The top 10 TV sleuths of all time

I see lists all the time similar to this in TV Guide and other media, but I almost never agree with them, so I thought that I’d make my own list. I consider myself a pop culture scholar of sorts, and I feel compelled to offer an analysis of my choices here. I’m curious to know what the rest of you think!

10. Kojack (“Kojack” 1973-1978)

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“Who loves ya, baby?” Ok, so he had a cool catchphrase, but that isn’t why he’s #10 on my list. He was thoroughly incorruptible, honest, and had a pretty dark sense of humor. He was also a tireless investigator who managed to be tough, yet still exhibit feeling. He was so popular with law enforcement that police officers actually referred to the magnetic gumball light that they’d slap onto their cars as a “Kojack light,” since that’s what the character used on the show. That’s gotta say something, right?

9. Jim Rockford (“The Rockford Files” 1974-1980)

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Jim Rockford is probably the most realistic detective on this list, thus he comes in at #9. He was basically a normal guy. He wasn’t rich, flashy, stylish. His cases weren’t outlandish. He didn’t carry a gun and preferred to talk his way out things. He was an ex-con who lived in a trailer. In other words, he wasn’t perfect, he was decidedly normal and average, which is refreshing in the land of television. He was the underdog, and everyone loves an underdog.

8. Columbo (“Columbo” 1968-1978; 1989-2003)

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Columbo is a modern day American Sherlock Holmes. His skills as an observer and a detective are offset only by his bumbling facade. He’s polite, almost to a fault. He has this innocent sweetness about him that allows him to build a rapport with his suspects and to tease details about the case out of them. Columbo was an interesting character because while the viewer clearly understood that he was a sharp, intelligent, and clever man, he did such an excellent job hiding that from his suspects that they ended up unwittingly giving themselves away by the end of the episode.

7. Thomas Magnum (“Magnum, PI” 1980-1988)

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The ‘stache. The shirts. The Ferrari. Magnum was cool. He lived an idyllic life: for free in the guest house of a famous author, in a Hawaiian paradise, driving around in a Ferrari and romancing beautiful women. He worked when he wanted to, otherwise he just swam and surfed. But underneath all of that there was an interesting character. A character disillusioned and haunted by the Vietnam war.  A character for whom loyalty, honor, and friendship were important above all else. And a damn good detective who often put his skills as a former Naval Intelligence officer to good use.

6. Remington Steel and Laura Holt (“Remington Steele” 1982-1987)

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Remington Steele was an interesting show because of the premise alone: a capable, intelligent female private investigator can’t make it in the business world because she isn’t a man, so she invents a male superior. Everything goes swimmingly until a con man assumes the identity of her fictional boss, and voila–instant recipe for intrigue and romance. But it was also interesting because it was one of the first to successfully do the whole “will they or won’t they” aspect of television. And, of course, because of the strong female lead. Laura was the detective, a fiercely independent and intelligent woman who was the one who always solved the case, a woman in a man’s world, but who could give chase and throw a punch just as well as the boys. The chemistry between the two leads was undeniable, and the show itself ran much classier than the typical 80’s fair of the time.

5. David Addison and Maddie Hayes (“Moonlighting” 1985-1989)

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What happens when the people voted “most likely to succeed” and “class clown” run a detective agency together? This show practically defined the concept of a dramedy, and is the quintessential example of “will they or won’t they” sexual tension creating the chemistry of a show. The fact that they were detectives was almost secondary–they could hardly afford to keep the place open. The real meat of the show was the relationship between the characters. It was self-referential, broke the fourth wall, and did an excellent job of writing dialogue that was razor sharp. The chemistry between the two leads made the entire show. Sure, they solved cases (and were quite good at it), but viewers tuned in every week to see the relationship between David and Maddy develop.

4. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart (“Hart to Hart” 1979-1984)

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“Hart to Hart” was pure 80’s. The premise of the show–a self-made millionaire and his journalist wife who jet set around the world and somehow always manage to become involved in murder and espionage cases that had the police stumped–was fun, lighthearted, and escapist. But more importantly, I think Jonathan and Jennifer were the only married couple on TV who actually loved each other. Powers and Wagner had terrific chemistry–so much so that people thought they were married in real life. But thanks to the Harts, marriage didn’t have to be boring or dramatic; it could be filled with romance, style, and adventure.

3. John Steed and Emma Peel (“The Avengers” 1961-1969)

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The first international sleuths on the list! Steed and Peel were important for a variety of reasons. They served as the prototype for several other of the entries on the list in terms of inserting a little sexual tension into the drama. But they were both sophisticated, witty, urbane, and intelligent. Sure, their cases often bordered on outlandish, but Steed and Peel as characters far outweighed that. This was the 60’s, after all, and here a man and woman were truly partners. In fact, many times it was Peel saving Steed, completely turning the “damsel in distress” trope on it’s head. The screen chemistry of the actors was palpable and vastly entertaining.

2. Phryne Fisher (“Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” 2012-Present)

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Most people reading this have probably never even heard of Phryne Fisher (or know how to pronounce her name). The character comes from the eponymous Australian television show, which is itself based on a series of books from an Australian author. Set in 1928, Phryne Fisher is a wealthy aristocrat who decides to open a detective agency since murder seems to follow her wherever she goes. She’s a philanthropist, always willing to take someone down on their luck into her home or using her fortune to help them out. She’s clever, witty, and rough and tumble. She isn’t some demure femme fatale; she’s an an independent woman, possessing a worldly sense of style. She’s also steadfastly progressive, breaking gender barriers wherever she goes in 1928 Australia. The show and the character make #2 because they represent the totality of all the others on the list: the banter between Phryne and the police inspector is razor sharp and riddled with “will they or won’t they” tension; the character is independent, she can be tough yet retain her femininity in a man’s world and profession, during a time when wearing pants was a social taboo for women; she can fly a plane and shoot a gun; her powers of deduction and observation are stellar. For those of us in the states, this show is on Netflix, and I highly recommend checking it out.

1. Jessica Fletcher (“Murder She Wrote” 1984-1996)

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Angela Lansbury imbued Jessica Fletcher with so much warmth and intelligence that it’s impossible not to love her no matter how old you are. An English teacher-turned-mystery-writer-turned-amateur sleuth, Jessica Fletcher was a feisty, independent, and witty widow who’s powers of observation and deduction are probably only matched by Sherlock Holmes himself.  She was grace and poise, yet down to earth and sweet. She was stubborn when she needed to be, unafraid to speak her mind or stand up for someone, and a relentless investigator.

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3 thoughts on “The top 10 TV sleuths of all time

  1. This was a fun read. Well done!

    Kojack was probably one of the first TV detectives I watched as a kid. There was something about Telly Savalas’s character that I always found intriguing, and I think you nailed it with his dark sense of humor. I also watched a lot of Magnum PI, Moonlighting and Hart to Hart. I guess moonlighting would have been my favorite just because I loved the humor in it.

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