And by the way, they are deeply sad
March 11, 2018 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Why Are TV Detectives Always So Sad?
Sad detectives are about more than just getting you to stick around for future episodes, though. We’re so inundated with detective tropes that the detective has become her own breed of superhero — a figure who restores the status quo, who maintains the social fabric, who arrives in the midst of some unbearable horror and has the ability to not just interpret it, but track down the wrongdoer and bring him to justice. She brings order out of chaos. She finds answers. She is superhuman. Unless the goal is a cozy mystery where the resolution is never, ever in doubt (see: Poirot, Matlock, Jessica Fletcher), our collective vision of the fictional detective is of someone who’s arguably too powerful. Of course she’ll solve the crime! She’s a detective! Her sadness is a way to modulate that power, to soften her. It motivates her, perhaps — it explains why any person would be willing to show up and stare at murdered corpses day after day. But it’s also the convenient veil we all hold up to prevent ourselves from seeing how inevitable the mystery’s resolution still is. “Maybe this time she won’t solve it,” we think, “because she’s so, so sad.” She’ll solve it. But it’s a little easier for us all to briefly pretend she won’t.
N.B. The author is using “detective” as a shorthand for all official and unofficial investigators: prosecutors, private investigators, etc.
posted by not_the_water (84 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I will simply note here that Columbo, the best TV detective ever, was never sad. In fact, he usually seemed preternaturally cheerful and optimistic, even that one time where the murderer pointed a gun at him.
posted by holborne at 2:17 PM on March 11 [52 favorites]


Because thinking about the worst things people do to each other all day every day for years on end is depressing as fuck.

Counterpoint: the entire cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
posted by Flannery Culp at 2:23 PM on March 11 [22 favorites]


Yeah, Columbo seemed pretty content. Jessica Fletcher always seemed to be in a good mood. Detectives Tom and John Barnaby both seem to have very nice lives for themselves. Miss Marple was always cheery. Brother Cadfael seemed very content in his new life, even if he had some baggage from the Crusades. Even Poirot, for all his obsessive qualities, didn’t seem unhappy on the whole.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:26 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]


They're not all sad. Some of them are happier and with their mouths open. (SLYT, WKUK)
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 2:35 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


DCI Barnaby always seemed quite at ease.
posted by biffa at 2:42 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Benton Fraser had some melancholy aspects, but in the day-to-day he was pretty cheerful. (As who wouldn't be, looking like Paul Gross?)
posted by praemunire at 2:42 PM on March 11 [11 favorites]


Even when he was Sergeant Bergerac.
posted by biffa at 2:43 PM on March 11


Here is where I have to confess that I hated Columbo. Not the character, but the show.

Because week after week, Columbo always got the better of some of my favorite celebrities & actors. Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, Johnny Cash, Leonard Nimoy, Dick Van Dyke. They all fell prey to that impish “Oh just one more thing...”.

It was enough to make a young me root for the bad guys.

...

Every Saturday, I used to scour the thrift stores for mysteries (the books, not actual mysteries), and once had a couple thousand of the paperbacks stacked in my bedroom so that there was no room for anything else. Nero Wolfe, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, and on and on. My local Goodwill couldn’t keep them on the shelf. Mom surreptitiously got rid of them all when I was away at college, an act that took me at least a decade to forgive.

My favorite was Brother Cadfael. I devoured those books and the shows. For a long time, I wanted to be an herbalist monk in my retirement. He did have a little wistful sadness about him, from equal parts grieving over the loss of his wife, some issues from his former life as a soldier, and having to suffer the slings and arrows of Prior Robert and Brother Jerome.

...

As for Jessica Fletcher, we used to say that Cabot Cove was the murder capital of the world, and that Fletcher was probably a serial killer...
posted by darkstar at 2:46 PM on March 11 [15 favorites]


Gleeful detectives were a big part of why Psych was so darn good.
posted by mattamatic at 2:47 PM on March 11 [22 favorites]


It's astounding to me that they credit Jessica Jones's sadness to "gaslighting," and Veronica Mars' sadness to "dead best friend," without bothering to mention that both of these young women were raped while in incapacitated states and unable to consent of their own free will.

Nice, Vulture.
posted by tzikeh at 2:49 PM on March 11 [51 favorites]


I see that our late-80s take on Cabot Cove was not unique.

I appreciate Cracked’s view:
At first, Cabot Cove doesn't seem all that bad. It's an idyllic coastal community of only 3,000, so you can't complain about the atmosphere. Also, for a town in the typically unwashed state of Maine, the townsfolk are relatively attractive, consistently looking (and for some reason acting) like they just stepped off the set of a soap opera.

However, none of that changes the fact that if you lived in Cabot Cove from 1984-1996, there was a pretty good chance that someone was going to murder your ass. With a body count of up to eight per episode, Cabot Cove experienced an outbreak of no less than 800 murders during the time that Jessica Fletcher lived there. And the crimes tended to be local on local, meaning that over half of the population was involved in a murder in a twelve year span. (Hear that, Camden, NJ?)

Law Enforcement: In a small town like Cabot Cove, you'd think that the limited suspect pool would have enabled the cops to solve murders pretty quickly. But time after time, the Cabot Cove PD would arrest the wrong person, falling for clearly planted clues like a suspect's hat being left at the scene of the crime, and ignoring obvious culprits like the guy in the corner laughing maniacally while steepling his bloody fingers.

Sure, Jessica Fletcher would set the cops straight in the end, but not before the cops would tell her to "leave this one up to the professionals." And just imagine what happened when the swinging queen of crime fiction was off on one of her many vacations. (Where people coincidentally were also always getting murdered.) If you live in Cabot Cove, you're either going to commit murder, get murdered, be falsely accused of murder, or you're a shit-stupid cop. Take your pick.
posted by darkstar at 2:58 PM on March 11 [17 favorites]


I will simply note here that Columbo, the best TV detective ever, was never sad.

Well, neither was he a detective. Sure, that was his job title. But there’s supposed to be more to it than simply picking a suspect seemingly at random and just annoying the heck out of them day in, day out, until they confess, not out of guilt, but out of pure frustration at the situation you’ve put them in.

(Pretty realistic, though.)
posted by Sys Rq at 3:00 PM on March 11 [14 favorites]


It's part of the archetype of the lonely warrior, just in modern guise. Mythical warriors have often had a sad or tragic side:

“The ideal of warriorship is that the warrior should be sad and tender, and because of that, the warrior can be very brave as well.”
― Chögyam Trungpa
posted by Atrahasis at 3:00 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


...Especially in an already oversaturated body of dark, violent TV, the problem of the sad detective is that she’s gotten so common that the trope no longer works the way it’s supposed to. It feels inevitable that a detective will be mired in sadness, and it’s become more of an eye-rolling box to check than a meaningful measure of humanity.

I dunno about that. I think sad is a step up from cynical. Does your average tv viewer prefer hard boiled? What else is there? Gleeful gum shoe? Would a little bit less sad be ok?
posted by uraniumwilly at 3:05 PM on March 11


When it comes to sad detectives, I'm not sure why Charlie Brooker's Touch of Cloth isn't brought up more.

The various "cloth"-related puns alone are worth it for me ("Touching, cloth."), but it has some of the best absurd dialogue there is.

What I don't want is words. I've heard all the words there are to hear, from dyspepsia to lemonade, and they're just sounds you make with your lips, inconsequential mouth farts. I need results, Cloth. What the French call resulte.

Brooker and his excellent cast (John Hannah and Suranne Jones especially) manage to keep the demeanor of the "sad detective" and crack at most major tropes with ease. Some of the best send ups of the sad detective I've seen.
posted by deadaluspark at 3:06 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]


I started watching Law and Order: Criminal Intent, which started out featuring its own Sad Detectives (tm) when it first came out in the early 2000s because I liked that the detectives seemed appropriately sad while checking out a dead body instead of making bad puns and mugging for the camera. It seemed right that a detective should be sad about cruelty and murder while working to overcome it and I enjoyed the comforting satisfaction of that. I know that this doesn’t line up with the real life need for gallows humor to cope with difficult situations but yknow, it’s fiction.

What could be more of a middle finger to the world than a detective who tries to restore order to a late-stage capitalist hellscape full of corruption and cruelty, a detective who smiles while doing it, because someone still needs to find the truth?
I bet this author would enjoy Brooklyn 99, it’s basically this.
posted by bleep at 3:12 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


I wonder how much of this is attributable to noir becoming a defining force of popular crime fiction? The big difference with a lot of the titles dropped in the article is that noir detectives tend to not solve their case - or solve it incompletely. Nero Wolfe, to use a pre-noir example, usually solves the case in the second act and spends most of the book contemplating his discomfort rather than the pain of it all. However, for the time, Rex Stout still dealt with classic noir themes: racism, sexism, classism, injustice. Also worth noting that the 2017 murder on the orient express turned affable Poirot into a conflicted mope. It would be kind of interesting to see a turn back towards happy detectives.
posted by codacorolla at 3:17 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


One word I was looking for in that essay but never found: noir. Film noir seemed to me where the tropes of detective fiction congealed and hardened into cement. And everybody was sad in a noir story... but I blamed it on long exposure to inadequate lighting.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:17 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]


Well, I've given this a lot of thought. Few authors are able to keep a mystery plot going alongside a subplot of the detective's wife and family without it being plodding or having the family picked off one-by-one by psychopaths. Donna Leon did a good job with this with Commissario Brunetti and his wife and children, and Inspector Maigret had Mme. Maigret, who occasionally had something to do besides making lunch. However, for the most part, authors would rather have an alcoholic loner, because it's so much easier. The problem with alcoholic loners is that, over the long run, you have to give them love interests... who are then, inevitably, one by one, picked off by sociopaths, which becomes cruel and repetitive. Even worse, the author sometimes thinks to give the loner a stitched together, symbolic family. Dave Robicheaux lost a wife to a sociopath, but he got an adopted daughter who was an El Salvadoran orphan he saved from a plane crash. She then got a pet raccoon. The two of them were always in peril. In the case of Arkady Renko, he lost his great love, became an alcoholic loner, regained his lost love, who then died, but then he stitched together a family from a radioactive woman from Chernobyl and a troubled chess prodigy from the streets. The great Easy Rawlings assembled a multicultural stitched-together family of a native American orphan and a street-wise but troubled kid. When detectives get a metaphorical-stitched-together-radioactive-nuclear family is when I stop reading about them. You can take loner-ism to its extreme with Jack Reacher, who only has his clothes and a toothbrush, but that becomes boring after 20 or 30 books. Currently Ian Rankin's John Rebus has had the longest run of alcoholic lonerism without me ditching him.
posted by acrasis at 3:22 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]


Jessica Fletcher always seemed to be in a good mood

This is because she has an alternate personality that goes around framing people for murder

Flessica Jetcher
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:24 PM on March 11 [16 favorites]


Jessica Jones S2 opens with her getting proof on a cheating boyfriend. That's also a lot of what real investigators do. I imagine that watching love die on a regular basis, plus the vengeful aftermath, would be kind of a downer.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:25 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


One of the essences of TV drama is to figure out what emotionally healthy people would do in a situation and have your characters do the opposite.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:49 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I went to a wedding at one of the buildings in the opening to Murder She Wrote. It was pretty mellow and we all had a good time.

Benton Fraser had some melancholy aspects

Had to read this twice.
posted by rhizome at 3:50 PM on March 11


I wonder if it is because the detective character has to be good at their job and then the writers need to add something to make the character struggling, a flawed character in a flawed world. And if you didn't have the flaw, the show would be syrupy and lose its grittiness (or at least some of its realism) if the character was a super human. And the easiest thing is to make them unhappy in their personal life (in addition to making the character serious and sympathetic and run down by all the tragedy, crime and sadness in the world).

Kojak, Mike Stone (Streets of San Francisco), Jimmy Perez (Shetland), Michelle Kenidi (North of 60, okay she was a cop, not a detective) were unhappy if not miserable in their personal lives. (Stone was the happiest, but he was widower which was recurringly mentioned.)
posted by philfromhavelock at 3:52 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I dunno about that. I think sad is a step up from cynical. Does your average tv viewer prefer hard boiled? What else is there? Gleeful gum shoe? Would a little bit less sad be ok?

One of the things The Wire did well was show you a crew of detectives who were, y'know, human beings, who went through cynical, manic, angry, amused and optimistic phases throughout the show (sometimes over the course of one day). But maybe part of that was that they were just one part of a much vaster cast, and there wasn't as much weight placed on them as is placed on, for example, a single detective protagonist. Writers end up having to fill in a lot more time spent with the latter, and its probably easier to give them a baseline of "this person is constantly ______."
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:13 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty:
"Anywhere along here's fine," Chili said, thinking of times he had been asked if he was guilty and not once ever having the urge to say he was. Real-life situations, even facing prison time, were never as emotional as movies. Cops got emotional in movies. He had never met an emotional cop in his life.
posted by russilwvong at 4:23 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Lionel Fusco – sad, cynical and delightfully violent. My favorite TV detective.
posted by tommyD at 4:38 PM on March 11 [12 favorites]


One of the things The Wire did well was show you a crew of detectives who were, y'know, human beings, who went through cynical, manic, angry, amused and optimistic phases throughout the show (sometimes over the course of one day). But maybe part of that was that they were just one part of a much vaster cast, and there wasn't as much weight placed on them as is placed on, for example, a single detective protagonist. Writers end up having to fill in a lot more time spent with the latter, and its probably easier to give them a baseline of "this person is constantly

Excellent points. Wire being the standard - if that's the tone the production team is after. But as you say, it's very interesting to ponder the spread of characters and budget in such a production as Wire vs a piece that emphasizes a different hook and maybe a different audience/time slot, etc. Compared to Wire these sad character examples feel a bit sappy.
posted by uraniumwilly at 4:40 PM on March 11


Charlie Cruise in Life wasn’t too sad and was definitely trying to find his way back to a happiness and not a specific lost happiness.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:42 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


I bet this author would enjoy Brooklyn 99, it’s basically this.

Neither detecting nor any other kind of police procedural work is depicted in this show, it being a situation comedy. Most of the writing seems to be an attempt to insist that the damp, zero-chemistry "romance" between its two leads is a thing, or alternately a series of excuses for Terry Crews to do the thing with the pecs. I think they might actually have paid more attention to the details of day-to-day cop life in, like, Barney Miller.

PS Andre Braugher is a fucking treasure and the sole redemption of this limp show and I will cut anyone who claims otherwise.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:43 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


Well true they don’t spend that much time detecting anymore but they are cheerful detectives in the face of a lot of misery who just want to find out the truth, this is true whether or not you like the show.
posted by bleep at 4:52 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


One of the reasons I have trouble taking Endeavour seriously is that the main character constantly looks like he’s on the verge of tears. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cup of tea or a dead body—all is met with damp eyes and quivering lips.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:57 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Hank Schrader seemed like a reasonably happy detective until he invited his asshole brother-in-law to a ride-along.
posted by lagomorphius at 4:59 PM on March 11 [15 favorites]


This is a common tale. Stare into the abyss long enough and a crippling milk addiction is a sure result.

DETETCIVE: (to self) Wheryu hideing, Crimer? POLISEMANS: Whats? DETETCIVE: Sorey...Im was talkeing to Myselfe. (sighs) Im got toemush Strass

DETETCIVE: Im so strass . (drinks milk) Cant thinke straigt! (drinks milk) Whatamess! (drinks milk) Heckit. (drinks milk) Heckit!

POLISEMANS: Heye , whats is up wit Detetcive? POLISEWOMANS: Honesly Im no ideae .Hes drinkeing lotsof Melk... (looks out window) Toemush

DETETCIVE: (driving at speed) Hes juste wher Im wante him! Cant slipup ! (drinks milk) POLISEMANS: Sur ,yusure youm shuld be Drinkeing melk?

POLISE: Clam downe! DETETCIVE: Im not Clam downe ! POLISE: Yor crazzy of allthe melk! DETETCIVE: (eyes narrow) Im crazzy of allthe Crimes!

CHEIF: Im cant beleave youm culd be so Stuped!Ande yor drinkeing Melk? Unaseptibel!Go hom,24 houres offe the jobbe! DETETCIVE: (drinks milk)

DETETCIVE: (on phone) Cant stope snezeing. Im snot everwher . DOCTORE: Whye,havyu bin drinkeing Melk? DETETCIVE: No. (looks out window) Yese
posted by kersplunk at 5:30 PM on March 11 [25 favorites]


Paul Drake was just fine, and so was his kid.
posted by tilde at 5:31 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


One of the essences of TV drama is to figure out what emotionally healthy people would do in a situation and have your characters do the opposite.

Mm. I wasn’t aware I was such a candidate for a TV drama.

IIRC, Travis McGee was a fairly cheerful, if pensive, sort as he sat on his boat drinking gin on ice with Meyer the hairy economist.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:33 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Whenever someone talks about Jessica Fletcher, I can only think of Craig Ferguson's "impression" of her.
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:37 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I was gonna say something about Martin Beck, who went through depression, but eventually found a decent relationship and a happier life, but I then realize that I'm thinking of the books, and not the TV versions, which I haven't seen.
posted by ovvl at 6:00 PM on March 11


This may be stretching the bounds of "detective" a bit, but Colin Ferguson's Sheriff Jack Carter always had an optimistic attitude. One of the many things to love about Eureka. I love a good gloomy police procedural as much as the next person, but they do get wearing after a bit, I have to say.
posted by backwards compatible at 6:03 PM on March 11 [7 favorites]


Sgt. Yemana’s coffee certainly didn’t help cheer the detectives up.
posted by TedW at 6:12 PM on March 11 [5 favorites]


Was Jim Rockford sad?
Or just annoyed at his dad?

I don't remember.
posted by droplet at 6:17 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Quincy M.E. had to deal for most of eight seasons of having (a) been widowed and (b) having no first name beyond R. Also being portrayed by Jack Klugman, not the merriest-seeming of men.

And the oddest thing is that Quincy’s late wife Helen (seen in flashback) and his second wife, Emily Hanover were both played by the same performer, Anita Gillette. That’s gotta mess with your head a bit.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:19 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


Sgt. Yemana’s coffee certainly didn’t help cheer the detectives up.

Dietrich and Harris, at least, were relatively upbeat. Nothing save a verifiable miracle would have rendered Fish joyful.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:20 PM on March 11 [8 favorites]


I love me some Nero Wolfe. (Oddly, never cared too much for Agatha Christie as I always felt she cheated in letting the reader get ahead). I damn near moved to LA 20+ years because of Raymond Chandler and being a Florida boy I devoured all the McGee novels. I used to re-read them regularly, but I haven't in a while because I know now, having matured into this day and age's ethos, I'd find many things troubling.

But I always thought the sad detective thing was a trope in service of hammering home that this shit is real and awful and tiresome. Raising the narrative consequences.

My wife and I watch a lot of Investigation Discovery as "background noise" and I just look at the stuff and think "all that time, all that love, all that energy and investment to get someone safe and sound into their adulthood and it's snuffed - for what - money? another lover? pride? fuuuuuuuck".

I can only imagine that dealing with it face first would be even more disheartening.
posted by drewbage1847 at 6:28 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


The Big Lebowski, for as much as it's a commentary on noir mystery, also flips the sad detective on its head. Lebowski is (much like Wolfe) a person who is generally content and pleasure driven, and who is being put out by the mystery, and therefore wants it solved as soon as possible. I think that's partially a piece of the theme, which is about how 60s idealism doesn't amount to much in a nihilistic modern world. Lebowski is content to pal around with a right wing nutjob, go bowling, and get moderately high and drunk on a daily basis. His last activist bonafides are a failed organizing attempt some 30 years ago, and a general southern California hippie burnout personality. He doesn't really solve anything, and he's mostly just used as a patsy by 3 or 4 different people at once. At the end The Dude goes back to his comfortable life, albeit a little bit sad about Donny.
posted by codacorolla at 6:47 PM on March 11 [8 favorites]


Most of the writing seems to be an attempt to insist that the damp, zero-chemistry "romance" between its two leads is a thing,

FIGHT ME
posted by praemunire at 6:51 PM on March 11 [14 favorites]


Racking brains trying to come up with examples and counter-examples reminded me of an odd little early '80s BBC series called The Chinese Detective. The setting and other characters are pure '70s Sweeney style London, but instead of Dennis Waterman or John Thaw "banging up slags" in a boxy looking Ford, the lead was David Yip playing a UK-born ethnic Chinese police officer wandering round in jeans winding up colleagues and crims alike by being a touch too polite and chipper, by asking awkward questions and by shrugging off their periodic racist verbal indulgences. Everything is water off a duck's back.

There was supposed to be an overarching plot about his father being forced out of the force by a corrupt commissioner too (the sadness!) but I don't know if it was ever actually resolved. He's no Columbo, but the series has some good nostalgic undeveloped London scenery and is worth a glance if you ever come across it on YouTube or a mate's badly degraded VHS copies.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:04 PM on March 11 [7 favorites]


Veronica Mars runs the gamut of human emotions and for everything she's been through (rape, best friend murdered, best friend's murderer almost killing her and then getting acquitted for both things, her own ambitions and teenage mistakes constantly putting family business in jeopardy, etc.) that she remains so relatively upbeat is kind of amazing, actually.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:33 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I think the antidote to Sad Detective is Marge Gunderson from the movie Fargo.
posted by um at 7:46 PM on March 11 [16 favorites]


Rockford always seemed pretty chipper, but I never expect actual research from any Vulture writer.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:13 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I swear the writer of the article never turned on a TV in the 1980s. Magnum, mostly not sad (with the exception some PTSD flashbacks, but that's not "sad" per se), Simon & Simon essentially not sad, Matt Houston. Ditto. Remington Steele not sad the majority of the time (and Laura Holt may have been mad/fed up/frustrated with the patriarchy but she mostly wasn't sad). Hart to Hart, really not sad. T. J. Hooker, not sad cop. Scarecrow and Mrs. King, befuddled not sad. Riptide guys too busy playing with their high-tech toys to be sad. I could go on and on.

Recently it was announced that a first novel by a very prominent person in a field I work adjacent to was having a first novel published. As much as I'm somewhat curious about the novel and the writing, I have no desire to read it, as the publisher's description describes the main character as having baggage and suffering dark times in the past. Seriously? I could get better plot descriptions from reading the tags on Internet fan fics. So not only does the description sound cliched, if accurate I really have no desire to read about a main character who is struggling so much with the past that it interferes with the person's job. I guess my preference is just competency porn, not mystery/suspense/thriller with shoehorned in personal angst because that's the only way the writer has to turn the cardboard cut-out hero into a complex character.
posted by sardonyx at 9:16 PM on March 11 [5 favorites]


Was Jim Rockford sad?
Or just annoyed at his dad?

I don't remember.
posted by droplet at 6:17 PM on March 11


I wouldn't call Jim sad. He was annoyed by his father (at times) frustrated by friends who seemed to have no problem taking advantage of him*, worried his perilous financial situation, but in spite of it all generally had a relatively positive attitude.

*He also took ridiculous advantage of friends and family.
posted by sardonyx at 9:22 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Hank Schrader seemed like a reasonably happy detective until he invited his asshole brother-in-law to a ride-along.

Hank was more of an asshole than Walt at that point. Remember that Walt only got the idea to cook after Hank interrupted Walt's 50th birthday party to show off his TV news interview after a meth bust.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:31 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Anyway this is why I want more Limitless, dammit.

Brian Finch was occasionally sad because occasionally bad things happened but for the most part he was pretty damn upbeat. And when he was sad, he actually talked about his emotions, like a healthy human adult. And cried! Instead of just drinking and brooding! (He did drink, sometimes, but it was to my remembrance UNIVERSALLY used as a way to open up about his emotions rather than drowning them, e.g. he's Sad and someone's like "you wanna talk about it?" so he grabs a beer for both of them and talks about it. Which is a thing male characters just generally don't Do.)

Come to think of it, also, Pushing Daisies. Maybe you can argue neither of these Really Detective Shows but they're good enough for me and I want more.
posted by brook horse at 9:35 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


The main characters in "Moonlighting" weren't sad, although they did occasionally pine for each other in a fairly soppy manner.

On the other hand it could be argued that that show wasn't about detectiving so much as Banter (witty) and will-they-or-won't-they tension (atrocious).
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:30 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I think they might actually have paid more attention to the details of day-to-day cop life in, like, Barney Miller.

Barney Miller was generally acknowledged by cops to be one of the most accurate portrayals of life as a 70s cop, so that seems an odd choice if you are trying to minimize.
posted by tavella at 10:32 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I dunno, Penny and Brain seemed to be, respectively, eager and annoyed rather than sad. Uncle Gadget may have been portrayed only in his manic phases, true, but he was not central to solving crimes, and his depressive phases, if he was indeed bipolar, were elided. Just being a seemingly indestructible nuisance to the villains, a distraction extraordinaire, made him an invaluable member of the crime-stopping trio...

Also the Inspector had a mini-van that could transform into a sports-car for reasons and such.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:32 PM on March 11 [5 favorites]


Rockford wasn't sad, just cranky.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:32 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


Starsky & Hutch (and their pals across the pond, Bodie & Doyle) were seldom sad. Or if they were it was only in reaction to the current episode's events and would be basically happy again by the time the tag rolled around. One episode ended literally in them getting a box of kittens to pet at the station.
posted by sldownard at 10:42 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


I'm trying to think of any character on Homicide Life on the Streets that didn't have depression/control issues. Maybe Meldrick Lewis? No, his first partner commited suicide, now that I think of it..Kay Howard(Melissa Leo) had the best line on how she managed her personal life as a cop: "Everyone gets a different piece of me".
posted by markbrendanawitzmissesus at 11:49 PM on March 11


I like good TV detectives when the plots are interesting and their personal lives contribute to the story- maybe they have colorful friends, or a past life that gives them insight, etc. Or just shove lots of high-impact action in my face! The French series "Spiral" is a great example of a very reality-based show. Hardly any extraneous stuff- just lots and lots of cop action, and over time you come to see who these people are without a lot of padding.

Other types, like "Person of Interest," set up their protagonists and associated stressful situations very strongly with a lot of exposition. In fact, these aspects are usually what make the story worth watching. "Bosch" seems a recent quintessential Sad Detective show. Or something like "Fletch," which is chock-fully of funny side-characters.

Observing someone figuring out a problem is not inherently entertaining, so the atmosphere in which this occurs has to have something to spice it up. Make the detective "sad," with clearly delineated sad accoutrements (because it's hard to just "play sad"); make him/her operate under some over-arching crisis or threat, surround him/her with a silly side job and quirky pals, etc.

But I prefer books because you get so much more of what's going on in their head. Narration and exposition can be delivered much more effectively. This is usually enough, and all the external sadness-window-dressing is unnecessary.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:40 AM on March 12


Lord Peter Wimsey is an interesting one. His chipper, what-ho persona alternates with moments of soul-searching anxiety resulting from long term PTSD. It's weird to think of him as the forebear of some of the more noirish gloomy detectives but actually it fits pretty well.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:14 AM on March 12 [6 favorites]


Lee Child created Jack Reacher partly because he was fed up with Sad Detectives:
Specifically, I was determined to avoid the hero-as-self-aware-damaged-person paradigm. I'm afraid as a reader I got sick of all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that increasingly peopled the genre. I wanted a happy-go-lucky guy. He has quirks and problems, but the thing is, he doesn't know he's got them. Hence, no tedious self-pity.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:23 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Jack Reacher isn't damaged? This is the guy who used to be an officer in the military police and now wanders around the country, keeps no possessions except for a toothbrush, avoids any sort of permanent relationship, etc.? Hoo boy. I only read a few of the books (and quit because they were all very much of a piece) but "happy-go-lucky" sure wasn't the tone.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:34 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Also "Jack Reacher" is a name almost as obscene as "Dick van Dyke."

Barney Miller was generally acknowledged by cops to be one of the most accurate portrayals of life as a 70s cop, so that seems an odd choice if you are trying to minimize.

Well, it was no Hill Street Blues, but I take your point. (Mick Belker — now there's a man with baggage.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:44 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I do wish, FWIW, that the writers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine chose to generate comedy from the actual rhythms and routines of police work.

It'd be dark AF comedy, to be sure, but as things stand it often seems that the show might as well be set in a veterinary clinic or accountant's office for all the value it derives from its notional setup. And that'd give you more or less a whole squad room of legit cheery detectives.
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:48 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


The cop who was undercover in the mafia storyline was quite dark.

Hill street blues

The swat guy was quite chipper till he had to eat someone.
posted by biffa at 4:57 AM on March 12


The writer tosses out cozy mysteries and then complains about too many sad detectives.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:34 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Recently it was announced that a first novel by a very prominent person in a field I work adjacent to was having a first novel published

Wait, the first novel is having a first novel published? I know this is MetaFilter, but this is going a little too far.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:45 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Neither detecting nor any other kind of police procedural work is depicted in this show, it being a situation comedy.

Yes, it is a sitcom - one in which eighty to ninety percent of the plots revolve around police procedural work, from questioning witnesses to investigating crime scenes to testifying in court. Which makes me feel like you are pretty much begging the question and simply claiming the detectives on this show don't count because it's a lighthearted show - in other words, they aren't really detective characters because they aren't sad.

Disagreeing (deep. ly.) with your dislike for the show technically means I also disagree with your postscript, at least the latter part, but I'm glad we can all agree that Andre Braugher is a fucking treasure.
posted by solotoro at 7:05 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


I bet this author would enjoy Brooklyn 99, it’s basically this.

Neither detecting nor any other kind of police procedural work is depicted in this show, it being a situation comedy. Most of the writing seems to be an attempt to insist that the damp, zero-chemistry "romance" between its two leads is a thing, or alternately a series of excuses for Terry Crews to do the thing with the pecs. I think they might actually have paid more attention to the details of day-to-day cop life in, like, Barney Miller.

PS Andre Braugher is a fucking treasure and the sole redemption of this limp show and I will cut anyone who claims otherwise.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:43 PM on March 11 [4 favorites +] [!]


Man the praise for Andre Braugher is the only thing correct in this comment.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:21 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Have you ever counted up the number of murders and crimes they solve every season? No wonder they are all depressed and sad. Also, they all eventually become the actual victims of serial killers or rampaging gangs. Bones/NCIS/CSI all had plotlines about that.

I never watched that many police procedural shows mostly because I think they suck, but I did watch the NBC show Grimm, and real Portland had 21-27 murders per year- there were multiple episodes where the hero team killed that many people.

TV detectives exist in a brutal world.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:40 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


BTW I think its cancelled or done now, but one of the main characters on New Girl is a cop, and is goofy and not sad.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:46 AM on March 12


One of the things that the Nero Wolfe books do is a transition from a chipper and untouched romp to a progressively darker and more corrupt world view. My sense is that it's a movement towards the heart of the noir detective, ala Chandler or Hammet, who's in a corrupt and unfair world and struggling to act morally. I mean, it's a bit of an exaggerated picture of the struggle of every day for all of us (at least, all of us with the belief in living an moral life).

Note too: the last episodes (I watched them before they went Acorn) of David Suchet's Poirot showed him having a similar degradation, or poisoning by the corrupt world around him, in the last seasons, especially, I think, Murder on the Orient Express. If I'm remembering correctly, he was even more affected and sickened by the moral ambiguity there that he was forced, as it were, to participate in.

Oh, too, Death in Paradise anyone? The first two seasons I mean (the transition to a new lead, alas, did not work for me, to say the least). I think the chemistry between Sara Martins and Ben Miller is some of my favorite TV. Very fluffy, but what the heck.
posted by emmet at 8:17 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


(the transition to a new lead, alas, did not work for me, to say the least)

Yeah, I don't think I've ever peaced out of a show so fast.
posted by tavella at 8:46 AM on March 12


Well, it was no Hill Street Blues, but I take your point.

That was kind of the point -- HSB was a night-time soap, so it still heavily juiced the pathos and tragedy. When actually being a cop was 95 percent petty crimes and paperwork, as Barney Miller portrayed.
posted by tavella at 8:49 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Re Columbo: But there’s supposed to be more to it than simply picking a suspect seemingly at random and just annoying the heck out of them day in, day out, until they confess, not out of guilt, but out of pure frustration at the situation you’ve put them in.

Reminds me of Perry Mason, who taught me so much about the fundamental job of a defense attorney: to get your client off by badgering the witnesses until one of them cracks and confesses.

But okay, if we're going to talk about TV detectives, somebody has to explain The Dr. Blake Mysteries to me.

The problem is that I've never actually seen an episode all the way through. I keep dropping in in the middle, watching a bit, and then wandering out because the baby's throwing stsuff under the refrigerator or some damn thing. But I get the broad strokes: Coroner type, Australia, period piece. Perhaps they're hoping the shine of Phryne Fisher will rub off on it. (And she certainly isn't sad, is she? Though actually in the first season she does have that thing about the man who killed her sister.) And oh my, he surely is sad about something. Not entirely sure what, but yeah, he's sad as hell. Haunted.

But here's what really confuses me about Dr. Blake. Why do the police seem to hate him so much? I mean we're not talking about the usual smug, dismissive air they use around some amateur who's coming in and telling them how to solve crimes. That's standard.

No, the cops seem to really despise this guy. Like he's a child molester who got off on a technicality and now insists on hanging around with them and trying to talk shop about cases. Like any second the brittle mask of self control is going to crack and one of them, driven beyond the reasonable limits of human tolerance, is going to haul off and punch him. Even the one cop who seems to be his sidekick half the time seems pissed at him.

What is the deal? Is there some backstory I've missed?
posted by Naberius at 8:54 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Higher-ups in Australian intelligence/military are highly pissed off at him for not entirely clear reasons, possibly just because it is the 50s and he married a Chinese national at one point, and this apparently results in random pressures being exerted on the local cops. But yes, it doesn't really quite explain why everyone is *quite* so chilly towards him. It was somewhat discombobulating when a new police chief appeared in the most recent season and was actually friendly and accommodating to him.
posted by tavella at 9:21 AM on March 12


I think they keep comparing him to his father and want him to be the same, and he's not; he's his own person, unconventional and bucks the status quo.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:39 PM on March 12


A loose cannon, you say?
posted by rhizome at 2:42 PM on March 12 [3 favorites]


Det. Kate Beckett from Castle?
I won't argue that the writers made it a realistic arc, but her character changes from season 1 "all-about-her-job-and-never-looking-into-her-mom's-murder-again" to a happier life (and eventually getting closure by bringing her mom's murderer to justice) through her relationship with annoying-man-child Richard Castle. (Stana Katic was too good for that show...)
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 3:48 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Is this he thread where I can bring up Terriers and how not a year goes by where I don’t feel, much like the detectives themselves, sad about it not getting more than one series?
posted by slimepuppy at 4:05 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Was Jim Rockford sad?
Or just annoyed at his dad?


Did his time in San Quentin treat him real bad?
Who's the perp? It's not important
Jim Rockford mad
posted by taquito sunrise at 5:33 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Actual detectives seem not so much sad as jaded; see Joe Kenda.

Both John Steed and Emma Peel seemed perky and amused much of the time, and the boys from "Psyche" just skew this supposed curve all to be damned.
posted by umberto at 12:43 PM on March 14


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