25 Terrific TV Detectives
Detectives are obsessive by nature. They have to be attentive to the myriad clues at a crime scene. For eight seasons on USA, Adrian Monk — a.k.a. the ''defective detective'' — has pushed that mentality to a pathological extreme. A germaphobe, an agoraphobe, a lactophobe, and more, Monk's mania is also his genius: he sees the microscopic details we all miss.
White Collar (2009-)
Neal Caffrey is a con man turned FBI consultant, who uses his unique skill set to catch thieves and — if he behaves — stay out of prison. Impulsive and unpredictable, he has an excellent foil in his straight-laced handler, Special Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay). But the real reason we're watching? Caffrey's so good looking...it's criminal.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present)
Cops in the Law & Orderverse are tough, stubbly manly men. With one exception. A child of rape, Olivia Benson channels her inner demons into an ongoing struggle to avenge the innocent alongside brutish partner Elliott Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Watching SVU is like seeing pair of pagan demi-gods put on police badges.
SONNY CROCKETT AND RICO TUBBS
Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas
Miami Vice (1984-1990)
In a sun-dappled '80s fantasy Miami where even the walls of the police station were painted neon, two men in impeccable clothes drove fast cars and sleek boats, going deep undercover each week in drug gangs, terrorist cells, and prostitution rings. No partners were better than Crockett and Tubbs.
Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)
Poor little Cabot Cove. The town on the coast of Maine has a third-world murder rate and a bumbling police force that only ever catches the wrong man. Good thing the town's most famous resident is a witty, endlessly curious widow who writes bestselling crime novels in her spare time.
Law & Order (1992-2004)
Lenny Briscoe is the TV Detective: stern-faced, sardonic, with a face like a thousand weary streetcorners. And for 13 seasons, Jerry Orbach was Lenny Briscoe. He played the old cop to three iconic younger partners. He gave Law & Order gravitas.
Dragnet should look primitive after half a century, but catch a marathon — it's as propulsively watchable as ever. That's because creator-star Webb reduced the cop show formula to ageless mathematical simplicity. Joe Friday is the John Wayne of TV, an iconic definition of what it means to be a hero.
CHRISTINE CAGNEY AND MARY BETH LACEY
Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly
Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988)
The two coolest women in '80s TV. Cagney was single and had lofty career aspirations; Lacey was happily married with 2.5 children. They watched each others' backs in a changing world — Cagney and Lacey regularly featured button-pushing topics like abortion, date rape, and AIDS.
The Mentalist (2008-present)
What sets Patrick Jane apart from his CBS procedural brethren — CSI eggheads, Cold Case corpsehounds, NCIS patriots — is joy. There's nothing this sham psychic loves more than reading a few revealing details to deduce a suspect's whole inner life. Jane is the observational comic philosopher, a cockier Sherlock Holmes.
Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
A lady called Mars from a town called Neptune. Sound like the tagline for a '40s noir? Makes sense, since tough, soulful Bell played Veronica like a hipster Bogart. Neptune's a rough town, populated by dotcom billionaires, Hollywood children, biker gangs, and corrupt politicos. Veronica Mars tracked them all down.
RICHARD CASTLE AND KATE BECKETT
Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic
The key to this partnership isn't repressed attraction (like Bones and Booth) or therapeutic companionship (like Cagney and Lacey). Instead, Castle and Beckett both represent something missing in the other's life. Castle brings whimsy to Beckett's by-the-book lifestyle, and Beckett grounds Castle's bleakly narcissistic existence. Also, they're both pretty cute.
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-2000)
The deeply moral, deeply cynical core of one of the best cop shows ever, Frank Pembleton solved murders like a scientist and believed in crimesolving like a priest. Braugher made Pembleton an endlessly complex character, battling health problems, marital strife, and a crisis of faith with boundless intelligence.
The Rockford Files (1974-1980)
A laid-back detective for the leisure-suit '70s, Jim Rockford avoided violence and left his gun in the cookie jar. In the process, he invented a whole new kind of private eye — armed with one-liners, he'd take any case, so long as he got his $200 a day. Plus expenses.
BRENDA LEIGH JOHNSON
The Closer (2005-present)
Brenda Leigh Johnson is a prim, proper southern belle. But she's also a manically intense workaholic, a bloodhound who can smell guilt from across the interrogation table. An Atlanta export in glitzy LA, Brenda's a true original: an independent woman with a maternal instinct, a zany character with a moral core.
The first thing you notice is the voice: smooth and cultured, like a balder, Greek-er James Mason. The second thing you notice is his calm: Kojak strolls through the streets of New York with balletic grace. It helps that he's the best-dressed TV detective not played by Mariska Hargitay.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-present)
The son of a schizophrenic and an adulterer, Goren often seems less interested in solving crimes than understanding criminals. D'Onofrio plays the role in full-tilt Method expansiveness — watch him delicately run his gloved fingers over a crime scene, and then one scene later lean his imposing bulk over a suspect.
They always underestimate Columbo. Ruffled, unshaven, swallowed up by a trench coat, he asks silly questions about the crime and accepts their alibis, sure, of course. He thanks them, turns to leave...but stops. ''Just one more thing....'' And that's how he gets them.
The Shield (2002-2008)
In the '90s, Michael Chiklis was a lovable small-town police commissioner on a show so adorable it was called The Commish. Then the new millennium started, the world went apocalyptic, and Chiklis reappeared as Vic Mackey, a bulldog detective brilliantly knowledgeable about the criminal underworld — because he practically controls it.
SHAWN SPENCER AND BURTON GUSTER
James Roday and Dule Hill
Partners, childhood friends, and the two dumbest brilliant crimesolvers on television. Shawn is the fake psychic with a photographic memory and gift for deduction; Gus is the straight man with the calibrated nose, keeping Shawn out of trouble. If they had any idea what they were doing, they probably wouldn't catch so many criminals.
Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988)
The opening credits sum it up. He's Spenser. He's for hire. He plays catch, chases someone across a rooftop, makes out with Barbara Stock, watches the Celtics, thumps a punching bag, cooks spaghetti, makes out with Barbara Stock, fires his pistol, and stares angrily offscreen. That's Spenser. He's for hire.
NYPD Blue (1993-2005)
Sipowicz suffered, like Joe Friday in the Book of Job. He lost one wife to divorce and another to gunfire, fought prostate cancer and alcoholism, and watched two partners die. That he survived proves his inner strength — he's the definition of a Badass with a Heart of Gold.
Dame Helen Mirren
Prime Suspect (1991-2006)
Tennison is your average working woman. Ambitious in a male-dominated profession, she's got relationship problems and drinks too much. But Jane is also a detective, investigating murders that cut across the London social stratosphere. She's so passionately driven that Mirren once compared her to Lady Macbeth (except on our side).
Agatha Christie's Belgian expatriate strolls through '30-era London on the trail of political assassins, tomb raiders, and a serial killer with an alphabet fetish. With his perfectly waxed mustache and his lightly balanced pince-nez, David Suchet makes you believe he invented the whole idea of solving crime.
The Wire (2002-2008)
The Wire's Baltimore is populated with iconic detectives — incisive Lester, noble Bunk, obsessive McNulty. But Kima's our pick, because she learns from all of them over the course of the series. Tough, smart, funny and caring, Kima's a detective for the modern age.
EDDIE ''FITZ'' FITZPATRICK
Fitz Fitzpatrick is a criminal psychologist who can crack anyone (hence the nickname.) He's also a self-loathing, obsessive, adulterous gambling addict; the kind of guy who ends the night with a morning glass of whiskey (so he can go to work without a hangover). Hagrid he ain't.