The Eight Greatest TV Detectives

I crushed another show via Netflix last week: AMC’s The Killing. And after watching the premiere I can say that Det. Holder is my favorite character on the show. Relative unknown Joel Kinnaman is perfectly cast and plays the recovering meth junkie (he got hooked undercover while working vice) cop with the perfect mixture of vulnerability, boyish confidence and quiet strength. He’s a screw-up to be sure, but he’s another one of those dedicated TV cops, the ones who couldn’t live without the job, who are irresistible to watch. To celebrate the return of AMC’s rapidly expanding murder mystery, here’s a look back at my top 8 favorite TV detectives (even the ones that never got a badge):

8. Det. Joe Friday, Dragnet

Long before Law & Order, NBC’s Dragnet was the police procedural powerhouse to beat. And Det. Joe Friday of the LAPD was its stony, fact-focused mascot. Friday is the Superman of cops, the embodiment of an ideal, an absolute force of justice and adherence of the law to letter. Unlike any TV detective you’d see now, when Joe Friday busted into a room full of teens doing drugs while looking for the real bad guys, EVERYBODY got charged, everybody went to jail. No deals or looking the other way. And though now we don’t take too kindly to those who view the law as black & white as Joe Friday did, he still comes off respectable. Because he’s not narrow-minded or even conservative- he’s just… pure. Plus we get a glimpse at what it will look like when penal encoded robots with badges are inevitably unleashed on us all.

7. Det. John Munch, Homicide: Life on the Street (and to most people- Law & Order: SVU)

What if Larry David had a badge? You might get close to this neurotic, ex-hippie of a Baltimore homicide detective.  Forget the bland, neutered version of him portrayed on SVU. On H:LOTS he’s intriguing and fully fleshed out. He often slacks on the job, trying to pass off and avoid difficult cases by any means necessary. And when he does take a case he’s unpredictable and slow to the grind.  Whether it’s obsessing over UFO conspiracies, pestering his (oh so many) partners about how he rates against their previous partners like an insecure lover, reading Proust, bemoaning Law & Order’s Lennie Briscoe’s tryst with his ex-wife, or getting his fellow officers drunk at the bar that he owns, John Munch has a tendency to get a little distracted. But what makes him a good investigator is his respect for the job and his comfort around death. Munch can fearlessly stalk the gutters and alleys of Baltimore and mine the depths of the macabre without flinching because he’s a Tim Burton-like cheery-Goth of a cop. And the motives and maneuvers of the deranged don’t get to him. Though he’s arguably the least effective investigative mind on this list, he’s one of the oddest characters on television and currently holds the record for most appearances across multiple shows (including Arrested Development and The X-Files).

6. Det. Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach & Det. Claudette Wyms, The Shield

If your high school math teacher stepped out of the room during a test and everybody else started cheating, would you too? Oh please. Don’t even. Well, Dutch and Wyms of F/X’s phenomenal cop drama, The Shield, would actually answer “no” to that question. They don’t believe in shortcuts. During the length of their partnership, these nerds of the squad room displayed unparalleled courage amidst a rogue’s gallery of dirty cops, red tape-dispensing bureaucrats and scheming politicians who weren’t interested in fighting the good fight unless it served their own career needs. These two believed in the art of the sleuth: gathering evidence, interrogating suspects and intricately building a case while all other prejudice and politics fall by the wayside. During a particularly heated exchange with another bullish detective (who also made the list) who allowed a known pedophile to get the shit beaten out of him, Wyms reminded him that the pedophile was innocent of the crime being investigated. The other detective replies, “he may be innocent of this crime, but he’s not innocent.” To which she reacts, “but he’s innocent of this crime, YOU JUST DON’T GET THAT, DO YOU?” Dutch and Wyms get that each investigation must remain a cold, isolated conduction of science, not to be tainted by the passions of perception.

5. Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars

Yeah so she was never a “real” detective but Veronica Mars was Neptune High’s unofficial go-to private detective. And what the hell did you do with your free time in high school? Beat Halo a bunch of times? Lies, conspiracies and cover-ups ruined this spunky teen’s formative years so she’s driven by more than a cop’s sense of justice. Veronica has a superhero’s pathological need to right wrongs but more effective than her drive is her ultra-adorability to charm the pants off any person, animal or inanimate object. Just look at her! Veronica uses what any other hot teenage girl would use for evil to actually help people (for a modest fee) and solve mysteries. By befriending the fire department, sheriff’s deputies, rival private eyes and even Neptune’s sometimes-evil-biker-gang, the PCHers, Veronica’s reach is vast as any real cop’s and twice as cute. Too bad she didn’t have handcuffs.

4. Det. Jimmy McNulty, The Wire

Baltimore homicide/major crimes unit/marine unit/patrol cop McNulty is an asshole and all-around fuck-up, and what’s more – he’s slightly amused by it. A functioning, unchecked alcoholic and serial one-night stander, he kinda hates himself and constantly self-sabotages because of it.

Like, REALLY self-sabatoges

But McNulty is a long-distance runner of a detective with an unyielding pursuit of criminals fueled by a child-like need to buck authority and bring those of power down a peg. To him, every case is personal, each unsubdued suspect is a heckler’s voice echoing through the streets of Baltimore and challenging McNulty’s intelligence and male pride. He’s known throughout the force as a compulsive shit-starter and ends up a thorn in the side to any officer he crosses paths with. As evidenced in season 2 when a  massive, international reaching investigation is launched partially due to a meticulous, cartographer-accurate jurisdiction report painstakingly generated by McNulty for the sole purpose of retribution to his former commanding officer.

3. Vic Mackey, The Shield

Remember that bullish cop who Det. Claudette Wyms clashed with over letting an innocent suspect get beaten up? Meet Vic Mackey – and that is far, far down the list of his many transgressions. Det. Mackey, much like Joe Friday is the embodiment of an ideal, but in this case that ideal is “the ends justify the means. Period.” This one simple directive makes Vic the most dangerous and highly efficient cop on this list. With villainous, mad-dog fury he will stop at NOTHING to throw criminals in prison (and good lord does he love to literally throw criminals.) Mackey will plant evidence, bribe witnesses, torture, sell drugs, finance lesser-violent drug dealers, target their competitors, and oh, yes, murder people in cold blood if it means lowering the overall crime rate. Vic polices his fictional Farmington district with Jack Bauer’s national-security-first Terminator relentlessness.

…And I never miss an opportunity to point out that The Shield has the greatest series finale of all time…

2. Det. Frank Pembleton, Homicide: Life on the Street

I could’ve put half the cops from David Simon’s lesser-known Baltimore cop odyssey on this list but limited myself to two. Where Det. Munch often found distraction in his work, Pembleton was polar opposite. The young, arrogant, and often unforgiving superstar of murder police was methodical, brilliant and laser-focused in his diligence during investigations. If Pembleton staying up three nights in a row would better serve a case, Pembleton stayed up. He believed the homicide beat to be the highest calling of police work, where they spoke for the dead “who have no one else to speak for them,” and thusly treated the monotonous procedures of his job with the ritualistic grace and patience of a monk. But none of this is what really gives Frank Pembleton legend status amongst detectives. It’s what he does to the criminals he puts in THE BOX that elevates him. When Pembleton gets a suspect into the interrogation room (dubbed “The Box” by the homicide squad), he performs a theatrical coup de grace on them through the art of conversation. He’s a predator that dances circles of logic around his prey, tripping them up on their own words and catching them in his web of seemingly innocent questions before they even realize they’re as good as confessed. He’s a smooth talker who commands every conversation he’s in, sucking up all the air in the room till the perp has no choice but to cough up a confession. Even Hannibal Lector would have difficulty getting a word in with this guy. Det. Pembleton broke an all-star list of special guests in the Box including Neil Patrick Harris, Chris Rock, and Steve Buscemi.

1. Dr. Gregory House, House M.D

Yes, another investigator who doesn’t actually have a badge, but easily the most brilliant detective on the list. Famously based on Sherlock Holmes, House is the mad-genius diagnostician at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, who can put the pieces of any puzzle together with Einstein’s ability to make far-flung connections in the ether of the universe. Dr. House even gets to wear the crown on this list for the most troubled of minds; he himself can’t make lasting connections with any other people and is an unapologetic substance abuser. He has the voracious need to compulsively  fit every person he meets into his master game, his puzzle of the universe where each bit must remain a predictable constant. It’s the only way he can function. But this reduction of people to chess pawn isn’t the lash out of ego it can quite often appear to be; it’s a strategic move, allowing him to coldly view the whole board of the ongoing game he has tattooed on his perception. Nothing and nobody is sacred to House, so he can look through every facet and façade of life – the way Neo could look through lines of Matrix code – to discover a deeper truth. House can map out a person’s day from a quick inspection of their clothes, anticipate a decision you’ll make before you even knew you had to make one or, most importantly, diagnose rare or even multiple diseases by something as simple as looking in someone’s trash (more accurately, sending one of his employees to look).

Honorable mentions: Agent Fox Mulder, Agent Dale Cooper, Penny & Brain, Angel, and Chip & Dale

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