Some viewers like their television detectives to be close to infallible: Perhaps a dashing Sherlock Holmes, in all his variants, or a fastidious Hercule Poiroit who can stride into a room and suss out the killer by using only a few cigarette butts and a train timetable. I’ll admit that there is a definite fascination in watching a well-oiled intellect spring into action and I’ve enjoyed series with a super sleuth at the center, but in the end I find these characters a bit off-putting. Maybe I’m intimidated by their ability to figure things out so much better than me (admittedly not a major accomplishment). Ultimately, though, I think it is their ‘small details are everything’ attitude to fictional crime detection that tends to irk me. This approach suggests a world that is well-ordered and rational. Evidence points to the contrary I’m afraid.
Instead, I tend to prefer a television detective who views the world with a more jaundiced eye. In the world they inhabit, solutions are hard to find and justice can be elusive. Also a world-weary attitude and a tortured past are a plus. Luckily, there are plenty of shows with characters that share these attributes. Here are a few television series I’ve come across that just might be of interest if you also have a weakness for flawed detectives.
Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) has plenty of issues. Reassigned to the small town of Broadchurch, after a high-profile botched investigation for which he was blamed, he not only takes the job promised to Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (played by Olivia Colman) but is also dealing with an illness that he has to keep hidden in order to maintain his position. Things go from bad to worse when a boy’s corpse is found on the beach and he has to find the killer in this tight-knit, and closed mouthed, community. This entire series revolves around the one investigation, which allows for a lot of complex character development of not just the inspector but all of those involved.
Set in the gorgeous, yet a tad desolate, North East of England this series centers around DCI Vera Stanhope (played by Brenda Blethyn). While Vera is in comfortable middle age, you would be making a grave mistake to consider her the motherly type. With a fondness for living alone, alcohol, and self-destructive behavior, she could most kindly be called a curmudgeon. She is a master at using others’ false perceptions of her age and status when it comes to interrogations however. Another nice twist in this series is having her second in command be a youthful family man, Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon), who tries to offer up some opposing viewpoints. Good luck with that.
There are several television adaptations that feature this famous Swedish detective, but in the BBC production Kenneth Branagh plays the role in a subdued and humane way. Each episode would not be out of place in an Ingmar Bergman film, with the silences and landscape shots adding to the sense of existential ennui. While Wallander does try to rise above it all, most of the time it feels like an exercise in seeing how much emotional damage a character can take and still remain standing. If you are up for it, it is great stuff. The relationship he has with his father, played by David Warner, a painter who is slowly succumbing to dementia is particularly strong.
Due to some rather unorthodox ideas concerning the proper use of lethal force, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) finds himself transferred from Miami to rural Eastern Kentucky where he was raised. While Raylan at first resembles a classic American lawman, his character and those around him become more complex with the show evolving into a character study of the people in hardscrabble Harlan County, with story arcs lasting a season or more. Raylan himself has plenty of skeletons in his closet including his relationships with his estranged father, his former ‘friend’ Boyd Crowder, and his ex-wife among many others. The writing is a standout as well with rapid fire banter and a fun sense of false civility.
So if you don’t mind your fictional crimes investigated by detectives that are a bit dysfunctional, definitely check out a series or two. Just don’t expect the perpetrator to be Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick.