The new HBO crime drama Mare of Easttown opens with shots of a small town tableau. Soon after, we see a beleaguered Kate Winslet hitting a vape. Wait a minute now, I thought, are we in a tight-knit community where nobody is quite what they seem … and is this detective trying to solve a crime while she’s wrestling with her personal demons???
The sad TV detective trope is well-worn by now. Sometime in the last 15 years, it was decided that if we’re going to see a character solve a crime on television, they better come with some serious baggage. (I like to imagine that the directive came from a fat cat studio exec chomping on a cigar and shouting “Sadder! Make ‘em sadder!”) Vulture pointed out this trend in 2018, writing, “If the premise of a TV show is that a detective searches for justice, it follows that the detective will be almost unbearably sad. Her ability to do her job will occasionally be hindered by her alcoholism, or her post-traumatic stress, or her grief.” You want a well-adjusted television detective with healthy work-life balance, thriving relationships, and a keen sense of boundaries? Sorry bud, the halcyon days of Columbo are behind us.
But who is the saddest TV detective of them all? Using a secret scientific process, we assessed our top 10 picks on an x-y axis of sadness and skills; the highest ranked are both the most morose and the best at their jobs. Chug a drink, stare silently out at a foggy vista while ruminating on your many regrets, then read on.
10. John River (Stellan Skarsgård) in River
Let’s kick things off with a British pick, because streaming detective dramas are the UK’s number one international export (number two is Mr. Bean). Here, Stellan Skarsgård plays DI John River, a literally haunted detective: he imagines his murdered ex-partner—played by the great Nicola Walker, who you will recognize from … all the other British detective shows—is following him wherever he goes.
9. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) in The Outsider
What’s this now? Ben Mendelsohn playing a rangy guy who is profoundly alienated from his family because of a deep and unknowable darkness within (but in a hot way)? And there’s supernatural stuff?
8. Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) in Perry Mason
Billed as a gritty backstory to the popular old series about a clever, clean-cut lawyer, Perry Mason was … actually pretty good! Matthew Rhys broods, he investigates, he broods, he investigates, and man oh man is he sad.
7. Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) in Marcella
The winner of this list’s “ladies, you actually can’t have it all” award, Marcella is a former London detective who re-enters the workforce to track down a serial killer she never caught back in the day. This is all while her cad of a husband is trying to divorce her and take custody of their kids. Oh, and she regularly enters violent fugue states of which she has zero memory. Ack!
6. Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) in Broadchurch
First, a quick rule of thumb: you know a British crime series is good when you have to flip on the subtitles to understand the accents. And, mate, Broadchurch delivers. So much so that both of its leads end up tied for No. 6. Alec Hardy enters season one of Broadchurch as our consummate sad detective: a grouchy and divorced out-of-towner with the stink and scandal of a previous failed case attached to him. But by the end, his local partner Ellie Miller has caught up.
5. John Luther (Idris Elba) in Luther
Luther may seem the most charming and together on this list, but he’s got his problems: a violent temper, a beautiful dead wife, a toxic friendship with the resident psychopath. And get this—he absolutely does not play by the rules.
4. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) in The Sinner
Early on in The Sinner, the writers have Bill Pullman kneel in front of a sex worker so she can stomp on his hands to establish that he is Damaged™. Yes, I thought. YES! He also had a terrible childhood, is drifting away from his longtime wife, and nearly kills himself taking on cases everyone else assumes are a slam dunk because he senses there’s more than what meets the eye.
3. Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet) in Mare of Easttown
When Mare isn’t vaping, she’s downing a Rolling Rock. When she isn’t doing either of those, she’s engaging in something that makes her friends and family beg her, in a strong Delco accent, “don’t do it, Mare.” And I eat it all up like a hoagie from Wawa.
Every box is ticked here: she’s grumpy, grieving the loss of her son, butts heads with her boss for doing things her way, and struggling with intimacy. The only reason this isn’t higher is because we’re not far along enough in the season to see her solve anything.
2. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective
First of all, have you looked at the guy?
Beyond that, he’s burdened by family tragedy. He went off the rails at work. He has synthesia??? And this is all before Nic Pizzolatto makes him say things like, “Look, as sentient meat, however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgments.”
1. Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) in Monk
The tone of Monk—a show that ran on USA Network for eight seasons in the early aughts and is beloved by grandmas the world over—may be more lighthearted than the others on this list, but my man is by far the most haunted. His trauma? His beloved wife Trudy was murdered, which gave him OCD and caused him to lose his job as a detective. His drug of choice? Purell. But he’s also the most skilled: while these other chumps are doing a case a season, Monk went on for 125 episodes, solving nearly just as many murders. Get on his level.