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The Best Murder Mystery Series Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey

"Big Little Lies" is taking over Sunday nights with a big new murder mystery, which inspired us to ask critics which favorite shows made them say, "Whodunit?"

Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle MacLachlan in "Twin Peaks" (1990)

Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle MacLachlan in “Twin Peaks” (1990)



Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is your favorite murder mystery show?

Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club

It has to be “Twin Peaks,” right? I’m one of those annoying people who insists the show is so much more than “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, but that is our entry point to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s weird little world, and the question that briefly made “Twin Peaks” a pop-culture phenomenon. And the chapters of the series that deal with finding Laura’s murderer are some of the most compelling, from the dream-sequence enhanced “Zen, Or The Skill To Catch A Killer” or the eventual solution to the mystery, a network-mandated move that nonetheless features some of the most horrific imagery to ever appear on broadcast TV. I’m more a fan of the forest that surrounds “Twin Peaks,” but the strand of trees comprising the Palmer murder shouldn’t be discounted.

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), HitFix on Uproxx

I’m inclined to name either “Columbo” or “Homicide: Life on the Street,” but the former revealed the killer’s identity even before Peter Falk showed up in each episode, while the latter was usually much more interested in showing how Pembleton and company elicited confessions than in traditional sleuthing. In terms of my favorite murder mystery where there was a clear and long-lasting question of whodunit, I have to go with Season 1 of “Veronica Mars,” which spread out the question of who killed Lilly Kane over 22 incredibly satisfying episodes, didn’t cheat or lean too much on red herrings (I’m looking at you, “The Killing”), and felt even stronger in hindsight than it did from week to week.

Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I was obsessed with the original “Twin Peaks” back in the day, but not because of the murder mystery. I honestly don’t remember “who killed Laura Palmer,” but I loved the dark, funny weirdness and strange characters and Agent Dale Cooper, who was so odd and attractive.

But contemporary murder mysteries really refine the genre and take it, as they say, to a new level. I’m thinking Season 1 of “Broadchurch,” “Bron/Broen” and “The Tunnel,” “The Fall,” “Top of the Lake,” even “Grantchester.” My favorite murder mystery ever (at least right now) is “Happy Valley,” which I binged in its entirety in a single day. In Season 1, there isn’t even a murder, but there’s the aftermath of a suicide, an abduction and a complicated, rotten-to-the-core villain. Best of all, there is the fantastic Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant who refuses to be broken. Season 2 is just as good, and it even has an actual murder.

Peter Falk, "Columbo"

Peter Falk, “Columbo”


Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

Dating myself here, but I always thought “Columbo” was one of the last great network TV mystery series to feature crimes entertaining enough to fill an hour, logical enough for the audience to follow along (and maybe even guess the perpetrator) and inventive enough to keep you guessing without feeling like they had stacked the deck with an impossibly complex crime. In modern times, of course, “Sherlock” is a wonderful whodunit series when it deigns to stoop that low. But its ambitions are so obviously broad, that the crimes are nearly impossible for mere viewers to keep up with, especially after the second season. And, at the risk of ceding this space mostly to the Brits, my final vote goes to the first season of “Broadchurch,” which had the benefit of exploring one crime over eight episodes, and excavating the underbelly of a small, British seaside town in the process.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox.com

To me “murder mystery show” implies that we’re going to be solving a murder once a week (or, in the case of the occasional two-parter, once every two weeks). For as interesting as many of the “one case per season” shows can be, give me a crackerjack detective and a careful consideration of the evidence any day. I had a real phase where I was into original flavor “CSI” for several seasons, and there’s a cozy charm to “Murder, She Wrote.” But you can’t go wrong with Peter Falk as “Columbo,” perhaps the wittiest TV detective of them all. Falk played the role for decades, returning to it every so often for a handful of episodes, like he was a British TV star or something, and it’s easy to see why. He plays this rumpled, middle-aged (and eventually elderly) man with a winking certainty. He’s a wrecking ball coming to destroy anything criminals might try to get away with.

“Columbo” rather smartly shifts the format of the typical TV mystery, so you know whodunit from the earliest moments of an episode, then watch as Columbo unravels every knot the criminals tie frantically a few steps in front of him. This has the weird effect of making Columbo almost the antagonist, the guy who’s come to foil the hero’s goal, until you step back and remember that, right, you want Columbo to trap the bad guys in their lies. When he finally does, muttering, “There’s just one thing,” it never fails to be great fun, especially because Falk is exactly the guy you want on your side when the chips are down.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

An underseen favorite from the early ‘90s, the ITV series “Cracker” looked at crime and punishment through the lens of psychology, and featured an amazing anchoring performance by Robbie Coltrane. But unless you have the streaming service Acorn, it’s not viewable online, so instead I’ll say that there’s certain eras of “Law & Order” that are soothing binges. (Sam Waterston and Jesse L. Martin, now and forever and always.)

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, "True Detective"

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, “True Detective

Anonymous Content/Lee Caplin/REX/Shutterstock

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

I am a murder mystery series junkie. Not only do I binge/devour any show with a central crime component, I will also watch the original “Law & Order” any time I catch it on cable — which is always, because it’s never not on. If a mystery series is set in London or an English hamlet with a quirky set of townsfolk, all the better, but I’m not picky.

Though I’m tempted to choose something like “Sherlock” (early seasons only) or even “Rectify” for my favorite of all time, my heart is going with a more controversial choice: “True Detective” Season 1.

Sure I know people have problems with it, but for me it just really nailed its Southern gothic setting, and Cary Fukunaga’s directing was both dreamlike and nightmarish. I watched and re-watched episodes looking for clues. The acting was top-notch, the mystery was dark and twisted, and the whole season had a surprising and strange supernatural tinge to it. But more than anything, I loved the obsessive theories and the Reddit forums, and the build-up to each new episode. Whether you thought it stuck the landing or not (It worked for me), the whole experience was exhilarating.

(Honorable Mention: The first season of “Serial,” which being a radio show may not count, but it was an engrossing and culturally sweeping experience similar to “True Detective” — even though ultimately the reality and injustice of Hae Min Lee’s death made it a depressing experience as well).

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Not surprisingly, I’m going to cheat and divide my answer into two categories. On the non-fiction side, “The Jinx” is a fascinating portrait of an inexplicably cooperative potential killer, intrepid filmmakers trying to corner him into telling the truth and the gigantic holes in the justice system that the wealthy find themselves able to hide in. It’s a harrowing unfolding story told with chilling confidence. [But also watch “The Staircase.”] On the fiction front, Dennis Potter’s reality-warping period musical “The Singing Detective” isn’t exactly a mystery, but it’s definitely not not a mystery. The whodunit of it all is secondary to the “What the heck is actually happening?” of it all, with Michael Gambon giving one of the best performances in the medium’s history as a writer/gumshoe whose skin problems make that guy from “The Night Of” look like a whining piker. [But also watch the original “State of Play.”]

Joyce Eng (@joyceng61), TVGuide.com

“Harper’s Island” — This show was too good for and also didn’t belong on CBS, which didn’t know what it had back in 2009 before the anthology/limited series craze. “Harper’s” was fun, addictive, suspenseful, didn’t take itself too seriously and had the best deaths. Where else would you find half of Harry Hamlin hanging through a bridge?

Harry Hamlin, "Harper's Island"

Harry Hamlin, “Harper’s Island”


April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

“Hawaii Five-O” – The CBS original that ran from 1968 to 1980. I was obsessed the first FOUR years of its run as a young kid.

Originally I was going to say “The Avengers” (Diana Rigg original) but honestly, I just wanted to look exactly like her (and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman) as an adult. The actual story never really grabbed me and the setting for that series was as cold, grey and dreary as my New England seaside town.

So when “Hawaii Five-O” hit the screen, wow! There was nothing more exotic and exciting than “Hawaii Five-O” for any kid (or adult). Remember, at the beginning of this series it was the dark ages of the smallscreen. We only had four TV channels and had just got a color TV in 1968 to boot which really sold this series.

Watching Jack Lord as Det. Steve McGarrett, James MacArthur as Det. Dan “Danno” Williams, Kam Fong as Det. Chin Ho Kelly, and Zulu as Det. Kono Kalakaua (he left in 1972) fight crime was perfect escapism for a place that had zero Hawaiians and even fewer sugar sand beaches with palm trees. The guest stars were always top notch actors too.

The lush locale, the exposure to a state that was wildly different from mine, the hilarious episodic titles such as ‘Wednesdays Ladies Free,” “Forty Feet High, and It Kills!” or “Three Dead Cows at Makapuu,” I mean, come on! Plus that powerful theme music really defined television drama in an era where all of us endured real breaking news daily with Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite reporting on shocking assassinations and bringing battlefield scenes from the Vietnam War to us at the dinner hour. This escapist murder mystery was really well received (and needed) in the very beginning.

It was no coincidence that one of the most popular restaurants that sprang up in the Greater Boston area in the late ‘50s was the famous Kowloon restaurant and Tiki Bar (still there and going strong) where they recreated the inside of the restaurant like a replica of an interior set from that TV series. “Hawaii Five-O’s” popularity rubbed off on that place big time in the 1960s and ‘70s, the place was always standing room only in the early years of the show.

I still love pupu platters and Tiki drinks.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Archer Dreamland Season 8 (Titles)

As tempted as I am to simply respond with “let the mystery be,” such advice, at times, cannot be taken. Case in point, “True Detective” (Season 1, of course) and “Dexter” (also Season 1) deserve all the props they get (including any shout-outs on this list). Yet it wasn’t the mystery that hooked me so deeply into either show: “True Detective” thrived on atmosphere and chemistry, while “Dexter” was best when fully engaging in its black comic nature.

So I’m going to go with an ongoing narrative: “Archer” has been tackling the weighty question of morality with an animated character many assumed was immortal prior to Season 7. It’s a delicious twist for a series born from spoofing the truly immortal James Bond, and it’s only made better by our inherent assumption that animated characters can live forever. Though Adam Reed planted the seed of doubt a year prior (when Archer was confronted by Lana about his reckless attitude after they had a baby together), “Archer” dove head first into the dilemma last season…to surprising and exciting new ends. Starting with Archer face-down in a pool and ending with him bleeding to death in Lana’s arms, we’re all now waiting to see how “Archer: Dreamland” wraps up: double-O dead or alive?

A good mystery doesn’t have to end when the killer is found — though that kicker was pretty good in Season 7 — and “Archer” is in the middle of proving great satire can go where its initial subject never did: the afterlife.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Legion”

Other contenders: “Baskets” (two votes), “Big Little Lies,” “Black-ish,” “The Good Fight,” “Man Seeking Woman,” “The Magicians,” “This Is Us” (1 vote each)

*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.

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