When the detective is the sidekick

A few years ago, I had the great joy of writing something for a fascinating collection edited by Lucy Andrew and Sam Saunders, A Study in Sidekicks (2021). I had been playing around with fiction adjacent to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes for a long time, like female detective stories of the mid-to-late C19, and separately with adaptation as a subject on inquiry, and this collection was a perfect opportunity to test out an intuition I had about Sherlock’s impact on genre TV in the C21. It was also a brilliant way to justify my binge-consumption of said TV!

As I recently found a few more extraordinary-sidekick TV series, I thought I would jot down a list and a quick summary of the argument I made about why this sort of series should be understood separately from other types of crime/detective storytelling and some of what makes it distinct.

My chapter was entitled ‘Sherlock’s Legacy: The Case of the Extraordinary Sidekick’, and I was interested in the cases where the notable “detective” was, structurally, the “sidekick”, like White Collar or (series 1 of) Hannibal. Neal Caffrey and Will Graham are not law enforcement; their involvement in law enforcement and the detection of criminals is contingent, predicated on their being at the side of a named “official detective”. These characters are not Sherlock, who operates on his own account, and yet, also, bear a great deal of resemblance to him. They are, to my mind, “extraordinary sidekicks”, distinct from “genius detectives” (as defined by Mareike Jenner) and “specialists” (as defined by Sue Turnbull).

Aside from characterisation (to which I’ll return), the feature of the Holmes stories that they rely on as a fundamental premise is mistrust of the police. (I’ve a short talk about this, aimed at GCSE students.) Latent mistrust of even competent law-enforcement professionals is the central justification for the engagement of extraordinary sidekicks to solve crime. These extraordinary sidekicks meet a deceptively simple definition:

Someone with either an innate or acquired ability or specialist knowledge base, who stands outside the usual law-enforcement structure, who routinely works alongside a single detective or small team of detectives, and who is used by them as a resource to improve the quality of law enforcement.

Such TV series are commonly named after the protagonist to help avoid any misunderstanding about who should be the focus of attention. The Mentalist and The Sniffer are two great examples, in the vein of series named after “official detectives” like Inspector Morse, then Lewis, and then Endeavour (to cite one particular chain of adaptations). But sometimes there are fuzzy boundaries, such as Astrid: Murder in Paris, which, in the original French, is named for both detective and sidekick: Astrid et Raphaëlle.1

They’re different to the tranche of genre TV that focuses on medical examiners or lawyers (such as Silent Witness or Perry Mason), who don’t “stand outside the usual law-enforcement structure”, or programmes that focuses almost exclusively on an “amateur detective”, who may well have “either an innate or acquired ability or specialist knowledge base”, but who doesn’t “routinely work alongside a single detective or small team of detectives” (see, for example, Jonathan Creek or Jessica Jones). With these exclusionary criteria in place, a rough group of series and characters begins to form. They bring a range of extraordinary abilities and knowledge to bear, from illicit criminal knowledge (White Collar, The Blacklist, Prodigal Son) to impossible physical abilities (The Sniffer, Limitless) to supernatural powers (Medium, Psych, Lucifer) to patterns of thinking brought about by neurodiversity (Hannibal, Astrid).

The detective/small team of detectives with whom they work are simultaneously very competent and insufficiently competent. Because, narratively, the extraordinary sidekick must be an accidental detective, their repeated deployment has to be explained repeatedly. This is often done through the language of resourcing; the police deploy every tool at their disposal in order to solve crime, and this must include the extraordinary sidekick once their abilities are made known to them. In many ways, then, the extraordinary sidekick series functions like copaganda TV, but they retain an undercurrent of distrust because it is the essential chink through which the consultant can enter and remain. This is particularly exacerbated in series where the extraordinary sidekick brings their own sidekicks, working further outside the law (and sometimes against it), as in White Collar, Numb3rs, Instinct, Lucifer, and Deception. The way in which these characters plug the trust gap is deeply contingent.

For those who want to watch along, here’s my running list of extraordinary sidekick TV for your delectation!

  • Medium (2005-2009; 2009-2011)
  • Numb3rs (2005-2010)
  • Bones (2005-2017)
  • Psych (2006-2014)
  • The Mentalist (2008-2015)
  • Castle (2009-2016)
  • The Listener (2009-2014): I confess I hadn’t found this one at the time of writing my chapter!
  • White Collar (2009-2014)
  • Perception (2012-15)
  • The Blacklist (2013-)
  • The Sniffer (2013-)
  • Hannibal (2013-2015)
  • Nordic Murders (2014–22): sometimes called Baltic Crimes, as on IMDB, I also hadn’t watched this at the time of writing my chapter
  • Limitless (2015-2016)
  • Scorpion (2015-2018)
  • Professor T (2015-18) and its German and English remakes (the English one post-dates my chapter, but it very closely follows the original)
  • Lucifer (2016-2018; 2019-2021)
  • Deception (2018)
  • Instinct (2018-2019)
  • The Alienist (2018–2020)
  • Vienna Blood (2019)
  • Prodigal Son (2019-2021)
  • Astrid (2019-2022): I also hadn’t watched this at the time of writing the chapter

1. Astrid generates a variety of fuzzy boundaries for my definition. Astrid is a criminal records archivist, rendered “extraordinary” by her autism and special interest in criminology. Do we discount this for the same reason as medical-examiner stories, because the extraordinary sidekick’s role is structurally a part of the criminal justice infrastructure (even if their portrayed role far exceeds anything realistic)? My sense is that Astrid sits just within the boundaries of “extraordinary sidekick TV”, as archivists would not usually have any active input into criminal investigation, contrary to MEs, who provide vital clues on cause and time of death, etc. But the point is arguable.

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