TV’s Greatest: The 20 Best Supernatural Detectives

We look at the greatest supernatural sleuths in TV history.

A silhouette of a mysterious woman in a misty hallway.

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The Saturday Evening Post’s “TV’s Greatest” series is an ongoing look at the greatest characters, songs, and moments in the history of TV. Also see TV’s Greatest: Best “Best Friends” and “The 40 Greatest Animated TV Series Theme Songs.”

 

Just in time for Halloween, here’s a list of TV’s Greatest Supernatural Detectives. This group contains crime-solvers, adventurers, and reluctant heroes who investigate and battle the things that go bump in the night. You’ll find federal agents, a couple of heroic vampires, one character based on a real person, and two distinct Scooby gangs. Your journey, if you dare, begins with . . .

20. Wynonna Earp (Melanie Scrofano)

Wynonna Earp 2016-2021

Melanie Scrofano
Melanie Scrofano (Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock)

Created in the Image and IDW Comics by Beau Smith in 2003, Wynonna Earp made the leap to TV in 2016. Wynonna is the great-great-grandaughter of Wyatt Earp, and she uses Wyatt’s magical pistol Peacemaker to return supernatural threats (like revenants reincarnated from outlaws that Wyatt killed) back where they belong. Over the course of four seasons, Wynonna, an immortal Doc Holliday, and their allies battle threats from beyond. The show has drawn praise from the likes of Variety and Collider.

19. Nicholas Burkhardt (David Giuntoli)

Grimm 2011-2017

Silas Weir Mitchell and David Guintoli
Silas Weir Mitchell and David Guintoli (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)

It’s not unusual for supernatural crimefighters to get the gig because they were chosen or part of a larger legacy. That’s true of Portland homicide detective Nicholas Burkhardt; as a Grimm, a chosen protector, he works keep the peace between regular humans and the Wesen, creatures of myth and magic that are inspired in part by the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

18. The team from Evil (Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi)

Evil 2019-present

Mike Colter
Mike Colter (Jamie Lamor Thompson / Shutterstock)

Running on CBS before jumping to Paramount+, Evil uses the trope of skeptics paired with believers, but with a twist. Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Herbers) doesn’t believe in much of anything outside of her training as a forensic psychologist; she joins David Acosta (Colter), who is studying to be a priest, when he hires her to help him investigate reports of demonic activity and/or miraculous occurrences. The third member of the team, Ben Shakir (Mandvi) was hired for his tech expertise, but often weighs in with how the things the group witnesses should be explainable by science. Some episodes reveal that there are human explanations for the mysterious happenings, while others are left to the imagination (it’s demons, totally demons).

17. Nick Knight (Rick Springfield in the pilot film; Geraint Wyn Davies in the series)

Nick Knight 1989; Forever Knight 1992-1996

Geraint Wyn Davies
Geraint Wyn Davies (Wikimedia Commons)

Vampire homicide detective Nick Knight first appeared in a CBS TV-film starring rocker Rick Springfield in the title role. When the network decided to send the film to series for its late-night Crimetime After Primetime block, Davies took over the lead; he remained with the show as it moved to first-run syndication, and again to USA Network. The main conflict of the series dealt with Knight trying to exorcise his personal demons and vampiric background by working to save lives as a police detective. The series made extensive of use of flashbacks to show how Knight overcame the sins of his past to catch human killers, and others of his kind, in the present.

16. Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette)

Medium 2005-2011

Patricia Arquette
Patricia Arquette (s_bukley / Shutterstock)

Medium was inspired by the real-life Allison DuBois, who helped law enforcement with her supposed psychic abilities. DuBois consulted on the series; the fictional version also had three children and a husband named Joe. TV’s Allison frequently obtained information from visions in her dreams, but she’d have to sort out what they meant to solve cases. As the show went on, it stuck less to DuBois’s life and drifted into other supernatural fare.

15. Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell)

Ash vs Evil Dead 2015-2018

Bruce Campbell
Bruce Campbell (CarlaVanWagoner / Shutterstock)

In one corner, you have Ashley “Ash” Williams, the chainsaw-and-shotgun-wielding hero of the Evil Dead film franchise. In the other, you have, well, the Evil Dead. Campbell’s original Evil Dead partners, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, were on board as executive producers, and Tapert’s wife, Lucy Lawless, had a regular role. The show follows tough-talking Ash and his young sidekicks Kelly and Pablo as they battle the forces of darkness that had plagued Ash in the movies.

14. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen)

Millennium 1996-1999, The X-Files season seven episode four “Millennium” 1999

Lance Henriksen
Lance Henriksen (s_bukley / Shutterstock)

With the major success of The X-Files, Fox asked creator Chris Carter to put together another series for the network. Inspired in part by the then-recent success of David Fincher’s Seven while tapping into the FBI/conspiracy pillars of his big hit, Carter came up with Millennium. Former FBI agent Frank Black has the ability to peer inside the minds of criminals, and he puts it to work for the mysterious Millennium Group. Along the way, Black confronts serial killers, the supernatural, and his own organization. The series received a coda after its conclusion during a November 1999 crossover with The X-Files.

13. Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis)

Lucifer 2016-2021, part three of the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover The Flash 2019

Tom Ellis
Tom Ellis (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)

That’s right; sometimes the Devil works on the side of angels. Created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg in the critically acclaimed Sandman DC comics and continued in the Mike Carey-written Lucifer series, the character is a version of the rebel angel that abandons his station in Hell for a life on Earth in, ironically, the City of Angels, Los Angeles. After helping LAPD detective Chloe Decker solve a crime, he continues to help out against all manner of supernatural threats. After three seasons on Fox, the show hopped over to Netflix for three more. During 2019/2020, the five DC super-hero shows on the CW held a mega-crossover event between the various worlds of each show; Lucifer puts in an appearance in which it is revealed that the number of his world in the DC Multiverse is Earth-666.

12. The Curious Goods team (Louise Robey, John D. LeMay, Chris Wiggins; later Steve Monarque)

Friday the 13th: The Series 1987-1990

Producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. shepherded sequels to the film Friday the 13th throughout the 1980s. He also used the name for a TV series that had nothing to do with Jason. The syndicated show follows cousins-by-marriage Mickey (Robey) and Ryan (LeMay), who inherit their uncle’s antique store. However, their evil uncle has made a deal with the Devil and sold many cursed objects, items that Mickey, Ryan, and their ally Jack Marshak (Wiggins) work to recover. The show was very popular for a time, second only to Star Trek: The Next Generation in original syndication during the first two series. After Ryan was written out and Johnny Ventura (Monarque) was added, the show dipped a bit and was cancelled during its third season.

11. The Doctor (13 regular actors plus permutations)

Doctor Who 1963-present plus two non-continuity feature films

Jodie Whittaker
Jodie Whittaker (lev radin / Shutterstock)

The immortal adventurer from the planet Gallifrey has been foiling the forces of evil for centuries on TV and decades in real time. With his or her ship the TARDIS and a rotating cast of companions (and occasional robot dogs), The Doctor has faced down alien conquerors like the Daleks and a recurring nemesis, The Master. Even though many of their adventures involve aliens and androids, the good Doctor sometimes gets in the thick of it with supernatural entities (or aliens disguised as such).

10. The Party and allies

Stranger Things 2016-present

Stranger Things cast
The Stranger Things cast (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)

The Party started with the Dungeons & Dragons group formed by Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Will Byers (Noah Schapp), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo). When Will goes missing, his friends hunt for him and discover the mysterious Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Over the first season, their circle expands to include Mike’s sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Will’s brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and the world’s best babysitter, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), along with Will’s mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and Hawkins, Indiana police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour). The group frequently finds themselves solving elements of larger danger involving extra-dimensional monsters and shady government agencies before coming together with the pieces to overcome the problem (and the frequent telekinetic assist from Eleven). As the series progresses, more allies come into the fold, including Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), Lucas’s sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson), and Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke).

9. Ichabod Crane and Abigail Mills (Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie)

Sleepy Hollow 2013-2017

Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones and Katia Winter
Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones and Katia Winter (s_bukley / Shutterstock)

One of America’s original horror stories was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and this Fox series mixed in the notion of that story’s protagonist, Ichabod Crane (Mison) being transported to present day to confront his nemesis, the Headless Horseman. The ongoing conceit was much larger, involving the Four Horsemen, the End of Days, Purgatory, and, just for fun, weekly supernatural threats that Crane could confront alongside Sheriff’s Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Beharie). Though the over-the-top nature of the show drew initially large audiences and critical praise, the show declined when Beharie left the show after the third season to deal with autoimmune disease. Nevertheless, the pair’s chemistry elevated the series while they were together.

8. John Constantine (Matt Ryan)

Constantine 2014-2015, Arrow 2015, Legends of Tomorrow 2017-2021

Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock)

Introduced in DC Comics in 1985 by writer Alan Moore and artists Stephen R. Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch, John Constantine first appears as an enigmatic guide for Swamp Thing before spinning off into his own series, Hellblazer, which ran for 15 years. While a feature film franchise was attempted with Keanu Reeves, Constantine on screen was faithfully realized by actor Matt Ryan in a 2014 NBC series. Ryan captures the cynicism and conflict of the British occult investigator (and warlock). His take proved popular enough that after the show’s demise, he was ported over to the “Arrowverse” shows on the CW, appearing first in Arrow before becoming a regular on Legends of Tomorrow.

7. Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan)

Twin Peaks 1990-1991, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me 1992, Twin Peaks: The Return 2017

Kyle McLachlan
Kyle McLachlan (Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock)

“Diane, I’m holding in my hand a copy of The Saturday Evening Post, except it’s online. It’s telling me that I’m one of the greatest supernatural detectives on TV. That suggests that I’m a television character, possibly created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. While I’d argue that I’ve pursued Earth-bound cases, I’d wager that my conflicts with BOB, the Black Lodge, and other dark forces have earned me this reputation. If the price of fame is holding back evil, I’ll take it. That, and a cherry pie and some hot coffee. This is Special Agent Dale Cooper, waiting on another reboot. Thanks, Diane.”

6. The team at Angel Investigations

Angel 1999-2004

The Angel cast
The Angel cast (©20th Century Studios publicity photo via Wikimedia Commons)

When Angel (David Boreanaz) left Sunnydale for his own show at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season, the “vampire detective in L.A.” premise seemed a little similar to Forever Knight. However, the show sidestepped that pigeonhole with the lightness of fellow Buffy transplant Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the early sacrifice of helpful demon Doyle (Glenn Quinn), and subsequent cast additions candy-ass turned bad-ass Wesley (Buffy alum Alexis Denisof), vampire hunter Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), karaoke-hosting demon Lorne (Andy Hallett), physicist Winifred “Fred” Burkle (Amy Acker), and finally, in the fifth season, antagonist-turned-uneasy-ally Spike (Buffy vet James Marsters). The series became a rumination on what it means to look for redemption while wrapping the main message in long, action-driven arcs. Final episode “Not Fade Away” regularly appears on lists of Best Series Finales.

5. The Scooby Gang (Fred Jones, Daphne Blake, Velma Dinkley, Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, and Scooby-Doo)

13 TV animated series, one animated feature, two live-action features, 36 direct-to-video films, and much more, 1969-present

Scooby-Doo
Scooby-Doo (ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock)

Let’s face it. The Scooby Gang would be number one if more of the menaces they faced would have been actual supernatural threats instead of mostly criminals in masks pretending to haunt mines and amusement parks. They’re the gold standard of supernatural sleuth longevity, with the reigning champion being voice-actor Frank Welker, who has voiced Fred since the beginning and Scooby, too, since 1996 (taking over for original Don Messick). The remainder of the current voice-cast includes Grey DeLisle (Daphne since 2000), Kate Miccuci (Velma since 2015), and Matthew Lillard (the live-action Shaggy since 2010; the role was originated by Casey Kasem). The reputation and pop culture pervasiveness of Mystery Incorporated is so strong that an upcoming entry on our list also refers to themselves, affectionately, as “The Scooby Gang” or “Scoobies.”

4. Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin)

TV films The Night Stalker 1972 and The Night Strangler 1973, TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1974-1975

Starting as an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice that was turned into a screenplay by horror master Richard Matheson, The Night Stalker came to TV under the auspices of producer Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) and director John L. Moxey. The story follows world-weary reporter Kolchak as he follows the case of a serial killer that turns out to be a vampire; the TV movie was highest rated on TV up to that time. For the sequel, Matheson returned and Curtis directed; it did almost as well and prompted the series. Unfortunately, it couldn’t keep the ratings rolling, despite strong work by McGavin and Simon Oakland as Kolchak’s editor, Tony Vincenzo. Reruns of the series proved popular, and the show’s cult classic status has far outlived its single season. Chris Carter notes that the show was a “tremendous influence” on his most famous creation, which you’ll see shortly.

3. Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles)

Supernatural 2005-2020

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles
Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles (Eugene Powers / Shutterstock)

With 15 seasons, it’s the longest running live-action show of its type. At the show’s heart, it’s a story about two brothers bound by tragedy. Writ large, it’s about those same two brothers travelling the country to hunt monsters. Padalecki and Ackles made the respective haunted soulfulness of Sam and the wiseacre swagger of Dean into anchors for the show’s popularity. The series was orbited by a large cast of recurring characters, most notably hunter Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver), angel Castiel (Misha Collins), King of Hell Crowley (Mark Sheppard), and Sheriff Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes). Propelled far longer than expected by rabid fandom and enduring popularity, the show’s wayward sons took their final bow with the 327th episode.

2. Buffy and “The Scoobies”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1997-2003

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Sarah Michelle Gellar (s_bukley / Shutterstock)

After the too-campy theatrical film from 1992, the character got a new lease on life with a TV series on the WB in 1997. The central metaphor of “high school as horror story” combined with an appealing cast and a staff of great writers made Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a solid hit. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) may have been the one chosen to fight monsters, but her companions were always in the thick of it. With best friends Willow (Alyson Hannnigan) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), her Watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and a list of allies that included werewolf Oz (Seth Green), ex-demon Anya (Emma Caulfield), witch Tara (Amber Benson), a magically created little sister (Michelle Trachtenberg), and vampire love interests Angel and Spike, Buffy battled evil for seven seasons. The show’s serialized structure was built around each season having a major ongoing nemesis; the characters coined the term “Big Bad,” which has since become shorthand used by other shows that employ the same conceit (Fun fact: Buffy was also the first show to employ “google” as a verb). Buffy’s journey of embracing her destiny culminated in her decision in the finale, “Chosen,” to share her power with any other girl who could be a potential slayer, which was a literal blessing of empowerment to a generation of fans.

1. FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder & Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson)

The X-Files 1993-2002, two theatrical films in 1998 and 2008, The X-Files revival 2016-2018

Agents Scully and Mulder from the X-Files
FBI Agents Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) from the original run of The X-Files. (© Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Television)

They are the quintessential paranormal investigators. One’s a believer and one’s a skeptic. One looks for the straightest line to an explanation, no matter how fantastic it may be, while the other leans on empirical evidence and science. They’re Agents Mulder and Scully, and they’re the protagonists of Chris Carter’s The X-Files. The show broke ground in big ways (positioning Scully as an equal at a time when a lot of female partners were still damseling) and small (they were one of the first investigative shows to regularly have the leads use cell phones to stay in contact). They weren’t the first supernatural detectives on TV, but the show set a high bar with writing and direction while taking the subject matter seriously enough to make it compelling drama. The show was nominated for 62 Emmys and won 16, including a 1996 win for Darin Morgan for Outstanding Writing and a 1997 award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Dramatic Series for Anderson; both Duchovny and Anderson would earn Golden Globes in their respective categories in 1996. The truth is right here: Mulder and Scully remain the high-water mark that all supernatural detectives must be measured against.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. I really loved ‘Medium’ with Patricia Arquette. It started around the same time as ‘Ghost Whisperer’ with Jennifer Love Hewitt, another great show.

    Most of these others I have no opinion on either way. REALLY loved the original 1990-’91 ABC series ‘Twin Peaks’, and still do, but that’s it. Unfortunately the ’92 feature film based on the show was one of the worst films I’d ever seen. ‘Batman Returns’ from that same year as well. In both cases I got my money back. As for the 2017 TP sequel ‘The Return’, it was equally (or even more?) unwatchable than the feature film.

    My MOST favorite here are still the Carl Kolchak ‘Night Stalker’ TV films/series by Dan Curtis. In particular ‘The Tevi Collection’ from ’75 featuring Lara Parker as a high fashion model that’s also a witch! She walks like she talks and talks like she walks just like on ‘Dark Shadows’; just much more exaggerated here.

  2. It’s hard to argue with this list, though there are some people who will argue about anything and everything, The Top four are especially solid. And yeah, everyone loves Scooby and the gang, but yep, how often did they actually solve actual supernatural case instead of uncovering human imposters?

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