Greatest TV Detectives of All Time
The best thing about television detectives is the variety. They don't fit into just one box. They come in all shapes and sizes.
That's because what makes a great fictional detective isn't whether they're a man or woman, American or British. What makes a great detective is if they solve the case. It's the great equalizer. And some do it better than others.
These are the greatest television detectives of all time.
30. Kate Beckett, 'Castle'
Actress: Stana Katic
Years: 2009-16 (173 episodes)
Honors: People's Choice Award Favorite TV Drama Actress (2014), two-time People's Choice Award Favorite Crime TV Drama Actress (2015, 2016)
Bottom line: There's a genius move writers pull off when they write in motivation for their detective characters. They give them some sort of deep-seated trauma. Detective Kate Beckett's wound was the murder of her mother.
Stana Katic played this part to perfection and was good enough in the 1-2 punch with Nathan Fillion's Richard Castle — a mix of annoyance and attraction — that the show ran for almost 200 episodes.
Katic showed she was no one-hit wonder with Amazon's "Absentia," which is a gut-punch of a show.
29. Rick Hunter, 'Hunter'
Actor: Fred Dryer
Years: 1984-91 (152 episodes)
Bottom line: Former NFL All-Pro defensive end Fred Dryer starred for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s, and he didn't have to go far for his next career. Dryer was the star of his own TV show as hard-boiled detective Rick Hunter.
Dryer actually got on the radar with NBC execs when he screen-tested and almost got the role of Sam Malone in "Cheers" that went to Ted Danson. Later on, Dryer famously guest-starred on the show, and he was a natural in front of the camera.
How popular was "Hunter" to audiences? The show returned for three made-for-TV movies — "Return of Hunter" (1995), "Hunter: Return to Justice" (2002) and "Hunter: Back in Force" (2003).
28. Kurt Wallander, 'Wallander'
Actor: Kenneth Branagh
Years: 2008, 2010, 2012, 2016 (12 episodes)
Honors: BAFTA Best Actor, Television (2009), Emmy Award Best Performance by an Actor, International (2017)
Bottom line: It's probably not fair to call Kenneth Branagh underrated, but did you know he was the first person ever nominated for Academy Awards in five different categories? We didn't think so.
Branagh turned his considerable acting powers to a television role in the late 2000s when he portrayed Swedish Detective Kurt Wallander in a series of shows based on the character from Henning Mankell's series of novels.
Part of the appeal of Branagh's portrayal of Wallander is how he leans into the character's existentialism. He never gets used to seeing dead bodies and can never comprehend how someone could commit the act of murder. That type of empathy is really cool to see portrayed.
27. Jill Munroe, Sabrina Duncan and Kelly Garrett, 'Charlie's Angels'
Actresses: Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith
Years: 1976-81 (115 episodes)
Bottom line: True "Charlie's Angels" fans recognize the OG trio of Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith as the gold standard by which all "Angels" trios will be judged from here to eternity, even if they only lasted one season together.
"When you think about 'Charlie's Angels,' you think about these three specific people," Jackson said in a 2016 interview.
It's impossible to disagree with her. While it's tough to look back at the cringe-worthy criticism of the show, its popularity ultimately won the day. In a testament to the influence of the show, it's been spun off into not only a reboot of the series but three different films.
26. Alec Hardy, 'Broadchurch'
Actor: David Tennant
Years: 2013-17 (24 episodes)
Honors: TV Choice Awards Best Actor (2013)
Bottom line: It says quite a bit about David Tennant's acting abilities that he could shake off a role as iconic as Dr. Who to be able to move on and gain even more fame and accolades as Detective Alec Hardy in "Broadchurch" — one of the best thriller/mysteries of the last decade.
Hardy's on-the-edge detective, prone to fainting spells, somehow keeps it together to solve mysteries and gets a big hand up from costar Olivia Colman, who is just as brilliant.
25. David Addison, 'Moonlighting'
Actor: Bruce Willis
Years: 1985-89 (66 episodes)
Honors: Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (1987), Golden Globe Award Best Actor in a Television Series — Musical or Comedy (1987), People's Choice Award Favorite Actor in a New TV Program (1986)
Bottom line: This was the role that brought Bruce Willis to the masses — and set him on the course to becoming one of the biggest movie stars of all time.
None of that happens without the electric chemistry between Detective David Addison and Cybill Shepherd's Maddie Hayes, the owner of the detective agency Addison is shakily employed by.
Willis had to beat out 2,000 actors for the role, and as his star grew, he began to butt heads with Shepherd. By the final season, the two hardly had any scenes together, and Willis, fresh off the success of the blockbuster film "Die Hard," cut bait. The show then was canceled.
24. Barnaby Jones, 'Barnaby Jones'
Actor: Buddy Ebsen
Years: 1973-80 (178 episodes)
Bottom line: Every great detective needs a great sidekick, and "Barnaby Jones" played against type by casting female star Lee Meriwether as the widowed wife of his son, who got murdered after taking over the family detective business. His death was the triggering plot point of the series.
Jones, played by Buddy Ebsen, was a beloved character because he also played against type. Instead of being the hard-drinking detective we're used to, he ordered milk.
The formula worked. "Barnaby Jones" ran for almost 200 episodes in the 1970s and spent half of its eight seasons in the Top 25 shows in the Nielsen ratings.
23. Virgil Tibbs, 'In the Heat of the Night'
Actor: Howard Rollins
Network: NBC, CBS
Years: 1988-95 (142 episodes, 4 TV movies)
Honors: Two-time NAACP Image Award Best Actor in a Television Series (1989)
Bottom line: You would have to be nuts to try and fill the role of Sidney Poitier in a television series based on the classic film "In the Heat of the Night." But Howard Rollins was up to the task of portraying Detective Virgil Tibbs.
The problem wasn't with Rollins' portrayal of Tibbs. He was critically acclaimed over 121 episodes. The problem was when Rollins was away from the camera. He was ultimately fired for having outstanding warrants in Georgia (where the show was filmed) for drug possession and driving under the influence.
Rollins died of AIDS-related complications in 1996, at 46 years old.
22. Jane Rizzoli, 'Rizzoli & Isles'
Actress: Angie Harmon
Years: 2010-16 (105 episodes)
Honors: People's Choice Awards Favorite Cable TV Actress (2015)
Bottom line: "Rizzoli & Isles" is the only TNT show to make the list, and that's owed in large part to the chemistry of its costars, Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, as Detective Jane Rizzoli and Medical Examiner Maura Isles.
Based on the series of novels by Tess Gerritsen, the show ran for 105 episodes, and Harmon won a People's Choice Award for her role. In fact, she and Alexander played so well off each other that fans pined for a romance between the two and made the show infinitely watchable.
21. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, 'True Detective'
Actors: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson
Years: 2014-19 (24 episodes)
Honors: Critics Choice Award Best Actor in a Drama Series (2014)
Bottom line: The first season of "True Detective" might be the greatest single season of television of all time. Matthew McConaughey (Rust Cohle) and Woody Harrelson (Marty Hart) star as detectives working in two different timelines, trying to solve a case 20 years apart.
In a testament to their work on the first season of the show, which had a much-reviled second season and a decent third season, both Harrelson and McConaughey were nominated for Emmy Awards for their portrayals of Hart and Cohle.
20. Sherlock Holmes, 'Sherlock'
Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch
Years: 2010-17 (13 episodes)
Honors: Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (2014), Critics Choice Awards Best Television Movie/Miniseries Actor (2012)
Bottom line: Benedict Cumberbatch delivered with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series "Sherlock," which costarred Martin Freeman as Watson.
There have been so many portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in both television and film that it's hard to stand out above the rest, but Cumberbatch had no problem doing so in this version, which is set in the current day and age.
Don't expect Cumberbatch, now known more for his role as Dr. Strange in the MCU, to ever return to this role. He's just too busy.
19. Robin Griffin, 'Top of the Lake'
Actress: Elisabeth Moss
Network: BBC, Sundance
Years: 2013-17 (25 episodes)
Honors: Golden Globe Award Best Actress Miniseries/TV Film (2014), Critics Choice Awards Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries (2013)
Bottom line: We have had a decade to witness Elisabeth Moss' brilliance as an actress — from "Mad Men" to "The Handmaid's Tale" to her role as Detective Robin Griffin in "Top of the Lake" for which she won a Golden Globe Award in 2014.
There have only been two seasons of the show stretching across 25 episodes, and the first season, surrounding the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, is beyond harrowing.
18. Harry Bosch, 'Bosch'
Actor: Titus Welliver
Network/Streaming: Amazon Prime Video
Years: 2014-21 (68 episodes)
Bottom line: In one of the greater travesties in awards history, Titus Welliver still hasn't received any award nominations for his stellar performance as no-nonsense Detective Harry Bosch after seven seasons from Amazon Studios.
Based on the Michael Connelly novels, Amazon actually gave fans the choice between "Bosch" and "The After" in 2014 by airing both pilots on its streaming service and letting them pick which one went to series.
Thankfully, they picked "Bosch," and we're all the better for it.
17. Spenser, 'Spenser: For Hire'
Actor: Robert Urich
Years: 1985-88 (66 episodes, 4 TV movies)
Bottom line: Based on Robert B. Parker's popular "Spenser' novels, "Spenser: For Hire" had a relatively short run as a television series. It lasted just four seasons despite being one of ABC's most profitable shows.
The key behind that was the chemistry behind the show's lead, veteran actor Robert Urich in what would prove to be his signature role, and Avery Brooks as Hawk.
"Spenser" got a reboot as a Netflix movie in 2020 starring Mark Wahlberg as Spenser. If you saw it, I'm sure you appreciated Urich's version that much more.
16. Sarah Linden, 'The Killing'
Actress: Mireille Enos
Network/Streaming: AMC, Netflix
Years: 2011-14 (44 episodes)
Bottom line: Mireille Enos never brought home an award for her portrayal of Detective Sarah Linden on "The Killing," but she was nominated enough times that she should have — she was up for multiple Emmy, Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards for the role.
Enos' character has great chemistry with Joel Kinnaman, her investigative partner, but the show really sings because of Linden, an obsessive, conflicted detective working in the Pacific Northwest. Credit brilliant director Patty Jenkins for all of that as well.
In 2014, Netflix brought the show back for six episodes to conclude the series.
15. Joe Mannix, 'Mannix'
Actor: Mike Connors
Years: 1967-75 (194 episodes)
Honors: Golden Globe Award Best TV Actor (1974)
Bottom line: If you're a fan of the 2019 film "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" like we are, you may have caught several "Mannix" references dropped by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio throughout the movie.
That makes sense because the show helped define the late 1960s and early 1970s for television audiences thanks to Mike Connors' portrayal of a hard-charging, old-school detective.
The show's success was owed in large part to one of its executive producers, Lucille Ball. She had the show ditch a strange, computer-based plotline used in the first season after expertly recognizing it was too complicated for viewers in that day and age.
14. Harry Ambrose, 'The Sinner'
Actor: Bill Pullman
Network: USA Network
Years: 2017-present (24 episodes)
Bottom line: If you haven't seen "The Sinner" yet, we suggest watching the first three seasons on Netflix ASAP. Each season presents a different crime for Detective Harry Ambrose in a tour de force performance by veteran actor Bill Pullman.
The show, produced by first-season star Jessica Biel, showed a glimpse of brilliance when it cast Pullman as the tortured Ambrose. The show dropped off a little bit in the third season, but the fourth season offers a chance for a little bit of redemption.
That being said, the first two seasons are pretty much perfect.
13. Veronica Mars, 'Veronica Mars'
Actress: Kristin Bell
Network/Streaming: UPN, The CW, Hulu
Years: 2004-07, 2019 (72 episodes)
Honors: Saturn Award Best Television Actress (2005)
Bottom line: Few shows in recent memory have been as beloved by fans as "Veronica Mars." It was so popular that it was brought back 12 years after its last episode for another streaming run on Hulu.
The show begins and ends with the performance of Kristen Bell, who was nominated nine times for her work as Veronica Mars and won once.
Outward appearances — Bell, specifically — might fool you into thinking this is some sort of cute drama. It's not. It's gritty. And it's hard-boiled. And Bell pushes that forward as good as any TV detective ever.
12. Jimmy McNulty, 'The Wire'
Actor: Dominic West
Years: 2002-08 (60 episodes)
Honors: Crime Thriller Awards Best Actor (2009)
Bottom line: The de facto protagonist of the sprawling Baltimore crime epic "The Wire" is Detective Jimmy McNulty — a great investigator and mostly terrible human being as portrayed by Dominic West.
McNulty's arc includes solving some high-profile investigations and his dogged pursuit of Stringer Bell, but he is almost always sidetracked by his drinking, missed alimony and child support payments and his chaotic personal relationships with women.
The signature role of West's career almost didn't happen. He was the third choice for the role behind Ray Winstone, who found travel from England too difficult after 9/11, and John C. Reilly, who didn't want to move to Baltimore.
11. Adrian Monk, 'Monk'
Actor: Tony Shalhoub
Network: USA Network
Years: 2002-09 (125 episodes)
Honors: Three-time Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor — Comedy Series (2003, 2005, 2006), Golden Globe Award Best Actor — Musical or Comedy Series (2003), two-time Screen Actors Guild Best Actor — Comedy Series (2004, 2005)
Bottom line: No TV detective show owes a greater debt to one of its predecessors than "Monk" does to "Columbo." The more recent show basically jacked the whole episode structure of the original crime drama for the entirety of its 125-episode series run.
And just like Peter Falk in "Columbo," we got to see brilliance in Tony Shalhoub's portrayal of Detective Adrian Monk. And if you didn't love the "Here's What Happened" segment of every episode, we don't know what to tell you.
Shalhoub won multiple Emmys and SAG Awards for his portrayal.
10. Mare Sheehan, 'Mare of Easttown'
Actress: Kate Winslet
Years: 2021 (7 episodes)
Honors: Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie (2021)
Bottom line: Accuse us of recency bias all you want. We'll raise you this. If we're ever lucky enough to get another season of "Mare of Easttown," we can guarantee "Ladyhawk" Kate Winslet is moving up the list.
Winslet's role as the troubled former basketball star turned detective trying to solve a series of murders and missing girls in her hometown was nothing short of a revelation.
She is perfect in the role, and the role is perfect for her. With a supporting cast that included Evan Peters, Jean Smart and Julianne Nicholson, the show captivated us for every moment of all seven episodes.
9. Jim Rockford, 'The Rockford Files'
Actor: James Garner
Years: 1974-80 (124 episodes, 8 TV movies)
Honors: Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor — Drama Series (1977)
Bottom line: Watching old episodes of "The Rockford File" gives us a greater appreciation of what an incredible acting talent James Garner was — and how much he physically brought to every role.
Episodes starting with Detective Jim Rockford's answering machine are a classic intro, but the hard-charging, hard-punching detective's style ultimately brought the show to an end because it wrecked Garner's body physically, since he insisted on doing his own stunts.
This was a beloved role. While Garner only won one Emmy Award, he was nominated four times for the Emmy Award and nominated three times for a Golden Globe Award for the role.
8. Andy Sipowicz, 'NYPD Blue'
Actor/Actress: Dennis Franz
Years: 1993-2005 (261 episodes)
Honors: Four-time Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor — Drama Series (1994, 1996, 1997, 1999), Golden Globe Award Best Actor — Television Series Drama (1994)
Bottom line: Modern audiences don't realize the controversy that "NYPD Blue" caused when it debuted in 1993. That was only eclipsed by the revelatory talent of its actors and what a great show it was.
No one defined that controversy and success more than Detective Andy Sipowicz, portrayed by Dennis Franz, who won four Emmy Awards for his work. What's more amazing about the genius of Franz is that the show was built around another actor and character — David Caruso's John Kelly. Yet Franz became the de facto leader of the cast.
Almost 300 episodes later, we think that worked out just fine.
7. Vic Mackey, 'The Shield'
Actor: Michael Chiklis
Years: 2002-08 (88 episodes)
Honors: Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor — Drama Series (2002), Golden Globe Award Best Actor — Television Series Drama (2003)
Bottom line: The LAPD's Rampart scandal was the basis for Shawn Ryan's gut-wrenching/thrilling/outstanding FX series "The Shield," and Michael Chiklis as the show's lead, Detective Vic Mackey, was truly a breakthrough performance.
From one of the great plot twists in television pilot history to that stunning series finale with an ultimately unrepentant Vic chained to a desk (figuratively, not literally), there's not a weak spot we can point to on this show.
In an interesting aside, one of the lead writers and supporting actors on "The Shield" was Kurt Sutter, who went on to create his own classic series with "Sons of Anarchy."
6. Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, 'Miami Vice'
Actors: Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas
Network: NBC, USA Network
Years: 1984-88, 1990 (112 episodes)
Honors: Golden Globe Award Best Actor — TV Drama (Don Johnson, 1985)
Bottom line: In the history of television, few shows have been as influential as "Miami Vice," and few duos have had as much chemistry as Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as Crockett and Tubbs.
Miami Vice's pilot episode/TV movie — "My Brother's Keeper" — is probably the best pilot of all time and also in the running for best made-for-TV movies ever made.
Everything about this show is cool. The cars. The clothes. The music. And nothing and no one is cooler than Johnson and Thomas, who both seem born to play those roles.
5. Theo Kojak, 'Kojak'
Actor: Telly Savalas
Years: 1973-78 (115 episodes)
Honors: Emmy Award Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series (1974), two-time Golden Globe Award Best Actor — Television Series Drama (1975, 1976)
Bottom line: Telly Savalas had a long and storied career where he portrayed a Bond villain and had supporting roles in classic films like "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." He was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "The Birdman of Alcatraz" in 1962.
Even with all that, Savalas was most well-known as Detective Theo Kojak. For this role, he won an Emmy Award and two Golden Globe Awards through 115 episodes and three made-for-TV movies.
"Who loves ya, baby?" was Savalas' catchphrase as Kojak. But it was actually the audience who loved Kojak the most.
4. Columbo, 'Columbo'
Actor/Actress: Peter Falk
Networks: NBC, ABC
Years: 1968-78, 1989-2003 (69 episodes)
Honors: Four-time Emmy Award Best Actor Television Drama (1972, 1975, 1976, 1990), Golden Globe Award Best Actor Television Drama (1973)
Bottom line: "Columbo" is a television anomaly. The show starring Peter Falk as the eponymous detective aired from 1971 to 1978, then came back again for another run from 1989 to 2003.
Falk's portrayal of Columbo and his iconic line — "just one more thing" — are what made us love the crusty detective so much.
Falk, who died in 2011, won four Emmy Awards for his role, with the first coming in 1972 and the last coming in 1990. He also won a Golden Globe Award for playing Columbo in 1973.
3. John Luther, 'Luther'
Actor: Idris Elba
Years: 2010-present (20 episodes)
Honors: Golden Globe Award Best Actor — Miniseries or Television Film (2012), two-time NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries (2011, 2014), Critics Choice Award Best Actor in a TV Movie/Miniseries (2016), Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie (2016)
Bottom line: Idris Elba owns two of the most iconic television roles of all time — Stringer Bell in HBO's "The Wire" and Detective John Luther in BBC's "Luther" for which he's been nominated for four Emmy Awards.
Luther is a throwback to the kind of detectives we loved watching in the 1970s, brought to a new level of cool by Elba — incorruptible, jaded, handsome, intelligent and determined to solve the case no matter what.
What an amazing role for an amazing actor.
2. Jessica Fletcher, 'Murder She Wrote'
Actress: Angela Lansbury
Years: 1984-96 (264 episodes, 4 TV movies)
Honors: Four-time Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actress in a TV Series — Drama (1984, 1986, 1989, 1991)
Bottom line: Jessica Fletcher was the rarest of TV characters as portrayed by Angela Lansbury. She was beloved to the point where "Murder She Wrote" ran for 12 years, 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies.
Lansbury was the key to the show's success playing Fletcher, a mystery novelist turned amateur detective. The veteran actress still holds the record for most Golden Globe Award nominations with 10, of which she won four times.
A staple in the Top 10 of the Nielsen ratings for more than a decade, "Murder She Wrote" averaged between 30-40 million viewers in its Sunday night time slot.
1. Thomas Magnum, 'Magnum P.I.'
Actor: Tom Selleck
Years: 1980-88 (162 episodes)
Honors: Golden Globe Award Best Actor — Television Series Drama (1985), Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (1984),
Bottom line: It's been over 30 years since "Magnum P.I." came to an end after an eight-season run on CBS, and you can make an argument that the show and its star, Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum, are still part of the pop culture landscape thanks to its loving, referential reboot.
Everything about this show was iconic — the backdrop of Hawaii, the red Ferrari, the Doberman pinschers, the Detroit Tigers hat, and more than anything, Magnum's homeboys.
Higgins, Rick and T.C. are a trio any great TV detective would have wanted to have their back. And John Hillerman won an Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award (just like Selleck) for his role as Higgins.