Everybody loves a good murder mystery. With American Gothic dropping on CBS, fans can look forward to gruesome murder talk, disturbing developments, and shocking conclusions. We hope so, anyway.
In honor of the mini-series' dramatic premiere, we’ve put together a list of our favorite murder mysteries from television history. We left out murder-of-the-week shows like Perry Mason or anything that Jessica Fletcher gets up to. Enjoy this saucy mix of mysteries and murder from TV past and present, and be sure to expect SPOILERS for stuff you probably should have seen by now.
15 Who Killed Will Cortlandt? (All My Children)
Will Cooney Cortlandt was a bad man. You can tell because even on a melodramatic daytime soap opera like All My Children, no one was particularly sad when he died. Makes sense, given that he was a liar, a rapist, and a greedy, awful man all across the board. What else would we expect from an actor who appeared in Galactica 1980?
The problem with solving his murder? Literally everyone on the show wanted him dead. Sure, Brian Bodine was found over Cortlandt’s bloody corpse and holding what appeared to be the murder weapon. But it’s never that simple, is it? Was it one of the other Cortlandts? Most of Will’s own family wanted him dead too — and they were a murderous lot. Finding out who Will’s murderer actually was led to both cheers and boos depending on your personal allegiance in 1992. The good news? Ladies are just as capable as the fellas of killing a villain with a crowbar.
14 Who Got Lucilled? (The Walking Dead)
Let’s start with the fact that this question shouldn’t be a murder mystery at all. Comic book fans and show devotees alike were informed by perpetual self-spoiler-network AMC that the long-awaited Negan would kill someone at the end of Season 6. Negan, for the uninitiated, makes The Governor look like Dale Horvath without the hats. Fans watched with anticipation as we met one Savior after another, and watched our heroes get into shenanigans we knew they’d have to pay for later.
But who would it be? Would it be the same person Negan and Lucille murdered in the comic? Could it be the pregnant lady? The one-eyed boy? The redneck who had pretended to be the savior of humanity? We waited, and waited, and waited. Finally the finale happened, with its long lead-in and a heroic moment for Eugene. Then the bashing, the screaming, the blood dripping from Lucille. And then…finally…cut to black. Wait, what? Oh, that is * insert long string of expletives here *
We still don’t know who Negan killed, and it’s killing us!
13 The Earl Williams Case (LA Law)
LA Law ran from 1986-1994. In many ways, it was a very different era for primetime TV. The N-word and other racial slurs were banded about freely, and the world was beginning to familiarize themselves with actors like Jimmy Smits, Larry Drake, and Blair Underwood. It’s also how commoners learned about lawyers before Dick Wolf and Law & Order came on the scene.
One of the biggest cases of the show revolved around Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) and his defense of Earl Williams, an African-American professor accused of murdering a white student with whom he was having an extramarital affair. The case went on for weeks, with fans anxiously awaiting whether or not Williams would be found guilty of a crime that could have ended in the death penalty. Williams is convicted, but Kuzak gets him a new trial based on testimony from a reluctant witness. Williams is eventually freed from jail, but not from the stigma of being a cheater and a murder suspect.
12 The Dora Lange Murder (True Detective)
HBO will tell you there are two seasons of True Detective. However, most of those who watched will assure you that for all practical purposes, there’s only one. The murder of Dora Lange kicks off a series of events that take nearly two decades to reconcile. It might seem odd that a serious murder mystery with a cast of A-list actors would include characters like “The Yellow King” or “Green Eared Spaghetti Monster,” but they sort of do.
This is a bit low on our list only because the murders take a backseat to the drama between Rust and Marty. Still, it was every bit as good as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. Though if you’re expecting the same boob-to-death ratio, you might not get it. No spoilers for this one. Suffice to say that the end was gruesome, satisfying, and made us thirsty for another great season (especially if Matthew McConaughey is on board).
11 Who Killed Peter? (Soap)
Okay, this is one that older fans will surely remember. Soap, was a late 70’s/early 80’s comedy by most of the team that later gave us The Golden Girls. The show is about one family — specifically two sisters. It featured a breakout role from Billy Crystal as the first openly gay character on television. Too bad it was during a time when the average person didn’t understand the difference between gay and trans.
Still, the murder of playboy tennis pro Peter happened in the very first episode. Two seasons later, we still aren’t entirely sure who killed him. After all, he was stabbed in the shower, shot at, and had a brick dropped on his head all at the same time. Even the attempted murderers weren’t sure who actually killed him. Peter was a dastardly person, so his death was no great loss. Still, fans had to know which of the seemingly good characters could be guilty of such an act.
10 The Ten Commandments Killer (American Horror Story: Hotel)
What if the serial killer the police are hunting for is actually one of the cops doing the hunting? That’s the question American Horror Story fans were asked to answer in the fifth season, which took place in a sprawling and highly haunted hotel. Hotel used basically the same set of ghost rules as Murder House, and brought back a few characters from that time as well. Wild, right?
But the first big question of the season revolved around a series of murders inspired by the biblical Ten Commandments, without any input from Kevin Spacey whatsoever. And how come a cop gets to go to the big serial killer reunion dinner that the hotel hosts every year on Devil’s Night? All is made clear eventually, in a season that’s bloodier and more gruesome than any that came before it. Yes, even Asylum. Despite being a cold-blooded killer, we all still adore Wes Bentley.
9 The Wayne Murder (Gotham)
Comic book fans, movie fans, even fans of animated series have seen the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne more times than they can easily count. Still, FOX’s Gotham may well have been the finest portrayal of that scene. David Mazouz is incredible as a wee little Bruce Wayne, intent on solving the murder of his parents — and living up to their very high ideals. Season 2 of Gotham has concluded, and we’re still not much closer to finding out who ordered the murder of the Waynes.
Sure, Matches Malone was the trigger-man. But trigger-men don’t go after rich people of their own accord. Yeah, it’s probably true that “The Philosopher” was involved, and we know who that is too. But no sooner do we find that out than we learn that he was taking orders too. Who are “the Council of Owls?” Why would they want to leave Bruce Wayne orphaned? Why isn’t Alfred more interested in avenging them? We can only hope Gotham gives us the answers we crave sooner rather than later.
8 The Assassination of Gee (Homicide: Life on the Street)
Fans of Homicide: Life on the Street will tell you that it was easily the most gritty and realistic cop drama of its day. It’s the show that introduced many of us to the likes of Andre Braugher, Reed Diamond, Max Perlich, JK Simmons (aka Gym Gordon), Michelle Forbes, and the character of Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer). The series was set in Baltimore and showcased social issues like crime, drug legalization, racism, gender bias, gun control, and bureaucracy getting in the way of real police work.
Homicide: Life on the Street went on for seven seasons and was followed by a made-for TV movie. In that movie, former Lieutenant Al “Gee” Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) ran for mayor and planned to legalize most drugs. For this, he endured an attempted assassination in the opening scenes of the movie — leading the cast to come back to solve his shooting. Just when it looked like Gee might live, a second shooting attempt ultimately results in his death after an aneurism. Gee’s murder is solved, and fans get another unexpected surprise as well.
7 Who Shot J.R.? (Dallas)
The shooting of Dallas’s J.R. Ewing was enormous TV news. Dallas was a hugely popular prime-time soap opera at the time — and the shooting was the season three finale cliffhanger. The reveal of the murderer became the biggest television event in history until the M*A*S*H finale two years later. The shooting also represents the first time bookmakers gave real gambling odds so people could bet on the outcome.
Like many of TV’s biggest murder mysteries, J.R. Ewing wasn’t an especially nice person, and definitely had his share of enemies. Was it Bobby? Bobby was certainly sick of J.R.’s crap. What about Sue Ellen? Or even Ellie? Could Marilee Stone have been the killer? Everyone wanted to know, which is why showrunners shot several different endings to keep the real one secret (which is not such an uncommon tactic these days). Dallas didn’t even reveal the killer in the season four premiere. They made everyone wait until November sweeps, when we all found out it was Bing Crosby’s daughter…um, we mean Kristin.
6 Who is the Ice Truck Killer? (Dexter)
Showtime’s Dexter changed the game for serial killer programming. Contrary to popular belief, Dexter isn’t really a horror show -- it’s a black comedy. You can tell because of how rare it is for viewers to feel badly when someone dies. Season one (and only season one) of the series is based on Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter. In the book, LaGuerta is killed by the Ice Truck Killer, and Deborah finds out Dexter’s secret at the end. On the show, we don’t learn until episode 8 that Deb’s new fella is the killer that’s been taunting Dexter with clues all season. Poor Deb though, isn’t in on this secret until she’s kidnapped by him in episode 11.
Not only is the Ice Truck Killer posing as a doctor with expertise on prosthetics, he’s also Dexter’s long lost brother — who is just as messed up as Dexter over the chainsaw murder of their mother, if not more so. This first season of Dexter blew people’s minds and started us on a path that would last for 8 wonderful, blood-soaked seasons.
5 The Danny Latimer Murder (Broadchurch)
Whether you saw the series when it aired for the first time on ITV, or you didn’t see it until Netflix got it in America, Broadchurch was a show that blew minds and broke hearts. No one wanted to believe that the killer was under our noses the whole time. Like a lot of shows that were huge in Britain, Broadchurch experienced fairly low ratings when it was shown on BBC America, and doesn’t do so well on streaming services either. That’s a shame, because fans adore it. It’s one of those shows that, when you tell your friend you haven’t seen it, they gasp and shake their heads and tell you all about why you should. “It’s sooooo good.”
And with a cast that includes Doctor Who David Tennant and Arthur Darvill, how could it not be? But it’s not just the cast that makes Broadchurch an exceptional murder mystery. There’s also superb writing, beautiful camera work, and music you’ll want to buy as soon as you hear it.
4 J.T.’s Death (Sons of Anarchy)
Why does a grown man start a motorcycle gang with his friends? In short, because the United States still doesn’t know how to effectively help soldiers after they return from fighting a war. John Teller and Piney Wilson started the Sons of Anarchy on the show of the same name. What follows is some of the most brilliant and violent television ever. Unlike the stereotypes of motorcycle gangs you see in movies, many of these guys are literary, smart, loyal (though who they’re loyal to can come into question), and loving family men.
But when SAMCRO starts to mean a life of crime, John decides this isn’t the kind of life he wants to pass down to his children. So when John Teller dies in a highway collision with a truck, questions abounded. Did someone make this happen deliberately? If so, who would do such a thing? Fans don’t find out for sure until season six, and it’s a real downer.
3 Who Killed Rosie Larsen? (The Killing)
It seems like all anyone could talk about in 2011 was who killed Rosie Larsen, the teenage girl found dead at the open of The Killing. We refer here to the American remake of the Danish drama called The Crime. The first season has three main story arcs that revolve around the Larsen family, the investigation led by Linden and Holder, and the politics of those whose reelection or public standing are heavily influenced by the outcome of the case.
The biggest surprise about the reveal of the actual killer in season one? It didn’t happen. The internet pretty much collapsed into itself when fans realized they’d watched the entire season without getting the answers they craved. It wasn’t until season two that the killer was revealed and the crime put to rest. But after another season, a cancellation, then a revival followed by another cancellation, most of us had had just about enough of The Killing.
2 Who Killed Laura Palmer? (Twin Peaks)
Easily one of the most celebrated and best-loved cult shows in TV history is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Shows have been trying to match the series' level of intriguing weirdness and alluring discomfort ever since it went off the air. Lasting only 2 seasons and 30 episodes, Twin Peaks may be second only to Firefly as the show fans most want to return.
The good news? Twin Peaks will be returning to TV in 2017, when Showtime promises at least a short season. No doubt, they’re testing whether or not millennials are up to the challenges that Lynchian TV brings to viewers. As for who killed Laura Palmer — like most things on Twin Peaks, it was a weird combination of demons, insanity, and the one we least suspect. Isn’t that right, Killer Bob?
1 Who Shot Mr. Burns? (The Simpsons)
In fairness, we should point out that like J.R. Ewing, this was a shooting that didn’t directly result in the death of the character. Sure, Charles Montgomery Burns was pronounced dead at the scene. But he was then taken to another hospital where his condition was upgraded to alive. So it is in the town of Springfield, and this mysterious TV shooting that took cues from both Dallas and Twin Peaks in its execution, clues, and methods used to keep the solution a secret.
Was it like taking candy from a baby? Who still watches Pardon my Zinger anyway? Vegas gave odds of 2-1 on Waylon Smithers as the shooter, while Maggie carried odds of 100-1. In retrospect, it’s easy to say where your money should have gone. And to think, it wasn’t even blocking out the sun that got the old man shot in the first place. Wow.
Did we miss your favorite TV murder mystery? Tell us all about it in the comments…it’s the only way we’ll learn.