If there’s one detective series that has unquestionably captivated television audiences in recent history, the answer can only be Sherlock, the whip-smart modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic private eye, Sherlock Holmes. But the deerstalker-sporting genius hails from a long line of great small screen sleuths. Detective shows are among the sturdiest and most long-lived genres in the medium. And while many of the best clue solvers on the small-screen aren’t literal “detectives” in the professional sense, their keen powers of deduction put them in the same league when it comes to solving crimes.
So while we continue to reel from the events of that dizzying season (or series?) Sherlock finale, let’s look at the fifteen best detectives in television history, featuring a diverse array of investigative techniques and brilliant minds.
Note: this was no easy list to formulate. There has been a wide array of detective shows over the years, and narrowing it down to 15 was brutal! So be sure to check out our honorable mentions at the end of the article, to see the small screen private eyes that almost made the cut.
15. Veronica Mars – Veronica Mars
The youngest detective on our list, Veronica Mars (played by Kristen Bell) is a private eye who got her start in high school under the tutelage of her detective father (Enrico Colantoni) when she began investigating the shocking murder of her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried). Working on small cases that plague her bizarre hometown of Neptune, California while also investigating larger threats that took full seasons to solve, Mars’ plucky demeanor and single-minded focus made her an excellent detective, one that far too many foes underestimated based on her age and appearance. Her powers of deduction are so astute that she often solves mysteries before her father (while also overstepping boundaries in cases he warns her to avoid).
Veronica Mars had a relatively short, 3 season-long shelf-life on television before floundering as an underappreciated feature film. Nonetheless, the character has a rabid online fan base that is well-aware of the fact that Mars is one of the most memorable and unique P.I.’s in pop culture. Wise-cracking and insightful detectives come in all shapes and sizes, folks.
14. Dutch Wagenbach – The Shield
The Shield was one of the darkest and most unsettling cop shows ever, and while lead character Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) drove the majority of the series’ narrative, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the impact of Detective Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach (Jay Karnes). The captivatingly troubled police detective featured heavily in some of the show’s most harrowing and disturbing episodes.
While mocked for his nerdy, teacher’s pet exterior, Wagenbach has a dark obsession with serial killers and sexual offenders, and getting inside their minds to discover what gives them the need to carry out such heinous acts. But it’s this morbid predilection that makes him so good at his job.
Combined with his more well-rounded partner, Detective Claudette Wyms (the always wonderful CCH Pounder), the duo become the moral center of the show, despite Dutch’s occasional lapses in judgement. But his quick study of human behavior and obsession with solving difficult cases makes him one of the more formidable minds in the business.
13. Carl Kolchak – Kolchak The Night Stalker
While not an official sleuth, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) was one of the most dogged and relentless reporters to ever grace the small screen. His obsessive need to get to the truth put his life in danger in every single episode.
Kolchak’s stock in trade? An obsession with urban legends that turned out to be true, involving supernatural creatures, rampaging robots, and malevolent extraterrestrials. But he wasn’t content to simply report on the matter: he helped stop every potential threat that came his away.
A constant pain in the ass to his editor and local law enforcement, Kolchak’s intrepid research and the uncanny ability to always be in the right place at the time to stop otherworldly threats made him a detective of the noblest type, protecting his beloved city of Chicago from perils no one would ever believe without seeing them with their own eyes.
12. Frank Pembleton – Homicide: Life on the Street
Perhaps the most underrated (or obscure) detective on our list is Frank Pemberton, played by Andre Braugher on the gritty ’90s cop show, Homicide: Life on the Streets, a hardboiled detective show set in the gritty streets of Baltimore (predating another Baltimore detective show, The Wire). While the series featured an ensemble cast, it was Pemberton that proved to be the most electrifying presence. A master manipulator, Pemberton’s interrogation techniques hold few peers, as he was able to poke, prod and terrify a suspect to crack under pressure. But his ruthless demeanor and dogmatic personality gave him few friends on the force.
Despite his harsh approach, Pemberton is loath to use a firearm, and his conflicted persona was on display week after week. (He gave up religion given that the crimes he investigated showed that, in his mind, God either can’t exist or is immeasurably cruel.) Based off famed real-life detective Harry Edgerton, Pemberton is one of the most intricately layered characters on our list, a study of contrasts that never fails to captivate.
11. Jessica Fletcher – Murder, She Wrote
The favorite sleuth for moms and grandmothers worldwide, Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) became a pop-culture phenomenon for over a decade on the popular mystery series Murder, She Wrote. Fletcher’s main gig is as a mystery writer living in her sleepy town of Cabot Cove, Maine. But it’s a wonder how she ever gets any writing done, because no one has accidentally happened on more murder scenes in her hometown (or any place she chooses to visit) than Fletcher.
Not that any of that phases her in the slightest, as she has an unerring intuition and level of deductive reasoning that’s resulted in the arrest of hundreds of murderers, with her final verdict delivered in her patented arch and scholarly tone. While the primary concept of Murder, She Wrote borders on the ridiculous, Lansbury’s engaging and award-winning portrayal of Fletcher won millions of fans. She’s a wholesome solver of violent crimes, and likely the only one you’d ever want to have a cup of tea with.
10. Jim Rockford – The Rockford Files
Jim Rockford (James Garner) easily stood out among the crowded pack of TV detectives in the 1970s in the series The Rockford Files. Lacking the polished and omniscient sleuth skills of his peers, Rockford was a down-on-his-luck ex-convict struggling to get his nascent Private Eye firm off the ground.
Operating out of his rat’s nest of a mobile home, he takes on low-key cases to avoid clashes with cops (despite the fact that he was wrongfully arrested) while sorting through a complicated love life and dealing with his crotchety father. His sole luxury amidst all this chaos is his beloved Pontiac Firebird.
Despite having the deck stacked against him, Rockford is good at his job, with a close attention to detail and a relentless pursuit to bring relief to his various clients (due to his constant need for cash). Garner’s sublime take on his lovable loser character has made Jim Rockford one of the most memorable (and hilarious) private detectives in TV history.
9. Theo Kojak – Kojak
“Who loves you baby?” That’s the iconic catchphrase of the wise cracking New York City Police Department Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak (Telly Savalas). Recognized for his shining shaved head and his ever-present lollipop, Kojak was one of the first in a long-line of edgy “loose cannon” police officers, unafraid to bend the rules to catch his culprit. Spearheading countless manipulative interrogations that often involved false accusations and abusive behavior, no dirty trick was off-limits in his quest to close a case.
Theo Kojak’s cynical sense of humor and endless barrage of jokes was another fan-favorite calling card of the titular character, and this helped dull the edges off the more reprehensible aspects of his personality. The role was perfectly tailor-made for Telly Savalas, who always had a gift for making gruff characters likable. His blunt charm and dynamic presence made his hardboiled, steely eyed character one that would influences countless other television and film detectives.
8. Detective Sipowitz – NYPD Blue
Dennis Franz has a face and physique that seemed destined to keep him in character actor roles. But this all changed when the actor took the part as Detective Andrew “Andy” Sipowicz on the hit crime drama NYPD Blue, becoming one of the most popular investigators to ever grace the small screen. And his dynamic presence outshone the series leading male actors (first David Caruso, and later, Jimmy Smits). The supposed sidekick would settle for nothing less than center stage.
An alcoholic racist with a bristly personality, Detective Sipowicz seemed like the furthest thing from a hero when the show began in 1993. But over the course of the series’ 12 year run, the character evolved into the show’s moral center, eventually reevaluating his skewed views. It’s this personal growth, along with his service in the Vietnam War, that makes him a sharp character study and a master at solving cases that a lesser detective could never crack. And his troubled persona (he wasn’t shy about abusing his suspects) would influence countless dramatic series where protagonist’s motivations were less black and white and more shades of grey.
7. Jane Tennison – Prime Suspect
Perhaps the most groundbreaking sleuth on our list is Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) the hyper-focused crime solver featured on Masterpiece Mystery’s Prime Suspect. Tennison’s dogged search for the truth brings her up the career ladder from Detective Chief Inspector to Detective Superintendent despite the rampant sexism she gracefully endures throughout the series’ original run.
This duality makes her assured expertise in identifying and capturing a variety of predators all the more impressive as she juggles detective duties while dealing with sexist staffers who root for her to fail. These combined stressors have negative effects on her personal life, which is also complicated by alcoholism (for which she eventually seeks treatment).
But that never stops Tennison from keeping her eye on the prize, using her keen intellect and assured detective skills to help make her native London (and later, Manchester) a safer place. Mirren is a marvel in the role, with her nuanced portrayal stacking up against her most memorable cinematic performances.
6. Olivia Benson – Law and Order: SVU
Picking just one detective from Dick Wolf’s long-running and multi-faceted Law and Order franchise detective was tricky. Between the brief but amazing tenure by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Robert Goren (on the now cancelled Law and Order: Criminal Intent), the iconic Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), the impossibly ever-present John Munch (Richard Belzer), and Mike Logan (Chris Noth) to name just a few, we could make a list of the best Law and Order detectives alone!
But in terms of longevity (she’s the second longest running character in the franchise), character development, and her well-placed sense of empathy (a trait often lacking in detective work), Law and Order: SVU‘s Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) is our pick for the most dynamic detective of the bunch. Benson’s ability to captivate audiences in the extremely queasy storylines involving sexual assault and child abuse is a testament to her inner strength. Overcoming a traumatic upbringing and her own history with sexual violence to give victims the justice they deeply deserve, Benson was just what the doctor ordered. These traits have made her a role model to legions of fans.
5. Agent Dale Cooper – Twin Peaks
One of the most inscrutable and dreamlike mysteries ever crafted for television, David Lynch’s labyrinthine drama Twin Peaks was all based around one question: who killed Laura Palmer? This case of a murdered teenager rattles an idyllic small town in the Pacific Northwest, and promptly became the pet project and single-minded obsession of FBI special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).
An unorthodox investigator fueled by cherry pie, coffee, and donuts, Cooper used clues from surreal dreams and his own divine intuition. These quirky methods simultaneously frustrate and amaze local sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), who marvels at Cooper’s accuracy in what appear to be myriad wild goose chases that defy conventional wisdom.
While Cooper’s own sanity was drawn into question at the end of the series finale of Twin Peaks, he’ll be returning once again to Twin Peaks when the series makes its long-awaited return this spring on Showtime. Expect his inimitable detective skills to bring even more bizarre and unforgettable revelations.
4. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart – True Detective
The first season of HBO’s True Detective became an instant classic, based primarily on the fantastic interplay between its two leads, detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). On the surface, they couldn’t be more different: Cohle’s dark-hearted view of the world was so caustic, one wondered why he would even see any purpose in believing police work made a difference, while Hart was a slouch that seemed more invested in his various affairs than detective work.
But things changed when the duo were forced to work together to try to solve the murders of a serial killer preying on young women. And despite their disparate world views and a seventeen-year wait, the two finally catch the culprit.
Thanks to Cohle’s odd philosophical musings (“time is a flat circle,” anyone?) and Hart’s nagging acceptance of responsibility, they solve a seemingly impenetrable case that every major authority figure in their rural Louisiana district wants them to drop. True Detectives, indeed.
3. Bruce Wayne aka Batman – Batman
The 1960’s Batman series may have been a campy take on the Dark Knight Detective, but one thing it did take more seriously than the darker Batman adaptations that came afterward it was the emphasis on Batman’s well-honed detective skills.
Sure, the cases involving ridiculous clues from the Riddler and the like were played for laughs (Adam West’s overly dramatic pregnant pauses are rivaled only by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk), but his powers of deduction remained one of the highlights of the TV series. The Caped Crusader’s ability to foil the plans of Joker, Penguin, Catwoman and other classic rogues gallery baddies (as well as original TV villains like King Tut and Egghead) was always indebted to his critical thinking skills.
West modeled much of his performance from another classic detective icon, Sherlock Holmes, saying “Some of my influences were Sherlock Holmes — Basil Rathbone. People like that who were always musing and deducing and pacing, and suddenly just a thunderbolt of deduction. I used that in a comedic way.” This clever character trait has made West’s take on Batman one of the most memorable depictions of a superhero in television history.
2. Frank Columbo – Columbo
It’s impossible to think of actor Peter Falk without picturing him puffing away on his cigar in his rumpled trench coat as the intrepid private eye Columbo, one of the most enduring and iconic detectives in the history of television. Columbo was also one of the more unique detective series in terms of format: unlike a standard whodunit, the audience was let in on the guilty perpetrator early in the show. This allowed for the brilliance of Columbo’s detective work to shine, ending with the sly statement (or variation of): “Oh, oh, one more thing, before I forget…”
With his deadpan delivery and obstinate search for the truth, Columbo proved a master manipulator, allowing for the guilty party to trip over their own feet into their eventual admittance of guilt. And Columbo’s gentle patience and lack of judgment against the killer was a unique trait in an era where other gum shoes offered withering condemnation to hammer home the difference between right and wrong.
1. Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock
One of the most enduring characters in pop culture, private eye extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes has been a fixture since his literary introduction in 1887 by creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While the British sleuth has been adapted into multiple incarnations (including several television series and specials), none have seized the culture zeitgeist like the BBC series Sherlock. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective, our hero has been taken out of his usual Victorian setting and placed smack dab in 21st century London…to spectacular results.
Along with his trusted sidekick John Watson (Martin Freeman), Holmes is a force of nature, using his freakish intellect and modern technology to solve the cases no one else is sharp enough to decipher — often 10 steps ahead (or more) of the Scotland Yard law enforcement and his culprit.
A deeply flawed character with substance abuse problems and a (highly functioning) sociopathic personality, Holmes may not be someone you’d care to befriend, but if you’re in dire straits, there’s no one else you’d rather have by your side.
That concludes our list of the best television detectives! As stated earlier, this was one painstaking list, and we could have done a Top 100 and still come up short. With that in mind, here are some TV sleuths that were just too iconic to not get a shout-out:
Honorable Mentions: Jimmy McNulty (The Wire), John Luther (Luther), Will Graham (Hannibal), David Addison (Moonlighting), Adrian Monk (Monk), Gilbert Arthur “Gil” Grissom (CSI), Jessica Jones, Thomas Magnum (Magnum P.I.), Mick Belker (Hill Street Blues), Steve McGarrett (Hawaii 5-0), Gregory House M.D. (House), Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (The Killing), Shawn Spencer and Gus Guster (Psych).
What other detectives would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments.
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