Primer: TV Detectives

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: A brief history of—and notable highlights from—television's long-term love affair with procedurals, mystery stories, and the colorful characters who figure out whodunit.

TV Detectives 101: "And then a case walked through the door…."

At their most basic, detective stories are about questions that need answering, whether they be "Is my husband sleeping around?" or "Who killed that guy?" No matter how often the mystery genre gets run through the filters of modernism, postmodernism, naturalism, expressionism, parody, or what-have-you, the stories work best if the hero or heroine has a job to do. In fact, over the decades, the most popular detective shows have often kept extraneous character detail to a minimum, instead focusing on how diligent folks solve impossible riddles. (After all, there's no expiration date on a jigsaw puzzle.)

One of the first and longest-running TV detective shows was Dragnet, which made the jump from radio to television in 1951, then ran for eight full seasons in the '50s before leaving the air, only to return thrice more: once in the late '60s in a version featuring original star-producer-director Jack Webb, and then again for short revamps in the late '80s and early '00s. By the time Dragnet debuted on the radio in 1949, the first flower of film noir—heavily informed by the pungent pulp fiction of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain—was stating to wilt, and gritty crime-stories were moving toward the new trend of docu-realism. Dragnet was docu-realist to the point of absurdity. At the start of an episode, Detective Joe Friday (played by Webb) would state the time and the place where the action was taking place, then walk the audience through a single crime (or series of unrelated crimes), emphasizing the routine legwork through which he and his partner cracked cases. Webb was a moralist, and in the '60s version of Dragnet especially, he often used the show as a platform from which to preach the gospel of law and order. But he kept the foundation of the show simple: crime, clues, apprehension, justice.

The procedural model Dragnet popularized on TV has proved profitable to countless writers and producers, even when they aren't telling stories about cops. The Perry Mason series—which began in novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, then was adapted for the movies in the '30s and the radio in the '40s before finding a home on TV in 1957—follows a defense attorney who perpetually frees the innocent by figuring out who the real criminals are, then breaking them down on the witness stand in what starts as a routine cross-examination. As portrayed by Raymond Burr on TV, Mason has a broad streak of kindness mixed with arrogance, and the development of his personality—along with his interaction with his secretary and private investigator—helped establish the model for the character-based detective series that became more popular in the '70s. (Not to mention inspiring the long-running Matlock, which is essentially a Dixie-fried, geriatric Perry Mason.) But the Perry Mason TV series was still rigidly formulaic, right down to the flustered D.A. undone week after week by Mason's keen eye for detail and flair for courtroom theatrics.

In fact, the Perry Mason formula is so sound that it enabled the procedural mystery to move outside the realm of cops and lawyers. The title character of the '70s series Quincy, M.E. does work for the state and assists the police, but he isn't, strictly speaking, an agent of law enforcement. He's an L.A. County medical examiner who suspects foul play is involved with seemingly every corpse that wheels into his morgue. Through his medical skills and general nosiness, Quincy (played by the inimitable Jack Klugman) sniffs out murderers and draws attention to social problems, from anorexia to the scourge of punk rock, even if it gets him in trouble with his superiors. Take away the social consciousness (and the murder), and the spirit of Quincy lives on in the current hit House, a Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery series in which the "detective" is a diagnostician and the "criminals" are rare diseases and viruses—and, of course, the patients who lie about how they picked up these bugs in the first place.

In a practical, show-business sense, House also draws its inspiration from the popularity of CSI, itself a sort of flashier version of Quincy, albeit one in which the forensic scientists know in advance that their corpses are murder victims. And CSI—along with the half-dozen other case-heavy, character-light procedurals that have aired on CBS in the '00s—owes a lot of its existence to the Law & Order family. When the original Law & Order debuted on NBC in 1990, it was something of an afterthought show, lacking big-name stars or glamorous subject matter. What it had was a gimmick: the first half of each episode was dedicated to two cops tracking down a murderer; the second half was about the D.A. office putting that killer away. It was half Dragnet, half Perry Mason (albeit on the side of the prosecution), with a touch of Quincy in the way the show considered hot-button subjects "ripped from today's headlines." And while those hot-button subjects may look dated in re-runs, the cases themselves—and how they get cracked—have proven timeless.

In fact, the success of Law & Order in near-constant repeats on TNT convinced the cable channel to generate some original programming in a L&O; vein. The result was The Closer, basic-cable's most-watched original series of all time as of fall 2008. Returning to the diverse Los Angeles that Dragnet once mapped out so well, The Closer follows a driven detective from Atlanta (played with a too-honeyed accent by Kyra Sedgwick) as she leads a group of veteran cops in investigations of "priority homicides": murders likely to draw a lot of media attention, and that therefore need to be closed quickly. The Closer is more interested in the personal life of its heroine than most modern procedurals—in that way, it's more like the character-driven detective shows in the "intermediate" category below—but it isn't exactly continuity-heavy. As with all the other shows on this 101 list, The Closer keeps its strength in its reliable formula: A body turns up, along with the job of finding who's responsible.

Intermediate: "As for me, my name is…"

While film noir was transforming into docu-realism, some producers were trying to hold fast to the hard-boiled private-eye tradition that pre-dated and partially molded noir, while also trying to update it for the jet-fueled '50s. Writer Blake Edwards concocted the breezy gumshoe Richard Diamond for radio (and later TV), then in 1959 whipped up Peter Gunn, a stylish show about a quasi-Beatnik dick with a thing for jazz and copious connections in the demimonde. Though it was beaten to the air by the equally swingin' 77 Sunset Strip (and shadowed by 77's spin-offs, including Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6), Peter Gunn's exact mix of expressionistic style and careful character development planted a seed that would start to blossom more than a decade later, leading to a thicket of detective shows in which the people mattered more than the procedure.

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Another major progenitor to what would become the golden age of TV detectives was Mannix, a super-snazzy PI series co-created by two of the genre's leading lights, Richard Levinson and William Link. Mike Connors starred as a strong-arm type who preferred to use his instincts rather than modern crime-solving techniques. As a result, his stories staggered two-fisted action with a lot of chatter, as Mannix made an effort to get to know the people he was investigating. Mannix debuted in 1967, the same year as Ironside, another series about an old-school detective (played by Perry Mason's Raymond Burr) navigating a modernizing world. Both lionized the fuddy-duddy, but both also embraced the visual flair of '60s cinema, using askew camera angles, split-screens, and jarring close-ups to establish just how strange the landscape was becoming for a couple of square-jawed men of action.

A year after midwifing Mannix, Levinson and Link brought back to TV a character they'd first introduced in an episode of a 1960 anthology series, then reintroduced in a stage play. His name was Lieutenant Columbo (no official first name), and after appearing in a pair of TV movies, he moved on to become the staple of The NBC Mystery Movie from 1971 to 1978. Columbo had a different format and feel than anything else on TV at the time, starting with its star Peter Falk, a slumpy, mumbly type beholden to the John Cassavetes school of hyper-realist acting. Columbo also had a keen gimmick: each mystery began with a murderer planning out and executing a seemingly perfect crime—something which often took up more than a third of an episode. Then, instead of having to figure out the who, what, why, where or how, the audience tried to figure out the one mistake the killer made that Lt. Columbo would eventually smoke out. The Columbo plots were ingenious, but even more intriguing was the character of Columbo himself, with his rumpled trenchcoat and cluelessly irritating demeanor. Following the lead of Columbo and the rest of the original NBC Mystery Movie lineup (McCloud and McMillan And Wife), the '70s were soon awash in series named for their crime-solving heroes: Banacek, Kojak, Madigan, Cannon, Baretta, Quincy (itself part of the NBC Mystery Movie team at one point), and Columbo's chief rival for superior character-driven detective action: The Rockford Files.

The peak era for TV detectives stretched from 1971 to well into the '80s—long enough for subgenres to spring up. In 1984, the team of Levinson and Link created the TV equivalent of the "cozy" mystery in Murder, She Wrote, a long-running series about a personable old writer with keen sleuthing skills. But Levinson and Link actually created a superior "cozy" a decade earlier in Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton as the famous literary detective, who each week walked viewers through the clues in a "locked room" mystery and emerged at the end with a clever solution to a troubling—but not too troubling—conundrum. Ellery Queen only ran for one season, but the fact that the episodes still show up on cable from time to time shows how much it's beloved by mystery buffs.

The '80s saw a brief run of detective series with dual leads—one male, one female—drawing on the romantic tension and quick wit of Dashiell Hammett's classic Thin Man series. The first breakout hit in the genre was Remington Steele, which starred Stephanie Zimbalist as a private detective who combated the sexism of potential clients by renting the services of con man Pierce Brosnan as the frontman for her practice. As with the best character-driven mystery shows, the cases on Remington Steele helped define both the protagonists and the times they lived in, puckishly examining how romance and gender roles played out in an age of second-generation feminism.

And for those who weren't as keen on the love stuff, the '80s also saw a revival of Mannix-style "manly man" detective shows, the best of which may have been Spenser For Hire, starring Robert Urich (also the star of the superb '70s detective series Vega$) as the erudite, deeply moral PI originated in a series of novels by Robert B. Parker. Unlike a lot of the tough-guy shows of the '80s—Simon & Simon, Jake And The Fatman, Magnum P.I., etc.—Spenser For Hire was more in the classic pulp tradition, rich with detail about its Boston setting and its iconoclastic hero. It's worth noting that fans of Parker's novels aren't always so kind to the TV version, which they consider simplistic, but compared to the other detective shows on the air in the waning days of The Golden Age, Spenser is a throwback to the time when location and character mattered as much as cases.

After lying dormant for much of the '90s (aside from the proliferation of "cozies" like Diagnois: Murder and The Cosby Mysteries), the old-school detective series made a comeback in the '00s with Veronica Mars, a show about a razor-sharp teenager (played by fanboy favorite Kristen Bell) who helps run her dad's PI business and uses her connections to help her classmates solve fairly mundane mysteries. Though episodic and procedural to a significant extent, Veronica Mars also featured larger mysteries that took multiple episodes—or even full seasons—for the heroine to solve. It also made good use of its southern California setting, using Veronica's status as a working-class outcast at her ritzy school to set up an extended study of class identity in the 21st century. Though the show's title and its emphasis on a savvy lead character recall the detective series' '70s peak, Veronica Mars' ambition and thematic complexity make it just as much like the sophisticated shows in the section below.

Advanced: "This is the city…"

If Dragnet represented film noir re-imagined as a procedural, and Peter Gunn turned noir into a character study, then M Squad is the '50s detective series that picked up on what noir had to say about the inevitable corruption of social institutions. For three years—from 1957 to 1960—Lee Marvin played a no-nonsense plainclothes cop assigned to crack cases with a special unit designed to fit each theft and murder in the city into a larger pattern of organized crime, one that reached from the low-level pickpockets to the fat-cat politicians. As cynical as it was stylish, M Squad was the precursor to the holy trinity of "policier as social study" shows: Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and The Wire.

As far as those social-study cop shows go, nothing tops The Wire—and probably nothing ever will—but it's unlikely that series would've happened without Homicide: Life On The Street proving that it was possible to win devotees and eke years and years of stories out of a fundamentally bleak examination of an off-market U.S. city—the same city in both series, Baltimore—populated by diverse, stubbornly self-centered characters. Homicide qualifies for this list over The Wire (or Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue, for that matter) because for all its doggedly realistic portrayals of the toll police-work takes on the men and women who do it, Homicide still clung to the well-worn TV-mystery format. A body is found, the unit gets a call, and the chase is on. Only in Homicide, the cops had to struggle with the lack of hard evidence and the difficulty of getting a confession—as well as the sick uncertainty over whether they were really making any kind of difference in the long-term health of their decaying metropolis.

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While the American TV detective remained relatively simplistic prior to the debut of Homicide, British television often hewed closer to the genre's literary origins, producing intricately plotted mysteries with vivid dialogue and an implicit understanding that even justice can be unfair. The crown jewel of the British TV detective series has to be Prime Suspect, a string of multi-part TV movies starring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, a troubled inspector battling bigotry and her own human weaknesses while trying to right some appalling wrongs. Unflinching in its depiction of the underworld and unsparing in its characterization of the hard-drinking, often erratic Tennison, Prime Suspect pre-dated Homicide in showing how studying the criminal mind tends to warp the students, and it touched off a wave of grimy British crime sagas with similarly shifty protagonists. (Most notably Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as a wreck of a man who can easily see into the hearts and minds of crooks. In the clip below, Coltrane and Mirren spoof their most famous characters for Comic Relief.)

Red Herrings

The intense seriousness of detective series has made them ripe for parody—most recently on the underrated 2007 sitcom Andy Barker P.I., in which a schlubby accountant accidentally inherits a retired detective's cases and gets drawn into a world in which the mundane clashes with the pulpy. Andy Barker P.I. only lasted six episodes, matching the number of episodes of the greatest policier parody of all time: Police Squad! Freely riffing on the Dragnet, M Squad, and '70s detective-show paradigms, Police Squad! may have been too straight-faced and surreal for TV audiences in 1982, though the premise scored on the big screen with the Naked Gun series. Maybe that's because by the end of the '80s, the kind of shows the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team mocked were falling out of favor, which made people more open to the idea of ripping them apart.

In the years between Police Squad! and The Naked Gun, Moonlighting spoofed detective conventions with greater commercial success, taking the Remington Steele formula of steely-businesswoman-requires-aid-of-irressponsible-but- attractive-man and gently ridiculing it by adding preposterous mysteries and snarky self-reference. The problem? Audiences enjoyed the playful tone of the series, but also genuinely cared about the relationship between the rakish Bruce Willis and the chilly Cybill Shepherd, which made it difficult for the show to maintain its aloofness. Also, the personality clashes between the castmates and the length of time it took to bang out their witty banter led to interminable production delays, costing Moonlighting its chance to become an all-time classic instead of just a nobly over-ambitious curio.

And speaking of nobly over-ambitious curios, in 1990, oddball arthouse filmmaker David Lynch tackled the TV mystery format with Twin Peaks, an alternately brilliant and frustrating show that used an investigation into the murder of a small-town beauty to reveal the perverse secret lives and unconscious desires of a whole community. Wonderfully weird and ultimately unsatisfying, Twin Peaks is also noteworthy for introducing the most charmingly odd TV detective since Columbo: Special Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan), an upbeat, philosophical crime-fighter with a weakness for coffee and pie and a "good scout" demeanor not unlike Lynch's.

Finally, when it comes to the often-dull reality of detective work, no TV series has done more to demystify the job than COPS, a show in which solving crimes is often a matter of listening to two drunk people deliver incomprehensible personal narratives, then deciding which one is less annoying. It isn't as neat as Dragnet or as sleek as Peter Gunn, but COPS made TV audiences so aware of real police lingo and attitudes that it makes amped-up, cartoonish detective shows a little harder to take seriously. Goodbye noir; hello vérité.

TOP 5

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

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

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

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.

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