Rank 'Em: '80s Private Detective TV Shows

From "Magnum, P.I." to "Murder, She Wrote," television in the '80s definitely had its share of private detectives. You definitely didn't need a badge to catch the bad guys as former cops, thrill-seeking rich folk, and clergy all lined up to "take a bite out of crime." 

Shows like "Miami Vice" and "Hill Street Blues" told the stories of police officers and detectives in the line of duty, but the private eyes seemed to have much more fun corralling the criminals. I see the spirit of these '80s shows in current dramas like "Castle" and "The Mentalist" where civilian investigators assist the police in solving mysteries. There were a few shows like "Jake & the Fatman" that had that blueprint, but for the most part, the cops took a back seat in the shows we'll be ranking this week.

For this list, I'm primarily looking for shows with characters who assisted but were not employed by the police or government. For example, I did include Knight Rider and MacGyver which were pseudo private investigator-type shows featuring investigators from independent organizations. Several shows are listed below including some gray area ones which did investigative work but were not necessary private eyes. Feel free to add them to your list or any I missed that you think fit the genre!

In the previous Rank 'Em, we didn't have any new commenters step up to be a guest, so I've called in another friend...Eclectik of Eclectik Relaxation! Me and E go way back...well, in podcast years. He hosts the Eclectik Discussion Podcast and is also co-host of the Cold Slither Podcast. He knows insane amounts of television, so I figured he'd be a great guest for this week's Rank 'Em!

Top 5 '80s Private Detective TV Shows

Booker (1989-90)
Charlie's Angels (1976-81)
Father Dowling Mysteries (1987-91)
Hart to Hart (1979-84)
Jake and the Fatman (1987-92)
Knight Rider (1982-86)
Magnum, P.I. (1980-88)
Matt Houston (1982-85)
MacGyver (1985-92)
Moonlighting (1985-89)
Murder, She Wrote (1984-96)
Remington Steele (1982-87)
Riptide (1983-86)
Simon & Simon (1981-89)
Spenser: For Hire (1985-88)
Stingray (1986-87)
The Equalizer (1985-89)

Grey area shows:
Fall Guy (1981-86)
Hardcastle & McCormick (1983-86)
Matlock (1986-95)
Quincy M.E. (1976-83)
The A-Team (1983-87)

Eclectik's List

  1. 1. Simon & Simon
  2. 2. The A-Team
  3. 3. Moonlighting
  4. 4. Charlie's Angels
  5. 5. Magnum P.I.
Simon & Simon had a great theme, great acting; anything Gerald McRaney is in is gold. The giant pickup, the Camaro, good comedy...plus it had Downtown Brown! The A-Team is probably my favorite 80s Television show period. I've seen every episode; very original plot...memorable characters, dynamic cast. You'd think it would've had more violence than it did; Plus it had Hulk Hogan AND Rick James on the show! Rick James!!!! Moonlighting was another show with great theme and the intro of Bruce Willis. This was the first show that I actually cared if the stars got together or not, plus I'm a sucker for any show that breaks the fourth wall...wasn’t crazy about the black and white episodes but I loved the show. Charlie's Angels had the women and the mystery of who Charlie was...that was enough to get you to tune in daily (or watch the reruns.) Granted it ended in 81, it’s still the 80s! Come on! Female private dicks with guns, solving crimes. Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett...what more do you want? Magnum P.I. had a lot going for it...Robin's nest, the Ferrari, the back and forth with Higgs, the helicopter and TC, just the location period. Besides, how many shows have "the Chairman of the Board" AND Mr. Miyagi as guest stars? And it also had a big crossover story arc with Simon and Simon!

Jason's List

  1. 1. Magnum, P.I.
  2. 2. Knight Rider
  3. 3. Simon & Simon
  4. 4. MacGyver
  5. 5. Riptide
Magnum, P.I. has to be #1 in the private detective draft. He was a good investor who drove a cool car and had a great team of friends whenever he needed help. "Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law." Need I say more about Knight Rider? There was something just plain fun about Simon & Simon. Rick and A.J. were the odd couple of detective work, but the show worked on so many levels. Most people nowadays seem to think of MacGyver as a glorified construction worker. But it took a great deal of intelligence gathering and undercover work to get to the daring rescue in each episode using weapons like a gum-paperclip-walkie talkie-cardboard-cantelope designed rocket launcher. Love the "Screaming Mimi!" I remember at one point Riptide followed the A-Team in the NBC lineup. Occasionally, my parents would give in to my heartfelt pleas and let me stay up to watch it.

Your turn! Leave your Top 5 list of TV private detective shows in the comments! If you want to be a future guest ranker, be sure to leave your Twitter handle so I can contact you. Plus, rank more Top 5 lists in the Rank 'Em Archive!

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  1. I don't know why but I never got into a lot of these type of shows in the 80s. Too much genre TV at the time I think :)

    1 Knight Rider, unquestionably the greatest pop culture impact on this list for me
    2 Remington Steele
    3 Moonlighting
    4 Riptide, Screaming Mimi, a robot and the voice of Han Solo from the NPR Star Wars Radio Dramas, how can you go wrong?
    5 Charlie's Angels

    Honorable/Questionable Mention: Automan, it was kinda cop-adjacent

    1. Like the nod to Riptide. I really need to revisit.

  2. Based on your list of qualifying shows, here would be my list:

    1. Moonlighting
    2. Knight Rider
    3. The Fall Guy
    4. The A-Team
    5. Hardcastle & McCormick

    I wasn't really into the traditional detective shows other than really Moonlighting. The rest I guess are loosely interpreted in that genre, but since you offered them, I took them. Funny that #2-#5 all were included on my list of Top Cars/Trucks from 80s Movies/TV list.

    1. Hollywood vehicles will definitely be a future topic. Sounds like a good one for you to guest rank again!

  3. Knight Rider
    Simon and Simon
    can we count Incredible Hulk? It was just as detective-y as Knight Rider!
    The Fall Guy

    1. Yeah, see your point with Incredible Hulk. There are a lot of grey area shows. Street Hawk is another and even Airwolf are in those areas.

  4. 1. Knight Rider (just cool all round!)
    2. MacGyver (educational too)
    3. Fall Guy (he fell with style)
    4. A-Team (has to be on the list, just cos)
    5. Moonlighting (such a stylish show with great acting)

    Manimal (would love to see this come back)
    Automan (he drove an electronic Countach, c'mon!)


    1. Holy Crap, I had totally forgotten about Manimal! Good call.

  5. Another hard on Mr. G!
    1. MacGyver
    2. Knight Rider
    3. Simon and Simon
    4. Spencer For Hire (also loved the books)
    5. The Equalizer

    1. My dad loved the Equalizer. Raved about it. I really need to watch it again.

  6. #1 has to be Magnum PI. Ladies, sweet ride, and that 45 acp was awesome back in the day.
    Having a twin brother guarantees a choice of Simon and Simon. Rick's truck elevates the show to #2 for me. #3 is The A-Team. Over 100,000 rounds fired and no blood splatter from a head shot. Thanks guys for not exposing me to unnecessary gore in my formative years! Now I dare to be different. I liked Michael Caine as The Equalizer. Who would expect a soft-spoken Brit to be so dangerous to hardened criminals preying on the innocent? Get's him my #4. #5 goes to good old Ben Matlock. He convinced me that every crime can be solved and every criminal must confess. Not very exciting, but he solved them all!

    1. I almost pulled the trigger on Murder She Wrote at #5. I think between that and Matlock, you could watch an episode a day for like two years without a repeat.

  7. What about Airwolf (1984-1987), 21 Jump Street (1987-1991), Cagney & Lacey (1981-1987), Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1983-1987), Hunter (1984-1991)??? My opinion 21 Jump Street would be #1 on my top 5 hands down #2 A-Team #3 Airwolf #4 Knight Rider and #5 Hunter but it's difficult only picking 5. Don't forget T.J. Hooker w/ William Shatner and Heather Locklear (1982-1986), The Rockford Files (1974-1980), Chips (1977-1983), Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1980), Miami Vice (1984-1990). Those are some of the best 80's detective TV shows ever made.


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