 p.m.) and the much better but creepy 666 Park Avenue (Saturday, 9 p.m.) – in case you fell for these series last fall and were annoyed to see them dropped.

The Kill List (Saturday, CBC NN, 10 p.m.) is a repeat of an excellent doc about the U.S. military’s escalating use of drones in the war on terror. It asks: “Who is targeted? According to what criteria?” Then says there are no answers because the decisions are made in secret.

The Calgary Stampede (CBC, Saturday, 2 p.m.) goes ahead, as we’ve been told. Here you’ve got the kick-off parade, with Chris Hadfield as this year’s parade marshal. The rodeo competition airs on CBC at 10 p.m. Saturday, and of course it will all have more meaning than usual. It’s preceded by Gavin Crawford’s Wild Wild West (CBC, 9:30 p.m.), a pilot for a CBC comedy – not picked up by CBC – in which Crawford plays different Albertans in an “an ode to Western Canada.” It is side-splittingly hilarious and rude.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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