Friday, September 26, 2008

Watching the Detectives: TV cops and private eyes through the years

The Onion AV Club has an excellent article running down the best, worst and most overlooked private detective TV series over the last 50-odd years. The article, which spans about three "pages" of content, is impressive because it not only lists which shows are of quality, but groups them based on structure -- classic private eye shows, shows with a more character-driven slant and shows that are more focused on the portrayal of urban decay and the role of the police and their allies. It serves as a great Cliff's Notes for the history of the genre in televised form, and makes for a quick, informative read. An interesting read for anyone who enjoys crime fiction, on screen or on the page.

Most interesting to me, though, was their list of top series, which capped off the piece. I've excerpted it here:

1. Columbo


It may not be the most thematically deep detective series ever aired, but Columbo has been reliably entertaining for going on 50 years now, offering mysteries based on unexpected minutiae, along with the iconic clash between too-clever snobs and the working-class drudge who always outlasts them.

2. Homicide: Life On The Street


The Wire is the most profound cop show of all time, but Homicide is the most profound mystery-based cop show, dealing with all the bureaucratic rot and existential futility that The Wire did, but through the prism of the detective series building-block: the case.

3. Law & Order

law and order

The formula has long been diluted by spin-offs, rip-offs, and repeats, but there's no greater testament to the enduring quality of Law & Order than this: when a channel-surfer lands on an episode of L&O, it's hard not to keep watching all the way through to the final chung-chung.

4. Veronica Mars

veronica mars

Weak ratings and a creatively confused third season killed one of the decade's best series—detective or otherwise—before its time, but the two season-length mysteries Veronica Mars presented before its downfall stand among TV's finest, both in terms of their narrative twists and the way they mapped out the mood of their times.

5. Prime Suspect

prime suspect

The polar opposite of the "cozy" mystery is the hard-boiled one, and TV detective series don't get much harder than this British import, which sees crime as a continuum, with all of its characters—including its heroine—spread out across the line.

A strong list, no doubt. I'd argue that The Wire merits a place, beyond a mention in the Homicide blurb (although, that show is great and worth the investment in its own right). I've got Prime Suspect on my NetFlix queue, so I'm looking forward to that and giving Twin Peaks a solid chance (I've only seen a few episodes here and there). I was a little surprised to see Veronica Mars on here, but I've heard a lot of good things from friends about it, so maybe it's worth a shot. The article also doesn't make mention of The Shield, which struck me as odd.

Still, the article is well worth a read. Thanks to Zombie for the heads up.

Who are your favorite TV detectives? Least favorite?


Zombie said...

Got to read through this entire story finally - so glad to see they included Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. That would have been my pick!

Fun to see COPS listed, too... Heaven knows I've watched enough of that over my lifetime.

Zombie said...

"Damn fine coffee, and hot!"