THIS IS THE 2014 VERSION OF THIS STORY – CLICK HERE FOR THE 2020 EDITION
TV Mysteries are having a moment right now. Sherlock is back. True Detective is having everyone biting their fingernails with glee. AcornTV (which is an amazing resource for BRITISH mysteries, btw) is about to release both the 3rd season of VERA and the Agatha Christie ultimate collection. AND your HULU/Instant Netflix/Amazon Prime recommendations/queues are BRIMMING with murder, mayhem, AND amazing accents solving those murders and mayhem.
So, we figured it is as good of a time as any to do a very extensive, deeply researched (trust me, I HAVE seen every single one of these), immersive guide to the rabbit hole that TV thriller universe is. Besides, you have 3+ weeks till House of Cards season 2 is here so you have some television marathon time to fill.
Lets dig in. We separated them into the following categories, for ease of your perusal:
- STRONG, INDEPENDENT FEMALE LEADS
- DARK, MOODY MALE LEADS
- BRITISH CLASSICS
- AMERICAN CLASSICS
- LESS-THAN-A-10-HOUR COMMITMENT (aka MINI-SERIES)
- and of course, CURRENTLY PLAYING
STRONG, INDEPENDENT FEMALE LEADS
PRIME SUSPECT– BEFORE any of this became something resembling a pop-culture phenomenon, there was Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennyson taking on the worst crimes the Greater London area had to tackle. She was smart, she was tough, she looked great in her blouses, she got into a lot of mental face-offs with both criminals and (male) co-workers and without her we’d probably still be stuck in a world where female detectives were just mere sidekicks. Watch the original, and skip the Maria Bello hat fiasco American network TV tried to shove down our throats a few seasons back. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix and AcornTV
THE FALL – Gillian Anderson does a great job of creating yet another iconic detective that, if this show takes off after first season (and it should), will maybe help us all not think of her as Agent Dana Scully 4ever. Set in Northern Ireland, it follows her Stella Gibson, who tries to track down a murderer and stalker of women before time runs out. The interesting turn here is that we meet the killer as fast as we meet Stella, and while his identity never being in question (at least to the viewer) could have been a downfall of the show, the cat-and-mouse dynamic that emerges from it is palpably nail-biting. Casting bonus: the killer is played by the very handsome Jamie Dornan, who is about to star in the movie adaptation of “50 Shades of Gray” making female viewers uncomfortable on several levels: dread, yes, but also feeling unavoidably attracted to someone who is not just bad for you, but legitimately dangerous. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix.
VERA – Brenda Blethyn stars as Vera Stanhope, a hard-as-nails detective with more emotional issues than one could humanly handle. Most of the cases are well plotted traditional whoddunnits set against the moody moors and bleak cityscapes of Northern England but Blethyn’s acting caliber, Stanhope’s troubled past and thorny-but-caring relationship with her DS Joe Asworth keep the viewer coming back. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix, Hulu, Acorn, PBS.
THE KILLING – The Killing took a little bit of a beating in Season 2 what with that unfortunate decision to stretch out the first “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” mystery into overtime, but it is worth a revisit because Season 3 is as creepy as they come. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman star as the mismatched detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder and in the final AMC season (Netflix will produce and exclusively show the Season 4’s six episodes to conclude the show) they face teenage runaways, prostitution, some of the most horrifying mass graves I’ve seen and a killer, played by the flawless Peter Sarsgaard, who may not be all that he seems. PERFECT. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix.
MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES – If you’re in the mood for your murders a little more stylish and jaunty (and, lets face it, sometimes we all are) – Miss Fisher, a very modern, very independent women of the 20s, with a social calendar filled with glamorous parties AND MURDER is your gal. Bonus: Miss Fisher is played by Essie Davis who is uncannily reminiscent of a young Diana Rigg, a fact that should not be lost of at least some of the men reading this (I hope). AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix and Season 2 NOW on AcornTV (who are offering a month’s free trial btw).
DARK, MOODY MALE LEADS
LUTHER – Idris Elba owns the screen as Detective John Luther, an intensely smart, tortured, beyond handsome and intimidating presence in the Serious Crimes Unit. All three seasons are fantastic, but my personal favorite is Season 1, mainly because of Ruth Wilson, whose Alice Morgan is, aside from Hannibal Lecter, one of the most captivating villains TV or movies have ever seen. Brilliant, beautiful, and with a genuinely evil glint in her eye, her sparring with Luther walks the thin line between danger and flirtation, as something reminiscent of a friendship emerges. You have to see it to believe it. And then probably re-see it. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix, Hulu, BBC On-Demand.
INSPECTOR MORSE (and Inspector Lewis & Endeavor in extension) – John Thaw’s portrayal of the classical music loving, no-first-name-sharing, borderline-alcoholic, sugar addicted Morse is a cornerstone of detective television. Over 33 episodes, he solves some seriously grisly crimes in Oxford, a city he once denounced after university, and for whose academic residents he harbors a healthy mix of complete disdain and occasional reverence. Since Morse is pretty hard to handle by himself, the viewer was handed the smart but affable Inspector Lewis as his sidekick, who later got a show of his own (which I personally prefer to Morse) and a young, intellectual, tortured partner all his own. BONUS: There is a prequel to Morse (ENDEAVOR) available on Instant Netflix now, telling us a little more about his origins story and yes, his first name. AVAILABLE ON: Lewis and Morse -Instant Netflix, Hulu. Endeavor, only on Instant Netflix.
WALLANDER – I prefer the Kenneth Branagh version to the original Scandinavian show, but you know, each to their own. Branagh has a certain kind of water colored torture permanently imprinted on his face that makes him perfect for the recently divorced, very sad, yet emotionally disconnected detective he plays. The crimes are typically Scandinavian (meaning decidedly more creepy than your standard American fare) and the villains a little more desperate than usual, but the cinematography is GORGEOUS, Branagh obviously a very intelligent actor and the sum of all parts makes for a good rainy afternoon with a hot toddy viewing. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix, Hulu.
WAKING THE DEAD – I sort of imagine this cold case/forensics drama is the British equivalent of Law & Order or Criminal Minds because it has been running FOR 9 SEASONS, with the difference that this show probably would not have survived for nine seasons in the US. The reasons are as follows: Peter Boyd, the head detective of the Cold Case Squad (played by Trevor Eve) is one of the gruffest, most unpleasant, completely untactful human beings to ever be on the small screen (even several seasons in, his interview bedside manner made me want to cover my face more often than the murders themselves), and the murders, well the murders involve some true unsavoriness, from raping a girl and having her 9 year old brother watch and then throwing them both of a bridge to psychiatric hospitals with secret gravesites to awful child abuse scenarios, it is all here. Thankfully Boyd has some great team members to balance his insanity out and the guest stars (everyone from Toby Stephens to Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) are all top notch. Add to that some very memorable villains (including Linda Cummings, played by Ruth Grammel, who almost matches Luther’s Alice Morgan in genius and glee) and you are hooked. For nine seasons. Sorry. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix (but not all of them), Hulu (all of them).
ZEN – Masterpiece Mysteries can be also set in Rome. Who knew? Bonus: Rufus Sewell makes everything better, even if the show is already near perfect itself. AVAILABLE ON: Hulu
WHITECHAPEL – Whitechapel is catnip for those into historic crimes. First season finds DI Joseph Chandler (a very handsome, completely emotionally unavailable, definitely OCD Rupert Penry-Jones) on the trail of a series of murders which resemble Jack The Ripper. Season 2 deals with the Brothers Kray, and season 3 is less focused on obvious sensationalist cold cases (and therefore, to me, the most effective). AVAILABLE ON: Hulu
Now, it should be noted that I understand that the definition of a classic is sort of loose in this day and age but below I will tackle what I consider, well, essentials.
THE AGATHA CHRISTIE OUVRE – Obviously, first and foremost-we are talking about David Suchet’s POIROT here. For numerous seasons, Poirot, Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon have had their little grey cells working in overdrive, solving one elegant murder after another. For Poirot completists though, please check out the Peter Ustinov movies too: Evil Under the Sun, Murder on the Orient Express (which features one of the most impressive all star casts ever, with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and more), and Murder on the Nile. Then, of course, there is Miss Marple. The TV show is fun, but I was always a fan of the Angela Lansbury movies myself (especially The Mirror Crack’d, which stars Kim Novak and Liz Taylor as the competing aging movie stars who will stop at nothing to emerge on top, plus Tony Curtis, Geraldine Chaplin AND Rock Hudson to boot). ON TOP OF THAT- Acorn just released a very complete series of lesser known mysteries like The Seven Dials Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide, starring such English heavyweights as Pauline Collins, John Gielgud and Francesca Annis.
FOYLE’S WAR – A Masterpiece Mystery classic that deals with the question not many dare tackle: crime doesn’t stop during war. AVAILABLE AT: Hulu, Instant Netflix, PBS and AcornTV (including the latest, season 7)
MIDSOMER MURDERS – Over 81 episodes, this Caroline Graham novel inspired series finds cousin detectives John and Tom Barnaby solve crimes across Midsomer. The show equivalent of your favorite low fuss dinner-always satisfying, never too demanding. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix and AcornTV.
A TOUCH OF FROST – Starring the great David Jason (Only Fools and Horses!), the casebook of the disgruntled, gruff, yet oddly lovable Inspector Frost (and his rotating cast of short-suffering partners) covers everything from kidnappings to murders truly most foul. 40+ episodes of British small-town puzzle solving.
X FILES – Mulder and Scully’s whole story arc may be too much to revisit in one sitting, but it is a GREAT pick-and-choose procedural too. Everyone has their favorite episode, and mine will forever be the FAMILY one. Nothing supernatural happening here necessarily, but it is all the more deeply, profoundly disturbing for it. Also, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson look SO YOUNG. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix, Hulu.
TWIN PEAKS – David Lynch’s network masterpiece turns (sort of) 25 this year and while some may argue it doesn’t hold up, it is still a deliciously weird box of chocolates to dive into, especially season two, where the One Eyed Jack mystery takes over for Laura Palmer’s mystery. Bonus: Agent Cooper is truly the only purely good leading man that is also not boring at all. Just think about it. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix, Hulu.
HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS – Barry Levinson’s Baltimore crime drama starring Andre Braugher is the only show on this list you can’t readily stream on something. BUT IT IS WORTH ordering those DVDs from Netflix from, I promise. Still SO GOOD.
MURDER SHE WROTE – For TWELVE seasons Angela Lansbury solved civilized crimes on this CBS drama. People enjoy making fun of it (in a sort of a well meaning, loving way, naturally) but think about it-this is a smart, funny, wink-worthy, wildly popular TV carried on the shoulders of not a young actress or some hunk-o-the-month, but a charming, life-loving, cocktail drinking, slightly saucy middle-aged widow, something that yes, has been a staple of British TV for a while (and Lansbury herself played Miss Marple on occasion) but almost unheard of on American TV. Plus, the cases are almost gleefully delicious. A perfect murder mystery to relax to before going to sweet, sweet slumber. For extra nostalgia points, revisit the Magnum PI crossover episode too, for sure:
SPIRAL – The French have a great tradition in the compelling thriller department and this series is a great example of that. At the center is Detective Laure Berthaud, who knows her way around both a grisly murder case and a perfectly layered t-shirt situation and the prosecutor Pierre Clement as they deal with assorted (and often, well, messily kinky) crimes, corruption and their increasingly sticky personal lives. I understand that to a lot of people watching crime drama with subtitles is a chore (you can’t be emailing during it! you can’t be playing on your phone during it! you have to pay attention! WHAT?) but this one is definitely worth the time. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix
THE BRIDGE: FX pretty famously pulled their content from Hulu a little while a go and Hulu now went and stuck a middle finger up FX’s face by releasing the original The Bridge in all moody Swedish/Danish glory. The premise is still the same: a body is found on a bridge connecting the two countries, but the mood is well, more Scandinavian. Season 2 is currently playing on BBC4 and is expected to arrive to streaming shortly (and probably before FX shows their season 2 this summer). AVAILABLE ON: HULU
LESS-THAN-A-10-HOUR COMMITMENT (aka MINI-SERIES)
BROADCHURCH: This 8 piece mystery aired on BBC America this summer and is the only thing I actually purchased on itunes because just waiting for it to be eventually available seemed foolish and it was WORTH EVERY CENT (and still is). The British phenomenon (it is the most viewed drama in England, aside from Downton Abbey) stars David Tenant as a tortured detective arriving to a sleepy English beachside hamlet to hopefully not be in the middle of mayhem and get a moment’s rest, and naturally, a murder happens on his first day at the job. The town is turned upside down, tensions run sky high, EVERYONE is a suspect, and the amount of secrets that emerge are headspinning enough by themselves, while the final reveal is both heartbreaking and incredibly human. The show is shot gorgeously and meant to be enjoyed in HD so spring for that extra $1 per episode, and while FOX is already busy making a remake, I can’t imagine it could be anywhere as good as this. A true must-see of the 2013 TV year. AVAILABLE ON: itunes, Amazon
MASTERPIECE: Place of Execution – There is obviously an insane amount of Masterpiece Mystery productions out there and most of these are covered in this story but PLACE OF EXECUTION, a 2 hour Masterpiece Contemporary made-for-TV movie is a hidden, chilling gem. On a freezing December night in 1963, 13-year-old Alison Carter took her dog for a walk on the moors in Scardale, a secluded Derbyshire hamlet, and was never seen again. 45 years later a new detective and a filmmaker (the always wonderful Juliet Stevenson) both revisit the case and the results are well… almost unfathomable. AVAILABLE ON: Hulu, Amazon
THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: A group of lady code-breakers find themselves at their wit’s end with boredom when the war ends and so they do what had to be done: they pretend to be in a book club while solving a horrible, dastardly murder. It sounds hokey, but it is truly dark, wonderfully acted, and heartbreaking from a certain feminist standpoint too. I hope season 2 is en route. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix.
TOP OF THE LAKE– Jane Campion directed this Sundance mini-series (her first TV endeavor since 1990) starring Elizabeth Moss and things in it ARE WEIRD. Moss’s Robin Griffin arrives back to her hometown to investigate the case surrounding the dissappearance of Tui Mitchum, who happens to be 12 AND pregnant. Griffin herself is dealing with a lot of residual issues connected to this place and the dynamics between everyone involved seem so deeply fucked up that the viewer can’t help but hope at least ONE PERSON makes it out of this whole thing unscathed. Holly Hunter pops up as well. Moss just won a Golden Globe for this, so if you’re looking for a good excuse to see this, consider that an extra incentive. AVAILABLE ON: Instant Netflix.
VEXED – If all these sex crimes and insanity have left you wanting some light relief, may we point you to this British comedy-murder-drama mini-series which has aired 2 seasons with hopefully more to come. The show stars Toby Stephens (aka son of Maggie Smith!) as a lazy but very charming DI Jack Armstrong and his rotating cast of increasingly stressed out female partners (Season one had the always amazing Lucy Punch, while season two brough along the regal Miranda Raison) while they solve crimes, drink cappuccinos and fight over who gets to drive the car. Fluffy yes, but delicious and still very smart. AVAILABLE ON: Hulu and AcornTV.
and of course, CURRENTLY PLAYING
SHERLOCK – Cumberbatch and Freeman are back for season 3 and we could not be more excited. If anything-we think this should be a good enough reason to revisit season 1 and 2 again (The Scandal in Belgravia is probably one of the best things to air on TV in the last half decade). Current season: PBS, Amazon Prime, itunes. Catch up on: Hulu, Instant Netflix.
TRUE DETECTIVE – If you’re not all over HBO’s new 8 piece crime drama, then we don’t know what you’re doing. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are neck deep in personal issues and ritualistic murders in the depths of the Louisiana and hell if we know how it will all come together (or not) but we certainly can’t wait to find out. Current (and only season): HBO, HBO GO. Read our recaps of episodes thus far: here and here.
HANNIBAL – Can we all just put our hands together for NBC for not canceling Hannibal, when they well could have? The Brian Fuller created show (who was previously in charge of the lovely and never-forgotten Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, and mind you-a lot of fun, subtle nods to these two are sprinkled throughout, just for us sad superfans) is something that would THRIVE on HBO or as a Netflix exclusive but is just almost too good for network TV. Beautifully shot, stylishly sinister, incredibly mind-fucky, it is what the future of crime TV should be, if only Americans get their acts together AND WATCH IT. Season 2 premieres February 28th – DON’T FUCK UP.
ELEMENTARY – Once upon a time Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller shared the London stage in an adaptation of Frankenstein. Now, they both play Sherlock Holmes, one on BBC, and one on CBS. As expected, the CBS version (which also has a Joan, not a John Watson) is not quite as delicious as the BBC one but it is still head and shoulders above almost all procedurals currently out there. Worth a go.
So, there’s that. Feel free to discuss YOUR favorites in the comments and happy watching and puzzle solving everyone!