Just the Facts: 7 TV Detectives You’d Want Working Your Case

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Cop shows have been around almost as long as television itself and have run the gamut, from procedurals to sitcoms to serialized dramas. They’ve given us some of TV’s most memorable and enduring characters, not to mention some of the medium’s best performances. Yet, upon examination, disproportionately few of the detectives who grace our screens are particularly great at their jobs and often those that are have any number of person issues that get in the way. Between alcoholism, anger issues, corruption, family drama, and neuroses, a reliable TV cop can be hard to find, let alone one who’s great at their job. This isn’t a list of the most interesting cops or the best performances or even the most realistic. This list looks at the detectives we would want working our case if the need arose.

Note: Due to the specific parameters of this list, beat cops and higher ups are excluded, so great examples like Barney Miller, Frank Furillo, Don Cragen, and Anita Van Buren aren’t eligible. Also, to those who claim they’d like Vic Mackey or other similar cops hunting down their bad guy, a reminder- if one of their associates is responsible, you’re on your own.

7. John Munch
Richard Belzer
Homicide: Life on the Street and Law and Order: SVU

Det. Munch has been around. He’s seen just about everything, between his time in Baltimore and New York. One of the staples, and gems, of two of TV’s strongest police procedurals, Munch has been chewed up and spit out by life and through it all kept his wry sense of humor. Besides, if nothing else, you could talk conspiracy theories and ask him about that time he met the Bluths (or Mulder and Scully. or Luther. or Jimmy Kimmel).

6. Charlie Crews
Damien Lewis
Life

Talk about going through fire and coming out the other side. Det. Crews may run his own off-books investigation into the conspirators responsible for his 12 years of wrongful imprisonment, but on the job, he remains by the book, if unorthodox. His experiences give him a unique perspective that helps in his work and allows him to make connections others don’t. If there’s any one trait he has it’s patience, but more than anything, his time in prison gave him a window into the criminal mind and an appreciation for life outside, and just what people will do to keep it.

5. Columbo

Peter Falk
Columbo

“Just one more thing…” With a decades-spanning run, Lieut. Columbo is one of the most popular detectives in TV history. It’s understandable, too- he always gets his man and his particular method relies on the hubris of others, letting the guilty hang themselves through the smallest word or action. He’s dogged and intelligent, friendly, and happy to play the fool if it will catch a perp. He also, it should be noted, collects hard evidence, not relying on circumstantial evidence or coerced confessions that may not hold up in court. When Columbo makes his arrest, he does so knowing that the perp is guilty and will be convicted.

4. Joe Friday
Jack Webb
Dragnet

One of the originals is still one of the best. This straight-as-an-arrow sergeant investigates his cases with the same determination regardless of the charge. He’s smart, dedicated, and has strong instincts. The famous catch phrase attributed to him, “Just the facts”, is not actually said by Friday- he often patiently listens to rambling witnesses, picking up clues from their statements that might be otherwise overlooked. His actual line is, “My name is Friday—I’m a cop”. A damn fine one at that.

3. Kima Greggs
Sonja Sohn
The Wire

The Wire is filled with detectives who are smart and persistent. However, very, very few walk away from the series with their hands clean. Cool Lester Smooth (Det. Freamon) may be slightly better at his job, but his season 5 trip to the dark side keeps him off this list. Det. Greggs, on the other hand, acquits herself well, building case after case against the criminals of Baltimore using her intellect, instincts, hard work, and drive. She does what she has to when presented with police corruption and false evidence and while she may not be a paragon in her personal life, she doesn’t let that affect her work on the job.

2. Lennie Briscoe
Jerry Orbach
Law and Order

Det. Lennie Briscoe is perhaps the quintessential TV detective. He has a two failed marriages, a rocky relationship with his children, and he’s a veteran and recovering alcoholic. He’s also smart, resourceful, unrelenting in his pursuit, and, despite claims made by perps and attempts made by former colleagues, he refuses to become a dirty cop. Though he falls briefly off the wagon early in his Law and Order run, he climbs back on and stays sober for the rest of the series. Briscoe is often cited as one of the more realistic TV detectives, particularly on network TV, a fact that inspires confidence. (He was also the pick of the police officer consulted for this list.) He does his job, does it well, and does it for years, compartmentalizing in such a way that, unlike some other alums from the Law and Order family, he can put away his notepad at the end of a case, go home, and come back in the next day refreshed.

1. Claudette Wyms
CCH Pounder
The Shield

Like The Wire, The Shield is full of detectives who do their jobs, and usually do them well, but also have no interest in following the law themselves and the few detectives who are not corrupt are usually happy to look the other way. Not so with Claudette. She is has a strong moral code and is an absolute believer in her role as an officer of the law. She is able to work with the dirty cops around her when the need arises, but she always spares an eye to keep her case legit. She’s dedicated, smart, and just as strong in the interrogation room as on the scene. Despite her skirted suits, her inner resolve and toughness shine through, making her a cop you don’t want to cross. She is able to use her femininity, maternal instincts, or piercing stare just as effectively, depending on the situation, and perhaps the single trait distinguishing her and earning her the top spot on this list is her unwillingness to cut corners in the pursuit of “justice”, be it real or imagined.

Who are your favorite TV cops? Who would you want working your case? Post your thoughts below in the comments!

Kate Kulzick

Follow me on Twitter @theteleverse to see what I’m watching and stay up to date with everything at SoS TV.

6 Comments
  1. Kate Kulzick says

    Matt- Beckett is definitely a lot of fun.

    Dan- Are you familiar with the Westphall Multiverse theory? Check it out. Munch is singlehandedly responsible for us and our Universe actually being a figment of Tommy’s imagination.

    Bill- As ever, great suggestions. Haven’t caught up with Baretta or Burke’s Law yet, and I’m particularly curious about Naked City.

    Vlad- Have you been peeking at my Top PIs list? ‘Cause Jessica Fletcher’s definitely in contention. That one’s a ways down the road though.

    Anonymous- If there were ever a one-sentence way to make me dying to check out more Kojak (watched a couple episodes to prep for this list, but they weren’t particularly great ones), that would be the sentence. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous says

    CCH Pounder is like a black female version of Telly Savalas in Kojak!

  3. Vlad N says

    I think if there is a mystery to be solved and you can only have one detective on the job I would choose Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote). I know she is not a cop, but has she ever, I mean ever, failed to find out the truth? No. Plus, she just seems like she would not only solve your case but make you cookies.

    Though among cops I think Claudette is perhaps the best on TV. She and her partner are the only honest people on the Shield and some how they make it through.

    Oh! I have just thought of the most bad-ass cop. Major Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) she is not only intelligent and dedicated but she can take down a tank if she has to.

  4. Bill Mesce says

    Kate, as usual, a fun, fun list. I’m thinking Robert Blake’s dogged BARETTA, humanist cop Adam Flint (Paul Burke) from that great ode to New York, NAKED CITY (“There are over eight million stories in the naked city…”), and simply for style, Gene Barry’s millionaire cop Amos Burke from BURKE’S LAW.

  5. Dan Heaton says

    Kate, this is a great list. I was thrilled to see Munch on there. I remember at one point he kept making guest appearances on a bunch of shows, including the X-Files. Kima’s a nice choice too, and I love Claudette on the Shield. One of my favorite characters of recent years.

  6. Matt Marquissee says

    Good list. I really like Det. Beckett on “Castle”. She is dedicated and smart.

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