From Luther to Line of Duty, our channels are awash with heightened drama. These shows, which are picking up awards left and right (deservedly so) tackle some of humanity’s most depraved topics. The recent Hard Sun asks us, what would we do if we suspected the world was going to end? The answers are shocking. But we often forget the serialised detective shows that got us here. Gone are the days of the curmudgeonly but lovable detective, their sidekick, and a dose of a happy ending to take away the sting of -gasp- murder. Here are five of the best feel-good detective shows, for when you’re a bit worn down by Jim Sturgess getting his face pummeled in…
1. Father Brown
It’s the 1950s in the fictional Cotswold village of Kembleford. Mister Weasley – sorry, Father Brown (Mark Williams) is the local priest who besides being the moral compass of a village where a disproportionate number of crimes take place (so maybe he’s not really doing that good of a job), is also an amateur sleuth. Cue the fraught relationship with local detectives! Of course, it’s always Father Brown who brings in that final clue to solve the case and save the day. Well aware of the shortcomings of 50s life, Father Brown tackles everything from LGBTQ issues to misogyny in his own roundabout way. He’s the most polite priest you’ll ever meet. His merry band of followers include the meddling-but-loveable Irish sidekick/parish secretary Mrs Bridgette McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) as well as ruffian-and-artful-dodger Sidney Carter (Alex Price), well-to-do Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) whose husband is mysteriously never around, amongst the other odd-balls of Kembleford. Don’t forget his arch nemesis M. Hercule Flambeau (John Light). Yes, it’s a lot to keep track of but each episode is more-or-less self-contained, making them easy to digest and fun for a binge where the bad guy always gets his comeuppance and the good guys are unequivocally good. Moral ambiguity exists in such a toothless way that you always manage to feel satisfied at the end of it.
2. Morse / Lewis
The second in the canon of the Morse Universe (based on the novels by Colin Dexter) was an early taste of the direction serialised cop dramas were headed. It’s thrown in for good measure because, though Lewis is certainly far darker than its predecessor Morse, its tether to that history keeps it from slipping totally into the mire. Not to mention the episodes of both shows are actually filmed in daylight, making them watchable in the most literal sense of the word. The 1980s serial featuring the inimitable John Thaw as the ultimate grump Endeavour Morse is so over the top in its silliness that it’s impossible not to love. Over time you see Lewis (Kevin Whately), as a DS and later a DI, evolve in a way that is actually endearing and makes sense for a detective who’s been working for seven million years. The sequel adds Laurence Fox as the Cambridge grad in Oxford (insert a lot of elitist bashing!) DS Hathaway for a good dose of eye candy. His brooding ways revolve particularly around the issue of homosexuality within the church. (No, we’re not back at Father Brown.) Though Morse is certainly more light-hearted and cheesy, Lewis straddles the line between humour and drama that makes you want to watch with open eyes, instead of hiding behind your fingers.
3. Rosemary and Thyme
How do I love thee, let me count the ways. Seeing two women solving crime without the aid of men (hooray!) and without the trope of being victims turned vigilantes (double hooray!) is just one of the ways Rosemary and Thyme is so brilliant. It takes itself quite seriously despite its inception being (allegedly) to entertain the creator’s wife. Watching a series manage to tie crime into gardening is, in and of itself, entertaining and strange. It’s the type of show you would expect Edward de Bono to enjoy for its lateral thinking. Before you ask, Thyme is not her first name. The two women, Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme (Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris respectively) are bonded by their love of gardening, and the fact that both seem to have a penchant for overhearing dastardly deeds. Reading the Wikipedia descriptions of the episodes alone is worth it. Episode one: “Plants soon are the least of their concern when a murder occurs…” If that’s not a hook, what is?
4. Murder, She Wrote
Murder, She Wrote’s star Angela Lansbury is a joint UK-US National treasure (barring her recent comments on the #MeToo movement, of course). The 1980s American show follows the widow Jessica Fletcher, a crime novelist who always happens to be near, adjacent to, related to, involved in, a variety of murders. A well-known conspiracy theory is that Fletcher is, in fact, always the culprit. Regardless, its sheer camp alone makes it a fun watch. Lansbury’s acting chops are without question, and the formulaic nature of MSW means that you often uncover the perpetrator long before Fletcher does. But that’s half the fun. Who doesn’t enjoy watching an older woman meddle her way into a boys club? Googling ‘Murder, She Wrote’ memes is guaranteed to put a smile on your face…
5. Miami Vice
What list of detective shows would be complete with Miami Vice! The boats, the cars, the fashion! Everything about Miami Vice is over the top and so, so watchable. It features Don Johnson as James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs as two Metro-Dade detectives working undercover in Miami. Their character names alone are a thing of beauty. Half the time spent watching the show consists of shouting at the television – WHAT ARE THEY WEARING?! – and the other half is spent oogling over 80s cars and ostentatious yachts. The fact that it’s a cop show is second to the insanity of the visuals. Of course, the show was definitely violent – each episode ending in some kind of gun-fight bloodbath in which a lot of bad guys died so you didn’t have to feel too guilty about it. Forget the drugs and prostitution, look at that suit!
These vintage detective shows are very white and mostly male. The upside of our new slew of harder-hitting series is the diversity (How to get Away with Murder and Undercover to name just two). It’s hard not to imagine how wonderful a vintage style series might be with some of the powerhouse actors and actresses of colour featuring in these heavier dramas.
Honourable mentions include Jonathan Creek, Midsomer Murders, and Magnum PI.