Best Television Detectives Ever

By Sean Thiessen | Published

The TV detective has been around nearly since television began. Audiences have always had an appetite for mystery and the people who solve them, and innumerable characters and shows have emerged from that desire. Some are better than others, but some are flat-out brilliant. Here is our list of the best TV detectives.

Detective Sergeant John Luther – Luther

idris elba

Idris Elba stars as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, a brilliant and dedicated TV detective who struggles to separate himself from the darkness of the crimes he investigates. His psychological battles make him a man on the edge. Consumed by his work and singular focus, he often resorts to violent methods for achieving his goals.

Luther’s operation in the gray area makes him an intriguing TV detective. His violent tactics and his complex relationship with the serial killer Alice Morgan keep Luther constantly on the edge of good and bad.

The series was well received during its initial run, with many praising it as Elba’s best work since The Wire. Luther remained such a hit that Netflix released the follow-up film Luther: The Fallen Son in 2023.

Detective Jimmy McNulty – The Wire

HBO’s The Wire is regarded by many as the greatest television show ever made. This gritty look at the Baltimore drug scene follows the perspectives of drug dealers and the cops trying to take them down. One of those cops is actor Dominic West’s Detective Jimmy McNulty.

McNulty is a flawed TV detective. His ego and determination make him effective, but at times, they can make him blind to the right choices. To many of his colleagues, that makes him dangerous.

Jimmy McNulty is a character caught in a tangled web of corruption that has built a toxic system of drugs and violence in the city of Baltimore. This TV detective comes up against fundamental problems in American society, and he keeps the fight compelling every step of the way.

Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller – Broadchurch

The British series Broadchurch debuted in 2013 and became an instant cultural phenomenon in England. It stars David Tenant and Olivia Colman as a pair of detectives solving a small-town child murder case that spirals into a deafening media frenzy.

Over the course of three seasons, Broadchurch delivers a powerful arc for Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, played by Colman, as her family life interweaves with her professional duties.

The series was a major career step for Olivia Colman; her turn as this compelling TV detective earned her a BAFTA win and launched her toward her 2019 Oscar win for her role in The Favourite.

Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope – Vera

Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is the surly leader of the Northumberland & City Police. This TV detective shuffles around her fictional, scenic English town solving murders with her colleagues; though she appears to be a mess, her brilliant mind never stops working.

Vera Stanhope is a true expert detective. She sets a high standard for her team of investigators, and she never lets age hold her back from getting the job done.

Vera’s tough attitude and entertaining banter have made her the compelling center of a long-running series that is about to take this TV detective into season 13 of her hit show.

Detective Adrian Monk – Monk

Who says solving crime can’t be fun? Monk follows actor Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk, a TV detective unlike any other. 

A nervous breakdown after the death of his wife left Monk with an array of irrational fears and made him unfit to continue duty as a San Francisco police detective. He does not let 312 phobias stop him; he consults with the police to bring his incredible gifts of observation and connection to crime scenes, but they don’t exactly make things easy on him or anyone else.

What ensues is a gripping and hilarious take on detective work that won several prestigious awards, including eight Emmys, over the course of its eight-season run. This TV detective is unorthodox, but that is just exactly what makes him great.

Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison – Prime Suspect

Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren breaks barriers for female detectives in the British series Prime Suspect. Beginning in 1991, the series follows Detective Jane Tennison as she combats systemic sexism in the London Metropolitan Police Service to rise through the ranks and solve harrowing murders.

Mirren turns in a characteristically compelling performance as Tennison. The character and the show as a whole are often credited as paving the way for other female detectives on television. In particular, Kyra Sedgwick’s role on The Closer is said to have been heavily influenced by Prime Suspect.

Jane Tennison ranks as a great TV detective for the depth of her own character and for the impact she continues to have on detective shows across the world.

Detective Olivia Benson – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

tv detective

Actress Marishka Hargitay has played Detective Olivia Benson in more than 500 episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit over the course of nearly 25 years. In that time, Benson has remained steady as a beacon of integrity, compassion, and determination as she fights for victims of sexual abuse.

Fueled by a tragedy of abuse in her own past, Benson puts in the tough work to bring criminals to justice. In her fight, she never loses sight of the victims, always extending empathy toward those harmed. The contrast of compassion and tough tenacity gives Detective Benson dimension and depth.

She is a great TV detective not only because of her mission and how she achieves it but for how long she has remained a staple of the genre.

Detective Inspector Endeavour Morse – Endeavour

tv detective

A prequel to the long-running British detective series Inspector Morse, Endeavour follows the early career of the young, brilliant, and reckless detective Endeavour Morse. Endeavour is a great TV detective character across multiple incarnations, but in Endeavour, actor Shaun Evans delivers a performance that arcs the character in a compelling and satisfying way.

The series follows Endeavour as he learns the ropes solving crimes in Oxford, England from 1965 to 1972. It is, in many ways, a coming-of-age tale for the young detective as he is mentored by Detective Inspector Fred Thursday.

Endeavour’s superior sees brilliance and integrity in the up-and-comer and takes him under his wing to turn Endeavour into a legendary TV detective.

Detective Rustin Cohle – True Detective (Season 1)

tv detective

Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective is one of the greatest seasons of television ever, largely thanks to powerhouse performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. McConaughey plays Rustin Cohle, perhaps the most troubled TV detective on the list.

This brooding Louisiana State Police detective is great at his job, but his dark outlook and bitter philosophical musings serve to deeply annoy his partner – and everyone else around him.

Rust is a man laden with existential dread, but he channels the darkness into a pursuit of justice that saves lives and stops one of Louisiana’s most prolific serial killers. The epic writing from series creator Nic Pizzolatto, coupled with a career-defining performance from McConaughey, makes Rustin Cohle a truly great TV detective.

Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock

tv detective

After a long list of brilliant detectives, it does not take a genius to deduce the best. Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate literary detective, becomes the greatest TV detective in Sherlock. The BBC series stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as his assistant, Dr. John Watson.

This award-winning series brings Sherlock Holmes out of the Victorian era and into modern-day London. Clever updates, such as Watson’s military service in Afghanistan and Holmes’ celebrity status on the internet, freshen up the lore. 

Despite its modern setting, the series maintains the essence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and the gripping mysteries that have made Sherlock Holmes an enduring household name for over a century.