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For the last while I’ve been writing monthly posts summarizing the mystery shows I’ve been watching. This past month I’ve gone on a bit of a 1970s detective show binge. This isn’t something that I had been super familiar with before. Since I was born in the 1980s, these shows were before my time. But I was interested in expanding my repertoire of shows I’m familiar with, so with the help of the people over at the Mystery Lovers Facebook group, I compiled a list of 9 TV shows from that era to check out.
This particular post focuses on just those 9 shows, but you can click here for a complete list of all detective shows ever produced in the 1970s.
The idea for this post was that I’d watch at least two episodes of each show, ideally each from a different season, to get a good feel for them. I found that I liked some more than others, and so I decided to rank them from my least favourite to my most favourite into the three categories below.
Not my cup of tea
Before I go on to listing them, I should say that the shows in this category aren’t necessarily bad and I did enjoy watching them. They just happened to not excite me as much as the other shows in this list.
Banacek (played by George Peppard, a.k.a. the Coloner off the A-Team) is a Polish-American insurance investigator working out of Chicago.
It ran for two seasons from 1972-1974 as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie roster. My impressions of this show are based on S1E8 “Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack” (which features a young Jessica Walters), and S2E8 “Now You See Me Now You Don’t”.
I wasn’t too crazy about Banacek’s schtick — in each episode he quips a particular “old Polish proverb”, and maybe I was simply annoyed by it because I am Polish. However, I did appreciate that each show’s premise is a puzzle and a true mystery: Banacek is always investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of something.
The show is a bit hard to find nowadays [April 2020], although it is possible to purchase the complete DVD collection of Banacek on Amazon.
Cannon (played by William Conrad) is an ex-cop turned private investigator working out of Los Angeles. William Conrad went on to do Nero Wolfe and Jake and the Fat Man in the 80s.
The show ran for 5 seasons from 1971-1976 on CBS. It was produced by Quinn Martin, who also produced Barnaby Jones and Streets of San Francisco featured on this list. My impressions of this show are based on S1E1 “The Salinas Jackpot” and S1E23 “Cain’s Mark”.
Cannon is a bit of a regular guy. The show references his weight and love of food a lot, which is sort of his schtick. The show’s plot is very much about following this guy at work — there’s not a lot of crazy action, just a lot of dogged pursuit — which can make it a bit boring at times.
DVD sets of the show are available for a reasonable price on Amazon. Click here for the complete collection of all the show episodes; and click here for an even more complete collection that includes the pilot episodes and sequels. [April 2020]
Kojak (played by Telly Savalas) is a police detective in New York City.
The show ran for 5 seasons from 1973-1978 on CBS. It was also revived into a series of TV movies in the late 80s. My impressions of this show are based on S1E1 “Siege of Terror” and S2E3 “Hush Now Don’t You Die”.
Kojak is a real badass cop who’s all about justice, but in a way that shows care and respect not only for the victim but also for the perpetrator. The show really makes you want to put your trust in the police force.
I put Kojak into this category because it’s not really a mystery show — it’s a police procedural where finding the perpetrator isn’t always the main focus.
Would watch more
Barnaby Jones (played by Buddy Ebsen, a.k.a. the dad from The Beverly Hillbillies) is a retired private investigator living in Los Angeles. He goes back to work following the death of his son, who had previously taken over the P.I. business. Following the pilot episode, he gets assisted by his daughter-in-law (played by Lee Meriwether).
The show ran for 8 seasons from 1973 to 1980 on CBS. It was sort-of a spin-off of Cannon — Cannon appeared in the pilot episode and there were other crossovers between the two shows. My impressions of this show are based on S1E1 “Requiem for a Son” and S4E9 “Fatal Witness”.
I really enjoyed this show about this quirky unassuming old man, who doesn’t drink and instead prefers a glass of cold milk. In a lot of ways this reminded me of Murder, She Wrote, but less spunky.
McMillan & Wife
McMillan (played by Rock Hudson) is a San Francisco Police Commissioner who is often helped by his much younger wife (played by Susan Saint James).
The show ran for 6 seasons from 1971-1977, and was part of the NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie roster (together with Columbo). My impressions of this show are based on S1E5 “Death is a Seven Point Favorite” and S4E5 “Night Train to L.A.”.
My favourite part of McMillan & Wife was the comedic relief provided by McMillan’s assisting sergeant (played by John Schuck) and the couple’s maid (played by Nancy Walker). In my opinion, it’s the comedy roles that really make this show, otherwise I think it would not be as memorable.
The complete McMillan & Wife is available on DVD on Amazon. (Super cheap price! [April 2020])
The Rockford Files
Jim Rockford (played by James Garner) is a Private Investigator living and working out of a trailer in Los Angeles.
The show ran for 6 seasons from 1974-1980 on NBC. It was also revived into a series of TV movies in the 90s. My impressions are based on S3E14&15 two-parter “The Trees, the Bees and T. T. Flowers” and S5E4 “White on White and Nearly Perfect”. The latter of these episodes guest starred Tom Selleck as a rival Los Angeles P.I., and was what set me off on my 70s detective show binge since it was included as a bonus on my Magnum, P.I. DVDs.
The show did remind me a lot of Magnum, P.I. Jim Rockford doesn’t always make the big bucks, and he’s not always necessarily solving a mystery. But it’s nonetheless an excellent adventure show.
The Rockford Files DVD/BluRay collection is available on Amazon. It is now [April 2020] also possible to stream the show via Amazon Prime Video for free (with ads).
Bonus: Quincy ME
Quincy (played by Jack Klugman) is a medical examiner for Los Angeles county. He’s a very principled man who ends up investigating the suspicious deaths of the bodies he examines.
I’m calling this one a bonus because it’s neither a 70s nor an 80s show. It ran for 8 seasons from 1976-1983, and it’s almost equally split between the decades. So far I watched S1E1 “Go Fight City Hall…to the Death!” and S4E13 “The Depth of Beauty”.
The series originated as part of the NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie roster (alongside Columbo and McMillan), but later became a series in its own right as testament of how popular it was. The show was co-created by Glen A. Larson, who was also the co-creator of Magnum, P.I., which is probably why I enjoyed this show a lot.
Seasons of Quincy, M.E. are available on DVD on Amazon, although they’re now [April 2020] getting harder to find.
Can’t wait to watch more!
Switch was a show about an ex-cop (played by Eddie Albert) and an ex-con (played by Robert Wagner), who partner together to help clients catch the criminals who have played tricks on them. All episodes feature elaborate confidence tricks meant to exact revenge on the criminal and make him/her think twice before messing with anyone else. And of course, they feature Robert Wagner after It Takes a Thief and before Hart to Hart.
The show ran for 3 seasons from 1975-1978 on CBS. The show was created by Glen A. Larson and one of the members of the writing team included Donald P. Bellisario, both of whom went on to create Magnum, P.I.
So far I watched S1E1 “The James Caan Con” and S1E9 “The Cruise Ship Murders”. However, the show is incredibly hard to find since it was never released on DVD.
The Streets of San Francisco
This one is about a seasoned cop (played by Karl Malden) and a young cop (played by Michael Douglas) as partners solving crimes in San Francisco.
I found the dynamic in the show between the two cops to be somewhat reminiscent of early Midsomer Murders. However, Michael Douglas was later replaced by Richard Hatch, and I can’t comment on the dynamic at the end of the show since both of the episodes I watched had Michael Douglas in them.
The show ran for 5 seasons from 1972-1977 on ABC. Along with Cannon and Barnaby Jones, it was produced by Quinn Martin. My impressions are based on the pilot “The Streets of San Francisco” and S3E13 “The Twenty-Five Caliber Plague”.
From what I could tell, the show tackled some serious topics, such at the politics surrounding catching serial murderers, as well as the issue of gun control.
The complete collection of The Streets of San Francisco is available on DVD on Amazon, though it is now [April 2020] difficult to find in stock.
Ellery Queen (played by Jim Hutton) is a writer who is often called in by his police detective father to help solve tricky crimes. It is based on the book series from the 30s and 40s.
This show is unusual among the 70s detective shows listed here because it doesn’t actually take place in the 70s. Instead, it takes place in the mid to late 40s, which means there’s lots of references and humour about the era. For example, in one episode that featured a TV set, Ellery Queen says that TV is just a fad.
The show ran for just one season from 1975-1976. The series was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, who went on to create Murder, She Wrote — which carries on the premise of a writer solving mysteries. So far, I watched the pilot “Too Many Suspects” and episode 1 “The Adventure of the Auld Lang Syne”.
Each episode is a classic mystery with a limited cast of suspects, and there’s even a moment where Ellery Queen breaks the fourth wall by facing the camera and asking the viewer if they’ve solved it yet. That’s my favourite part about the show, because you really do feel like you’re there to solve-along.
The complete Ellery Queen is available on DVD on Amazon, although it’s getting harder to find now [April 2020].
Finally, I have to mention Columbo because it primarily ran in the 70s (the main series ran from 1971-1978), although the pilot appeared in 1968 and there were further TV movies made starting in 1989.
However, it’s hard for me to rank this show in relation to the others featured here because it’s one of my favourite shows, and was pretty much the only 70s detective show I watched prior to my little journey back in time this past month.
The quintessential howcatchem, Columbo is about an L.A. homicide detective. The viewer knows who the killer is — in fact we watch the killer carry out the crime — but the mystery is in watching Columbo piece together enough clues to arrest him.
The complete Columbo DVD collection is available for purchase on Amazon, although it’s getting harder to find. It is also possible to stream it via Amazon Prime Video. [April 2020]