The 10 Best TV Detectives of the 21st Century

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The 10 Best TV Detectives of the 21st Century

There may be nothing better than a crime procedural on TV. Good or bad—and sometimes they can be a shocking kind of what-day-is-it-I-can’t-believe-I-just-sat-through-10-hours-of-Criminal-Minds bad—the form nearly always makes for entertaining viewing. And there’s one character that stands out from the rest of the cast, one usually attributed with “special gifts” of detection that equip him or her to see things others don’t. Now, these gifts can be a myriad of things, but they almost always pave the way for an odd character. Who do we have to thank for that? Agent Dale Cooper.

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One of the many, many, so many oddball characters on Twin Peaks, Cooper is everyone’s hero, and arguably created the template for many of the quirks that we see in detectives on TV today. From his appreciation for the finer things in life (damn fine coffee and cherry pie, to name two), to his investigative abilities and his belief in the greater mysticism that unites everyone, Cooper approaches the murder of Laura Palmer with a steadfast resolve for the truth and respect for the family that would shape detective archetypes for years to come. So, after binging the original Twin Peaks (which is, like, so great, right?), we’ve compiled a list of the best TV detectives in the 21st century, all inspired in some way by Dale Cooper. The whole spectrum is covered here: We have overly serious types and those with a certain wit, eccentrics, tough guys (and gals) and plenty more.

Here’s Paste’s list of the 10 best TV detectives of the 21st century:

10. Horatio Caine, CSI: Miami


Played by: David Caruso
Network: CBS

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Caine, who gets bonus points for having the very best name on this list, came on the airwaves in CSI: Miami in 2002, and swiftly became the poster child for quippy one-liners and the dramatic use of sunglasses. He’s the perfect kind of lame, and is a great choice for alcohol-fueled, late-night impressions. Favorite line? “So our accident [puts on sunglasses] is not an accident at all.”

9. Sarah Linden, The Killing


Played by: Mireille Enos
Network: AMC, Netflix

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A detective trying to get away from the job is an old and overused trope, but there’s something different about The Killing’s Sarah Linden. On the way out of town, she’s caught up in the investigation into the murder of Rosie Larsen, and she can’t seem to shake the case: She doesn’t want to quit, but knows that she should. This, of course, leads to fraught relationships—including with her partner, Stephen Holder, played by the great Joel Kinnaman—and a devastating performance from Enos.

8. Odafin Tutualo, Law & Order: SVU


Played by: Ice-T
Network: NBC

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One might argue that Ice-T doesn’t belong on this list, but I would counter-argue that said person can leave. His turn as Odafin “Fin” Tutualo is one of the most reliable on television: He’ll always be stomping around with a tough swagger, he’ll always be asking dumb questions, and he’ll always be on TV in the middle of the day or the middle of the night. All in all, we agree with John Mulaney’s analysis.

7. John Luther, Luther


Played by: Idris Elba
Network: BBC

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John Luther is one of those detectives who always seems to be working on the far fringes of the law, and he might be the coolest person on the planet. His unconventional methods, which are often illegal, make him a difficult person to have on the force, but they typically get the job done. Be it break-ins or violent threats, Luther always gets his man. Plus, we all get to bask in Idris Elba’s golden voice, which doesn’t hurt.

6. Alec Hardy, Broadchurch


Played by: David Tennant
Network: ITV

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David Tennant’s role as Alec Hardy is a tortured portrait of a man whose pride will eventually be his downfall. Hardy moved to the little town of Broadchurch after failing a case, searching for a quieter life. He has a bad case of heart arrhythmia, which of course he wouldn’t tell his superiors about, and is soon faced with another murder that reminds him of a family he failed in the past.

5. Ashe Akino, Shots Fired


Played by: Sanaa Lathan
Network: Fox

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Ashe Akino is a fascinating character on a fascinating series—one that American audiences desperately need. Shots Fired follows the investigation into the death of a white teenager at the hands of the cops, while the murder of a black teenager, also by cops, is ignored. Ashe is a strong detective with a complicated life at home who, above all else, is seeking justice for both kids—and herself. It’s absolutely riveting television.

4. Marco Ruiz, The Bridge


Played by: Demián Bichir
Network: AMC

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With the criminally under-seen The Bridge, American audiences get an interesting partner dynamic. Marco Ruiz is a charming, talented Mexican detective investigating a murder on El Paso-Juarez border, paired up with the American Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), who has Asperger’s. He is the calm to her storm. However, Marco is a tragic character, a detective who’s good at his job, and seriously wants to do the right thing, while trying to keep his head above water in a corrupt city. Unfortunately for us all, The Bridge was canceled after Season Two.

3. Will Graham, Hannibal


Played by: Hugh Dancy
Network: NBC

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From the opening moments of Hannibal, the audience can clearly tell that Will Graham is unlike other people. Equipped with an unnerving sense of empathy, he’s able to “understand” killers’ motives and strangely recreates the scene of the murder in his mind, as if he were the perpetrator. These scenes are grimly beautiful, offering a distinctive, highly visual approach to how profilers and other investigators see the world. The world according to Will? Not in great shape.

2. Rust Cohle, True Detective


Played by: Matthew McConaughey
Network: HBO

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True Detective’s first season took the airwaves by storm in 2014, largely because of Matthew McConaughey’s transformative Rustin Cohle. Haunted by the apocalyptic musings of Nietzsche and an unsolved murder, Cohle is a wounded, tragic individual. Cohle has no rulebook, and operates under no code. He has an incredible eye for the unseen, and did you see how he covered up Reggie Ledoux’s murder? What a master.

1. Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock


Played by: Benedict Cumberbatch
Network: BBC

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In quite possibly the best on-screen interpretation of the classic literary character, Benedict Cumberbatch has captured the hearts, eyes and ears of many in his idiosyncratic performance as Sherlock Holmes. In this iteration, Sherlock is overly adept at the deconstruction of a crime scene; one could even argue that he usually solves the mystery at the start of each episode, which just leads the viewers on a merry chase as we try to catch up. Which is probably how John Watson feels.



Pete Mercer writes for Paste and secretly wants to be a detective on TV. He can do all the quippy one-liners, he bursts through doors shouting “Aha!” and he already removes his sunglasses pretty dramatically. Find him on Twitter to make this dream come true.

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