Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Five Best Television Detectives Ever

I've finally finished watching the very last Prime Suspect, the justly celebrated series of British police programs that ran from the early 90s to the late 2000s, and I have to say, Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison--the focal point of the whole series--was every bit as fascinating and compelling in her final scene as she was in her first. Part of me wants to say that she was the greatest detective character that I'd ever watched on television...but upon thinking about it, I have to say: almost, but not quite. And so, of course, because this is the sort of person I am, my usual round-up.

#5--Detective Mick Belker, Hill Street Blues

I'm actually not even entirely certain Belker (the brilliant creation of Bruce Weitz and dozens of scriptwriters over the years) was a detective; some of the descriptions of him online have him listed as "Sergeant Belker," and I don't know anyone who has a stack of TV Guides from 1983 for me to check. But it doesn't matter, really--whatever they titled him on show, Mick "Biter" Belker was the reliable loose canon detective, the one who the writers would regularly throw into hilarious, filthy, and humiliating situations--usually involving him going undercover somewhere as a sanitation worker or horse-semen salesman or whatever--and wait until he'd blow his stack, doing something ridiculous and usually resolving the case while he was at it. He was far from the regular comic relief of the show, but he probably had less of a character arc than any of the other regulars; for Belker, it was all about showcasing some gritty or gross element of police work, and giving him a wise-ass comment that, because of his surroundings, was all that much more entertaining.

#4--Detective Frank Pembleton, Homicide: Life on the Street

The complete opposite of Mick Belker--cool, rational, tightly wound, racially proud, and impeccably dressed--Frank Pembleton was exactly the sort of ruthlessly diligent, wicked smart, and strict Super-Detective that viewers often love to imagine that we want the police who investigate crimes to be like. We don't, actually, but we so enjoy the visceral thrill of watching a detective take apart another human being--particularly a scummy one!--through investigation and interrogation, and the scenes with Pembleton in "the Box," leading another suspect on towards confession, are justly famous; probably half the fans of Homicide were hooked just for that reason. Andre Braugher fortunately played Pembleton as a man conscious of the role he was playing in the homicide division itself, as well as an enormously vain jerk, thus giving this character we rooted for a dose of complicated reality.

#3--Detective Lester Freamon, The Wire

I came late to The Wire, but I fell in love with it just the same. But in a tremendous television series that gave us so many compelling, intriguing, alternately frightening or hilarious or pathetic police detectives--Kim Greggs, Bunk Moreland, Roland Pryzbylewski, and of course the incomparable Jimmy McNulty--why do I put Clarke Peters' Lester Freamon on this list? Because, in the same way that my fondness as a viewer for the wild man Mick Belker was balanced out by my later fascination for the generally icy and hyper-rational Frank Pembleton, so does Lester Freamon provide some balancing reality for the whole idea of some force-of-nature Super Detective. The possibility that Freamon--as well as McNulty himself--may have been designed by the creators of The Wire as a way of deconstructing the cult of Pembleton has been noted by at least one thoughtful watcher of both series. But even if it wasn't done consciously, the results were deeply satisfying--Freamon, the wise hand who has seen his ups and downs in the Baltimore police bureaucracy, who knows the dangers of sticking with the job despite all the pressures to back down, wisely assesses those dangers, and then follows the money anyway, was a brilliant creation. The fact that the makers of the show allowed him to find some contentment with Shardene Innes, and thus have a life beyond just his money-making hobby with the doll house furniture, was icing on the cake.

#2--Detective Chief Inspector (and later Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect was much more than just a series of fantastic police procedurals made over a 15 year period; they were also a thoughtful portrait of the underclass of England, the technology of detective work, and most importantly of a singular woman: Jane Tennison, a "gloriously flawed" character, as one reviewer put it. Helen Mirren played Jane Tennison is numerous different ways throughout the seven programs which make up the whole series; we see her as a still-youngish working woman, trying to have professional success as well as find happiness while play role of wife and mother (though she was never either); we see her as the victim of bureaucratic sabotage and sexist judgments which threaten to derail her career; we see her as an almost stereotypically brave television cop, facing down an armed and angry gunman with nothing but her words to protect her; we see her, in the end, as a woman fighting alcoholism and dealing the family tragedy, determined to follow her instincts even when she was no longer strong enough to prevent them from taking control of her. All of the programs are wonderful (and loaded with an abundance of terrific English actors: Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, David Thewlis, Ciarán Hinds, and more), though I think the first episode of Prime Suspect 4, "The Lost Child"--in which Tennison makes a fiercely unsentimental decision about the fate of her own unborn child, all while pushing past the violent logic of an engaged police bureaucracy to find the real culprit in the death of a small baby--was my absolute favorite. I wish I could have found a short clip of that online, but instead, just watch the whole thing here:

#1--Detective Lennie Briscoe, Law and Order

Why do I put Lennie Briscoe at the top of this list? A character who, thanks to Jerry Orbach's delightful realization of the man through L&O's sharp and endlessly repetitive format, became his own stereotype while he was still on the show? A character who was so perfectly delineated that the briefest gesture of parody was all Abed needed for us to look at Danny Pudi's typically blank face and see Orbach's awesome, knowing, world-weary smirk staring back at us? It's true that he was never given scenes that showed his life to us as we got with Tennison or Pembleton. But repetition and ritual have their own ways of revealing a character, and Orbach made the most of them. The way he'd role up his sleeves, lean over to walk beneath the yellow tape surrounding the crime scene, be able to recollect with amazing specificity all sorts of New York cop minutiae--it was delightful, and I'd revel in it. I ought to--I watched the man find evidence, interrogate suspects, give testimony, blow his stack, grimace in despair, grin in triumph, and crack wise for more than a decade. After having spent that much time with the man, how can I not consider him the best of the bunch? Jerry Orbach, RIP.


john f. said...

Huh -- good list but a few are missing! I think Wallander belongs on the list, at the very least.

john f. said...

Oh, and you forgot T.J. Hooker! (Though I can't remember if he was a detective; probably not since he was in uniform.)

Anonymous said...

No Bruno Cremer as Inspector Maigret? Philistine!

Russell Arben Fox said...

John, Wallander is someone I need to become familiar with, but T.J. Hooker I can do without. As for Inspector Maigret, anonymous...well, I have to admit that one completely stumped me; I had to Google it to find what you were talking about. Too much good television out there!

john f. said...

I really love the Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh -- but what's not to love with him starring.

It's on Netflix. My mom hated it -- asked why anyone would want to watch a man bungle around solving crimes while his own life is falling apart all around him. From my perspective, that's a feature, not a bug. For some reason it's nice to see Wallander slog through despite his depression and family problems.

john f. said...

Actually, take a look at this one because it also encompasses the two different Swedish Wallander series, both of which are good.

john f. said...

"Wallander is living proof of the Nietzschean truth that if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you. The darkness which he faces every day at work – he nearly dies after being stabbed at the very start of his career – has seeped into his personal life so completely that he can never escape it. It has cost him virtually every important relationship in his life, and left him little consolation."