Seriously Sloppy Sleuths: The Best and Worst of TV Detectives

Flynn and Provenza of The Closer
They’re even better when they’re bad.
We can’t all be perfect all of the time, and let’s face it, flawed characters are eminently more interesting, but there is a difference between a character who is deeply flawed and a character who makes mistakes to move the story along.

Let’s examine a few cases in-depth:

Flynn & Provenza, The Closer

Quite a partnership, these two can be quite good at their jobs, but when they blow it, they really blow it. Like the time where they were arguing about where Provenza kept his gun in front of a suspect who then grabbed the gun.  Or when they lost all the evidence in a case because they wanted breakfast. Or my personal favorite: when they found a dead body in Provenza’s garage and left it there because they were already late for skybox seats at the Dodger game.

Verdict: Flynn & Provenza mistakes are always a joy to watch.

Sheriff Emma Swan, Once Upon A Time

There are many people in Storybrooke, Maine who are not qualified for their jobs (Jiminy Cricket as a psychiatrist for one) but Emma Swan sure got that sheriff job fast and has managed to keep it. Still, one would hope that she would apply reasonable amounts of rigor to a murder investigation, but time and time again she makes mistakes I don’t see a real sheriff making, like when she accepted the phone records of a murder suspect from a former newspaper reporter rather than calling the phone company directly. Or when she sent a new employee, with no police experience, to look for a potential dead body by herself in the woods.

Verdict: While I love watching this show, I am not impressed with Emma’s detective skills.

Stana Katic as Kate Becket in Castle.
Kate, you should know bringing Castle as back up is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
Detective Kate Beckett, Castle

This one I will admit is a little unfair. We wouldn’t have a show if the fictional Mayor of New York hadn’t blessed best-selling mystery writer Richard Castle’s shadowing of Kate. And I love this show. Love the characters. Love the premise. Love it when Castle figures out who the bad guy is. But sometimes I just have to wonder why:

  • Beckett never even tries to call for backup
  • It doesn’t faze her to walk into serious crime scenes with Castle unarmed and untrained
  • She allowed Castle to carry her away from Captain Roy Montgomery like a sack of potatoes right before the Captain sacrificed himself. Seeing her flail about in his arms just didn’t ring true to me.

Verdict: I still love this show.

Detective Rebecca Madsen & Special Agent Emerson Hauser, Alcatraz

Sam Neill as Emerson Hauser on Alcatraz.
Sometimes a single-minded purpose is a good thing…right?
Admittedly chasing after a passel of escaped murderous inmates from Alcatraz circa 1963, who haven’t aged at all, is a super tough job, and having an expert on The Rock is useful, but does Detective Rebecca Madsen have to bring the unarmed civilian (comic book store owner, Doc Soto) on every dangerous mission? Even when she leaves him in the car outside and tells him to keep his head down, the car is too small for him to actually keep his head down.

Special Agent Hauser has his own issues that make him less than ideal–like needing to be convinced that saving a child’s life today is as important as capturing the kidnapper/killer.

Verdict: Hauser’s single-minded focus makes him more interesting while Detective Madsen’s putting a civilian in harms way, doesn’t. Sorry Detective. There are other issues with Alcatraz that you can read about here, but I still like the show.

Brenda Leigh Johnson, The Closer

Yes, I already mentioned Flynn & Provenza, but Brenda belongs in a category all by herself. We have seen her do almost anything to close a case time and time again. The most recent big example was dropping off a gang member in gang territory knowing he would be killed. Whether or not Brenda’s actions a justified is a big theme in this last, very split season.

Verdict: Nobody does mistakes better than Brenda Leigh and The Closer.

Have you seen any sloppy TV detective work lately?

Deborah Lacy is an avid mystery reader and aspiring novelist.  You can follow her on Twitter @quippy.

Check out all of Deborah Lacy’s posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Saundra Peck

    As a retired police officer, I laugh at ALL the inaccuracies of most TV cops… but Emma being a “sheriff” does take the cake. Because she was a bounty hunter, now she is a police officer?!?! Bounty hunters have more ability to take in jumpers with no legal knowledge than ANY police officer…they need no “probable cause” for searching any home, and no recourse for “violating” anyones rights!!! But, it is a fantasy land, right! I still love the fresh take on her show. And the Closer characters? Best on tv….

  2. Christopher Morgan

    Re: Emma, Folks at my house have a theory that Henry is the brains of that operation. If you notice, Emma always looks to Henry for ques before deciding something big, espicially with that murder investigation. Between that 10 year old and Gold, they could be running that town.

  3. Deborah Lacy

    @sk1336 – I bet you have some good laughs about the silly mistakes and catch many more than I do. The bounty hunter to shariff transition was ridiculous, and then she was in charge of a murder investigation that she probably should have recused herself from anyway. I do love the show though, and I’m suffering mightily with these repeats the past few weeks.

    @cmorgan – I agree with your house theory about Henry being the brains. She does seek his counsel often. Not sure Harry runs anything yet. I think he’s trying to figure out how. It is interesting that he is the one with the book. Gold on the other hand definitely rules from behind.
    This is a little off topic – I can’t figure out who August is…and I can’t help but thinking that the Evil Witch made Red Riding Hood’s life better by moving her to Storybrooke. Is there such a thing as collateral help (opposite of collateral damage)?

  4. Christopher Morgan

    I’m sure she’ll do something insanely and unrealistically evil to ruin Red’s day. I know we’re talking dumb cops, but what about dumb villians? I mean Regina is already queen of the town while everyone else is completly miserable, why is she so overtly evil? And I’m sure that’s a list that Boss Hogg would make it on to, among others. Not even going to touch all the ones that wanted to keep Bond around, just so he could see their plans come to fruition… Oh lord, I feel a rant a stirrin’…

  5. Deborah Lacy

    @cmorgan – I think they were trying to answer the crazy evil part in the episode with Barbara Hershey as her mother, but I don’t think Snow’s actions deserve this kind of reaction. Maybe if Regina went after her mother instead who seems to be quite a little sociopath.

    Dumb villians would be a great post – don’t forget Batman’s foils who always explain their evil plans and then leave Batman and Robin alone to face certain death, which of course gives them time to escape and then foil the villian. These villians never learn. But that’s just the old TV series…

  6. Deborah Lacy

    I just caught up on Monday’s Castle episode with Nathan Fillion’s old Firefly co-star Adam Baldwin (also John Casey on Chuck) playing super sloppy and somewhat destructive Detective Ethan Slaughter. It’s a great episode. He makes Beckett look perfect…

  7. Kerry

    This is a great topic because I often wonder about such sloppy police work. I love Castle, but wish Beckett would solve a case on her own once and awhile. I don’t think it would take away from the show if she were to prove Castle wrong. And I also love Once Upon a Time, but come on Emma. She’s supposed to know when people are lying to her (she brags about this) but she didn’t know that the genie/newsguy was lying. What’s up with that?????

  8. Deborah Lacy

    @Kerry – I’m trying to think of a time where Beckett came up with the solution on her own, but I can’t. It would be interesting if he were proven wrong and there would have been disaterous consequences had she gone against her policewoman gut and listened to him on that occasion. Lots of potential conflict and angst. We’re headed towards the end of the season here, and Castle writers tend to up the ante and on drama towards the end. Of course this week the epsiode is called, “Undead Again” and without revealing too much, the word zombie is mentioned in the description.

    It’s true, Emma can’t tell when people are lying and while her intentions are good, she is a lousy cop. She breaks the law more than she upholds it. I wonder where Kathryn went while she was “dead,” and who falsified the heart DNA? Was that Sydney (genie/newsguy) I can’t remember. I can’t wait until Sunday!

  9. Terrie Farley Moran

    @ Beckett solving a case without Castle! Revolutionary! And how would Rick Castle feel about that?

  10. Deborah Lacy

    @Terrie – I’d like to think Rick wouldn’t be surprised. She is the cop after all. It seems to bother him more when she teams up with someone else to solve a crime. I wonder how he’d feel if she ever tried to write a book…

    Did you see the Castle zombie upisode last night????

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