TV "Best of" lists are usually at best arguable and often fatuous, but the Sleuth Network’s program on America’s Top Sleuths is an especially annoying addition.
The comments of the "experts" on the 90-minute program aired recently are nearly uniformly unoriginal, wrong, or both, and the program is thoroughly dull and silly. Its contribution to the public’s knowledge and understanding of the film and television mystery genre is absolutely nil, and in fact probably negative. After watching the program, an individual who knew nothing about the subject would know even less that is actually true than they did before.
The choices of greatest detectives, voted on by visitors to the Sleuth Network website, were limited to American film and TV characters. Even so, the final list mysteriously omits many of the most important mystery characters in those media. The bias toward detectives who blunder along without actually doing much thinking is clear.
Along with a few who actually belong—such as Sgt. Joe Friday, Lt. Phillip Columbo, Jim Rockford, Jessica Fletcher, Thomas Magnum, etc.—the list includes a large proportion of dubious choices. These include Maddie and Dave of the TV series Moonlighting, who may be amusing but are hardly sleuths at all; Detective Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue, an utterly uninteresting character; Lt. Tony Baretta of Baretta, a thoroughly routine tough-guy bore; and Det. Lenny Brisco of Law and Order, who is a likeable fellow as played by the late Jerry Orbach, but certainly not an interesting or unusual detective character.
From the movies, Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs is wrongly included (does she do any thinking at all? and couldn’t they have provided her with a personality?), as are Riggs and Murtaugh of the Lethal Weapon movies (come on!).
Sam Spade (specifically, Humphrey Bogart’s version from The Maltese Falcon), Harry Callahan (of the Dirty Harry movies), Irwin Fletcher (of Fletch), Lt. Frank Drebin (of the Naked Gun movies and TV show; thanks to Mr. Hunter Baker for correcting our spelling), and Marge Gunderson (of Fargo) are at least somewhat justifiable choices by virtue of being actual characters, but hardly a one of them ever does any real thinking.
The list of great sleuths not included is in fact much more impressive than the list itself.
Now, Sir Wilfred Robards, played by Charles Laughton in Billy Wilder’s superb film adaptation of the Agatha Christie play is English, so I suppose we can excuse that otherwise egregious omission. And the same goes for Peter Sellers’ Inspector Jacques Clouseau, who is French.
But consider the following by no means comprehensive lineup of American detectives from film and TV who didn’t make the list. (And I’m sure I’m forgetting some good ones; suggestions welcome). Most of these are characters who actually think at least once in a while, and nearly all of them have interesting personalities and are quite likeable.
This turns out to be a much more interesting and appealing group than the great majority of those on the Sleuth TV list:
- Father Dowling
- Mr. Moto
- Jonathan and Jennifer Hart (Hart to Hart)
- Sam McCloud
- Vincent La Guardia Gambini of My Cousin Vinny
- The NCIS team
- Commissioner Stewart McMillan (of McMillan and Wife)
- Tom Lawrence, aka The Falcon
- The Saint (as played by George Sanders in the movies)
- Ben Matlock
- Mark Sloan of Diagnosis: Murder
- Nick Charles (of the Thin Man series)
- Keen Eddie Arlette
- Carl Kolchak of Kolchak: The Night Stalker
And now to the utterly unbelievable omissions, detectives who are truly interesting and unique, and whose stories involve real mysteries:
- Thomas Banacek
- Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin
- Ellery Queen
- Adrian Monk
- Charlie Chan (details here, here, and here)
- Perry Mason
What an absurd travesty the Sleuth Network list is!