Saturday, October 21, 2006

America’s Top Sleuths: I Was There

Well, the long wait is over. For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath--and for those whose breath just smells like bait--here are the results of the Sleuth Channel’s “America’s Top Sleuths” survey, chosen in an online poll and announced during a televised special last evening:

25. Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
24. Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)
23. Irwin M. “Fletch” Fletcher from the Fletch films
22. Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Police Squad)
21. John Shaft from the Shaft movies and TV series
20. Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon)
19. Maddie Hayes & David Addison (Moonlighting)
18. Sabrina Duncan, Jill Munroe, & Kelly Garrett (Charlie’s Angels)
17. Lieutenant Tony Baretta (Baretta)
16. Detective Andy Sipowicz (NYPD Blue)
15. Fox Mulder & Dana Scully (The X-Files)
14. Detective Sergeant Joe Friday (Dragnet)
13. Martin Riggs & Roger Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon films
12. Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry movies
11. Lieutenant Theo Kojak (Kojak)
10. Sherlock Holmes from various movies and TV series
9. Detective Lenny Brisco (Law & Order)
8. Gil Grissom (C.S.I.)
7. Remington Steele (Remington Steele)
6. Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote)
5. Dr. R. Quincy (Quincy, M.E.)
4. James “Sonny” Crockett & Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Miami Vice)
3. Jim Rockford (The Rockford Files)
2. Lieutenant Columbo (Columbo)
1. Thomas Magnum (Magnum P.I.)

MAGNUM? It all comes down to Thomas friggin’ Magnum?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. But what were you expecting? This is TELEVISION!!!!

It’s just a popularity contest, fer cryin’ out loud, and an amiably hinky one, at that.

Voting was done via the Internet only (so right off and say good-bye to entire segments of “America”). Absolutely anyone with a few minutes and a mouse could vote--regardless of their knowledge or background.

The producers were further curtailed by what they could--and couldn’t--get the rights for, so even the shortlist that people were asked to vote on was less than all-encompassing.

So what we were left with was not the best or even necessarilty the most popular of all TV and film detectives, but the most popular among a short, pre-selected list of TV and film detectives, as voted upon by a relatively small segment of the population that possessed both Internet access and the knowledge and inclination to use it (i.e., middle-aged and younger, generally), which would also likely skew the results to those shows broadcast most recently. Which may in turn explain why we have one movie from 1941, one movie series from the 1930s and ’40s, one TV show from the ’50s, one (arguably) from the ’60s, and everything else from the ’70s onward.

So anyone thinking we’d get some sort of iron-clad critical list is bound to be disappointed. This is a popularity contest, plain and simple, with some serious limitations. Things like quality or artistry or influence and impact don’t even come into it, necessarily--just the lowest common denominator of popularity. So, while many of the choices are certainly of merit, this is closer to the Anthony Awards, say, than the Edgars. There are no judges, only voters.

Having said that, though, I thought this Sleuth Channel project was fun--and I think that’s all the producers had in mind. And on that level, they succeeded. As a detective geek, I have to admit it was enjoyable seeing all those old clips, and some of the talking heads offering commentary were fun, as well--even as I admit that I myself was one of those talking heads.

Yep, while not in any way involved (except by voting--and I’m not even American!) in the selection of the winners or the choosing of the nominees, I must confess that I did willingly and with forethought aid and abet the producers by offering my two cents worth on-camera. (“Yeah, they grilled me for an hour and a half, but I swear, I didn’t tell ’em nothin’!”)

Even though I never ran into any of the other talking heads when I went down to Hollywood for a taping (except for a brief hi/bye moment with Paula Woods), I still feel honored to have been in a group that included TV creators (Stephen J. Cannell), crime writers (Jason Starr, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow, and Michael Connelly), actors (Peter Falk, Jesse Martin), and critics (Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Leah Rozen from People), plus assorted comedians. I guess Web monkeys like me fit into the last group.

But as I was saying, it was fun. No great, deep thoughts from anyone--just light, breezy commentary, for the most part, with an ocasional zinger and a few insights. And hey, who knew Connelly was such a chatterbox?

Still, it was a genuine hoot seeing some of those old clips, both from the shows themselves and from old interviews, such as James Garner explaining why The Rockford Files had to end.

And now the REAL FUN begins.

The arguing.

Magnum? Yikes. I mean, I know it was popular, but THAT popular? The critic in me just can’t let it go. Everytime I caught an episode it seemed to be one of the Higgins nagging/Thomas whining-and-smirking episodes. The most sustained gay fantasy ever on American television. Why do you think none of those women lasted?

Columbo and Rockford I can live with, although I think Rockford should have been number one. Both great, great shows.

Miami Vice? At number four? Get outta here! Popular once, but last summer’s movie probably did more for its ranking than anything. A quick glance at the show itself (which, coincidentally, Sleuth is currently re-running) reveals it as mostly empty style and severely dated, something the far more popular and stylish Peter Gunn--which should have made the list--never was. You wanna talk cool music and sharp clothes, those wimps from Miami wouldn’t last a night at Mother’s.

Quincy? Was it really so popular? Why not Barnaby Jones, then, which ran even longer?

And if doctors, why not lawyers? Perry Mason and Rumpole of the Bailey immediately spring to mind.

Ah, but Rumpole was British, you say? Well, so was Sherlock Holmes. So, was America’s Top Sleuth supposed to be America’s Top AMERICAN Sleuth?

If not, then what about Jane Tennyson from Prime Suspect? Or Hercule Poirot? Miss Jane Marple? Eddie “Fitz:” Fitzgerald of Cracker? All very popular in these here United States.

Remington Steele, Murder, She Wrote, and Charlie’s Angels I can live with. Not my favorites, but obviously wildly popular shows.

And it was nice to see Farrah Fawcett’s major, uh, assets still as perky as ever.

And so it goes. Some of the choices seem downright peculiar (the Lethal Weapon movies, but not James Bond?) And were the Fletch movies really that popular and well-regarded? Ever?

Indeed, if they were going to include comedy, why not the far superior, far funnier and far more popular Barney Miller?

And if they were going to include The Silence of the Lambs and Fargo (both fine films, mind you, but top 25?), what about The Big Sleep or Chinatown or Harper? Or The Thin Man (imagine Moonlighting with brains and class)?

And what about the great (and popular) TV shows that were skipped over? Mannix? The aforementioned Peter Gunn? Detective Frank Pembleton from Homicide: Life on the Street? Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer? Cagney and Lacey?

Even 77 Sunset Strip can still make a bigger case for its “popularity” than some of the shows that made the Sleuth Channel cut.

And Mrs. Thrilling wants to know what happened to McMillan & Wife and Simon & Simon.

Harry O wasn’t even included in this survey. Yet it could easily have made--at least in a just world--the top 10. Maybe the top five.

And was it really necessary to mention Mel Gibson and Robert Blake’s recent tabloid-ready escapades at all, or were their recent travails actually the reason they made the list? I mean, does anyone really think like Baretta will stand the test of time (except in a car-crash way?).

Nope, the criteria for inclusion seemed too willy-nilly and wonky for my liking. Mixing TV and film was one major hurdle (does one popular film trump a long-running series?). Never quite defining what a “sleuth” is was another problem.

So this poll will never be more than a curiousity, a simple, enjoyable diversion.

But so what?

It was fun.

Now if only Sleuth would air some more of these films and TV series that it just finished applauding.

But don’t get me started on what Sleuth should be airing. That’s a whole other column ...

(Cross-posted at The Thrilling Detective Blog.)

1 comment:

DAVID THAYER said...

Rockford, yeah, Marge Gunderson absolutely belongs there if only for the classic line "he looks like a nice enough fella," while staring at a forzen corpse.