Top 10 Greatest Private Investigator TV Shows Ever Made

Here’s Our Picks for the Greatest Private Investigator TV Shows Ever Made

Not only have we “made it big” in the movies, but private investigators have enjoyed a great deal of exposure from the small screen, as well. Although perhaps not as pervasive and iconic as in Hollywood, there are several shows on television that have shed the spotlight on our iconic profession.

As with many lists of this type, there is bound to be some disagreement. We bounced around on this one and it took several drafts to get the order “right.” I’m gonna show my age with this post (many of these shows are OLD SCHOOL), but here it is, our list of the greatest private investigator tv shows of all time.

10. Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)

Charlies Angels 1976
Image courtesy of IMDB

Tagline: “A wealthy mystery man named Charlie runs a detective agency via a speakerphone and his personal assistant, John Bosley. His detectives are three beautiful women, who end up in a variety of difficult situations.”

This Aaron Spelling-produced show was extremely popular in the late-70’s and early-80’s. During its five seasons on the air, it went through multiple casting changes and writer shakeups. Jaclyn Smith was the only Angel to remain until the end and many lamented the fact that Farrah Fawcett left the show in the midst of its heyday. Either way, the show’s unusual premise and beautiful cast made this show an instant success.

Interesting fact: Drew Barrymore owns the screen rights to this series.

9. Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988)

Spencer for Hire
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Tagline: “Mystery and suspense series based on Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels. Spenser, a private investigator living in Boston, gets involved in a new murder mystery each episode.”

A classic. Robert Urich plays Spenser, a Boston-based private investigator who, along with his sidekick and best friend, Hawk, played by Avery Brooks, conveniently solves a murder in a single hour every week. Oh, and he never gets paid…he works for “favors.” Not the most realistic of storylines, but it was certainly entertaining in its day.

Interesting fact: During the first season of the show, Spenser lived in an old, abandoned firehouse off of Charles Street. This same firehouse, the “real-world” Engine Company 10, was also used for the set of the Boston season of the MTV show The Real World.

8. Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)

Murder She Wrote
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Tagline: “Professional writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher uses her intellect, charm, and persistence to get to the bottom of every crime she encounters.”

During its 12-season run, this amazing whodunnit show features novelist Jessica Fletcher and her endless array of friends and acquaintances following clues and hints to nicely and neatly figure out who killed that week’s victim. I used to watch this show every week with my grandmother, who would, almost without fail, figure out the twists and turns every week. Plus, there’s just something wholesome and charming about the way that Angela Lansbury portrayed the main character. This is a great show and very nostalgic for me.

Interesting fact: This show was in a shared universe with our #1 pick, Magnum, P.I. Two episodes show Jessica travelling to Hawaii on vacation and embroils her in an effort to exonerate a wrongly-accused Magnum at the behest of Higgins, whose attempted murder Magnum was framed for committing.

7. The Equalizer (1985-1989)

The Equalizer
Image courtesy of TV Guide

Tagline: “A retired Intelligence Agent turned private detective helps various threatened clients to equalize the odds.”

This one is more serious than others on this list. The Equalizer is a dark and smoky show about the nature of revenge and fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. It centers on the main character, Robert McCall, who “equalizes” the wrongs perpetrated by others, usually against the innocent. Someone commits a crime or hurts someone else, McCall comes in and figures out what happened, who was responsible, and pays them a visit. The Antoine Fuqua-directed movie adaptations starring Denzel Washington are also well worth a watch.

Interesting fact: Stewart Copeland, the former drummer for The Police, wrote the theme song for this show.

6. Jessica Jones (2015-2019)

Jessica Jones
Image courtesy of IMDB

Tagline: “Following the tragic end of her brief superhero career, Jessica Jones tries to rebuild her life as a private investigator, dealing with cases involving people with remarkable abilities in New York City.”

Jessica Jones is Marvel’s contribution (they have their finger in everything) to the genre. Krysten Ritter plays Jessica, a failed superhero who suffers from PTSD and self-loathing and can no longer “fulfill her duties.” Battling her demons, she uses her extraordinary abilities to help those in need…especially if they can cut her a check.

Interesting fact: Luke Cage’s bar in the show is the same bar that was owned by the Rosato Brothers in The Godfather: Part II.

5. Simon & Simon (1981-1989)

Simon and Simon
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Tagline: “Two brothers of disparate tastes and manners run a private detective agency.”

Imagine if The Odd Couple ran a detective agency. That is the premise here and it is totally awesome. Gerald McRaney and Jameson Parker portray brothers Rick and A.J. Simon who couldn’t be more different, but who set aside their differences to solve crimes in San Diego. Hilarity ensues. This is much less serious than others in this list, but is still very tongue-in-cheek and an off-the-wall romp.

Interesting fact: The show was scheduled to run head-to-head against Magnum, P.I. and was almost canceled in its first season. Ratings skyrocketed after it was rescheduled to follow Magnum and not compete with it.

4. Sherlock (2010-2017)

Image courtesy of IMDB

Tagline: “A modern update finds the famous sleuth and his doctor partner solving crime in 21st century London.”

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, this modern take on the iconic duo is, frankly speaking, excellent. Cumberbatch is fantastic as the borderline-autistic Holmes and Freeman is perfectly cast as Watson. The two play off of each other brilliantly and their chemistry is undeniable. Why this show works so well is a little hard to describe. This is one that really has to be experienced first-hand.

Interesting fact: Benedict Cumberbatch is distantly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the original Sherlock Holmes books. They are 16th cousins twice removed.

3. Monk (2002-2009)

Image courtesy of IMDB

Tagline: “The series follows Adrian Monk, a brilliant former San Francisco detective, who now consults the police as a private consultant who battles with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Ah, Monk…the adorable and brilliant former detective (portrayed by the most-excellent Tony Shalhoub) who suffers from crippling OCD is one of my favorite detective shows and it’s not really even a detective show in the strictest sense of the word. It’s more of a character study of vulnerability and mental illness set against a backdrop of orderliness and social anxiety. This show is not only one of the best private investigator tv shows, it’s one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Interesting fact: Tony Shalhoub auditioned for the role of Kramer on Seinfeld (1989), and Michael Richards was considered for the title role on this show. Richards passed on Monk, and Shalhoub took the role. Richards won three Emmys for playing Kramer, while Shalhoub also won three Emmys for playing Monk.

2. Moonlighting (1985-1989)

Image courtesy of IMDB

Tagline: “The quirky cases of a former model and a smart aleck detective who manage a private detective agency.”

“Aaaadddddiiiisssssssonnnnn!!!!!” If you’ve seen this outstanding and hilarious show, you can almost hear that in your head right now. Cybil Shepherd and a young Bruce Willis star in this hilarious private investigator (dare I say it?) romcom. This show is so good and the chemistry between the two stars is so spot-on there were even lists that put this one at #1. It’s a very good show and, if you were watching tv during the late ’80s, this was more than likely on your list.

Interesting fact: Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was named for the character of David Addison Jr. The award-winning baseball player’s mom was a big Moonlighting fan.

1. Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988)

Magnum PI
Image courtesy of IMDB

Tagline: “He’s a Wisecracking, Fun-Loving, Freeloading, Freelance Private-Eye.”

Here it is, folks. The cream-de-la-cream. The one to beat. The one against which all others are judged. In our opinion, Magnum, P.I. is the greatest private investigator television show ever made. The dreamboat fantasy of middle-aged women everywhere (just ask my mother), Tom Selleck is perfect as ex-Navy SEAL Thomas Magnum, who, along with his buddies Rick and T.C., solves crimes and does everything he can to annoy Higgins, the prim and proper manager of Mangum’s benefactor, Robin Masters. The iconic red Ferrari and gorgeous setting (Hawaii) don’t hurt, either. This show is the gold standard and should not be missed at any cost. Tom Selleck’s mustache is worth the price of admission on its own.

Interesting fact: Orson Welles provided the voice of Robin Masters, whose face was never seen on this show. Producers eventually wanted Welles to be revealed as the face of Robin Masters too, but he died before the series ended its run.

And that’s it, our list of the top 10 greatest private investigator tv shows ever made. I’m sure many of you are screaming “You forgot this one! It’s the best!” or “How can anyone think this show was even decent, much less one of the best!” There’s bound to be disagreement, but for my time and money, these shows take the cake. Let us know in the comments if you agree or disagree with us.

Top 10 Greatest Private Investigator Movies Ever Made

Here’s Our Picks for the Greatest Private Investigator Movies Ever Made

Private Investigator movies have culturally shed an air of mystery and “cool” to our profession and private investigator stories are rich fodder for entertainment. Few cultural symbols have been as mythologized as that of the private detective. In fact, few things have done more to elevate our brand than Hollywood. From Philip Marlowe to Ace Ventura, private investigators have had more than our fair share of representation in film, for good or bad. Here is our list of the 10 greatest private investigator movies ever made.

10. Night Moves (1975)

Night Moves
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Los Angeles private investigator Harry Moseby is hired by a client to find her runaway teenage daughter. Moseby tracks the daughter down, only to stumble upon something much more intriguing and sinister. Directed by Arthur Penn and starring Gene Hackman in the title role, this tense and gripping story of a detective giving his all to find his subject while trying to save his own crumbling marriage will have you sitting on the edge of your seat all the way until the very end. This was also Melanie Griffith’s first credited role.

9. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express
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Skip the 2017 version with Kenneth Branagh (although good, it’s fantastically outmatched), and see this genius adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel directed by Sidney Lumet. This is the one you want to watch. This version has an all-star cast, including Albert Finney in the lead as the fastidious Hercule Poirot, Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Hubbard, Ingrid Bergman as Greta, and the always excellent (and soreley missed ) Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot. Seriously, give it a go. It’s awesome. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her work on this film and this is reportedly the only film adaptation of her work with which Agatha Christie was satisfied.

8. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 1
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Directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer, this tongue-in-cheek romp is a wild ride from start to finish. More entertainment than substance, this flick is filled with witty one-liners and tangy dialogue that keeps the movie going and never looking back. Robert Downey, Jr. is a thief who unwittingly gets a starring role in a movie where Val Kilmer is the PI who serves as the film’s technical advisor and, once it starts, the action doesn’t stop. We’ll return to Shane Black later on this list when we discuss The Nice Guys, another detective film he helmed.

7. Angel Heart (1987)

Angel Heart
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Wow! What a gritty gut-punch. This is a very dark and disturbing movie. Mickey Rourke stars as New York PI Harry Angel who is hired by Robert De Niro to find a man who has gone missing owing him money. The search leads down the grim and grisly trail full of everything ranging from murder to voodoo. This one is not for the faint of (angel) heart.

6. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Devil in a Blue Dress
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Denzel Washington stars as Easy Rawlins, an unemployed WW2 veteran, who, for his first case as a private investigator, is hired to find a missing woman and gets mixed up in a political scandal of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, and murder. The excellent Don Cheadle and Tom Sizemore also star.

5. The Nice Guys (2016)

The Nice Guys
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I LOVED this movie! Shane Black directed this hilarious and perfectly cast comedic look at 1970s Hollywood. Russell Crowe plays a gruff “enforcer” for hire and Ryan Gosling plays a drinking, hapless PI with an adorable relationship with his precocious daughter, Holly. This movie runs the gamut from murdered porn stars to government conspiracies. This is easily one of the most accessible films on this list and is, at its core, a hilarious character study of buddy films and teamwork.

4. The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye
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Elliott Gould joins a distinguished lineage who have portrayed Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective. The movie opens with Marlowe driving his friend to the Mexican border. When he returns home, he finds that his wife has been killed and things go downhill from there. Former MLB pitcher Jim Bouton plays Marlowe’s friend Terry Lennox. Arnold Schwarzenneger also makes an appearance, his second in a major motion picture. Roger Ebert also included this movie on his “Great Movies” list.

3. Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out
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Daniel Craig stars as Benoit Blanc, a cheeky homage to Agatha Christie’s fastidious detective Hercule Poirot. This movie has a Clue-like feeling, as Blanc does battle with an entire eccentric and combative family to solve the apparent, but not likely, suicide of the family patriarch (played by Christopher Plummer). Jamie Lee Curtis, Frank Oz, and even Don Johnson appear in this quirky twist on the common detective movie.

2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon
Image courtesy of Movies Anywhere

We flip-flopped between this one and Chinatown for the #1 spot. This is THE definitive detective noir story. It centers around Sam Spade and the beautiful and mysterious Mary Astor, aks Miss Wonderly, who wants Sam and his partner, Miles Archer to protect her sister, or so she says. The day after she walks into their office, Miles is dead. The death of Miles and another mysterious man, Floyd Thursby, leads Sam down a twisted thread centered on three criminals and their relentless search for the statuette of a bird: The Maltese Falcon. No other film captures the noir detective story quite like this one. It is the gold standard of that genre.

1. Chinatown (1974)

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This is it, boys and girls. The greatest private investigator movie ever made. In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective Jake Geddes (played by the brilliant Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to follow her husband. Of course, the husband ends up dead and the REAL Evelyn shows up to sue Jake for getting involved. As Jake begins to investigate the apparent double-cross, he gets tied up in governmental red tape with the Los Angeles Water Department and runs smack-dab into a love triangle that is only hinted at until the final legendary plot twist. This is director Roman Polanski’s masterpiece. You owe it to your life to see this movie at least once.

So, there ya go. These were our picks for the 10 greatest private investigator movies ever made. Did your favorite get included? Let us know in the comments if we forgot yours or you think we need to expand our cinematic education in some obvious way. There are MANY other excellent movies that we weren’t able to include here, so we won’t take too much offense if your opinions differ from ours. Well…maybe a little.

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