The Top Five Best Detective Pairings in TV History

As long as TV has been broadcasted into people’s homes, cop shows have been a favorite. In fact, even before television, people were fascinated with the work of police officers, as many radio-dramas sprung up in the 1940’s and turned into shows later on. Those are hardly remembered today, but they set forth what would become the most popular genre in TV history.

The five best detective pairings span nearly six decades and cover a wide range of personalities. Below are my selections, and please note that the years in parenthesis denote the show’s run, not that of the actual characters.

Honorable Mention to Jack Lord and James Macarthur– Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980)

When Hawaii Five-O premiered in 1968, it was the first time a cop show had not taken place in the big city. Rather than choose crime laden outlets such as New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, the producers chose the nice, easy-going streets of Hawaii, and some very clever scenarios. They also chose the perfect detective pairing for the area, Jack Lord as Detective Steve McGarrett and James Macarthur as Danny. Lord always had a very calm presence on the set, and his hair style became famous. There was even word that there was so much gel used to get the hair just right that it would take hours for him to wash it out. Meanwhile, as the partner, Macarthur would be the recipient of one of the most well-known catch phrases in TV history, “Book ’em Danno”. There is going to be a revival of this show coming in the fall, with Alex O’Loughlin playing as Steve McGarrett.

5. Jack Webb and Harry Morgan– Dragnet (1951-1959; 1967-1970)

The episodes of Dragnet today would seem dated, but they are still a worth a watch, as the show is given credit as TV’s first police drama. Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday would say the same line in the opening narration every week, and this too would become famous, “This is the city: Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.” And of course there there is other catchphrase, “Just the facts.” There were different versions of this show that lasted from the 50’s into the 70’s. Webb was first partnered with Ben Alexander, among others, but his best partner, which he had from 1967 until 1970 was Harry Morgan. The two complimented each other very well as their personalities perfectly fit each storyline.

4. Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe– Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2001-present)

No matter how many detectives are replaced on Criminal Intent, this will always be Vincent D’Onofrio’s show. Much like Jerry Orbach did with the original Law and Order, he put his stamp on the series, putting forth a spectacular performance as Detective Robert Goren, the obsessive and methodical investigator of the Major Case Squad. The creators of the show could have given him anyone and the pairing would have been a homerun, but Kathryn Erbe, who was on for nine years alongside D’Onofrio, complimented his mentality with that of the sweet, understanding detective. No pairing ever played good-cop/bad-cop better than these two, and they always nailed the bad guys at the end of the day.

3. Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay– Law and Order: SVU (1999-present)

While the ratings of the other two, or three at one point, Law and Order’s were going downhill, SVU’s was still skyrocketing, maybe because it had one of the best ensemble casts ever put together for a television show. Meloni and Hargitay are amazing with each other; the hot-tempered, take-no-BS attitude from Elliot Stabler goes well with the gentle, but still tough, Olivia Benson. These characters must also be more complex because of the storyline’s they are working with. Unlike homicide in the other two, these shows deal with rape victims and downright disgusting crimes. This always brings out the best acting in the pair and as long as these two lend their name to this show, and the creators have the money to pay them, it will be a smash hit. It truly is a surprise that there is only one Emmy Award between the two, when Hargitay won in 2006 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

2. Don Johnson and Cheech Marin– Nash Bridges (1996-2001)

When I was little, I used to love watching Nash Bridges. It was exciting, action-packed, funny, and of course, Don Johnson who played the title character, drove the coolest car I had ever seen at that point. I was very happy to realize that even today, the show is as good as I remember it. Johnson is one of the most underrated actors ever, and Cheech Marin, of all people, is just the perfect partner for him. They were both funny and care-free when they had to be, but when there was a crime, there was no better team of detectives for the job. The show lasted five years, with every main character remaining the entire time, but it still does not get the recognition it deserves today. This was also the best show to represent the “City by the Bay” since The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970’s, with Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. The city was never more popular than during the mid-90’s, with this show being filmed on location there.

1. Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth– Law and Order (1990-2010)

Plain and simple, I grew up on watching Law and Order. Before I even knew what was going on, I watched this show with my dad. In retrospect, I must have seen close to all of the episodes filmed after 1991, I just don’t remember them. Even today, I catch the countless reruns on TNT, and hope they show some of the earlier ones. Even though I thought that the show was doing very well at making things interesting these last two years, unfortunately, it was canceled. Needless to say, I was heartbroken. This show was New York. That said, there have been many memorable detective pairings throughout its twenty year run, but the most famous, and my favorite, is Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth as detectives Lennie Briscoe and Mike Logan. Orbach was great with whoever he was paired with, including Benjamin Bratt who almost made it on this list, but Noth was the perfect complement as the tough, Irish, New York City cop. There will never be a more realistic pairing on television again, and it’s a shame that Noth ditched after only five years (arguably the show’s best years), to do Sex and the City, while Orbach stayed on for thirteen.

I would also like to give other honorable mentions to the above noted Karl Malden and Michael Douglas from “The Streets of San Francisco”, Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt from the original “Law and Order”, Chuck Norris and Clarence Gilyard Jr. from “Walker, Texas Ranger” (another childhood favorite of mine), and also Dennis Franz and Gordon Clapp from “NYPD Blue”, although I never watched it much.

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13 thoughts on “The Top Five Best Detective Pairings in TV History

  1. Excellent post! Having a blog site for Vincent D’Onofrio, it was gratifying to see the mention of he and Katie Erbe on your list. We fans of “CI” echo your sentiments that Vincent and Katie were the show and are irreplaceable. I also agree with your comment about Don Johnson being underrated…one has only to watch him in the remake of “The Long Hot Summer” with Cybil Shepard that did its original portrayal by Paul Newman proud.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    Another movie of Don Johnson’s to catch is called “Pursuit of Honor”. It’s an excellent film about an unknown facet of World War I.

    And what is the link to your blog?

  3. Xeresa

    I, too, fel bereft at the loss of the brilliant and charismatic Vincent D’Onofrio as Det. Bonny Goren, and his quirkiness and sensitivity was ably matched by the pragnatism and snarkiness of Katie Erbe as his partner,Alex Eames.
    I also agree that Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth had a special chemistry between them, and I was gratified that it was acknowledged by LOCI just before Noth was removed -AGAIN- by the shortsightedness of Dick Wolf who decided in the original Law and Order that the future Mr. Big wasn’t ” young and sexy” enough to attract the female viewers.
    Don Johnson was one of my favorite actors during the 1970’s and 80’s and, like Vincent D’Onofrio, he is both underrated and unappreciated as the fine actor he is.
    One actress you overlooked was Angie Dickinson as the ” Police Woman” and her partner Earl Holliman.
    And let’s not forget all the fabulous cast at the “ole one two” in Barney Miller.

  4. Marcia

    I forget their names but I liked the way the guys on Adam-12 worked together also
    Starsky and Hutch, hell they went on dates together, and then there’s Cagney and Lacey , thank you very much

    I do agree with Nash Bridges, that was a good partnership they both had their talents and foibles. I love LOCI but I don’t think the partnership was well played. I think they over benefitted Goren. Eames almost said two words until season 7.

  5. Jaime

    I would’ve much preferred Goren and Eames to be ahead of Benson and Stabler. They were amazing partners without all the crazy drama. I’m not even sure I would’ve included B&S in this list at all. Their heyday ended a long time ago sometime after season 6.

  6. I started watching Criminal Intent much later than the others and I have to say that I thought Goren and Eames was the most interesting cop pair outside of Briscoe and Logan/Curtis/Green. Obviously, Goren was a very fascinating character to watch, but Eames was great in a more subtler way that I didn’t appreciate on my first viewings. I always saw her relationship with Goren as one with traces of professional jealousy, envy, embarrassment, affection and, at times, pity. She was a great character. Much better than Benson, that’s for sure.

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