From Sherlock Holmes to the Scooby-Doo gang, detectives are a mainstay in popular culture. We love their silly little hats and the way that saying a random word makes the whole mystery unravel. We love their dark musings and their gallows humor. And we’ve quickly found that stories about dicks lend themselves well to the TV format. Each week a new mysterious case appears and the stakes rise over the season as our heroes narrow in on the season's Big Bad.
Now add a science fiction, fantasy, or horror element to a detective show and you've got something really special. From The Six Million Dollar Man to Grimm, from Haven to Jessica Jones, genre has long been infusing our supernatural stories with sleuthing, so we decided to pull together this list of the 10 best genre detective shows.
All of these series explore either corruption within the police system or government or bypass it all together as private detectives, so we’re not exploring your grandma’s police procedural. Here are some detective shows — WITH A GENRE TWIST! — for you to enjoy.
Do you remember Heroes? Premiering in 2006, it capitalized on the rising popularity of comic books to create a TV show that asked: What if comic book heroes were real? While lots of books, film, and TV have attempted to answer that question, Season 1 of Heroes did an excellent job of pairing realism with high-tempo superhero mayhem. (After Season 1, the series goes a bit off the rails, but I still enjoyed it.) As seemingly normal people realize they have super-abilities after an eclipse, they are set on a collision course toward one another. While the Company tries to control or kill any people with powers, super-serial killer Sylar hunts down other powered people to steal their powers and recently super-fied L.A. cop Matt Parkman tries to stop him. Hijinks, cool powers, and a whole bunch of MUHDAH makes Heroes a gripping series.
The first season of The Expanse really is a detective story, just as is the first novel in the series by the writing team working as James S.A. Corey. After Season 1, that becomes less true, but for the first season, you could hang your fedora on the promise of investigative good times. Humanity has colonized the solar system and with our newfound resources, we've pretty much just replicated systemic classism that dictated life on old-Earth. Against this backdrop, we follow Josephus Miller as he searches for a missing person off the books, and the powers that be don’t want him meddling in the business of the upper classes. What better premise for a sleuth than snooping against not just the usual suspects, but also the system of power that dictates your very existence?
Batman: The Animated Series
If Batman had a superpower, it would be his detective skillz. Like the utility belt at his waist, it seems that Batman’s ability to sleuth, investigate and foil villains knows no limit. Perhaps no TV show captures his investigatory capacity better than Batman: The Animated Series, which ran from 1992 to 1995. Viewers really get to see him strut his detective stuff in this series. He's the master of disguise and deception, soaring across the roofs of Gotham after the Joker one night, only to infiltrate a baddie poker game the next. He's also a dogged tracker, finding his prey no matter where they hide or who they team up with. Throughout the series, which is later repackaged as The Adventures of Batman and Robin, we see Batman take down villain after villain from his rogues' gallery.
Maybe the most significant contribution Batman: TAS has made, though, is creating Harley Quinn and introducing her to her love Poison Ivy. Bonus points for that meet-cute.
When Stranger Things dropped its '80s soul and four D&D-loving cutie pies into our Netflix accounts in 2016, we collectively lost our sh**. Capitalizing on our desires for nostalgic horror goodness, Stranger Things gave us Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the Upside Down, a frazzled Winona Ryder as mom Joyce Byers, and one sexy dadbod-having police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour). While the series is by and large a science fiction romp through terror, the way both the kids and Hopper (with a freaked-out Byers alongside) investigate and discover what foulness is afoot is what makes it a detective show. Come for the alternate dimension creep factor, stay for mouthy little kids saving the day. Oh, and Eleven's awe-inspiring powers.
What list about supernatural stuff, mystery, and great detectives would be complete without Fox Mulder and Dana Scully? The real dynamic duo made The X-Files the hit TV show it was from 1993 to 2002 and again in 2016 through 2018. There's no easy way to sum up 11 seasons, 218 episodes, and two movies, so let's just say: What if every tabloid story about aliens and devils and things that go bump in the night was true? And what if one lone desk jockey believed? And what if he was paired up with a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails scientific mind who only trusts what she can prove? Who wouldn't greenlight that ish? We're talking spooky, delightful, Twilight Zone-ish good times led by two sexy AF fringe FBI agents. Oh, yeah, you're gonna ship it and yeah, you'll be in good company.
If you've been sitting alone in your bed at night wondering if Doctor Who has an even queerer cousin, I have great news for you. Torchwood, an anagram of Doctor Who, is a spin-off about the immortal Captain Jack Harkness and his team of alien hunters. These genius investigators and trackers run the rogue Torchwood Institute, which used to be a legit thing back in the Victorian era, but has since gone defunct. They work outside of the government, police, and the U.N. which makes for hijinks that could never, ever happen inside a bureaucracy. It also makes for some strange abuses of power at various points as the ol' Cap Hark-o (as I believe he likes to be called) doesn't really have a lot of patience.
Listen, it's far from a perfect series, but it gets some leeway for making just about everyone pansexual.
The Arrowverse is full of mystery-infused hijinks. Upon returning to Star City, Oliver Queen (RIP) essentially starts investigating everyone. Kara Danvers is an investigative reporter and her sister runs an agency that frequently captures aliens. Jefferson Pierce works with Gambi and his daughters to track down super-powered baddies and governmental organizations messing with Freeland's water supply. Kate Kane’s superpowers don’t exist, but if they did they'd be super-sleuthing and super-seduction. (I call it like I see it.) But really, the most detective-y Arrowverse series (at the moment) is The Flash. Following Barry Allen as he explores and increases his powers, the series is about Allen's life as a crime scene investigator and his — decreasingly — secret identity. Allen has remarkable skills that make him a great investigator, though working with Detective Joe West and reporter Iris West is what really helps him close cases and stop metahumans from hurting Central City.
If you were the almost all-powerful child of the creators of the universe who was cast into hell to mete out punishment to those who deserve it, would you stay there? Lucifer certainly didn't. While on vacation from hell and running the coolest nightclub in L.A., the devil himself ends up working with local detective Chloe Decker as a consultant, bringing a certain je ne sais quoi to the detective's investigations. I mean, yeah, some of that factor is having superpowers, like being unable to be killed or making people confess their deepest desires just by asking. However, the series is as much how the humans in Lucifer's life make him grow and face his issues as it is about how they solve murders. Together, Lucifer and Detective Decker investigate crooked cops, a whole lot of murderers, and what heaven and hell actually mean for humanity.
I was late to the Lucifer party, only having recently binged TF out of the four available seasons on Netflix. (Season 5, the final season, will appear sometime in 2020.) But once you start settling into the series, you can understand why fans fought for it so hard.
Continuum is a masterpiece of a show (well, for the first three seasons) that manages to grapple with the Occupy movement, corporate greed, how police function as an arm of capitalism, and terrorism, all while telling a fun detective story. While Kiera Cameron is overseeing the execution of anti-corporate terrorists, she is transported back in time to 2012 where she must learn to survive and hunt down the people who will plague her city in 2077. Her job and her city aren't the only things she’s left behind, though, as she has to wonder how life proceeds for her husband and young son while she's trying to clean up the past. High-tech gadgets, philosophical quandaries, and Carlos, a damn fine sidekick (both in terms of skill and beauty, let me tell you) all help Cameron navigate this strange old world.
The sole glorious season of HBO’s Watchmen is one of the greatest detective TV shows to have ever been made — and it's certainly the top genre detective show (not that we're ranking them). The series centers on Angela Abar as she dons the mask of Sister Night. In this world, cops wear masks to protect their identities, seemingly because a white supremacist group has made attempts on every cop in Tulsa's life, including Angela's. As the season unfolds, though, viewers learn that nothing — NOTHING — works quite the way you think it does. Watchmen tackles anti-Black racism, police corruption, human hubris, and the power of love.
If there's a better adaptation that builds on, critiques, and grapples with the source material, I haven't seen it.