Detective shows are never not cool. But if you tried to argue that any country other than the USA had produced the most consistently cool TV detective shows, you’d be on the wrong side of the argument.
There is a lot to be said for Scandi Noir series and Britain has produced some of the best TV detective shows in the world. But for sheer awesomeness and coolness, neither hold a candle to the US series.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the cars, the guns, or is it the shades that the serious hot stars like to wear, whether they are fighting crime on Venice Beach or high in the Rocky Mountains.
Many US detective series are household names these days, even those that ended production years ago.
If you want to explore the very best detective shows that American TV has managed to produce, keep on reading as we pick out our ten of the best.
Perhaps the most famous TV detective of them. Peter Falk starred as Lieutenant Columbo in this classic detective series that ran for 68 episodes across more than 20 years.
Columbo was often referred to as the man in the dirty mac, but for all his sartorial inelegance, he was a first-rate detective. His demeanour came across as bumbling and incompetent, and his constant cigar smoking hardly smacked of professionalism.
But behind the façade was a top-notch detective who was clearly capable as he was often called in to investigate high-profile murders of the rich and famous of LA.
The plot regularly saw Columbo ridiculed by the suspects. But if they thought they would get away with it, they were wrong, as Columbo always found some sort of way to trap them, find the evidence, and secure a confession.
As one critic wrote, “with his cigar, wrinkled coat and battered car, Peter Falk’s detective brings LA’s murderers to book with relentless questioning and brilliant comic timing”.
Columbo won a massive 13 Primetime Emmy Awards and was hugely popular throughout its run. It stands the test of time too and remains one of the most popular detective series in the world.
Often considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time, it can be easy to forget that the seminal show, Twin Peaks, is at its heart a detective series.
The plot revolves around FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who is called to the small Washington State town of Twin Peaks to investigate the demise of a young girl whose body has washed up on the beach.
On the face of it, Twin Peaks is a boring, normal small-town American community. But as Cooper digs deeper, he learns that nothing there is quite as it seems, and one mysterious web of intrigue quickly links to another.
Everyone here has something to hide, and Cooper has to unpick the whole web if he is going to solve the murder.
Twin Peaks only ran for two series, but it was the masterpiece of cult director David Lynch, who went on to make such cinematic classics as Blue Velvet.
MacLachlan is superb in the lead role, and there is a great support cast. But it is the plot, the surrealness, and the direction that makes Twin Peaks one of the very best TV shows ever made.
The unique concept of Dexter is the lead character, the handsome, charming and charismatic Dexter Morgan. He is a forensics expert in Miami who spends his days solving crimes.
The twist is that by night, he is a serial killer himself, who uses his knowledge and skills to get away with his crimes.
He’s not just a random killer, however. Dexter has a self-imposed code which was created by his stepfather. Dexter sticks to it and only kills people guilty of crimes themselves and who would otherwise escape justice.
It should be a dark and unsympathetic plot but the wonderful character of Dexter, bought to life superbly by Michael C Hall, makes the show one which puts viewers through the full gamut of emotions.
It ran for seven years and 96 episodes and has recently been revived for a new mini-series too. Many criticised the original series ending, but the demand for more Dexter is still clearly there, and its unique premise made this a very special show and a real fan favourite.
This quirky and unusual detective show earned something of a cult following in the mid-noughties and ran for eight series. It still holds up to this day and bears rewatching.
It follows the story of Adrian Monk, played by Tony Shalhoub, who is a former San Francisco detective who now works for the police as a private consultant.
After his wife, Trudy, is murdered, the case goes unsolved, and he develops obsessive compulsive disorder, with a fear of germs and contamination.
His former boss and former assistant know all too well how good Monk is though and turn to him to help them solve some of their most challenging cases, while managing his condition along the way.
His skill at piecing together evidence and spotting clues that no one else would is second-to-none, and while some on the force question his role, no-one can challenge his results. He is, as one wise observer noted, “the decades silliest and saddest Sherlock Holmes.”
Monk took home eight Primetime Emmy awards and was popular with critics and audiences alike. It remains every bit as good today as it was 20 years ago.
The Rockford Files
Jim Rockford, who was played by silver screen legend James Garner, is the big star in this classic 1970s detective drama.
He is the offbeat ex-con turned private investigator at the heart of the show alongside his amazing Pontiac Firebird. His style is more criminal than cop, preferring to take on the crooks face-to-face rather than through incisive detective work.
But when it comes to cold cases, he is a dab-hand and uses his instinct and criminal knowledge to chase down long-dead clues and identify perpetrators where it looks impossible.
The Rockford Files takes viewers into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles and has it all. Fist fights, car chases, and an outsider anti-hero living it up in a rundown beach house in Malibu.
If you think of all the old cliches that come with 1970s detective shows, the Rockford Files originated almost all of them. But don’t let that take away from what is one hell of a fun show.
If this doesn’t convince you, it’s worth noting that the creator, David Chase, later went on to create a little show called The Sopranos.
The archetypal US Cop show, which followed the gritty, often frightening lives of a New York City Police Department who go about enforcing the law and often breaking their own rules along the way.
The series revolved around two partners, Detectives Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and John Kelly (David Caruso) for the majority of its run, with Detective Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) joining in later episodes.
Their very different characters, which both complemented and grated with each other, were the basis on which this show was built.
But besides the loveable yet challenging characters, the show also showed the grim reality of policing in New York City at a time when crime was epidemic everywhere.
That reality shocked viewers and drew them in in equal measure, and the honesty of the show played a big role in its enormous success.
There were guest stars a-plenty, lots of action, and 20 Primetime Emmy Awards. Policing has evolved since the days of NYPD: Blue. But while the methods have changed, the challenges haven’t, and this show definitely stands the test of time.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
You know you have made it in US TV when producers want to do a spin-off series, and CSI has perhaps had more spin-offs than any other show.
You can enjoy CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, CSI: Vegas, CSI: Cyber, CSI: Immortality and the list goes on and on.
We have picked the original series for this list, but you could dip into any one of the spin-offs as they all follow a similar format and all offer terrific standalone detective drama.
In a nutshell, this show follows an elite team of police forensic experts working out of the Las Vegas Police Department.
As the second busiest lab in the country, they are overworked but still use the latest science and technology to help unlock a huge range of crimes.
Vegas attracts all kinds of people, meaning the range of criminals and crimes is as diverse as it gets. Needless to say, there are challenges aplenty before the crime is eventually solved.
The cast of CSI reads a bit like a who’s who of US TV actors. Big names to have taken part in the series include Laurence Fishbourne, Ted Danson, George Eads, and Eric Szmanda, and more guest actors than you can shake a stick at.
Law and Order
If there is one show that can run CSI close when it comes to spin-offs, it is Law and Order.
The original show has been on for more than 30 years and has spawned the likes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Law and Order: Organised Crime, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, to name but a few.
This show is a bit different to regular detective shows as it follows a crime, fictional but usually based on real events, from two different perspectives.
We see the police investigation and the court prosecution of the suspects concurrently and get to watch as lives and the truth is on the line.
The show is based in New York City and includes lead characters from both the NYPD and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. They work together and spritely, frequently clashing, as they deal with the huge complexities of individual investigations and legal cases.
Plenty of big names have gone through the Law and Order cast over the years, with some notable alumni including Sam Waterston, Benjamin Bratt, Caroline McCormick, and Jerry Orbach. There has also been no shortage of big-name guest stars too.
There has been a recent remake of this show which is all well and good. But it is a pale imitation of the original classic series starring Tom Selleck as the moustachioed hunk of the title.
His character, Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, is an ex-Navy Officer now working as a private detective in the idyllic surroundings of Hawaii. He lives on the estate of multi-millionaire author, played by Orson Welles, but whose estate is run by his English butler Higgins, played by John Hillermann.
Higgins doesn’t like Magnum, which is the basis for some fine comedy, which comes alongside much of Sellick’s performance. The character is not very driven and always does just enough to solve the case, but no more than he has to.
Overall, the show achieves that “rare mixture of being just right with both the dramatic, exciting, amusing and suspenseful textures”, as one critic has observed.
The show ran for eight seasons in the 1980s and is a stone-cold classic of the genre, combining action, mystery, and comedy in equal measure and to terrific effect.
Hawaii is a good location for classic detective shows because we have to finish off this list with a show that was so big that it has not only had a long-running remake, but its name has become synonymous with policing across the world.
The Five-0 is a special police unit in Hawaii, answerable only to the Governor. Its job was to support the Honolulu Police Department in tackling the underworld of organised crime on the islands.
It only deals with the biggest and most sensational crimes, ranging from murder, drug dealing, and kidnapping to just about anything else you can think of.
The Five-0 is led by ex-Navy Intelligence investigator Steve McGarrett, played by Jack Lord, who is ably supported by Danno, his number two played by James MacArthur, the pipe-smoking Chinese Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong) and various locals.
Their arch nemesis is Che Fong, a Chinese gangster played by Harry Endo.
The show was surprisingly diverse for its era and a global success despite only winning two Primetime Emmy awards during its 281-episode, twelve-year run.
But it is still undeniably one of the most iconic, popular, and triumphant detective shows to come out of the USA.
Now you’ve had your fill of American detective shows, why not check out the 10 Best British Detective Series?