For most people, there’s nothing as thrilling and as exciting to watch as a good detective show. There’s something about the mystery of crime stories and investigation that captures TV audiences of all time. And what makes it work is having a memorable and amazing sleuth as the main character.
So who is the greatest of all time? That certainly comes down to taste in setting, character and style. Below are some of the great TV detectives since the start of the medium. Given the long tenure of Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit – you got definitely say she is up there. But you have to love the classic characters of Kojak, Magnum and Rockford and throw in a Columbo for good measure. It was as much about the sleuthing as is it was about the personality of the main character.
Here are some of the greatest and most brilliant problem-solving detectives in pop culture who graced the small screen:
1. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) – Sherlock (2010-2017)
If there’s one detective that has captivated most TV audiences in history, the answer is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is one of the most enduring characters in pop culture and has been a fixture in literature, television and film since he was introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his original novel in 1887. Holmes is a fictional private detective best known for his proficiency with observation and keen powers of deduction, being able to decipher the specifics of a situation from the smallest of clues. He calls himself a consulting detective in the stories, and his logical reasoning borders on the fantastic. Originally set in the Victorian era, Holmes is actually more popular than Queen Victoria.
Sherlock Holmes is adapted to a string of many films and TV series all throughout the 20th century. The most recent, award-winning, modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic literary masterpiece is brought by BBC and aired from 2010 to 2017. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular role and Martin Freeman as Sherlock’s trusted sidekick Dr. John Watson, Sherlock takes the private eye extraordinaire into 21st century London. The Cumberbatch Sherlock uses modern technology such as the Internet, GPS and texting to solve crimes.
2. Lt. Frank Columbo (Peter Falk) – Columbo (1968-1978, 1989-2003)
It’s hard to think of Peter Falk without imagining him wearing a trench coat while puffing away on his cigar as Lieutenant Frank Columbo. Peter Falk is most memorable for this iconic role, which won him four Primetime Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. Lt. Columbo is a genius master manipulator known for his deadpan delivery. He is a shrewd blue-collar homicide detective who is often dismissed by suspects because of apparent ineptitude, but in the end they become unsettled with his pestering behavior that leads to actual suspect finally admitting guilt.
Columbo is one of the most enduring detective show in the history of television. It was memorable because the show was unique in terms of format. Creators Richard Levinson and William Link moved away from the usual “whodunit” style, and popularized the inverted detective story format. This style of storytelling begins by showing the commission of the crime and gets audience along for the ride as Lt. Columbo identifies and catches the perpetrator. This crime fiction show enjoyed longevity on TV, airing at NBC for seven seasons from 1968 to 1978, and at ABC for three seasons from 1989 to 2003.
3. Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Adam West) – Batman (1966-1968)
One of the most favorite crime-fighting comic book character of all time, Batman is one of the world’s greatest detectives and greatest martial artist in the DC Universe and pop culture. Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy philanthropist, playboy and owner of Wayne Enterprises. Also refeered to as the “Dark Knight” and “Caped Crusader,” the Batman character was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and first appeared in DC comics in 1939. After witnessing the murder of his parents at a young age, Batman swore vengeance against criminals and used his vast fortune to fight crime as Batman. He operates in the fictional Gotham City with his allies like his partner Robin, police commissioner Gordon and his butler Alfred. Unlike most superheroes with superpowers, Batman relies on his innate intellect, detective skills, vast wealth, martial arts abilities and indomitable will as his means to fight crime. Batman is Adam West’s most iconic role as an actor.
The Batman TV series starring Adam West as the titular role and Burt Ward as Robin premiered on ABC in 1996 and aired until 1968. This TV adaptation became a pop culture phenomenon and inspired film and animated adaptations later on. It is known for its camp style, humorous theme and simplistic morality. This particular version also focused on Batman’s well-honed detective skills, compared to the darker Batman adaptations that came afterwards.
4. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) – True Detective (2014-present)
Rust Cohle, a gifted yet nihilistic sleuth, and his partner Marty Hart, a responsible and affable police detective, were the stars of the first season of True Detective. Cohle is a talented detective dedicated to his work and his adept ability to get confessions from criminals, yet aloof and had a dark-hearted view of the world. Meanwhile, Hart is a gregarious one who struggles with marital infidelity, but is respectable when it comes to the political aspects of work. Cohle has a “real mind” for police work and can be dedicated to his own procedure, while Hart prefers to follow standard rules. The unlikely pair was forced to work together to solve the murders of a serial killer preying on young women, but had a falling out when Cohle had an affair with Hart’s wife. But later on, they reconnected to crack the unfinished case. Cohle’s dark and odd philosophical musings and Hart’s nagging acceptance to responsibility made them solve a seemingly impenetrable, 17-year-old case that all major authorities in their area told them to drop.
True Detective is an American anthology crime drama that airs in HBO, and each season had a self-contained narrative. Cohle and Hart’s adventures was the focus of season one. The portrayal of Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart was strong, and the show received a lot of praise, and had it named as the best TV drama of the year. The less-than-enthusiastic response to season two meant that Rust and Marty were the show’s real icons.
5. Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) – Monk (2002-2009)
Adrian Monk was an ex-homicide detective for the San Francisco Police Department but that’s not the end of his story. He was attuned to anything out of place and had a crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder plus multiple phobias that intensified after the murder of his beloved wife, resulting in his suspension from the department. He underwent therapy and with a shrink and worked as a private police homicide consultant to overcome his grief, and then became reinstated as a police detective. As a detective, Monk has amazing insights and adept observational abilities, plus a brilliant and analytical knowledge of a dozen of assorted and unconventional topics. He is relied on by the captain and lieutenant when they’re having trouble with cases. In his spare time, he continues to crack the case about his wife’s murder, which remained the only unsolved case at the final episode.
The titular show is a comedy-drama mystery TV series that ran from 2002 to 2009 at USA Network. By format, it’s a typical detective show, but by dialogue and Monk’s OCD behavior it became a comedy. Tony Shalhoub made a tremendous success for portraying the role of Adrian Monk, as he was nominated for an Emmy eight times and won three times.
6. Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) – Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
FBI special agent Dale Cooper played by Kyle MacLachlan is an unorthodox investigator who uses clues from his own intuition and surreal dreams. This bizzare methods and unconventional wisdom can frustrate and also amaze the local sheriff who marvels at his accuracy. His story revolved around one mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? This case of a murdered teenager – a homecoming queen in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington – became the project and a single-minded obsession of agent Cooper.
The show, Twin Peaks, is a mystery series that premiered on ABC on 1990. It was one of the top-rated series that year, but the ratings decline led to its cancellation after the second season in 1991. But the show had a cult following and has been referenced a lot in different works in media, and it has been listed among the greatest TV series of all time. Because of it, the series has made a comeback after about 25 years in 2017, when Cooper brought back his inimitable detective skills.
7. Jim Rockford (James Garner) – The Rockford Files (1974-1980)
Jim Rockford is unlike your typical cool and heroic investigator. He lacks the refined and omniscient sleuth skills of his peers and he operates out of a mobile home after being an ex-convict who is wrongfully arrested. He’s a fast-talking, small-time Malibu private investigator who takes on low-key cases to avoid clashing with cops while dealing with a bad-tempered father and a complicated dating life. Despite all of this, Rockford is good at what he does, as he pays close attention to detail and offers relentless pursuit, mostly because of his need for cash.
The Rockford Files aired on NBC on 1974 to 1980, but it still remained in syndication up to this day. James Garner’s good looks and witty take on this ex-con-turned-detective character was charming, lovable, hilarious and memorable. In fact, AOL considered Jim Rockford as one of TV’s smartest detectives.
8. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present)
The multi-faceted Law & Order franchise has a long list of impressive and talented sleuths, but in terms of longevity and character development, Olivia Benson stands out. She’s an admirable detective responsible for a large portion of arrest in the Manhattan sex crimes unit. Benson was a product of rape, endured a traumatic upbringing and survived sexual assault herself. Her personal experiences motivated her actions as a sergeant of the NYPD and worked her way up to the top to become a lieutenant without compromising. The thing about Benson is that she had a well-placed sense of empathy to people, which was a trait lacking with most detective works.
Mariska Hargitay’s amazing portrayal of her role in Law and Order: SVU made Olivia Benson a role model especially for teenage girls. This role also landed her multiple nominations and awards, including a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe. The show, which is a TV crime drama series, airs on NBC since 1999 up to present day.
9. Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) – Prime Suspect (1991-2006)
Jane Tennison is one of the most groundbreaking sleuth in the history of television. She’s a no-nonsense, forthright and unsmiling detective chief investigator who proved that strong women can also be as fascinating as strong men. Tennison is a hyper-focused, ambitious and talented crime solver who climbed up the career ladder from DCI to detective Superintendent, while fighting the rampant sexism on her industry as she does her job. Tennison has a keen intellect and excellent detective skills that helped made London, and later, Manchester, a safer place.
Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison changed the way people view women on television. The character also served as the inspiration for strong female characters in American TV series. Prime Suspect is a British police procedural show that aired on ITV from 1991 to 2006, which won many awards and nominations during its run.
10. Gil Grissom (William Peterson) – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015)
CSI is a popular forensics crime drama series featuring detectives, so it must be filled with talented sleuths. But the detective who stood above the rest is Gil Grissom. A highly respected investigator, Grissom is a brilliant and inscrutable detective who is also a talented scientist. He had a doctoral degree in biology with expertise in entomology, making him better with bugs than people. Grissom can be viewed as unfathomable and also relatable. He’s a socially awkward private man, like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. His decisions, actions and comments can seem to dumbfound his colleagues and superiors.
CSI aired at CBS for 15 years, from 2000 to 2015, making it one of the longest-running scripted primetime TV series in US. It’s also one of the most popular American TV shows all around the world. William Peterson was one of its most popular actors, but he left the role on season nine.
11. Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) – Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)
The favorite detective representing moms and grandmoms worldwide, Jessica Fletcher became a pop culture phenomenon for Angela Lansbury’s amazing performance as a mystery writer and amateur sleuth. Jessica Fletcher’s main gig is writing mystery novels, but she also cracks up brutal crimes that happen in her sleepy town of Cabot Cove, Maine and in places she visits. Indeed, Cabot Cove has a higher homicide rate than the actual murder capital of the world. They say, you won’t want to be around when Jessica Fletcher showed up, because wherever she went, somebody happens to get murdered. As a woman with advanced age, she didn’t have the hip lingo and street chic style of other detectives, but her age granted her immunity when she goes undercover. Also, her unerring intuition and adept level of deductive reasoning resulted into the arrest of hundreds of murderers.
Angela Lansbury’s engaging and award-winning portrayal of Fletcher gained Murder, She Wrote millions of fans. There’s no actress you can think of who would have fitted the role better. In fact, Lansbury got nominated for 10 Golden Globes and 12 Emmys for her work on Murder, She Wrote. The American crime drama show aired on CBS during 1984 to 1996 and it has been a staple for the CBS Sunday night lineup for a decade.
12. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) – Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
The youngest detective on this list, Veronica Mars is a teenage California blonde with the perfect sun-kissed look but with the heart of a true-blooded detective. She was a popular girl in high school who was dating the son of the richest and most successful businessman in their Neptune, California hometown. But after being dumped by her boyfriend and the shocking murder of her best friend, things went downhill for Veronica. Her father, Keith Mars, was the sheriff who investigated the murder and accused the victim’s own father, which caused him to lose his reputation and her wife to leave him and Veronica. Veronica Mars lost her popular girl status in high school because of it. But these incidences changed her life forever and put her in league with her dad as the private investigators behind Mars Investigations. Schoolworks come second for her, and her astute skills of deduction leads her to crack a mystery before her father does.
The show Veronica Mars had a short, 3-season life on television, but the eponymous heroine had a rabid online fanbase. Mars is one of the most memorable and unique private investigators in pop culture, because you’d not think of a beautiful, young, blonde student as a wise-cracking and insightful detective. Veronica Mars aired at UPN’s final years on 2004 to 2006, and continued at The CW (UPN’s successor) during 2006 to 2007.
13. Theo Kojak (Telly Savalas) – Kojak (1973-1978)
A bald and dapper detective from the NYPD, Theo Kojak is the man behind the iconic catchphrases “Who loves ya, baby?” and “Cootchie-coo!” This lollipop-sucking police officer was the first in the long line of edgy, loose cannon police officers on TV. He was an arrogant chauvinist unafraid to bend the rules to catch the real perpetrator. Kojak spearheaded tons of manipulative interrogations and no dirty trick was off limits just to close a case. He had a cynical sense of humor and offered an endless barrage of jokes that made him loveable despite his problematic personality.
The role of Kojak was perfectly made to life by Telly Savalas, who has a talent for making reprehensible characters likeable. Kojak is an action crime drama series that ran on CBS from 1973 to 1978, and it was a success all around the world. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s, the word “Kojak” became a slang for “bald man” in Brazil, and a slang for “lollipop” in Chile until today. Also, the role of Kojak influenced countless of other TV and film detectives.
14. Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) – Magnum P.I. (1980-1988)
Tom Selleck was almost Indiana Jones, but instead he channeled his inner hunk and swagger as Magnum P.I. (P.I. obviously means private investigatior). Thomas Magnum, known as Magnum P.I., lived on Oahu, Hawaii and often appeared in either blue jeans or khaki shorts and an aloha shirt. His trademark mustache and gleaming red Ferrari is memorable. He was a former military man who was involved in typical P.I. cases, as well as espionage, paramilitary escapades, covert operations and blending in with the rich and famous. His beach bum characteristics and impressive sleuth skills was a perfect combination.
Magnum P.I. was a classic, and it was a highly popular show in the 80’s when it aired on CBS from 1980 to 1988. CBS rebooted this show and gave a modern take with Jay Hernandez as the new Thomas Magnum. The new reboot premiered on September 2018. Hernandez is fine, but Selleck is a legend – he’s one of those rare class of actors who can play heroic, cool and funny at the same time.
15. Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) – NYPD Blue (1993-2005)
Actor Dennis Franz has the face and physique that seemed to be destined for character roles, but the role of Andy Sipowicz finally proved he can play a lead. Franz played 26 cops before landing the part of Detective Sipowicz, one of the most popular investigators to ever grace the small screen. He played the racist, homophobic drunkard with a bristly personality, and turned it into a hero who is a master at solving cases. He’s a goon with a heart of gold who eventually became the moral core of NYPD Blue.
The show NYPD Blue is a police procedural drama series involving an ensemble cast that aired on ABC for 1993 to 2005, and Dennis Franz portrayed the character of Sipowicz on its entire run. Franz earned a Golden Globe Award, four Primetime Emmy Awards and three Screen Actors Guild Awards for this particular role.