Granted, Magnum, PI and The Rockford Files aren’t exactly realistic representations of a private investigator’s world, but we love them anyway. Their lives are generally sexier than ours, for one thing; and they invariably drive way better cars.
Still, there are a few small-screen sleuths who do inspire us—with their methods, their style, or at the very least, their comic timing:
The runaway favorite of PIs we polled, Columbo teaches us the value of being underestimated. He elevates the rumpled look and hammed-up bumbling act to high art, and it’s always his last-minute aside, the oh-I-almost-forgot question, that blows the case wide open.
Reality check: His wardrobe, at least, seemed quite true to life.
Cool factor: Makes cool seem irrelevant, somehow.
Investigative strategy: Pester people with idiotic questions until they confess out of sheer irritation.
What we learned: Try to be the smartest guy in the room, but seem like the biggest dumbass.
“I’d have to say (I’m like) Columbo. I spend a lot of time shlumping around, frequently rumpled, often deferential and at the same time unintentionally rude, and I seem to have a talent for getting people to say more than they intended to.” -Darryl Daugherty
Laura Holt (Remington Steele)
She’s smart, competent, and dogged, but nobody cares—they won’t hire her because she isn’t a man. So she invents one.
Cool factor: At least Zimbalist didn’t have a mullet. But Brosnan was a lousy Bond.
Investigative strategy: Distract the clients with a shiny strawman while doing the real work behind the curtain.
What we learned: Play the perception game if you have to. But get the work done.
DCS Christopher Foyle (Foyle’s War)
A policeman on wartime England’s southern coast, Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle singlehandedly holds off the Nazis with his icy blue-eyed gaze of quiet moral outrage, while investigating war profiteering, smuggling, and inevitably, murder.
Reality check: BBC dramas always seem so plausible to us Yanks, but the criminals always confess in the end (Don’t we wish!), tortured as they are by Foyle’s chilly disapproval.
Cool factor: He fly fishes. That’s enough for us.
Investigative strategy: Engage stiff upper lip. Ask. Ask again.
What we learned: The Art of the Long Pause. (Edgy interviewees anxiously fill the silence…perhaps with useful information.)
Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death)
Although we can’t strictly recommend private eye-ing without a license or consuming such vast quantities of THC, there’s something about Jonathan Ames’ madcap incompetence and boneheaded persistence that makes us root for him. He means well.
Reality check: N/A
Cool factor: Infinity on the hipster/irony scale
Investigative strategy: Inhale deeply. Cross your fingers. Press ahead.
What we learned: Overthink it, then dive in.
“Jonathan Ames makes me laugh. The strange thing is, we try to be methodical and thorough, but sometimes we blunder and bungle out way into the answer. Ames does this every episode. There’s something hopeful in his pot-infused, nerd-like curiosity…and he makes me laugh.” -T.H. Humphreys
Jim Rockford (The Rockford Files)
In a head-to-head PI roshambo, Rockford beats Magnum 9 times out of 10. Real PIs may have a crush (or a man-crush) on Magnum, but Rockford’s their go-to guy when it comes to investigative technique. Plus: in a real PI’s world, gold Pontiac Firebird beats red Ferrari, and sideburns beat mustache. Every. Single. Time.
Reality check: Living in a trailer, bouncing checks, and getting punched in the face twice an episode—sounds about right.
Cool factor: Rockford was vintage before vintage was cool.
Investigative strategy: Try your best to get a retainer. Fail. Bug Angel for info.
What we learned: The client isn’t telling you the whole story. Ever.
“Rockford had that little on-the-go business card maker always ready for a pretext.” B.H. Griffith
Thomas Magnum (Magnum, P.I.)
The voice-cracking, short-shorts wearing, and shameless cadging may drive us crazy, but Magnum is always and forever the PI every PI wants to be, deep down.
Reality check: Not even close. A helicopter? Sure, but nobody does covert surveillance in a red Ferrari. Not exactly a stealth ride.
Cool factor: Off the charts—only one man can wear That Mustache and win.
Investigative strategy: Whine. Use other people’s stuff. Borrow money.
What we learned: It’s all about the network. If you can’t have an aircraft, a seaside mansion, a bar, or an Italian sports car of your own, know people who do have these things.
“His friends had it all! One had a helicopter, one had a bar, and the other…a mansion and cool car.” -W. Thompson
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