The whodunit. The amateur sleuth. The hardened veteran detective. They’re all mainstays in the world of detective shows, and they make up some of the best shows ever made. These classic detective shows enthralled audiences and served as the inspiration for shows like True Detective and Luther. It’s impossible to pick favorites, so we’re listing the best in order of air date.
The Hawaii Five-O is a special task force whose sole responsibility is to free their beloved island from organized crime. Heading up the team is Detective Steve McGarrett, a workaholic and a former naval office. McGarrett and his team spar with crime families, ordinary criminals, and international secret agents. No matter who the team faces off against or how brutal the fight gets, Hawaii Five-O always won in the end. Book ‘em, Danno.
Theo Kojak is a hard-hitting, no-nonsense kind of guy. He’s a bald, lollipop-sucking New York detective, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring the bad guys to justice. The crime-solving detective work is the focus of the show, but there are occasional detours into the private lives of Kojak and his colleagues. Both hilarious and dramatic, Kojak is the action-packed story of one dapper detective from New York City’s Eleventh Precinct. You’re gonna love Kojak, baby.
Even for its time, Barney Miller was a bit different from a typical detective show. A sitcom, Barney Miller is the story of the daily exploits in the detectives’ squad room of a New York City police station. The show is almost entirely set in the station, rather than venturing out into the streets for cop action. Captain Miller’s team is always dragging suspects into the station, delving into the stories of a few different perps in each episode. Barney Miller tries his best to keep his team in check and keep the station operating efficiently, but the escapades of the his employees and their suspects don’t exactly make it easy.
Starsky and Hutch
David Starsky is a dark-haired veteran from Brooklyn with all the street smarts in the world. Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson is a blonde divorcee from Minnesota with a lot of brains. Together, they’re the perfect team. Starsky and Hutch cruise around Southern California in a Ford Gran Torino keeping crime at bay. The two detectives rely heavily on their confidential informant Huggy Bear, a flashy bar owner who’s always in the know. The pair also spends a good deal of time sparring with their no-nonsense boss, Captain Harold Dobey. Starsky and Hutch has everything you could want in a classic detective show: the perfect partners, entertaining criminals, and killer car scenes.
Charlie’s Angels is such a cultural phenomenon that we would be remiss to leave it off this list. It tells the story of three female private detectives working at the Charles Townsend Agency in Los Angeles. The three women have just graduated from the police academy, but find that they are only being assigned to simple jobs. When they’re offered the opportunity to work as private investigators instead, they jump at the chance. Nicknamed the Angels by their boss, Charlie Townsend, the three women take on tough cases and go undercover–somehow always finding a reason to wear something sexy along the way.
Cagney & Lacey
Chris Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey don’t have a lot in common, but they’re great partners. While both are brilliant detectives, Lacey is a devoted mother, and Cagney is a single workaholic. The talented women have their work cut out for them. Between catching criminals and combatting sexism, there’s never a dull moment for Cagney and Lacey.
Miami Vice is certainly a great crime drama, but it has even more than thrilling cases to offer. It draws inspiration from the culture and style of New Wave, focusing on flashy clothes and rock music to create a distinct style. Miami Vice also seriously addresses the societal problems of the 1980s: the negative effects of the cocaine boom, firearms trafficking, anti-communism sentiments, homophobia, and the AIDS crisis. The protagonists, Detective Sonny Crockett and Detective Ricardo Tubbs, fight crime that is loosely based on actual crimes in Miami, making the show extremely realistic and always memorable.
Detective Inspector Endeavour Morse is the quintessential British detective. A brilliant but grumpy man, he spends what leisure time he can enjoying vintage cars, elegant operas, crossword puzzles, classic poetry, and a good beer. His “sidekick,” Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis is always around to help him solve the crimes plaguing Oxford. Together, they’re unstoppable.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
Although Poirot continued producing new episodes until 2013, it’s impossible not to mention when talking classic detective shows. All 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot are adapted from a novel or short story featuring detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot is always the lead detective on a case, often involving a murder. The series, like the books, is set in the 1930s, just before the start of World War II. Both fans of Agatha Christie and detective shows will be blown away with this show as her words come to life.
Simon & Simon
Rick Simon has street smarts. A.J. Simon has book smarts. Together, the Simon brothers run a successful detective agency in San Diego. They have nothing in common. Rick, a veteran who tends to wear cowboy boots and denim, is content living on a boat and prefers to bend the rules. A.J., a college graduate with a passion for classic cars and fancy suits, owns the property where Rick parks his boat and can’t bear to see even the loosest guideline ignored. While the brothers constantly clash, their different approaches to crime solving help them crack every case that comes their way.
NYPD Blue features an ensemble cast that varies from season to season, giving it the feel of a real, evolving precinct. The show delves into the professional and personal lives of the detectives working in New York City’s fictional 15th Precinct. There’s no hesitation to show the nitty gritty details of life as a New York detective, from the toils of the job to the sometimes unsavory methods of coping needed by a few of the detectives.
Promotional still from "Starsky & Hutch" via Spelling-Goldberg Productions