Back in April, in what is now considered the early days of the pandemic, I revealed my top 10 private investigator movies. It’s hard to believe, but since we are still in the midst of COVID-19 (and I still have some time on my hands), I have decided to reveal my top 10 private investigator TV shows. 

While there are mostly well-known classics on the list, there may be a couple of hidden gems that are new to the masses. 

Let’s dive right in. Here is my list:

10Remington Steele (1982 – 1987)

Stephanie Zimbalist and a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan starred in this show about  female private investigator Laura Holt, who is forced to create a fictitious male superior named Remington Steele after clients are reluctant to hire a woman. Brosnan plays a nameless thief and con-man who assumes the role of Steele, and uses his skills to help Holt solve cases. The two prove to be a romantically charged duo who often battle over who is really running things. 

Fun Fact: In 1986, Brosnan was chosen to replace Roger Moore as James Bond for the 1987 film The Living Daylights, just as Remington Steele was being cancelled. The news boosted ratings for Remington Steele, which was subsequently renewed. Brosnan’s contract obligation kept him from appearing as Bond until 1995’s Goldeneye.

9Spenser: For Hire (1985 – 1988)

Robert Urich starred in this show as Spenser (no first name!), a Vietnam vet and former police officer turned Boston private detective, who was first made famous in a series of novels written by Robert B. Parker. Spenser is more sophisticated than he appears, often quoting poetry and cooking elegant meals. He is often aided in his cases by a local enforcer named Hawk, played by Avery Brooks.

8Veronica Mars (2004 – 2006; 2019)

This fan favorite show starred Kristen Bell as the title character, a high school student and part-time private investigator. Veronica often works cases alongside her father, a disgraced Sheriff turned private investigator; while also taking on cases for fellow high school students. This fresh take on the genre leans heavily on the likeability of Bell, who is trying to solve cases, while also doing her best to navigate the complicated politics of high school.

7Monk (2002 – 2009)

Tony Shaloub starred in this show as Adrian Monk, a former police detective turned recluse after a nervous breakdown stemming from the murder of his wife. Monk works as a private detective often assisting the police with murder cases, all the while trying to solve his wife’s murder. Shaloub shines as Monk, whose high level of obsessive-compulsive disorder leads to quite a few laughs, while often aiding him in his investigations.

6Sherlock (2010 – 2019)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a modernized iteration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes. As always, he is aided by friend and war veteran Dr. John Watson, played here by Martin Freeman. Cumberbatch brings his quirky and brooding intensity to the role of Holmes, whose observational skills are second to none. There is a running subplot throughout the show of Holmes’ attempts to capture master criminal and nemesis James Moriarty, played by Andrew Scott.

5Psych (2006 – 2014)

This unique take on the genre stars James Roday in the role of Shawn Spencer, the son of a retired police detective, who uses his incredible skills of perception to pass himself off as a “psychic detective.” Dule Hill co-stars as his long suffering best friend and reluctant partner, Burton “Gus” Guster. The pair are often hired as consultants to assist the Santa Barbara police department, whose detectives are skeptical of Shawn’s psychic powers. The pop culture references and quick-witted humor that go along with each case are enough to always keep you on your toes and laughing.

4Moonlighting (1985 – 1989)

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd star in this classic show about former supermodel Madison “Maddie” Hayes, played by Shepherd, who is forced to go into the detective business with devil-tongued manchild David Addision, played by Willis. The on screen chemistry between Shepherd and Willis made for some great witty banter, and wrote the book on “will they or won’t they?” tension.

3The Rockford Files (1974 – 1980)

This show starred James Garner as pardoned (not paroled!) ex-convict turned private investigator Jim Rockford. Upon his release from San Quentin prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Rockford mainly worked cold cases to avoid further ruffling police feathers. Rockford was not a typical TV private detective, as evidenced by his shabby wardrobe and residence in a beachside mobile home. The show was carried by Garner’s undeniable blue collar charm.

2Murder, She Wrote (1984 – 1996)

Angela Lansbury starred in this long running show as Jessica Fletcher, famed mystery novelist and resident sleuth of Cabot Cove, Maine. Fletcher often rubs law enforcement the wrong way with her involvement in cases, most of which are connected to an acquaintance of Fletcher. The amount of murders on the show which took place in the small fictional town of Cabot Cove has long been a topic of discussion. The term “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” has been used to describe an unusual amount of murders or dead bodies showing up in one rural or remote location.

1Magnum, P.I. (1980 – 1988)

This is the gold standard for private investigator television shows. Tom Selleck starred as Thomas Magnum, an ex-Navy SEAL working as a private investigator in Hawaii. Magnum lives rent free in a guest house on the lavish estate of famed author Robin Masters in exchange for providing security at the compound. He is often joined on cases by his war buddies Rick and T.C., and humor is abundant in Magnum’s hot and cold relationship with Higgins, the proper British caretaker of the Masters estate. This show is the basis for many people’s fantasy of what a private investigator actually does. 

Fun Fact: After filming the pilot for Magnum, P.I. for CBS, Selleck was chosen for the role of Archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones for the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Magnum, P.I. was picked up as a series, CBS refused to let Selleck film the movie, and the rest is history.

Bonus Show — Columbo (1968 – 1978; 1989 – 2003)

While technically a police detective, the list would feel incomplete without mentioning the trenchcoat wearing, cigar chomping, smarter than he seems Frank Columbo. Peter Falk starred in this show about the seemingly aloof Columbo, who is constantly underestimated by the killers he is trying to catch. They always think they have him outsmarted until he turns around at the last second and utters his catch phrase, “Just one more thing.”

OK—there you have it. Did I fail to mention your favorite show? Let me know in the comments, as your taste may differ.

As I said before, and I’ll say again, nothing is as exciting to watch as an investigator unraveling a case and uncovering the truth.

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8 replies
  1. Neil Caddell
    Neil Caddell says:

    Rockford Files for me is the best and the reason I became a PI in the first place. $200 a day plus expenses and a trailer on the beach with attractive people showing up every week. What else is there? Jim Rockford was the working class hero that always overcame even his best friends see Angel Lol. Hope they remake it, I know there had been some talk with one of the guys from Lost as the lead.

  2. Bruce Garrett
    Bruce Garrett says:

    The old Perry Mason series. While Mason himself was a defense attorney, he usually worked closely with Paul Drake of the Drake Detective Agency. That character seemed more like a real private detective than most of what you saw on TV…at least to me. A lot of foot pounding, a lot of digging through records, a lot of trying to find and interview people.

    • Brian Sabol
      Brian Sabol says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Bruce. Perry Mason was definitely considered; however, it would have had to replace Columbo as the bonus show, since Perry was not the investigator.

    • Brian Sabol
      Brian Sabol says:

      Thanks for the suggestions Ruth. Charlie’s Angles I always thought of more akin to spies than P.I.s. Mysteries of Laura I believe she was an actual police detective; same for Unforgettable. I didn’t really watch Lie to Me, but if I’m not mistaken, Tim Roth was more of a human lie detector than conducting investigations, although I may be wrong about that one.

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