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Clued In: The Best Television Detectives

Updated on October 15, 2012

Where Have All the Detectives Gone?

Recently, I happened to be watching a marathon of the classic television series Mannix and realized that there are no more great television detectives. It was also mentioned in former television detective, James Garner's autobiography. After his groundbreaking show, The Rockford Files, the television detective as essentially become extinct.

Why is this? Where have all the detectives gone? And why isn't there a pull to get them back on the air? I think it has alot to do with our post 9/11 culture. As we all know, things have changed since 9/11. For better or for worse we live under the constant threat of attack from enemies foreign and domestic. So with this as common knowledge, television has strayed away from using detectives in series since they represent a rebellion against structure.

No don't get me wrong, I think detectives make some of the most dynamic and profound characters across the big and small screen but now our television culture is more about the team dynamic than a single character focus. The shows we follow now are mostly ensemble shows or shows with a main character whose livelihood depends on the supporting characters.

For instance, many of the crime shows that could work in detective format such as The Closer are based within the safety net of a team. Brenda Leigh Johnson has the classic characteristics of a detective. She's disorganized, hates the establishment rules, has her own logic for solving cases and her personal life always affects her work.

Now while this is not typical of all detectives or detective-like characters, there is something to be said for making someone who obviously likes law but not so much order a true independent.

Whether or not the detective show will make a comeback remains a mystery but given Hollywood's history with remakes, redoes and adaptations, it is definitely not out of the question.

However, this hub will celebrate the swagger, bravado, and insight of our favorite mystery solvers outside the precinct walls.

Trenchcoat Swag

In this hub I will consider each of these detectives trenchcoat swag. It means how much does the character(s)/show bear the common characteristics of a real trenchcoat-wearing, old-school gumshoe?

Granted, these shows were made post-1940s film noir trenchcoat era but nonetheless the trenchcoat is to the detective as shades are to rock stars.

Trenchcoat swag essentially is a combination of things: reliability, case closing rate, dedication to the work at hand, minimal distractions, and most important insight to the task at hand. And of course, general theme song awesomeness.


Mannix: The James Bond of Television

Detective: Joe Mannix

Actor: Mike "Touch" Connors

Synopsis: Joe Mannix is a rebel detective who broke free from the big box detective agency he was a part of in the first season and ends up flying solo with a police widow, Peggy Fair, as his personal secretary. Mannix occasionally works with the precinct on some cases, while others he does alone. A known ladykiller, he makes a woman fall for him in the span of less than one episode.

Show Tenure: 1967-1975

Impact: Mannix could probably be the older cousin of one Magnum, P.I. His instincts were unmatched and he knew how to fight without a gun. Considered one of the more violent programs of its time, he set the standard for shows like 24 which took violence to a whole new level in recent years.

Trenchcoat Swag: 4 out of 5 Trenchcoats

Jim Rockford:The Gunless Gumshoe

Detective: James "Jim" Rockford

Actor: James Garner

Synopsis: Jim Rockford is a bumbling detective who happened to be a reformed criminal. Wrongly convicted, he is well aware of the inadequacies of the justice system and is determined to solve the case. His methods are quite unconventional and dangerous, usually rubbing the police department the wrong way. He works alone but often consults his dad for assistance when the going gets too tough.

Show Tenure: 1974-1980

Impact: A reflection of the times, Rockford only used a gun in dire circumstances. This was also at the request of James Garner, who did not believe in promoting violence to viewers. This is a practice that unfortunately did not catch on in future shows but it was innovative nonetheless. The jazzy theme also set the standard for iconic television themes as it was a charting Billboard hit.

Trenchcoat Swag: 5 out of 5 Trenchcoats


Simon and Simon: Brothers at Arms

Detectives: Rick and AJ Parker

Actors: Gerald McRaney and Jameson Parker

Backstory: Book smart AJ and street smart Rick, decidedly go into the PI business together, despite their opposing views and approaches to life and investigating crimes. Their mother tries to help mediate the friction between them but ultimately their opposing methods come together to get the job done. With the help of their friend, Downtown Brown, no case is unsolved with them in charge.

Show Tenure: 1981-1989

Impact: The opposites attract and sometimes revolt troupe has been used quite frequently across television. However, due to the lack of detective shows, it has not moved across the genre. Simon & Simon is considered a great show but does not have the same cultural impact as other shows have managed to achieve.

Trenchcoat Swag: 3 out of 5 Trenchcoats


Magnum PI: Mustachioed and Dangerous

Detective: Thomas Magnum

Actor: Tom Selleck

Backstory: Former Vietnam Veteran, Thomas Magnum retires to Hawaii to set up his own PI business on the property of author Robin Masters. Magnum provides security for the estate in return for free room and board. With the help of his buddies, T.C. and Rick, Magnum solves cases, shoots guns, and chases women across the Aloha state.

Show Tenure: 1980-1988

Impact: Easily one of the most iconic shows of the 80s, this was the first of creator Donald Bellisario's shows to combine military life with the lure of crime television. He went on to create such classics as JAG and NCIS. The show also helped turn actor Tom Selleck into a pop culture icon with his Hawaiian shirts and mustachioed good looks.

Trenchcoat Swag: 5 out of 5 Trenchcoats

Mysteries of the Future

While researching this hub, I saw that NBC wanted to remake The Rockford Files. Thankfully, it fell through but it's only a matter of time before they decidedly try to remake the classic shows of this hub and others for a current audience.

Can it work? I think so. Obviously, there will not be a secretary or a dad involved so much as a PDA or an iPad but people do not always trust the 5-0 for their crime solving needs.

In this era of come and go television, the character who could potentially reinvigorate the genre would have to be somewhat of a rebel but also be adept to the system around him. It has to be someone lovable but flawed, passionate but detached.

While many of these detectives mentioned had a bad history with the police, they also needed them for validation and insider information. So the dynamics of the private sector versus the public marketplace will still be very much important.

I am curious for input and memories of these shows as well as what you think for a possible revival of the detective genre.


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    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Hi George Greene Jr.

      I was personally on the fence with Cannon. He didn't do enough legwork for my taste. But yeah Remington Steele and Macgyver are some good honorable mentions even though Remington was kind of smarmy and irritating. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting!

    • George Greene Jr. profile image

      George Greene Jr. 

      6 years ago from California PA

      You left out Cannon! the fatman of all the detectives! Frank Conrad was so good playing him , CBS had him as the host of their Thanksgiving day parades ensemble.

      I would have also considered Remington Steele who was actually a fictional detective who's real name we never got.

      And then there was Macgyver!! No words needed to describe the swiss Army knife patriot.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 

      6 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      that's true, I suppose

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      That's true but he's too buy the book to have the proper trenchcoat swag!

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 

      6 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      well, technically, Monk is not a cop...

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I agree dahoglund, since Sherlock the rebels of investigation have definitely been detectives.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina


      I was trying to focus on non-cop PIs. I should have specified that though. And Matlock is the man but he's kind of played out on TV. Thanks as always!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      It seems that since Sherlock Holmes detectives have been the rebels of society. They do what the police cannot.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 

      6 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      you're missing Columbo, Adrian Monk and Matlcok (though he was actually a lawyer) Loved Magnum PI though)

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks Brian! I wish detective shows would come back. I'm with you on Simon and Simon as well. I might do another hub on police detectives in the future. This hub has definitely garnered a great response, thanks again.

    • brianlokker profile image

      Brian Lokker 

      6 years ago from Bethesda, Maryland

      Excellent hub about excellent detective shows. I watched and loved all of them (Simon and Simon maybe not as much as the others). The shows were built around the character of the detective as much as the crimes, especially in the case of Rockford. If you expand this theme in another hub to include police detectives who essentially worked alone, Columbo has to top the list, with Kojak a close second. Very enjoyable read ... thanks.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I was thinking about adding McMillan and Hart to Hart but I was thinking more independent detectives than anything. I love Jim Rockford but I think that has alot to do with Jim Garner being awesome as well! Thanks again!

    • Cogerson profile image


      6 years ago from Virginia

      Excellent have my all-time favorite listed in your hub...and thankfully you gave him 5 trenchcoats out of 5 trenchcoats.....I am of course talking about the greatest poorest detective ever...Jim Rockford. Fun to see Simon and Simon I had not thought about them in many moons. And finally Mannix was one that my mom used to watch all the time...speaking of my mom...I sure should would wonder why McMillan and Wife or Hart to Hart are not mentioned....voted up and awesome.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Hi Tammy,

      I miss those shows as well even though I've only seen them in syndication. Maybe they'll make a comeback. Thanks as always!

    • tammyswallow profile image


      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Wow.. This makes me realize.. I am getting OLD! My parents always watched Magnum PI and the Rockford Files. Oh the good ol'e days. This is a cute hub.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina


      I agree all of these series were great in their time. I haven't really been able to think of a non-police or police-affiliated detective that has existed since the end of the 1980s. But I think it could definitely make a comeback. Thanks as always for coming by and commenting.

    • alocsin profile image


      6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      This brings back the memories -- I remember enjoying all these series when they first came out. It's interesting that none of your selections are later than 1989. Voting this Up and Awesome.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Thanks nityandagaurang! Magnum is one of a kind, I just hope they don't remake him! Thanks for your thoughts and comments!

    • nityanandagaurang profile image


      6 years ago

      magnum pi is favorite detective show.Specially i like detective Thomas Magnum in it.Very unique hub alecia murphy.voted up.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I totally forgot about Spenser for hire. Thanks trusouldj! I'll have to remember that for later.

    • trusouldj profile image

      LaZeric Freeman 

      6 years ago from Hammond

      Spenser (for hire) and Hawk. You're really a great PI if you have a friend to pull your fat out of the fryer when things get to rough.

    • Alecia Murphy profile imageAUTHOR

      Alecia Murphy 

      6 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      Sunshine, I didn't include Kojak since he was more of a police type guy but I loved him too. Thanks for commenting and stopping by!

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      No Kojak!?! "Who Loves Ya Baby"!! James Garner and Tom Selleck were good but Telly Savalas was my favorite. Voted UP among others:)


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