Top 10 TV Detectives
Shamus, sleuth, gumshoe, P.I., private eye, private dick…
We have so many names for detectives and so many great characters in literature, movies, television, and radio. Anne Iredale’s Top 10 Literary Detectives inspired this list. It made me think of all of the great TV detectives.
According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the earliest TV detective shows were “Man Against Crime (1949-56, CBS, NBC, Dumont) and Martin Kane, Private Eye (1949-54, NBC).” They also classify TV detectives into three classic characters inspired by fiction: the hard-boiled detective, the clever puzzle-solver, and the amateur detective duo.
The mystery of the top ten TV detectives… this was a hard case to crack.
There are many wonderful characters spanning sixty years of television, so I came up with some guidelines to help me narrow the list of suspects. The detectives listed all meet the following three criteria: they are private investigators, not police detectives (sorry Columbo and Cannon, we still love you) and they were created for TV (not originally from a book series or movie… disqualifying Mike Hammer, among others). I have also restricted this list to US programs only. While I was researching this list I found many interesting TV detectives from all over the world, but since I haven’t seen any of these shows I didn’t feel qualified to rate them.
10. Barnaby Jones
Buddy Ebsen played Barnaby Jones in the TV series of the same name. It was a spinoff from another popular detective show, Cannon (“TVs fattest PI” according to magicdragon.com).
At the beginning of the series, Barnaby Jones comes out of retirement after his son (who has taken over his private investigation agency) is murdered. Unlike other detectives on this list, Barnaby Jones has his own crime lab in his house. Prior to his career as a private investigator, he was “an expert in forensics with the special fields: forensic chemistry, clinical psychology, forensic medicine, toxicology and criminology” (actorbuddyebseninfo.com). He uses his home laboratory to solve the case in many episodes… a veritable DIY CSI.
Cool crimelab aside, Barnaby Jones is a bit of a square (just like Buddy Ebsen’s other famous character Jed Clampett). According to superseventies.com, Barnaby Jones’ “keen analytic skills were often masked by a homespun exterior, drawing guilty parties into a false sense of security that led to their downfall.”
Not one of my favorites, but he’s making it onto the list because the show ran for 7 years (1973-1980). He gets mentioned in a South Park episode, which is pretty cool. He also has a Facebook fan page called “Forever Barnaby”, but he only has 4 fans so far. If you’re a fan, throw Jones a bone and become a fan on Facebook.
You can also visit the unofficial Barnaby Jones site for more information.
9. Jessica Fletcher
Angela Lansbury played Jessica Fletcher, an amateur detective who writes mystery novels. Murder, She Wrote aired from 1984-1996 on CBS. That’s 12 long years if you’re not a big fan of the show (I fall into this category). Fans were also treated to four TV movies over the next 6 years.
I prefer another mystery-author-slash-amateur-detective: Rick Castle. He’s one of the newest detective characters to appear on TV (too new to earn a spot on this list). He’s a lot of fun and the show’s writing is good so hopefully he’ll stick around long enough to be remembered years from now. Instead, Jessica Fletcher definitely belongs in this spot as a result of Lansbury’s acting talent and the popularity (and longevity) of the show.
8. Joseph R “Joe” Mannix
Mike Connors played Joe Mannix, a Los Angeles private detective, in the popular TV series Mannix that ran for 8 years (1967 – 1975). Joe Mannix is an army veteran and ex-mercenary. He works for a large detective agency during the first season but then investigates on his own, or with his secretary Peggy Fair, for the remaining duration of the series.
Many TV detectives are identified with one particular car. Columbo had his Peugeot, Magnum had his Ferrari, and Rockford had his Firebird. However, Mannix drove several different cars throughout the series’ run: an Olds Toronado, Dodge Dart, Plymouth Cuda, Dodge Challenger, and a Chevrolet Camaro.
Mannix was “one of the most violent series in TV history” according to imdb.com, describing it as ““lots and lots of fist fights and dead people.” (imdb.com). Joe Mannix seems to be seriously injured in every episode – knocked out, and sometimes even shot.
7. Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars, played by Kristen Bell, is the newest character on the list (the TV show by the same name aired from 2004 – 2007). In contrast to most of the female TV detectives in the past, Veronica Mars does not need a male partner to attract clients. In fact, she is so clever, courageous, and resourceful that she often outwits and out-sleuths the local sheriff’s office and her ex-sheriff dad. Did I mention that she is a high school student for the first two years of the series’ three seasons?
Veronica Mars has all of the best characteristics of a hard-boiled detective: she is witty, quick thinking, brave, and she lives by her own moral code. She has a difficult, even scandalous, past and she’s a loner.
Veronica Mars has earned this spot on the list due to her creator’s ability to reinterpret a classic detective character so successfully, morphing the hard-boiled detective originating in pulp fiction into a new genre: teen film noir. This, combined with the talent involved in every aspect of this production, places her here at 7th place.
6. Jennifer and Jonathan Hart
Check out the credits to Hart to Hart (above) for an excellent example of 1980’s TV: the action, the acting, Mark Snow’s funky theme music, not to mention the hair and the clothes. It’s totally excellent!
The title characters in the TV series Hart to Hart fit perfectly into the third type of classic detective characters I described in the introduction: the amateur detective duo. Like most of these types of PI partners, they are a man and a woman (in this case, a Mr. and Mrs.) and the sexual chemistry between them is impossible to miss. Like the original classic detective couple, Nick and Nora Charles from the book The Thin Man, they are also very rich and they have a pet dog.
Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner) is a self-made millionaire and Jennifer (Stefanie Powers) is a successful journalist. Lionel Stander plays Max, their butler, cook, and chauffeur. According to the opening sequence, he “take[s] care of both of them, which ain’t easy, because when they met- it was murder.”
The show first aired in 1979 and ran for 5 years. Nine years later, they appeared in the first of six Hart to Hart TV movies (the last one aired in 1996). According to tv.com, “Hart to Hart is still airing in syndication in over 60 countries worldwide.”
5. Remington Steele and Laura Holt
The show ran for five years from 1982 to 1987 but the premise sounds more like a TV show from the 50’s than the 80’s. Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) discovers that no one wants to hire a female detective so she invents an imaginary boss, Remington Steele. Pierce Brosnan’s character shows up in the pilot episode to impersonate him.
According to thrillingdetective.com, “in the original concept, Remington Steele wasn’t even going to exist.” However, the studio executives were unwilling to place their confidence in a female detective (not unlike the clients on the TV show). A role was created for a Remington Steele character rather than an imaginary boss who would never actually appear on the show “only after NBC insisted on a male lead” (thrillingdetective.com).
Pierce Brosnan made the role of Remington Steele so memorable – he was perfect as the mysterious, handsome, charming, slightly bumbling, and rather dangerous con man. The same characteristics that made Brosnan such an effective James Bond eight years after the Remington Steele Agency closed its doors forever.
4. Thomas Magnum
I recently tried to watch Magnum PI episodes airing as reruns and could not sit through them. It was so disappointing because I loved the show when it aired in the 1980’s.
One timeless aspect of the TV show is the all around hotness of Tom Selleck during his Magnum PI years. I mean, look at him! Although his big dumb mustache and un-waxed chest dates him back to the 80’s, he is still a hunk.
Magnum PI ran for eight years (1980-1988) on CBS. The popularity of the show, and the macho yet cuddly Selleck earns it 4th place on this list.
Writer Alan Vanneman agrees that this show does not age well (unlike Selleck, who is still very handsome by the way). Read his article ‘Tight Pants in Paradise” for his critique of the show, including some very interesting information about how the original story idea evolved into the Magnum PI we are familiar with today.
3. Peter Gunn
When you hear the name “Peter Gunn” you probably think of the famous song that has been covered by everyone from Quincy Jones to the Cramps; however, the Henry Mancini hit that won an Emmy and two Grammys was actually the theme for a TV show by the same name.
The title character, played by Craig Stevens, is a slightly different take on the hard-boiled detective. Peter Gunn is “a sophisticated hipster, a dapper dresser who loved cool jazz” (Wikipedia). His girlfriend is a singer at his favorite hangout, a local jazz club called Mother’s.
Jazz music pervades every episode, accentuating the action and famous jazz musicians also make cameo appearances. Peter Gunn only ran for three years but long enough to influence TV show soundtracks, inspiring studios to move away from the uninspired generic music used at the time.
Peter Gunn also inspired the cleaned-up and dressed-up detectives of TV’s future, characters who would look comfortable in a tuxedo and who preferred martinis to bourbon out of a paper bag. Jonathan Hart and Remington Steele are good examples.
The visual style, famous song, and influence of the show all lead to its place here on this list.
2. David Addison and Madeline “Maddie” Hayes
According to thrillingdetective.com, Remington Steele’s producer “left after one season, to create Moonlighting, which was remarkably similar”. I disagree about the similarities between the two shows aside from sparks flying between a male and female who engage in fast and flirty dialogue. Another similarity: both shows also introduce male actors who become extremely successful in film franchises in the future (James Bond, Die Hard).
Remington Steele had Doris Roberts (later famous for her role as the mom in Everybody Love’s Raymond) but Moonlighting’s supporting cast sends the show into the TV classics stratosphere. Miss Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) is delightful as the rhyming receptionist and Bert Viola (Curtis Armstrong) is brilliant as the accounting temp who becomes a full-time investigator and DiPesto’s boyfriend. These two actors are the ideal opposites of the perfect (and perfectly icy) Cybill Shepherd and cool Bruce Willis.
1. Jim Rockford
James Garner plays Jim Rockford, main character in The Rockford Files. The show first aired in 1974 and continues to be popular worldwide (debuting in Hungary as recently as 2004, according to imdb.com). The Rockford Files ran for 6 years on NBC and “is in constant syndication to the present day” (Wikipedia). James Scott Rockford (“Jim”, “Jimmy”, “Jimbo”) becomes a private investigator after receiving a pardon five years into a stint at San Quentin (he has been wrongfully convicted for armed robbery).
Rockford has a past and he’s seen better days, much like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and other classic hard-boiled characters in fiction. Yet Rockford is a very unique detective – he doesn’t really fit in to the hard-boiled detective category. If anything he seems more like Humphrey Bogart’s classic depiction of film noir characters. Like Bogart’s Rick (Casablanca), Steve (To Have and Have Not), and Bogart’s version of Marlowe (The Big Sleep) and Spade (The Maltese Falcon), James Garner’s character always tries to talk himself out of situations first before he fights. Also unlike the traditional hard-boiled detective: he doesn’t usually carry a gun, he avoids danger when possible, and his fees are quite high. (Despite he $200 a day fee, his sporadic employment only allows for a beat up trailer for a home office, cheap plaid suits, and an answering machine for a secretary.)
The supporting cast improves a TV show that is already blessed with a talented actor in an interesting, well-developed role and a team of fantastic writers. Mysterynet.com credits The Rockford Files with “some of the most unforgettable supporting characters in television history.” Jim’s dad, a slew of ex-cons from Jim’s prison days, and other colourful characters bring unsolved cases, along with depth and comic relief to the shows. Angel (played by Stuart Margolin) is most memorable, but Isaac Hayes also makes an appearance as Gandolph Fitch, and Rita Moreno plays prostitute Rita Capkovic. Please go to mysterynet.com’s article “The Rockford Files: Not Your Regular Hero” for more information about the show.
This brings us to the end of this list, which was a pleasure (and a challenge) to create. I’d like to add two honorable mentions here: Angel almost made this list. He’s the vampire character who becomes a private investigator when he spins off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show ran for 5 years and was an interesting take on the detective genre. I’d also like to acknowledge Jason Schwartzman’s character Jonathan Ames in the new series Bored to Death. It hasn’t been running long enough to make this list but it offers another interesting step in the evolution of the TV detective character. The show is also worth watching just for the great opening credits, the soundtrack, and the opportunity to watch Ted Danson smoke pot, hire male prostitutes, and talk about his herpes. Check out magicdragon.com for a very thorough list of detective shows from all over the world.