Saturday, 9 November 2013

Top 11 TV Detectives

I've always been a sucker for detective stories.  It's the only genre where even if the story is terrible, it'll still hook you till the end.

Fellow blogger and… (well, I won’t say ‘fellow' artist because I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending I’m an artist) artist Russell Mark Olson spent September celebrating TV detectives, a different one every day.  This means he had to come up with THIRTY TV dicks.  I didn’t think it could be done.  How can there be that many?

But I started listing the ones I had heard of and The Housemate joined in until we reached a plump thirty.  This grew to forty over the day.  Only then I couldn’t stop.  By sixty-three I had to forcibly halt The Brain from wandering down this path.  But I was smugly proud of my sixty-three.

It was actually way more than sixty-three, because I was only counting detective shows, not the individual detectives themselves, and in one case I just wrote down ‘CSI (and all that sort of thing)’ which covers about 80 spin offs, right?

So then I watched Russ come up with his thirty detectives, chuckling inwardly to myself at my vast knowledge of the TV dickniverse, knowing there would be no surprises for me this month.

And you know what he did?

He came up with an extra TWELVE shows


 that weren’t even on my list.

Damn you, Olson!

(I did have a Miss Marple, but not that Miss Marple)

I did consider having revenge on Olson for giving me this crippling ‘naming TV detectives’ addiction by drawing all 63+ detectives I’d come up with (I haven't been able to stop.  I'm no longer writing them down but I must be in the 100s by now).  But I've only actually watched-on-a-regular-basis twenty-two of the sixty-three shows.

So instead, and not as revenge, but as homage, here are my favourite TV detectives.

They're not necessarily the best at detecting, and don't necessarily deal with the most intriguing mysteries, but they are the characters I have found the most satisfying to return to time after time, and when it comes to TV, that's kind of the whole point.

(EDIT 2016: This list is a product of its time.  If I wrote one now it would be slightly different.  For example, right now, I'm really into Endeavour and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but will they still be my go-to detectives in two years' time?  Probably not.)

This was going to be a top ten, but then I remembered someone I had left out and I just couldn’t bring myself to cut anyone, so it’s a Top 11.

11. Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) and Dr. Watson (David Burke) from The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes ran from 1984 to 1994, clocking up 41 episodes (though for me the series finished with the 13th episode The Final Problem), although the title changed a few times to represent the different Sherlock Holmes story collections by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Although Holmes is one of the most portrayed characters in fiction, most people seem to agree that it was Brett who nailed it.

When I was a teen, I was pretty obsessed with Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, and since I also hated bad adaptations, I studiously avoided all adaptations of Sherlock Holmes because I believed no actor could do justice to the complexities of the guy (except maybe Leslie Howard but he never gave it a crack) and also because the Holmes stories aren't really very visual - they're mostly just exposition conversations - so you'd have to change them A LOT to work on film, and Watson is a lens for the reader to view the story through so often has little to actually do when you take the POV away from him and drop an actor into the role.

But eventually I wasn't a teenager any more and I wasn't so uptight about sticking to arbitrary rules I had enforced on myself and I did see adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.  And at some point The Brother forced The Housemate to watch ALL of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series.  So I saw some of it.

Jeremy Brett is magnificent as Holmes.  He inhabits the role with an attractive vibrancy, a depth of conviction and a complete insanity that is utterly convincing.  I have to tip The Hat right here to a simply astounding performance of the most famous detective.

However, despite Brett’s brilliant performance, that is not what draws me to the show.  No, that is David Burke as Dr Watson, by far my favourite part of the show.  He brings exactly what is needed to the role of Watson.  Firstly he is a competent companion to a detective, but it is his sharpness and underlying bitchiness that makes the character the perfect foil to Brett’s Holmes.  This man is sick of taking Holmes’s crap and is heavily sarcastic about it, while having the people skills and general common sense that eludes our genius hero.  The number of looks, glares and comments he aims at Holmes make the show for me. 

But Burke left after the second series and the role was rewritten to be completely limp and dumb, and the show was never as good.  Besides, the longer it ran, the quicker they adapted all the best stories, leaving them with mediocre material, while Brett was getting increasingly ill, so it just gets sadder the longer you watch the show, which is a real shame.

Series one and two, though, they're a classic.

10. Sam Tyler (John Simm) from Life On Mars.

Life On Mars ran from 2006 to 2007, clocking up 16 episodes.  It's about a modern-day cop who gets hit by a car and wakes up in the 70s, unsure whether he's just hallucinating or has somehow travelled in time.

Everyone was obsessed with Gene Hunt when Life On Mars came out, because he was so unlike the type of character you'd see in a hero-role in this century and his offensive one-liners were a guffaw-inducing instant hit.  Unfortunately it overshadowed what is actually a pretty good show with endless memes.  For me the reason to watch the show is actually the main character, coz y'know, I don't like racist sexist people.

A by-the-books copper, Tyler is a perfect hero – a good man stranded among bad people, someone whose morals won’t be crushed and who strides to make this world a better place no matter how difficult it is, reminiscent of another time travelling Sam (Quantum Leap rocks).  Meanwhile his fear at his predicament, tormented by sights and sounds that suggest he is trapped in a coma, give him a sympathetic charm.

The show rested on the question of whether Sam was just in a coma or really time-travelling, which was never a very interesting question as clearly it was both.  However, in series two, this question was pushed so hard that neither scenario seemed to make sense any more and by the finale the whole show had gone bonkers.  In fact, it has a horrible ending.  And then they went a made a spin-off that didn't star Sam, and that had an even worse ending that had the audacity to try to rewrite what had happened in Life On Mars.  But Ashes To Ashes was such a poor show it's easy to ignore.

The real shame is that Life On Mars was about a good man surrounded by a time that was drowning in prejudice, and in the end he decides he prefers that world.  HUH?

For me, I'm happy just watching series one.

9. Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) from Pushing Daisies.

Pushing Daisies ran from 2007 to 2009, clocking up 22 episodes.  It's about a reclusive pie-maker who can bring people back from the dead for one minute, a secret that is quickly discovered by the Private Eye Emerson Cod, and exploited as a way to solve murders - just ask the victim.  It was a beautiful and sleek show that looked like a film and sounded like a fairy tale.

Emerson is a no-nonsense tells-em-like-it-is money-grabbing knitting PI, so you can already tell that he's completely awesome.  He's the funniest character in the show.  There’s emotion buried deep under his hard, mercenary exterior, and when we catch glimpses of it, it’s touching, but that doesn’t stop Emerson putting everyone in their place with how little he cares about, among other things, the love triangle going on at The Pie Hole.

Sadly the writers' strike killed the show.  Only nine episodes of series two where written, which meant that half a dozen plots had to be dumped and went nowhere, while episode nine had to be re-written into a finale, which basically means that all the plots just suddenly stopped and instantly resolved for no reason.  In fact, the ending was so bad that it undermined the story so much that it ruined it all retrospectively.

So while it's possible to at least enjoy series one, knowing that it all goes nowhere kind of means I'm not sure I can ever watch and enjoy Pushing Daisies again.

8. Dangerous Davies (Peter Davison) from The Last Detective.

The Last Detective ran from 2003 to 2007, clocking up 17 episodes.  It was based on the Dangerous Davies novels by author Leslie Thomas.  It was such a contrast to other cop shows of its time, and that turned out to be its strength.

Dangerous is a pathetic man, whose career and marriage are in tatters and he earns no respect.  Intensely frustrated but too nice to help himself, he soldiers on to little reward, doing his job as well as he can, which as it turns out is pretty well, since he’s smart, determined and a good guy and it also turns out that being nice means witnesses and criminals alike want to open up.  Dangerous has great appeal because he’s very different to most TV detectives.

I started uni in 2003 and spent a lot of time with my TV.  So I got into The Last Detective, which also introduced me to how great Peter Davison is.  I was so charmed by the gentle and hapless lead who really wants to tell everyone who's a jerk to him to get lost but just isn't that kind of guy, that it probably influenced my dissertation and what will one day probably be a novel Working Title: Jeffrey Polo.  So for research I read the first Dangerous Davies novel and was horrified.  The book is sleazy and gross.  They changed the show for the better, particularly by casting Dangerous as about twenty years older than the book protagonist.  There are more books, but I wouldn't go near them with a barge pole.

This is a rare case of the adaptation is much better than the novel!

7. Dr. Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson) and Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle (Charles Edwards) from Murder Rooms.

Murder Rooms ran from 2000 to 2001, clocking up 5 episodes.  It was about the relationship between Conan Doyle and his tutor Joseph Bell, because most people know that Holmes' method was inspired by Bell's method.  So what if it turned out that the stories were actually inspired by real crimes that these two doctors investigated?

Y'know how I said I wouldn't go near a Sherlock Holmes adaptation when I was a teen?  Well this show is what changed that for me.  I was nuts for Conan Doyle at the time, so when The Prune told me there was a show about him, I lapped it up, even though obviously none of it ever happened.  It's filled with all sorts of references to his different works, as well as to his actual life, adding an extra level of enjoyment for the Doyle-buff.

Bell is a more serious character than Holmes, and more human, seemingly wearied by the many tragedies he has seen and with no tolerance for vanity and cruelty.  A dignified gentleman, he has the gentle sympathy of a doctor and an impish side too, but a fierce temper and he will take his cane to a man if he has to.  He also can’t admit when he’s wrong.

Doyle is the philanthropic, valiant and too-often-emotionally-involved hero, the type of knight errant in awe of women the real Doyle enjoyed writing about in his historical romances.  Charles Edwards brings a nervous, sympathetic charm to Doyle that’s enchanting.

While mirroring the Holmes/Watson dynamic, the relationship is quite different as Bell is Doyle’s mentor.  As they investigate, it is clear that Bell derives satisfaction from Doyle’s success and feels the need to protect Doyle from making mistakes, while Doyle constantly strives for Bell’s approval, which he has some trouble with as he a) falls for dangerous women, b) is drawn to spiritualism and c) struggles to cope when his father is committed.  I became a fan of Edwards immediately.

I didn't actually see the pilot episode - I only caught the ending.  There followed a series of four feature-length episodes which get progressively better, even if they are rather po-faced for my tastes now.  Since I was so impressed with Edwards, I have never sought out the pilot because he wasn't even in that.  The real shame of the show is it was a huge success and the final episode clearly sets up more to come, but due to internal BBC politics none were ever made.

6. Angel (David Boreanaz), Doyle (Glenn Quinn) and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) from Angel.

Angel ran from 1999 to 2004, clocking up 110 episodes (though for me the show ends with the 22nd episode, To Shanshu In LA).  It was a spin-off from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, following the vampire-with-a-soul Angel when he leaves Buffy at the end of series three and moves to LA to become a PI.  Here he meets a new character Doyle, and another escapee from Buffy, Cordelia.

Angel is a vampire with a soul, who wants to mope about on his own brooding over having killed lots of people. 

Doyle is a half-human half-demon ne’er-do-well joker trying to hide from his past and cursed with visions of people in trouble.

Cordelia is a one-time shallow high school bitch trying to come to terms with the failed dreams that are her present.

Put these three together and they spark off each other perfectly, with just the right balance of wit and drama.  And so these three form the family unit that is Angel Investigations.

The first series of Angel was brilliantly refreshing.  No more teen-angst from Buffy The Vampire Slayer - the characters had much more grown-up problems and a more grown-up sense of humour too.  There was a cast-change halfway through, when Doyle tragically sacrifices his life, leaving Angel and Cordelia to mourn his death.  After this, Wesley, another character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, turned up and surprisingly it really worked.  So series one is a great success.  Unfortunately in series two, the show obviously missed all that dumb angsty rubbish and went overboard, as well as adding more and more characters, and I bailed.  I'd already sat through more seasons of Buffy that I hated than I liked, and I wasn't about to do the same with Angel, a show I liked much more - so all the stupid cast changes and premise-mucking-about that came later, never happened in my world.

5. Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) from Monk.

Monk ran from 2002 to 2009, clocking up 125 episodes.  It was about an ex-detective crippled by OCD among other things, having had a complete mental breakdown after his wife was murdered.  Getting (a little) better, he wants to become a police officer again, and is called in as a consultant on tough cases.

What we have here is a character who is extremely funny, both to laugh with and at, and painfully sympathetic because the poor guy is in mourning and is, well, nuts.  The mixture of wit and pathos is superb.  Monk is a strangely compelling character; no matter how annoying he may seem at times, we are fully rooting for him.

However, the show itself is quite annoying, because the audience is often shown the solution before the title sequence and then just has to wait for the cops to catch up.  WHY?  Clearly the writers are much more interested in the characters, which is great, but it isn't a very satisfying way to tell a mystery.  It's also a shame that Monk only seems to get called in on horrible murders - he's a genius, he could solve anything, does it always have to be so upsetting?

I've only seen the first two seasons so far because LoveFilm is taking its time finding the season three disc.  I have to admit that it does get frustrating how Monk really doesn't seem to be getting any better at all and his nurse/assistant Sharona doesn't seem to care about helping him.  Really I should have mentioned Captain Stottlemeyer, Monk's ex-boss, because he's always the best character - like the audience he finds Monk very annoying but also really respects the guy.  He tries to be brash, but we know he's a softy really, and he gets to be the only 'sane' person among a bunch of weirdos, which is always the recipe for brilliant comedy.

4. Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) and Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin) from Jonathan Creek.

Jonathan Creek ran from 1997 to... 2014 (unless they're still making the damn thing, which they might), clocking up 31 episodes (although for me the show finished with the 12th episode, Black Canary).  It's about a reclusive magician's assistant who discovers he is quite good at using that knowledge to solve 'impossible' crimes.  The appeal of the show was that it focused on the 'how' rather than the 'why' or 'who' in whodunnits.  In the first three series, the other main character was Maddy Magellan, an investigative journalist.

Magician’s creative consultant Jonathan is smart, sceptical, deadpan and reclusive, happily amusing himself with his intelligence and imagination but awkward around people.  So while his intellect is far greater than investigative reporter Maddy’s, he’s no match for her manipulation and forceful personality, and gets dragged into the world of crime against his rather spineless will. 

Maddy, meanwhile, is greedy, slobby, manipulative, underhand, lazy, cowardly and volatile, so an absolute hoot, though the brief mentions of her tragic childhood are heartbreaking.  She is a truly brilliant character.

The chemistry between the two is a lot of fun too, as the question of whether they are more than just friends gets twisted about with suggestive hints, jealousy and a lot of spectacularly failed dates with a lot of weirdos.

Jonathan Creek really works again and again because the mysteries are so interesting and diverse, while the characters are wonderful.  Maddy is easily in my top five best female TV characters, because she is such a rounded, funny and flawed character, which women hardly ever get to play.  Series one and two (and the Christmas special that came after them) are brilliant.  I haven't seen series three since it first aired because it was pretty lame.  And then Quentin left so now I can never watch the show again.  Why would I watch a show that didn't have Caroline Quentin in it any more?

3. DI Neil Manson (Andrew Lancel) from The Bill.

The Bill ran for eight million years.  Sorry, I meant from 1984 to 2010, clocking up (over) 2,400 episodes (!) and was a staple of British television.  Certainly by this century it had turned into a ridiculous soap full of evil or psychotic cops who caused more deaths than the criminals.  In its final season the show was completely revamped into a proper detective show, and was absolutely brilliant.  DI Manson was introduced in 2003 and went right to the end, racking up a total of 275 episodes.

When I started uni, I wanted to bond with my flatmate The Alias, so I joined her watching her favourite show The Bill.  Its soap-like nature, with dozens of main characters constantly leaving and joining and over-the-top plots didn't really do it for me.  But shortly after I started watching, DI Manson was introduced and I was hooked.

Probably the sulkiest officer of Sun Hill police station, Manson’s not particularly popular with his colleagues because when he first arrives at Sun Hill his aim is promotion and dominating his subordinates by showing he is indefatigably in charge, while his interest as a policeman is in getting results rather than helping victims of crime.  However, compared to most Sun Hill officers, he is fairly incorruptible and upholds the law (which made a nice change).  He also cares deeply about his son, showing he does have a soft side, and despite his tight-lipped exterior, there is an intensity and depth to his character that’s quite beguiling.  Over time Manson comes to trust his colleagues and care more about people than crime rates.  He is strict but in being so, he is fair.  And while emotionally repressed and taciturn, this belies a childlike charm.  If not a particularly nice man, he is undeniably a good man.

I stopped watching the show a few months after I started, around the time that Manson started an affair with an undercover journalist, because the show at this point had a psychopath cop who was using a false identity, sleeping with his mother (actually he lied), raped another cop and eventually went on a sniper rampage.  I mean - whaaaaaaaaat?  And that wasn't even the only evil insane cop in the show at that time!  In the years that followed, I found I still thought fondly of Manson.  He was such an interesting idea for a character - just because someone isn't nice, doesn't mean they're not good, and also I'm a sucker for feeling sorry for characters other people don't like.  Anyway, when they revamped the show, I came back to it and both the show and Manson were brilliant in their final two years, but I couldn't tell you how many episodes that actually was - I'm pretty sure it was about 50, but wikipedia seems to have some funny ideas about what counts as which series.

2. Albert Campion (Peter Davison) from Campion.

Campion ran from 1989 to 1990, clocking up 16 episodes.  It was based on the novels by Margery Allingham about a gentleman private detective in the 30s.

Often acting the buffoon and incredibly facetious, this hides Campion’s intense intelligence, quick wits and emotional depth.  He’s energetic, capricious, heroic, a snob and openly hostile towards his manservant Lugg, determinedly loyal, prone to singing to himself, equally comfortable at an aristocratic banquet or breaking and entering a thug’s lair; this is the guy you want on your side.  Campion is insane and quite brilliant.

When The Last Detective wasn't on air, I found a replacement in Campion, which was also a detective show starring Peter Davison, though the two roles are very different.  Campion is amazing.  This led me on to the novels which are hit-and-miss but there's no denying that Allingham's Albert Campion is one of my favourite fictional characters ever.

1. Constable Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) and Detective Ray Vecchio (David Marciano) from Due South.

I admit it; despite being totally obsessed with Ray Vecchio throughout my teenhood, I am utterly incapable of drawing him.
Due South ran from 1994 to 1999, clocking up 67 episodes (though for me the show finished with the 41st episode, Flashback), and followed the adventures of a Mounty in Chicago, which allowed it to play with the stereotypes of how Americans perceived Canadians and how Canadians perceived Americans.

Fraser is a hilarious character because of his innocence, inability to act like a real human and almost superhuman ability to remain the Canadian cliché, unaffected by the real world around him.  New to the ways of Chicago (and, so it seems, most of Canada), Fraser believes in the goodness of strangers, is impossibly polite and almost physically incapable of either rudeness or breaking the law.  He has superb tracking skills, able to transfer his wilderness knowledge to the streets of Chicago, and will happily jump out of a window rather than use a door.  (Mostly) incapable of interacting with women (who are all attracted to him), he is often embarrassed or panicked by their attentions.  He is obsessively attached to his uniform and possibly slightly insane, often irritated by the presence of his father’s ghost, whom he resents. 

Ray is far more human, which gives him an emotional range far beyond Fraser and makes him the one we can sympathise with.  He’s a competent cop, although not inclined to get involved in a case if it’s his day off.  In contrast to Fraser, he’s cynical, brash, passionate, happy to bend the rules both to solve crimes and to reap some perks of the job (usually unsuccessfully) and he’s not against blackmail.  Unlucky and easily stressed, he’s also intelligent and brave.  And he has an obsessive love for his green 1971 Buick Riviera.

The greatest appeal of the show is the Benny and Ray relationship.  Here is a guy, a streetwise cop was a screwed up past, who suddenly has the world’s most annoying man dropped into his life.  Fraser is completely ignorant of the reality of life and yet somehow does everything perfectly, all women love him yet he’s oblivious, and when he and Ray have to root through a skip, only Ray gets covered in crud.  How could Ray not resent this?  Watching him get increasingly infuriated with Fraser is pure joy. 

And yet, through their joint dedication to justice and the fact that frankly they don’t have any other real friends, these two become best buddies, so close they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and can hold a coherent argument when they're in separate buildings, and are one of the greatest double acts ever to grace fiction.

Two of the greatest episodes come from examining their relationship: Red, White Or Blue, which focuses on Ray’s jealousy of Fraser getting hero-worshiped when he put his life on the line too, and North, which transplants our heroes into Fraser’s element instead of Ray’s and sees Ray have to take care of a blind Fraser when stranded in the wilderness.     

Due South was absolutely HUGE when I was growing up and I adored it.  However, despite being really popular in Canada, Britain and Australia, America kept cancelling it - like every year.  Which led to the greatest tragedy of TV ever (slight exaggeration possibly) being that when it was cancelled after season two, David Marciano decided he didn't want to come back - and they kept making it anyway.  A show that is ENTIRELY based on the relationship between two people, and one of them leaves, and you don't think that's a problem?

Season one is good.  Season two is perfect.  That's 41 REAL episodes.  The other two seasons can go get lost.

That means that THREE shows (four if you count what happened later in Angel) in my top 11 replaced a lead actor and sucked afterwards.  So TV people - stop doing that.

So there you have it.

…I have to go watch TV now.


I look forward to your enthusiastic and loving comment.