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Top 25 Best Mystery TV Shows

Best Mystery TV Series

Sometimes it’s nice to be able to come home after work and flop down in front of the television set. When you do, one of the most popular of all genres on TV is the mystery and crime show. Not only do millions watch these shows every week, some of them have been on for decades.

So what explains the popularity of these shows? First is that the episodes end with everything in their place.

The villain has been locked away or killed. The heroes are triumphant and life goes back to normal. The remaining cast suddenly has lost its worries about the future. The on-going stories of the cast take a backseat to the solution to the crimes. Though the characters and plotlines might change for the main characters, the organizations are still likely to be around for next week.

Another reason, for the many shows that started as a series of books, is that the viewer is finally able to put a face to the character they’ve been reading about for years. In some cases, the sleuth looks nothing like what we’ve imagined, but in the best cases, the main detective is similar to what we’ve seen while we’ve read the literary exploits of the characters.

So sit back, get that popcorn, and read about 25 of the best TV mysteries of all time.

Perhaps the iconic television lone wolf private eye show, Jim Rockford is an ex-con who is trying to make his way as an unofficial private eye. He's helped by his father and Angel, a hapless con with a desire to strike it rich. Rockford plays it cautiously. He's on the border of lazy, not wanting to get involved unless he needs the cash or it affects him personally. He's often prompted to get involved when the case impacts someone he knows. He's known for driving a Firebird as his car of choice and he lives in Malibu, which is a fairly well-to-do neighborhood for a down-on-his luck PI.

Why It Made the List 

Beyond being perhaps the best television private eye show ever, the show has a number of touches that make it worth seeing. Each episode starts with an answering machine message to Rockford, sometimes amusing, sometimes embarrassing, but always worth the time to watch. The show lasted six seasons. The show was nominated for 22 Golden Globe awards, so it was doing something right.

The Cast

James Garner, Noah Beery Jr. Joe Santos

Watch It If You Like

private eyes, California setting, down on their luck heroes

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Stuart McMillan, known to his friends as Mac, and his wife Sally have an unusual marriage. He's the police commissioner for the city of San Francisco; his wife Sally is fascinated by crime and can't help herself in trying to help her husband solve his toughest cases. The first few seasons are the best with the original cast intact. The later years saw Sally killed in a plane crash, and Mildred replaced by her sister. The show ran six seasons in all, and while the sets and clothing are now dated (it was filmed in the 1970s), the plots and twists are still captivating. Definitely worth watching this series again.

Why It Made the List 

Married sleuths have become a staple in the genre, but McMillan and Wife was one of the first shows to have a liberated woman as the distaff half of the couple. She has a life of her own and does not routinely seek his counsel on what to do. Nancy Walker (who would later do a stint as Rhoda's mother) plays Mildred, the housekeeper, who helps Sally in her amateur attempts to solve crimes. This was one of the Sunday night mystery series that ran in rotation with McCloud and Columbo.

The Cast

Susan Saint James, Rock Hudson, Nancy Walker, John Schuck

Watch It If You Like

amateur detectives, husband and wife teams, San Francisco settings

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Ellery Queen was one of the earlier great detectives in the United States along with Nero Wolfe. A whole set of sleuths in America were super-smart and spoke with alarming accents. The character is best remembered today for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but at one time, he was one of the best known characters in mystery fiction. The arcane, difficult puzzles for his cases were replicated for the show (some speculate that the intense nature of getting the clues right hurt the shows long-term survival chances). Many people still remember the show fondly and the actors who played Queen, his father and Sergeant Velie have become iconic representations of the characters.

Why It Made the List

While the show only lasted one season, Jim Hutton has become the face of Ellery Queen to a generation of readers. While he played Queen more as a forgetful professor than super sleuth, the characterization of Queen has stuck for almost 40 years now. The show was recently released to DVD.

The Cast

Jim Hutton, David Wayne, Tom Reese

Watch It If You Like

Golden Age Detectives, Dying Clues, Strong plots

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After tumultuous runs as a series of B-movies and a radio soap opera, author Erle Stanley Gardner wanted to maintain control of the series as it reached television. He owned the production company and helped select the iconic actors who would play the various roles. The show ran for nine seasons, featuring the three actors who played Perry, Della, and Paul. In nine seasons, Perry didn't lose a case (though in a few he seems to lose in an early hearing.) His knowledge of the law and his relationship with his executive secretary are still discussed today. The shows are fairly formulaic. There's an odd situation at the beginning of the episode, followed by a murder. Then a suspect is arrested and Perry takes the case. Since the client is never guilty, the viewer knows to start watching the other actors.

The Cast

Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper

Why It Made the List

The show is still shown on low-budget stations like MeTV. The entire series is available on DVD, and there's talk of another new Perry Mason show starring Robert Downey Jr. The previous reincarnation of the fabled lawyer, featuring Monte Markham, tanked after one season.

Watch It If You Like

legal dramas, California as a setting, camaraderie in the lead characters

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Though there have been many incarnations of the famous Belgian detective on the large screen, one actor has ruled the television role of Poirot. Starting in the late 1980s and finishing in 2014, David Suchet filmed each of the novels and short stories of Agatha Christie's famous detective. The show began by mostly filming the shorter works with Poirot. To fill them out, they expanded on the personalities of Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon. The later works were mostly novels, many without the rest of the triumvirate that had made the shows so popular. Even so, the works were watched and rewatched. The show finished its run in 2014 with the airing of Curtain, Poirot's last case.  The show did a fantastic job of casting with such difficult roles as Mrs. Oliver, Battles, and Colonel Race.

The Cast

David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson

Why It Made the List 

The sheer gumption of committing to filming the entire series took guts. Many of the works had never been dramatized and even if the work had been filmed before, the Suchet team filmed it again. The feat took nearly 25 years.

Watch It If You Like

Golden Age Detectives, foreign sleuths, clues

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Who hasn't seen at least one Law&Order episode? The promos for the show often proclaimed that the stories were ripped from the headlines and indeed they were. The show featured fictionalized versions of Patricia Cornwell's same-sex affair, Princess Diana's death, Dr. Kervorkian, and more. The show was originally planned as two half-hour dramas, the first being the police and the second being the courts. The show tied the two pieces together, but the episodes still ran approximately half-and-half. Unlike Perry Mason, the DAs often lost cases and came up against special guest star defense attorneys. The show is one of the few that embraced the changes in the police and DA's office and the cast changes did not seem to hurt the show's ratings.

Why It Made the List 

The show ran 20 years before it was ended, making it one of the longest running shows in history. The familiar "bum, bum" of the scene transitions is used in popular culture today. The show also created multiple spin-offs, and Dick Wolfe is at it again with his Chicago series. 

The Cast

S. Erptha Merkerson, Sam Waterston, Jerry Orbach, Steven Hill, Jesse Martin

Watch It If You Like

legal drama, police procedurals

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After reading about Poirot, the fastidious little detective, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that we had someone on the opposite end of the spectrum as well. Lieutenant Columbo was a disheveled man with frizzy hair and a rumpled overcoat. He frequently turned back at the last second to ask the suspect "one more thing." The cases did not follow the normal pattern of murder and whodunit. These television dramas were inverted stories where the viewer knows who did it; however, they don't know how Columbo will learn the truth. The viewer stays with the story to learn the ways that Columbo determines the killer.

Why It Made the List 

Columbo remains one of the most memorable of the television crime solvers. His behavior, clothing and mannerisms are still remembered by fans of the show. The studios even tried to bring out a show featuring his wife (who was never seen during Columbo) as Mrs. Columbo, but that show had none of the quirkiness of the original and was soon dropped.

The Cast

Peter Falk, Mike Lally, John Finnegan

Watch It If You Like

Inverted mysteries, police procedurals

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A modern day recasting of Sherlock Holmes in New York City, Holmes is a recovering addict and Joan Watson is his sober companion. Holmes is still British. The show has featured short-term roles for both Mycroft and Moriarty. Holmes works as a liaison for the NYPD, and he frequently works with Gregson (rather than Lestrade.) The show has covered a number of interesting mysteries, while dealing with the aspects of Holmes' life as a recovering addict. He's shown going to meeting and in fact, some of his cases stem from the meetings and his addiction. One of the more consistent Holmes renditions on television.

Why It Made the List 

Although many thought that making Watson a woman was a step too far, the fact of the matter is that mystery author Rex Stout suggested that Watson could be a woman over 50 years ago. So the premise, while unusual, is not new by any means.

The Cast

Johnny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aiden Quinn

Watch It If You Like

Sherlock Holmes, New York setting, intelligent detectives

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A very liberal retelling of the Kathy Reich novels featuring Temperance Brennan, forensic scientist who specializes in learning what bones can tell investigators about a crime.  Unlike the books, the show takes place in Washington DC and features Seeley Booth as her fellow crime solver and love interest. In most instances, the team finds a bone or set of bones that lead them into a mystery and solution which depends on the forensic developments in the science of bones. The show has run eleven seasons and has shown no signs of giving up. Over the course of the show, Brennan has married, had two children and still finds time for the science she loves so much.

Why It Made the List 

The show not only solves a mystery with each episode; it also has overarching story arcs that may run for several seasons. It dealt with a secret organization, the death of her father and others plotlines that appeared in multiple episodes and even multiple seasons. Not many shows make it to eleven seasons which makes this an especially long-running show for mystery-lovers.

The Cast

Emily Deschanel, David Boreanaz, Michaela Conlin, TJ Thyne

Watch It If You Like

forensic dramas, FBI drama, police procedurals

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It shouldn't be a surprise that the groovy 1960s spilled over into the cartoons, but the shock is that 50 years later, these characters are still remembered fondly. Shaggy, Scooby Doo, Velma, Freddy and Daphne all traveled around in a Mystery Machine, a psychedelically colored van. At each stop, they found a mystery in which Scooby and Shaggy wanted nothing to do with, but the others convinced them to join in and help usually with the use of food or Scooby Snacks. After being scared by the paranormal type happenings, they always found a very earthly solution to the problem.

Why It Made the List 

The only cartoon crime-solvers, this show has continued with a number of variations over the years from the very forgettable Scrappy Doo to the live action version of the movie that came and went without a trace. Some episodes contained original music, while others did not. The original series is still the best and the one most remembered by viewers. "If it weren't for those meddling kids," is still a catchphrase in movies today.

The Cast(Voiceovers obviously) Casey Kasem, Nicole Jaffe, Don Messick

Watch It If You Like

Teen dramas, paranormal suggestions, humor in mystery

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Monk was one of the breed of quirky detectives. In his case, he suffered from a number of phobias and OCD. He'd always been somewhat obsessive, but the death of his beloved wife Trudy had pushed him over the edge. He lost his job at the police department, but he became a consultant to the police where he could work as his internal issues allowed him. Monk had to have additional help in the form of a case worker who served as a Watson and a potential interest (though it never made it that far.)

Why It Made the List 

While Monk could be infuriating and frustrating as a character, the characters issues were always treated with respect. The viewer could feel the character's frustrations at not being able to break out of his issues, but at no time was the character ridiculed in part, because those same issues made him such a great detective. Sadly the show ended before the audience ever learned what had happened to Trudy, his wife and the only case he was unable to solve.

The Cast

Tony Shalhoub, Jason Gray-Stanford, Ted Levine, Traylor Howard

Watch It If You Like

quirky characters, San Francisco setting

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A very different legal thriller program than the others on the list. The main character is the good wife, the woman who was left high and dry after her husband, an attorney for the state of Illinois, is found guilty of corruption. The story was based on similar cases featuring high profile politicians. Now she has to go back to work at a law firm in Chicago to make her own life. Many of the cases involve politics and the justice system, but there are frequent mysteries to be solved. The show ran for 7 years with an all-star cast. This has probably the most in-depth character studies of this top 25 list.

Why It Made the List 

It's one of the few shows to say that it created its own sequel, The Good Fight.

The Cast

Julianna Marguilies, Matt Czuchry, Christine Baranski, Archie Pankabi, Alan Cumming

Watch It If You Like

legal dramas, strong women

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The crusty crime solver from Anne Cleeves books hails from the Northumberland area of Great Britain. The author has lived there for over two decades and knows the points of the landscape shown on the show. The woman has wit and singular charm, but at times can be single-minded to the point of neglecting others. This police procedural series has diverged from the books, as most of the series have at some point, but there's no reason to not indulge in both. The characters are well-drawn with their own foibles and weaknesses. Vera is a single woman, who outwardly appears lonely, but is driven to solve crimes and bring justice to those who have been killed. It would be best to not get in her way. 

Why It Made the List 

The series is in its seventh and shows no signs of giving up. Some of the supporting characters have left the show or met an unhappy fate, but the main character is still ready to solve crimes.

The Cast

Brenda Blethyn, Jon Morrison, David Leon, Riley Jones

Watch It If You Like

British crime, police procedurals

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Except for Scoobie Doo, this is the only teen mystery show on the list. A few others, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, came out in the 1970s but they seemed a world away from the issues of the day. Veronica had all the heart and soul of a 1940s private eye, except she was in high school. The first story arc dealt with the death of one of her friends, and she's the one who ultimately solves the case. She also is somewhat responsible for her father losing his job as sheriff, but he sets up his own private eye firm where Mars worked. That first season set the tone for the show which ran three seasons. Kristen Bell served as the main character and her sassy delivery was easily the best part of the show.

Why It Made the List 

The show wasn't over when the television show ended. A movie was funded by crowd-funding, a decade after the original TV show debuted, showing that the fascination with the character was still alive.

The Cast

Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, Jason Dohring, Francis Capra

Watch It If You Like

teen drama, high school hijinks

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Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's other detective, has long been a fan favorite and people were thrilled to see her finally come to the small screen. Jane Marple had been lampooned by Margaret Rutherford in the early 1960s, and no one had touched the properties since. As a result, the fans were thrilled to find a version of the show that stuck to the books and featured a woman who looked like many readers would envision the spinster sleuth. All of the episodes are well-done, and the plots are left intact for the most part. This series is likely what the author had in mind.

Why It Made the List 

With three series released where each has its own Marple, it's hard to miss the shows these days. The script writers have even inserted Jane into books in which she did not appear. Yet for most people the first of the series with Joan Hickson is the one to watch. The character is more like the sleuth described in the books and Agatha Christie had at one point suggested her as a candidate to play Marple.

The Cast Joan Hickson

Watch It If You Like

Amateur detectives, Golden Age sleuths, British dramas

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Richard Castle broke into mystery writing and then decided to try his hand at solving real-life mysteries. In this television show, the trope of having the policeman as boyfriend is reversed so that Castle has a sometimes love interest in the female lead, who plays a detective. The series was well-played and the characters had chemistry. Sadly, the series used an overarching storyline that could at times become hard to believe. The later arcs were somewhat impossible, and they detracted from an otherwise solid plot-driven show. In the end, the show abruptly fired the female lead and then just days later cancelled the show with no explanation. Perhaps the end of the show was its greatest mystery.

Why It Made the List 

Having Castle as a fictional mystery writer was so much fun that the series decided to put out books published by "Castle." So there are now a series of books that go along with the series. In addition, the show had several real-life mystery authors play themselves on the show and the group played poker on-air.

The Cast

Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, Susan Sullivan, Jon Huertas, Seamus Dever

Watch It If You Like

Amateur detective, author as sleuth, police procedurals

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The show is based off the Kerry Greenwood books about Phryne Fisher, a sleuth who operated in Melbourne Australia in the late 1920s. Fisher is an unorthodox character, who possesses a more modern attitude towards women, lovers and work. The series had a devoted fan base before the series started on television, and the books popularity has grown since then. Historical mysteries force the sleuths to rely on their wits, since forensics was limited to fingerprints at that time. Phryne is paired with Jack, a police officer in Melbourne. Phryne's maid, Dot, is involved with the constable working with Jack, making them romantic double pairing. The end of the third season ended with some resolution, because the long-term fate of the series is in question.

Why It Made the List

The show has been popular and ran three series before it had to be put on hold. The star actress had taken a part in the HBO series Game of Thrones and as a result, the filming schedule could not be met. The producers are talking about a series of movies made for television to continue the series.  

The Cast

Essie Davis, Nathan Page, Ashleigh Cummings, Hugo, Johnstone-Burt

Watch It If You Like

amateur sleuths, historical dramas, strong women

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"You are about to enter" started every episode of the television series that ran five seasons. It's hard to summarize the series because it spanned across most every definition. It was science fiction at times. It was mysterious at others. The characters were men, women, children, those on the edge, and those who were sane. Each week the viewers were treated to an episode that made them think, often with a moral to it. The shows could be deeply ironic as in the episode where the man left after the apocalypse breaks his glasses after stating that he has enough time to read now. The show relied on a constant stream of short works and they often used the best writers in mystery and science fiction. The show is still a favorite for many, even though it's been off the air for more than 50 years.

Why It Made the List 

Many basic cable stations still run this show. Few shows with this level of intelligence and wit existed before or exist now. The series often shows up as a marathon over a weekend or holiday. Most everyone over a certain age can name a favorite episode after all these years.

The Cast

Rod Serling

Watch It If You Like

morals to the story, science and mystery combined

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Another amazingly long-running crime drama on television. The show is in its fifteenth season already and is still going strong. The show features the people who work in the crime scene investigation team in the city of Las Vegas which has the distinction of being the second busiest lab. The show seemed to hit its stride early in the second season, offering a mix of science in small easy to understand parts with police procedures and characters that the audience cares about. The show has had a number of stars come and go but many cast members have remained on the show for a decade or more. It's definitely worth catching, but you might not want to binge that many seasons at once.

Why It Made the List 

Like Law & Order before it, the show has become its own franchiser. There have been CSI shows set in various parts of the country, TV movies and video games.

The Cast

George Eads, Eric Szmanda, Robert David Hall, Paul Guilfoyle, Jorja Fox, David Berman, Marg Helgenberger

Watch It If You Like

forensics, Las Vegas as a setting

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The strangest of all quirky characters, Dexter is a serial killer who sates the urges by killing other serial killers. He works in the morgue as a blood splatter expert, which is quite a trick since he specializes in blood. Since he seeks out killers as his daytime profession, he has easy access to them in the night. The Showtime series is based on books by Jeff Lindsay, who also received writing credits for the series as well. Even so, the books diverge from the series as most do after a period of time. 

Why It Made the List 

Over the course of 8 seasons, he dispatches a number of bad guys. The tension is always ratcheting up as he falls in love, marries, has children and has his identity uncovered by some of the men he is pursuing. The show ended on a low note, being called one of the worst ending in TV history, but that shouldn't stop you from a binge watch of the first several seasons. 

The Cast

Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, David Zayas, James Remar, CS Lee,

Watch It If You Like

serial killers, forensic science

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An instant hit for HBO, the show took off with its leads of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughy. The plot was a twisted story of how some children were being abducted and later found dead. The two leads are very different men who work as partners. Harrelson is a straight-shooter while McConaughy is prone to wild theories and conspiracies. The plot takes some unexpected twists and turns in the story, which is set in the past. The ending feels a bit rushed and there are plot holes galore, but the characters are compelling and worth watching. The show had a second season with new leads, but after that, the show ended.

Why It Made the List 

The cast is compelling and the storyline up to a point was logical. The arc of the story took some wild turns, but it was probably the most talked about first season since Twin Peaks had its turn. The writer is now working on a reboot of the Perry Mason franchise.

The Cast

Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Vince Vaughn

Watch It If You Like

single season shows, new casts each year, police procedurals

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By far, the most memorable mystery show to air. Not only did the show continue to provide mysteries week after week, the show rested solely on the likability of its main character, mystery author Jessica Fletcher. The show ran for over a decade with Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury, solving crime after crime. The show was the inspiration for many traditional mystery writers, who saw the relatively static Fletcher surrounded by new guest stars and weekly murders. You would think that people would no longer want to be around someone who attracted murder in this manner. In the later seasons, she moved to New York City to have more potential victims. The stories were well-loved and the series still does well in reruns.

Why It Made the List 

The show ran for 12 years which made it something of a record in the mystery field. After that, people should that they couldn't get enough of Cabot Cove, because a series of television movies were made after that. A series of books "written" by Fletcher were also popular during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Cast

Angela Lansbury, William Windon

Watch It If You Like

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During the height of his fame, director Alfred Hitchcock, known for Psycho, The Birds and North by Northwest, produced a mystery show that has endured. He took some of the best short works of mystery and changed into teleplays for the new medium of television. Each week, one of the suspense stories was dramatized and provided with an opening and closing by the great director. This pipeline of new material gave rise to some of the best mystery authors and screenplay writers of the day who started working on the show. The show ran seven very successful seasons.

Why It Made the List 

The show was made by the opening and closing comments of the great director. He had a dry humor that he used to poke fun at the commercials and sponsors of his program. The US audience ate them up, but for some reason, the Europeans were not amused. As a result, he had to produce a second set of commentary for the Continent. The CastAlfred Hitchcock

Watch It If You Like

droll humor, one hour dramas, surprises at the end of the show

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The show is a fun con job on the police. Shawn Spencer, whose father is a police officer, lands a consulting job with the police after he convinces them that he has psychic ability. He pretends to see the future and be able to know things without trying; however, in fact he's using the powers of observation that his father instilled in him over the years. As it turns out, Spencer has to use those powers each week to solve a case and to keep up the pretense that he has the sixth sense.

Why It Made the List 

The show mixed the con with the straight mystery story, something that isn't usually done, but it worked well. The show ran for eight seasons on a basic cable network and had good ratings. It was even nominated for an Emmy, which most basic cable shows can only dream of.

The Cast

James Roday, Dule Hill, Timothy Omundson, Corbin Bernsen

Watch It If You Like

quirky sleuths, amateur sleuths, con men

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One of the best romantic comedies also happened to be a crime drama at heart. When Maddie (Sybil Shepherd) walked into the Blue Moon Detective Agency, a company she had bought in better times as a tax deduction, she finds David Addison goofing off and not worrying about making a profit. The two immediately clashed, but of course, below the surface they were wildly attracted to each other. The cool beauty and the sarcastic, quick-witted PI had never been this funny or this watchable. Between the "will they, won't they" discussion, the show had real cases, the meat and potatoes of any private eye business. Of course, after they did, the show's quality went downhill, but it was great while it lasted.

Why It Made the List 

For starters, the show launched the career of Bruce Willis, who had been a bartender before landing the plum role of David Addison. The lead actors did not get along, but the chemistry on-screen is real, so the acting is far above par. The show brought out a number of catch phrases and odd scenes. The show even had a Shakespeare episode of all things.

The Cast

Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis, Allyce Beasley, Curtis Armstrong

Watch It If You Like

humor, will they, won't they shows, private eye drama

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