WATCHING THE (PRIVATE) DETECTIVES
Love whodunit shows? Here are 10 classics
Peter Gunn 1958-61
Where most of the medium’s early private detectives were adapted from books, movies, and radio plays, Craig Stevens’ Peter Gunn was created by Blake Edwards directly for
TV. A suave jazz lover who rarely had a hair out of place, Gunn was one cool cat, enough to live up to the show’s iconic Henry Mancinipenned theme song, which has long outlived memories of Gunn himself.
The Rockford Files 1974-80
Rian Johnson says detective shows are secretly hangout shows, and no P.I. was ever more fun to hang out with than Jim Rockford, played by the superhumanly charming James Garner. An ex-con living in a trailer in a Malibu parking lot, Rockford took on all manner of sketchy clients, and frequently got punched in the stomach for his troubles. But he always got back up.
Magnum, P.I. 1980-88
Tom Selleck guested in a few late-period Rockford Files episodes. And if his title character here — a Vietnam vet driving a red Ferrari all over Oahu and living in a rich novelist’s guest house — was presented as cooler and more innately heroic than Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum nonetheless seemed a worthy heir to the throne of television’s most likable private dick.
A huge phenomenon at first, due to scorching chemistry between ex-model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) and wisecracking detective David Addison (Bruce Willis) and to creative flights of fancy like a Taming of the Shrew- -inspired inspired episode called “Atomic Shakespeare.” It later fell apart — in reality, Shepherd and Willis hated each other, and ABC had to air reruns when new episodes weren’t ready — but for a few years, it was magic.
The Singing Detective 1986
The masterwork of one of TV’s most audacious creators, Dennis Potter’s miniseries blends hard-boiled crime drama, movie musicals, and gritty realism. Michael Gambon plays a mystery novelist hospitalized with crippling psoriasis who copes with the pain by imagining himself as a singing gumshoe. Weird, thrilling, heartbreaking.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder proved both blessing and curse for Tony Shalhoub’s amusing, endearing Emmy-winning title character here. On the one hand, Monk is so wracked with anxiety and germophobia that it’s a wonder he can leave the house. On the other, his fixation on tiny details makes him a brilliant investigator who every week does the cops’ work for them.
Burn Notice 2007-13
Michael Westen wasn’t technically a P.I. but an ex-spy with a particular set of skills that proved useful when vulnerable people needed his help. His talent for improvised weaponry — say, destroying a car’s engine with a coffee can full of thermite — came in especially handy week after week, as did the help of colorful pals Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and Sam (Bruce Campbell).
Veronica Mars 2004-07
A shockingly successful marriage of film noir and teen angst, starring a young Kristen Bell as a private eye solving mysteries (including the murder of her best friend). The character returned as an adult in a movie and a revival. But it was the idea of a teen girl acting like Philip Marlowe that made the show special.
Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd have the most famous chemistry of any TV-detective duo. But the platonic bond between Terriers co-stars Donal Logue (as an alcoholic ex-cop) and Michael Raymond-James (as a thief trying to go straight) was intoxicating in its own right. If only enough people had been aware of the wonderful but short-lived FX drama — or hadn’t assumed the title meant it was about dogfighting.
There’s a long, storied list of small-screen Sherlock Holmeses, including CBS’ very solid Elementary,
whose run overlapped with this fabulously clever BBC version, co-written by Dr. Who
veteran Steven Moffat. Set in modern times (Holmes is good at texting), this Sherlock
made a star of Benedict Cumberbatch, did the same for Martin Freeman as a tougherthan-usual Dr. Watson, and had a great Moriarty in a pre- Fleabag