What: Banacek, an NBC Mystery Movie series that ran from 1972 to 1974, starring George Peppard:
(Yes, that Margot Kidder. Check out her sly Superman reference in this clip.)
Why: A three-ton statue disappears from an art gallery. A pro running back vanishes from under a dogpile. A train car goes missing—while the train is moving. The insurance company is out a ton of money, so there’s only one man to call: Thomas Banacek, a stylish Polish-American insurance investigator with a knack for cracking impossible locked-room mysteries. Armed with mad puzzle-solving skillz and an endless supply of mystifying Polish proverbs, Banacek can unravel any crime—assuming he’s paid his 10 percent finder’s fee. The insurance companies never like to call him, mostly because he is way smarter than they are, but there’s not a lot of people who can discover how an airplane evaporates off a runway. Just one, actually: Banacek.
Impact: Post-Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Blue Max, Peppard settled into a series of forgettable tough-guy roles. Banacek looked poised to give him weight as a thinking man’s action star. Unfortunately, a divorce settlement led Peppard to kill the show after two seasons, so we’re left with only 17 brilliant episodes of the smartest crime show ever. Thus, it remains a little-known cult-classic among fans of the mystery genre.
Personal Connection: I’ve probably watched each of those episodes 5 to 10 times. Banacek is one of the only TV characters I’ve ever wanted to be. I’m not Polish, and nowhere near as smooth with the ladies, but I think I can tell you how your prototype rocket engine or giant medical supercomputer was stolen, if just given a chance.
Other Contenders: Homicide: Life on the Street, TV’s grittiest and best-cast show, at least until… The Sopranos, the most artistically crafted soap opera ever; Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a game show where three kids chase a red-chapeaued supercriminal across the world; Police Squad!, a look back before the guns were naked; Cowboy Bebop, a thrilling and gorgeous anime series about a team of interplanetary bounty hunters.