Let me start here: I expect you to disagree with me. I expect you to argue.
I also expect that there are those out there who are rolling their eyes, thinking that I should be talking about books, not television. But the thing is, when television is done well, I love it, and television has done mystery, crime, suspense, and spy thrillers well, especially well in the last ten years.
Below are my top ten -- some are barely known, and some are incredibly well known. As a crime and suspense novelist, this list is important to me, and these shows have taught me what I love about good story-telling.
I’m leaving out strict police procedurals. Why? I don’t like them as much. Law and Order was certainly interesting, but not as fun for me as some of these others.
10. The Shield -- I start off with a show that seems very much like a police procedural. Our main character is a police officer after all. But this is really a tragedy abobout the slow loss of humanity of a character played ingeniously by Michael Chiklis. There has never in the history of literature been a better dirty cop. He was brilliant and evil, and by the end of every episode, you found yourself buying into his flawed but attractive logic.
9. Sherlock -- There have been a number of good and great remakes of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but this one has to be my favorite. By the way, I could never stand Basil Rathbone (there’s something to argue with me about). There’s something about the way this BBC show captures the essence of the character, his strangeness from Watson’s point of view and the way that he brings the world to life. I am completely addicted to it.
8. Homicide: Life on the Street -- Another long dead show, but it was brilliant. Again, it feels like a police procedural until we realize that it’s not the procedure that’s being followed, but genius of Andre Braugher’s Pembleton and the humanity of Kyle Secor’s Bayliss. There are other characters of course, but these two fit into the mold of the two kinds of competing traditional detectives, the hyper-genius and the knight.
7. Monk -- While this show was ostensibly about a detective, it was truly about man’s capacity for compassion. Our lead character has to look beyond his own hang-ups and difficulties to empathize. In many ways, ridiculous as he was, he represented us. He showed us how to see beyond our own needs and do the things we need to do to change the world for the better.
6. Psych -- The USA channel is going to be featured a lot on my list, and Psych is one of their best. It is fast paced and hilarious. It’s part comedy and part mystery. I think there is a very particular group of people that it appeals to -- gen-xers mostly -- because it is filled with reference that only we would get. I watched it with a twenty year old and had to explain to him that the camera angles were all meant to be funny in one of my favorite episodes. But he hadn’t seen any of the 1980s movies that those angle were referencing.
5. Covert Affairs -- This has great action scenes and is beautifully shot. It is less story heavy and focuses much more on plot than the others on this list, but it makes really great use of Piper Perabo, who is a brilliant actor. She’s a spy who’s probably a bit unrealistically naive, but Perabo plays her so well that we get caught up in her life. She’s a stand in for us who are just as shocked as she is by all that she’s going through.
4. Lovejoy Mysteries -- This BBC show from the 1980s stars Ian McShane of Deadwood fame. It has built up a kind of cult following. Our lead character, Lovejoy, is a scoundrel and antiques dealer who has his own kind of code. He’s willing to cheat -- a little. Those people who go over the line have to be dealt with.
3. White Collar -- This show has built and become stronger. If you start from the very beginning, you’ll like it a lot, but as you go on, you will love it. It follows Neal Caffrey, an art forger and con-man, who has been let out of prison conditionally, as long as he helps Peter Burke, an FBI agent working in the White Collar division. Peter Burke is currently my favorite character on television. Although the show began using Peter as a kind of slightly clumsy buffoon to Neal’s genius, Peter has grown into the true genius of the show who follows a rock-solid code. He is truly a knight for the 21st century.
2. Nero Wolfe Mysteries -- These are absolutely brilliantly done by Timothy Hutton. As far as I am concerned, Hutton can do no wrong. Anyone who loved Rex Stout’s absolutely brilliant novels will fall in love with these. Hutton is apparently obsessed with making sure that he stays true to Stout’s original vision down to the set design and of course to the acting. If you have never seen these, you must rent them right now. Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe are the best detectives in literature. I don’t care what anyone else says, and Hutton did them brilliantly. Why would I put this in the number two slot then? Nostalgia. Gen X nostalgia.
1. Magnum P.I. -- No gen-xer can think about Magnum without getting sentimental and weepy. We love him. But it’s not mere sentimentality. The stories were brilliantly developed. The characters were drawn out well. Who didn’t openly weep when Magnum lost his Michelle again and again? Who didn’t gasp when Magnum committed murder in his most important episode? Who didn’t love and hate Higgins at the same time? It was the one show my parents allowed me to break my bedtime for. As far as I am concerned, it was the best thing ever on television. Without Magnum, I wouldn’t be writing crime fiction today.
So, do you disagree? Which part? This is very heavy influenced by my testosterone and age. Should I put Jessica Fletcher in there?
John Brantingham is the author of books such as