Monday, March 19, 2012

Top Ten TV Mystery/Detective Shows of All Time

Inspector George Gently
One of the simplest yet most enjoyable pleasures in life is settling down to a good mystery on TV. A little popcorn, maybe a glass of wine. Rain beating on the windows, dog sleeping by the fire . . . Well, you get the idea. It’s heaven for us mystery lovers. There have been some great mystery/detective series over the years. In fact, some of the finest programs on TV have been, and continue to be, crime shows. I’ve compiled a list of what I consider the ten best of the bunch (in no particular order) and added some honorable mentions at the end.

1. Midsomer Murders (1997–present)

Based on the mystery novels by Caroline Graham, this long-running show features DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Tom Barnaby (played by John Nettles) and DS (Detective Sergeant) Ben Jones, who keep tripping over bodies in the various villages of England’s fictional Midsomer County. If you love English cozies, this is a must-see, the ultimate in cozies.

Nettles retired from the show in 2011 and was replaced by actor Neil Dudgeon, who plays his younger cousin, DCI John Barnaby. DS Jones is the third, and I believe the best, Midsomer detective sergeant, and he continues with the show. Dudgeon is fantastic as the new DCI, but the on-screen relationship with his wife, Sarah, lacks the warmth of the relationship between Tom Barnaby and his wife, Joyce—though the addition of John Barnaby’s dog, Sykes, largely makes up for that.

2. Jonathan Creek (1997–2010)

Jonathan Creek, who lives in a windmill in the English countryside and creates stage tricks for a professional magician, solves the most baffling crimes in this quirky mystery. The show is less about who did it and more about how it was done. In fact, the how it was done can be downright mind-bending—or at least appear that way before Creek solves the crime.

The first three seasons, which featured sidekick Maddy Magellan, an investigative journalist played by Caroline Quentin, were the best, though the last season, with sidekick Carla Borrego (Julia Sawalha), was still far better than your average mystery. The show was discontinued in 2004, but two specials, "The Grinning Man" and "The Judas Tree," aired in 2009 and 2010. As always, American viewers will have to do a little scrounging on the Internet to find the specials.

3. The Closer (2005–present)

Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, an Atlanta detective hired by the LAPD to head its Major Crimes Division, is a "closer" because she closes tough cases, usually in unconventional ways involving wily interrogation techniques. Because she’s a woman, and a southern woman at that—with her butter-wouldn’t-melt accent and her junk-food sweet tooth—she’s underestimated, and she uses that to great advantage. Johnson’s syrupy "Thank yew," which she says at least five times in every episode, is classic.

TNT will run the final six episodes of The Closer beginning this July. The last episode will be followed by the premiere of a spinoff series, Major Crimes, featuring The Closer’s Captain Raydor.

4. Tony Hillerman mysteries on PBS (2002–2004)

In 2002, PBS presented Skinwalkers, the first Tony Hillerman mystery novel adaptation in its American Mystery! Specials series. After that came Coyote Waits (2003) and A Thief of Time (2004), all three starring Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Jim Chee. Then, in one of those senseless TV production decisions that leaves you shaking your head in bewilderment, the Hillerman mysteries stopped . . . and the flood of Poirots and Sherlocks continued.

If you want to see these mysteries now, you’ll have to rent or buy them. All three are well worth their rather high purchase price as they’re so well produced and acted that you can watch them again and again (the New Mexico scenery is spectacular). Hopefully PBS, Wildwood Productions, et al. will come to their senses and produce another Hillerman mystery—or any American mystery. Seriously, PBS, I love Miss Marple, but come on!

5. Psych (2005–present)

Quite possibly the most underrated show currently on TV, Psych features Shawn Spencer, whose hyper-observant skills allow him to out-detective any detective, and his friend Burton Guster, a rather more stable pharmaceutical salesman. Together they form a psychic detective agency and solve crimes for the Santa Barbara Police Department.

This is one of those shows you have to watch because no explaining will do it justice. The dialogue is witty (and so rapid-fire that while you’re figuring out one joke, three more have zoomed by), the characters are engaging, and the returning themes and tics (Gus’s nicknames, Val Kilmer, Billy Zane, "Gus don’t be a . . . ," the hidden pineapple—you really do have to see it) are, as Shawn would say, "delicious."

6. Inspector Lewis (2006–present)

DCI Robbie Lewis and his DS, the scholarly and slightly mysterious James Hathaway, fight crime in Oxford in this spinoff of the Inspector Morse series.

For years I thought nothing could outdo the superb Inspector Morse, based on Colin Dexter’s novels and also set in Oxford, but I believe Inspector Lewis has. Lewis was DCI Morse’s sergeant in the older series, and here he plays a widower (his beloved wife Valerie has died, and he still grieves deeply for her) who accepts the DCI position with the Thames Valley Police.

With Lewis, you have that fantastic Oxford scenery, outstanding plots, and two fascinating lead characters. To top it off, with each season this show just gets better. It plays now on then on PBS, but you’re better off renting or streaming it from Netflix.

7. Jesse Stone (2005–present)

The Jesse Stone specials are based on Robert B. Parker’s mystery novels about an LAPD homicide detective who resigns his post in Los Angeles (because his bosses can no longer ignore his heavy drinking, which began after his divorce) and heads for fictional Paradise, Massachusetts, where, still drinking—though only at night—he is hired as the PPD’s new chief of police.

Jesse Stone is not a TV series proper but a series of movie specials on CBS. It’s brilliant in every way, from the scenery—it’s filmed in Nova Scotia, which is both moodier and prettier than Massachusetts—to the movies’ brooding opening sequences, which include the best theme music on television, period.

But the best thing about this series is Jesse Stone, a complex character played to perfection by Tom Selleck. If you’re new to this show, you should rent or buy the earlier movies, as there have been quite a few plot and character developments since the first movie in 2005.

8. Rosemary & Thyme (2003–2007)

If you like gardens, and breathtaking English gardens at that, you’ll want to see this series. Rosemary Boxer, a recently and unfairly fired plant pathologist, and Laura Thyme, a newly divorced amateur gardener, meet by chance and decide to form a business partnership. The two 50ish/60ish women restore gardens and diagnose plant diseases, but wherever they go, bodies crop (ahem) up.

The show is light fare—no blood sprays, no thriller tension—and that is its strong point. That and the fact that there are flowers in virtually every shot, and not just outside. It’s relaxing, fun, delightful.

The show was originally shown in three regular seasons (2003–2006) and two final episodes (2007). The cancellation of Rosemary & Thyme by the British network ITV is itself a mystery, as it was popular when it met its demise. ITV claims that the cancellation was part of an effort to "reinvigorate" the channel. I suspect that means ITV wanted more gore and fewer post-50 lead characters. Shame.

9. Inspector George Gently (2007–present)

Set in the mid-1960s and based on the books by Alan Hunter, this series features Scotland Yard’s Inspector George Gently, who, after the murder of his wife, travels to County Durham in search of the killer, who has committed another crime there.

Gently sees his younger self in his ambitious sergeant, John Bacchus, who in his enthusiasm to combat crime has a tendency toward the corruption-through-power Gently loathes. Gently decides to stay in Durham, and he makes it his mission to make a good and decent cop, and man, out of Bacchus. As a result, the chemistry between the two is terrific.

The 1960s setting means that political correctness is at a minimum, and because there are no CSI-type gadgets and tests, the cases are solved by sheer hard work and cop instinct. I normally don’t like historical mysteries, if you can call the 1960s historical, but this series is so well done you forget it’s set in the past. The producers don’t make a point of parading various 1960s products on screen as if to say, "Look, this is what radios looked like back then." The surroundings just are, they’re part of the story, and in that way they serve the story and become invisible.

10. NCIS (2003–present)

In this long-running series, special agents for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service solve crimes involving the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in the Washington, D.C., area (though episodes have been set elsewhere).

If you haven’t seen this show, catch up on Netflix then start watching the current season, which is the show’s ninth. (Good news from last week: NCIS was picked up for a tenth season!) The writing on this show is second to none. Frankly, I don’t know how the writers keep it so fresh. So many other shows take a script nosedive after three or four years.

Although the show’s plots are first rate, this is a character-driven series. The six main characters are so well defined, such individual works of art, that you feel you know them. Best of all, while these characters have stayed true to themselves throughout the series, they also have grown and changed, which makes them seem all the more real.

Honorable mystery mentions go to Monk (2002–2009), Blue Murder (2003–2009), Inspector Morse (1987–2000), Veronica Mars (2004–2007), Wallander (2008–present), The Killing (2011–present), Magnum, P.I. (1980–1988), Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989–present), and Murder, She Wrote (1984–1996).

Have I missed any great TV mystery/detective shows?



Gwendolyn Gage said...

I love Pysch! Such a great series, and I agree -- you just have to see it for yourself. I'm not much of a TV person, so when a series catches my interest enough for me to set aside my computer, its quite an accomplishment. :-)

Nicole said...

Love NCIS (both of them) and Magnum P.I., both produced by Donald Bellesario who also produced another of my all-time favorite TV series: JAG. Love the Jesse Stone mysteries; so melancholy, so real in the ugly crimes, and the emotions so intense yet understated. You're right, Karin, Tom Sellect plays Stone to perfection. Like The Closer and sorry to see it go. Also like Rizzoli and Isles. And I'm a big Bones fan. My honorable mention would include The Mentalist, the various CSIs, Criminal Minds.

Haven't seen any of the British selections, and haven't been able to do Psych.

Cynthia Bruner said...

Wonderful post! I'd add two things: a) you have to watch Psych more than once because it's just too odd the first time (by the third show I was laughing so hard I cried), and b) Jesse Stone movies were made for a dark room, rain, and a lack of interruptions, but I always feel weird having a glass of wine while desperately, DESPERATELY wishing he'd stop drinking!

Karin Kaufman said...

@Gwen and Cynthia: I used to think I was the only person watching Psych, but I'm discovering more and more people who love it! It seems to be a semi-hidden gem that more and more people are discovering. And you're right, Cynthia, you *must* watch at least two or three episodes for it to click, because it's just an oddity, in a good way.

@Cynthia, I agree with your Jesse Stone comments too. Rain, no interruptions... Yup. :)

Karin Kaufman said...

@Nicole: I've seen Bellisario's name on some great TV shows. JAG was a favorite of mine too (except for the last episode, which was such a letdown!). I love Bones, though the show didn't quite make my list. :)

I loved the first few seasons of the original CSI (never got into the other two, esp. Miami), but I left it off my list because it seemed to me that the plot and charcters began to play second and third fiddles to the gross factor. It was as if 18 year olds were writing the scripts, sitting around saying things like, "What disgusting sound effect can we use when she pulls the stick out of the eyeball?" It was sad for me, because when CSI focused on solving puzzling crimes, it was very good.

Judy Kundert said...

As a mystery lover, I agree with your list. Do you know the Midsomer Murders Series? They might be considered on your list too?

fhasan said...

one other show you missed which could possibly make it your list (just because i have it on my list and we have atleast 80% in common, but id probably rate psych a little bit is Luther.if you like detective shows, give this a comes on bbc, and just in terms of a show i would rate it really high. sherlock is also really good (also on bbc)

Karin Kaufman said...

@Judy Yes, I love Midsomer Murders (they're number 1 on my list)! I wish we could get the latest episodes more quickly in the U.S. I've never seen a bad episode of that show!

@fhasan A friend recommended Sherlock to me, and I have to say, if I could re-do this list, it would be on it. Wonderful show. I'll give Luther a try, thanks.

Greg said...

What happened to Columbo Karin?

Anonymous said...

Also a good series is Life. Really like it.

Anonymous said...

Inspector Morse, Columbo, The Rockford Files, Banacek,

Anonymous said...

David Janssen as Harry O, sigh...George Gentley is superb. I thought they wouldn't be able to replace John Nettles (MM), but do glad John is able to sit out & really enjoy Neil Dudgeon - well done Neil!

Detective Mumbai said...

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