The 1990s brought neo-noir back to television with Twin Peaks and The X Files. Smart-mouthed and flawed protagonists, often in the form of hardboiled detectives, are at the heart of these shows. TV-noir has since become a staple of modern television-viewing, allowing audiences to get lost in an eerie setting while attempting to solve the various mysteries even before the show’s protagonists are able to. What better way to spend forty-five minutes to an hour than by riding around with a hard-nosed detective, kicking ass and taking names? TV detectives come in many forms, though they tend to share similar background traits. Here are ten great television sleuths worth watching:
Harry Bosh, Bosch
Harry Bosch channels his personal tragedies and bleak upbringing into his work. He then brings that work home with him and winds up alienating everyone in his orbit. Bosch has starred in over 20 novels and now in an excellent Amazon Prime show, and the detective has a penchant for asking the right questions and ruffling feathers in the process. Like any good TV sleuth, Harry lives by a code, putting justice over all the daily bullshit he runs into working for the Force. What makes Bosch an exceptional TV detective is that he channels his mother’s unsolved murder, and his subsequent childhood spent in the foster system, into an ongoing quest to uphold the law.
Bosch’s Best Moment: In the second season when Bosch and his partner, J. Edgar, save Harry’s kidnapped daughter and wife from violent mobsters.
Sarah Linden, The Killing
Sarah Linden is a TV sleuth who seeks out few pleasures in life. Her daily grind is all about ass kicking and chain smoking. Her unrelenting drive and attention to detective-work affects all of her relationships, including that with her young son. When Linden works a case, she can focus on nothing else but the details, until she’s solved it or goes mad trying. Linden isn’t interested in wading the bureaucratic waters of the Department; she’s all about what’s right and wrong – often to her own detriment. Similarly to Bosch, Linden’s got some mommy-issues of her own. But unlike Harry, whose mother was murdered, Sarah’s mom abandoned her in the darkness. Left to fend for herself, Linden became a fighter and eventually a detective, carrying her inner demons with her from case to case.
Linden’s Best Moment: On an unrelentingly bleak show, one of Sarah’s best moments comes when she stumbles across an abandoned farm filled with dead cows. She finds that there is one cow still slowly dying, and takes it upon herself to put the creature out of its mystery.
Kima Greggs, The Wire
In what is widely considered the greatest and most realistic police drama of all time, “The Wire” has a plethora of top-notch sleuths to choose from (as well as some dunderheaded ones). Kima Greggs was not only an efficient detective; she was also a total badass. Like most of the sleuths on this list, Kima had a problem with the dark nature of work seeping into her home life, negatively affecting her romantic relationship. Unlike most of the sleuths on this list, we actually followed Greggs one faithful evening while she went undercover with some dangerous gangsters. Further adding to her lore, Kima’s cover was blown and she was promptly shot by said gangsters. On multiple occasions, Kima demonstrates her detective chops by using informants to uncover information on various criminal actives that she was investigating.
Greggs’ Best Moment: In season 4, after navigating a bureaucratic mess brought on by a mayoral campaign, Kima heads back to an old crime scene and finds the mark of a ricocheted bullet on an alley wall. Using this new evidence, Kima ascertained that the murder case she had been working on was actually an accidental killing by stray bullet.
Molly Solverson, Fargo
Molly Solverson was the lone glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak television show. She starts the show out as the deputy and right-hand man to a sheriff who is quickly killed off. Right from the jump, Molly knows that something is fishy about Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard, but her inept new boss dismisses her suspicions. Molly manages to quickly link the disparate acts of violence popping up around town, even when her fellow law enforcers make the task considerably more difficult. Officer Gus Grimly accidentally shooting her during a blizzard is a noteworthy example.
Solverson’s Best Moment: Molly’s got several great moments, like when she marches into the blizzard white-out with her gun drawn, unafraid of the violence that may ensue. In that scene her persona contrasts sharply with that of Grimly, who proceeds with panic and fear, and ultimately proves he is mismatched as a police officer. After waking up in the hospital with a bullet wound, Solverson approaches the deaf hit man, Mr. Wrench who is also hospitalized. Although this hospital interrogation scene doesn’t lead to any answers, it shows Solverson’s iron-will and hero’s heart.
Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars, a show about a high school student working as a private investigator in her free time, balanced teen drama and detective noir better than most shows that have since attempted such a feat (looking at you Riverdale). Mars is the daughter of the town’s sheriff – until Veronica’s sleuthing gets her father booted from office. “Veronica Mars” was a boundary pusher, not only for building a noir around a female sleuth before it was a mainstream, but also for its aptly dealing with heavy themes such as rape and family and moral values.
Mars’ Best Moment: In the final episode of season two, Veronica finally comes face-to-face with Cassidy, the boy who date-raped her in season one. She brilliantly psychoanalyzes Cassidy, recognizing that his desire to prove his manhood (to his family and himself) is at the core of his impulse to rape her. At gunpoint, Veronica manages to escape and ultimately demonstrates the true meaning of “survivor.” Veronica Mars wasn’t afraid to address these dark concepts in pre-Me Too Movement world.
Stella Gibson, The Fall
Detective Super Intendant Stella Gibson is a total boss. This much becomes clear, early on, when the English sleuth strolls into Northern Ireland and quickly links a recent strangulation-murder to two older killings. Just like that, Stella’s chasing a serial killer. Gibson is not only a top-notch detective; she’s also an icon of female empowerment. Stella is a total player, flipping stereotypes about sexuality on their head and giving no fucks about the masculinity issues that she tramples over.
Gibson’s Best Moment: As the sole protagonist of the series, Gibson’s has many great moments, like when her superior Jim Burns aggressively comes on to her and she breaks his nose. Her very best moment, however, happens as she returns to her parked car one evening, only to find a group of old-time Irish gangsters waiting for her. She’s outnumbered and alone in the dark of night, but manages to intimidate these thugs into backing off. It’s a priceless scene – prime Stella Gibson.
Misty Knight, Luke Cage
On a list full of badass detectives, Misty Knight might take the cake as top ass-kicker. While she definitely loses points for failing to realize that her long-term detective partner was a dirty cop, Misty more than makes up for it with almost supernatural ability to replay crimes in her mind, down to the minute details, simply by studying the crime scenes. Season 2 of Luke Cage greatly improved upon the first season in many ways, but its most important course correction was making Knight a more central figure, and allowing us to follow the story through her point of view more frequently. Misty cements her case as a top tier badass sleuth when she holds her own in a bar fight – using only one arm.
Knight’s Best Moment: It’s top-notch television any time we get to watch Knight recreate a crime in her mind. But her best moment comes late in season 2, when Misty and Luke head into a Brooklyn garage while on the hunt for a violent killer, where a fight breaks out. We get to see Misty’s hand-to-hand combat skills as she flexes her new robot arm.
Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Everybody’s favorite alcoholic PI, Jessica Jones, often winds up kicking ass first and asking questions later. Equipped with super strength and the ability to outdrink an elephant, Jones is battles her own inner demons as much as she fights super-powered villains. Left with PTSD after an incident where she was under the manipulations of a psychic mind controller, Jessica has little time for the bullshit of others. Her Alias Investigations office, broken door and all, is the classic private investigator head quarters. Though this sleuth doesn’t carry a gun or a badge, she makes handy work out of her camera and her attention to detail.
Jones’ Best Moment: Season one of Jessica Jones is filled with great moments, such as when Jones and Luke Cage team up to fight off an angry husband and his goons. Another is when Jessica shoots a mind-controlled Cage in the head with a shotgun. It is hard to beat the super-powered sex scene between Jessica and Luke, or Jones’ ultimate showdown with Kilgrave.
Will Graham, Hannibal
In the TV series, Graham is a lecturer and special investigator for the FBI. Since Graham has a Misty Knight-like ability to recreate murderous crime scenes in his mind, Laurence Fishburn’s Jack Crawford recruits Will to help his team hunt serial killers. Graham’s ability to empathize with these murderers allows him to get in their minds, and because of this, he is constantly taking his work home with him – much like the other sleuths on this list. At the heart of this boundary-pushing television series is a wildly entertaining love-hate relationship between Graham and Hannibal Lecter. Throughout the show, the two have a growing camaraderie that ultimately reveals itself as Hannibal attempting to groom Will as a killer.
Graham’s Best Moment: While Mads Mikkelsen certainly steals the show as the conniving and murderous Hannibal the Cannibal, Will Graham has many great moments as the dark and eerie sleuth of the series. In season one Graham manages to save a girl from her serial killer father, only to find later that the girl was really an accomplice to her dad’s gruesome murders. In season two, while imprisoned in a psychiatric ward after being framed by Hannibal, Graham convinces a psychotic orderly to try and assassinate Lecter. These are both great moments, but neither truly compares to the epic finale of the show, when Hannibal and Graham team up to take down a new serial killer – the Red Dragon. It’s a beautiful scene, with epically choreographed violence that acts as a poetic ending to the uncanny bromance the two characters have fostered.
Mike Ehrmantraut, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul
Arguably the only true antihero on this list, the character of Mike Ehrmantraut has the benefit of two different TV series to fully come into form. In his later years on Breaking Bad, further removed from his days as a cop in Philly, Mike is more of a hit man and fixer than a detective. Masterful when it comes to outthinking his foes, Mike is always calm and collected, as demonstrated by his cool demeanor when the audience first meets him in BB – cleaning up the scene of Jessie’s girlfriend’s overdose-death. Even though Mike plays for the bad guys, his intentions are pure and we know every misdeed is just a means to an end – help his granddaughter Kaylee grow up in a financially stable situation.
Ehrmantraut’s Best Moment: Mike’s got countless badass moments throughout the runs of both shows, not the least of which came during the season three finale of Breaking Bad, when Mike infiltrates a warehouse that is on lockdown but cartel hit men. Mike dispatches each of the assailants with precision and class in a James Bond-like performance. What could be his best sleuthing moment, however, comes in the first episode of season three of Saul, when Mike turns the tables on the men following him with a GPS – it’s neo-noir at its finest.