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The 17 Most Addictive TV Mysteries

These whodunits are perfectly bingeable.
Addictive Tv Mysteries
By  · Published on May 20th, 2018

Sometimes it feels good to solve a crime. I don’t mean that we should all get degrees in criminal justice but simply that, after a long day or week of stress, kicking back at home and playing armchair detective can be extremely satisfying. We as a country have a huge appetite for guessing at mysteries: if the popularity of true-crime podcasts like Serial and docu-series like Making a Murderer doesn’t prove it, the fact that twelve to fifteen million people still watch NCIS in its fifteenth season sure does.

Hour-long mysteries can be fun, but the past decade or so has seen a global spike in prestige crime shows — dramas that cast talented, often big-name actors to take on heavy themes and solve a crime that runs an entire season. For armchair detectives, these shows can be even more exciting than procedurals, as TV mysteries drawn out for weeks often require a keen eye and memory. More than one recent whodunnit show has even left viewers without a clear-cut answer, instead asking them to, much like a jury, look at the evidence they’ve seen over the past hours and come to their own conclusion.

While this year has already given us a few passable mysteries (two are included below), the recent selection hasn’t fully satisfied our craving for juicy, engaging storytelling. For that, it’s worth looking further back to uncover the most binge-worthy single-season mysteries out there. The next time you want to binge a mystery, check out one of these — and get ready to let the next one or two or six episodes autoplay.

17. Collateral


The mystery: Why was Abdullah, the pizza delivery man, killed?
Number of episodes to an answer: 4

This Netflix original features a smorgasbord of great elements: a subtley great Carey Mulligan, prestigious playwright and screenwriter David Hare, and unmitigated criticism of British politics, the Syrian refugee crisis, and a host of other hot-button issues. The miniseries is short enough to whip through in an afternoon and still remember all the characters by the time the final revelations come around, but its compactness is also its weakness. Some characters, like the excellent Billie Piper as an MP’s unstable ex, still seem a bit unknown even as their storylines draw to a close. While other shows stretch themselves thin with countless red herrings, Collateral lets viewers see the killer by the end of episode one, but leaves her motives (and the motives of multiple shadowy figures surrounding her) up in the air until Mulligan’s investigator catches her trail in the final episode.

16. Riverdale


The mystery: Who killed Jason Blossom, and what happened to Polly Cooper?
Number of episodes to answer: 13 (season one)

Explaining Riverdale is a bit like holding a handful of sand. At some point it might seem like something worth trying, but it’s bound to quickly become messy and ridiculous. Actually, maybe I did just explain the show. At any rate, the dark Archie comic reimagining is thoroughly entertaining and, like most other CW shows, very binge-friendly. The series’ first season endeavors to solve the murder of Jason Blossom, a super pale, carrot-topped twin who seems to have been shot on the fourth of July (or “July fourth,” as every character dramatically calls it). The investigation is complicated by a gang of tough guy bikers, several musical performances, overbearing (and occasionally criminal) parents, and Jason’s surviving twin sister, iconic drama queen Cheryl. In its first outing, the show is a great balance of melodrama, wit, and sincerity, and the road to catching Jason’s killer takes more than one unpredictable twist.

15. Safe

The mystery: What happened to Jenny?
Number of episodes to an answer: 8 (season one)

Michael C. Hall and Amanda Abbington star in this Netflix gated-community thriller, created by crime novelist Harlan Coben. The short series crams as many secrets, lies, and twists as it can into its eight episodes, but its stellar cast and meticulously detailed plot keep the whole semi-ludicrous story from derailing. At times, the gated neighborhood that widower Tom (Hall) tears apart in search of his disappeared daughter feels like a village from an Agatha Christie novel; many of its residents are self-absorbed or simple, teetering between hilarious and appalling in their reactions to the crimes and cover-ups being perpetuated around them. Still, Safe pulls off something special by holding viewers’ attention until the very (questionable) end, keeping the clues coming at a steady pace and cultivating plenty of action for a more-than-game lead actor. It earns bonus points for taking the story almost entirely out of the hands of police and letting a dad take care of business.

14. The Tunnel

The Tunnel X

The mystery: Who is the Truth Terrorist?
Number of episodes to an answer: 10 (season one)

There’s a good chance you haven’t seen The Tunnel but still know its story; it’s the first of three international remakes of the Scandinavian cult favorite Bron/Broen (The Bridge). The original involved a murder investigation of a body which was found on the bridge bordering Sweden and Denmark, forcing officials from the two nations to work together. In The Tunnel, the crime is transported to the midpoint between the U.K. and France, and the American adaptation (The Bridge) was situated at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. All three have plenty to say about international relationships between neighboring cultures, but The Tunnel is the best version that also wraps up the mystery in a single season. The two detectives, played by Clémence Poésy (Harry Potter) and Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), might initially seem a bit stereotypical (grumpy old man, younger woman who doesn’t emote in an expected way), but nimble acting and appropriately bleak cinematography elevate this story to a higher level.

13. Broadchurch


The mystery: Who killed Danny?
Number of episodes to an answer: 8 (season one)

Skip the American remake of this show (which oddly cast David Tennant in the same lead role) and stick with the original, another ultra-grim British import about a murdered child and the community that surrounded him. Tennant does some of his best work alongside co-star Olivia Colman as one half of a newly-formed detective duo. The pair hits all the right beats as bristling but dogged coworkers, and the small, grieving coastal town at the show’s center comes alive thanks to surprising and deeply felt writing. Most of all, Broadchurch is a damn good mystery. Take a guess at who the killer could be in episode one, then get your mind blown repeatedly throughout the season — all the way to the memorably disturbing finale.

12. Dexter


The mystery: Who is the Ice Truck Killer?
Number of episodes to an answer: 12 (season one)

Despite the hundreds of murders that take place across Dexter’s eight seasons, the late, mostly-great Showtime series rarely featured real mysteries. Season one is a wonderful exception. We know from the jump that our protagonist (Michael C. Hall in the title role) is a serial killer, but the identity of his cleverest contemporary — a Barbie-and-body-dismembering man known as the Ice Truck Killer — comes as an exciting eleventh hour reveal with long-lasting dramatic payoff. Looking back, the show is extra-impressive for its ability to tell a truly dark story with empathy and humor in spades. While the first season wasn’t Dexter’s all-time best (that would be season four), few moment of television have ever been as wickedly giddy as the moment when Dex first finds a gift from the Ice Truck Killer: “I think this is a friendly message, like ‘Hey? Wanna play?’ And yes, I really, really do.”

11. American Vandal

American Vandal

The mystery: “Who drew the dicks?”
Number of episodes to an answer: 8, debatably (season one)

One of the best jokes about American Vandal is its own existence; the parody crime docuseries is an odd but hilarious choice for Netflix, the same company which made serious docuseries hugely popular with shows like Making a Murderer and Wild, Wild Country. Vine and YouTube comedian Jimmy Tatro stars as the potential vandal himself, a meathead named Dylan Maxwell with a reputation for public stupidity. The show’s writing is as clever and intricate as any crime drama, and Tatro, with his perfectly bro-ish affectations, is a breakout. Hilariously extended investigative detours into topics like the legitimacy of a summer camp hand job story keep viewers laughing, but by the end of eight episodes, the series pulls off something deeper and more somber that you’ll have to see to believe.

10. Search Party

Search Party

The mystery: What happened to Chantal?
Number of episodes to an answer: 10 (season one)

First and foremost, TBS’s Search Party deserves praise for bringing new life to the largely played-out vapid New York twentysomething story. By centering its first season on the disappearance of Dory’s (Alia Shawkat) college acquaintance Chantal and dialing the snappy, smart humor up to eleven, this dark comedy successfully reinvents the post-grad narrative. Season two is can’t-miss as the series goes full Hitchcock, but the original mystery is propulsive and psychologically trippy. Shawkat’s Dory is a fascinating protagonist, a woman who seeks her self-worth and identity in a missing person case that she has very little to do with. Come for the mystery, stay for the comedy and meta-commentary on true crime obsessives.

9. Happy Valley

Happy Valley

The mystery: Who is the Calder Valley serial killer?
Number of episodes to an answer: 6 (season two)

Don’t let the title mislead you: very few happy occasions take place in Happy Valley. In fact, the British series that follows tough-as-nails police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) can at times be downright dour. But don’t hold its gloomy tone against it, as it’s also exceptionally well-written and acted. While the show’s first season follows a kidnapping plot, the second involves a body that Catherine discovers more or less in her own backyard. While many like-minded stories keep investigators and crimes at a distance from one another until the climax (think “what’s in the box?”), Happy Valley’s strength comes in making the cases personal for Catherine throughout both seasons. Ultimately, the second season is a satisfying whodunit that tackles everything from human trafficking to domestic violence. Happy? No. Good TV? Definitely.

8. Harper’s Island

The mystery: Who is picking off the wedding guests?
Number of episodes to an answer: 13

An above-par slasher mystery disguised as a trashy melodrama, miniseries Harper’s Island is a ton of fun. With a heroine reminiscent of Sidney Prescott, a cast that included everyone from Harry Hamlin to Katie Cassidy to Jim Beaver, and a heavily hyped murder-of-the-week format, the series had its work cut out for it when it premiered in 2009. Eventually — probably around the time that most people stopped watching — the show evolved from an entertaining but slightly corny whodunit to a heart-pounding survival thriller that’s sure to keep you on edge. Impressively, the show manages to create several fan favorites over just thirteen episodes and gave most of those characters fully-realized character arcs. Harper’s Island may have been ahead of its time since it’s obviously best-digested in marathon form.

7. The Night Of

The mystery: Is Naz guilty?
Number of episodes to an answer: 8…maybe

The Night Of seems to have faded from our collective consciousness quickly, but during the summer of 2016, it was as close as we got to event television. The limited series was a star-making (and Emmy-winning) performance for the intensely watchable Riz Ahmed, who plays a Pakistani-American college kid arrested for murder. An on-screen indictment of America’s crooked legal system and a meditation on the very ideas of guilt and innocence, The Night Of may not be for traditional mystery-seekers who are looking for an easy “I told you so.” The series, which also stars John Turturro in a much-lauded role, is more preoccupied with Naz’s treatment after arrest than it is with clarifying his guilt or innocence. Despite creating an intimate, self-contained story, The Night Of still manages to resonate on deep, broad levels in its depictions of America.

6. Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

The mystery: Who was murdered at the fundraiser night, and who killed them?
Number of episodes to an answer: 7 (season one)

David E. Kelley’s adaptation of the best-selling soapy crime story of the same name is barely a whodunit at all, although you shouldn’t let that turn you off of it. If you pay attention, it’s not tough to guess the answer to the central question–who was murdered at the bourgie Monterey school fundraiser?–but that’s beside the point. The fourth-wall-breaking PTA moms and aloof dads, relaying gossip to the viewer during interrogation scenes that crop up at semi-regular intervals, are no more or less than a framing device meant to set the scene. The scene is this: scrappy, flawed, smart women try to survive motherhood, marriage, and some first world problems. Whether or not it sounds like your cup of tea, it’s impossible to deny that Reese Witherspoon, Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley add up to one of the best TV casts of the 21st century.

5. Veronica Mars


The mystery: Who killed Lily Kane, who raped Veronica, and where’s Veronica’s mom?
Number of episodes to an answer: 22 (season one), although one answer is later proven untrue

Veronica Mars shouldn’t have worked. A neo-noir set at a high school that’s in the midst of class warfare, featuring an angry, sarcastic teenage girl PI with not one but three huge mysteries on her plate by the end of the pilot episode? Not an easy sell. Yet with the vision of Rob Thomas and the charm of Kristen Bell, the show more than works — it became a definitive cult classic of the ‘00s. Equal parts Buffy Summers and Nancy Drew, Bell’s pint-sized heroine has the weight of the world on her shoulders as she investigates cases both big (who murdered her best friend Lily?) and comically small (who stole the school mascot?), sealing her spot in pop culture history with proper noirish angst. Each season has at least one fantastic case-cracking episode, an adrenaline-spiking hour or two of tautly written climax and fully-earned bad-guy reveals that are somehow both logically sound and still shocking. Season one is no exception, with a doozy of a finale that will have you screaming at the screen.

4. Top of the Lake

Top Of The Lake

The mystery: Who sexually abused Tui, and where did she go?
Number of episodes to an answer: 7 (season one)

Jane Campion’s series (originally a miniseries, and best remembered that way after an abysmal second season) is basically a reverse tourism ad for New Zealand. The director lets the country’s lush and violent wilderness creep into your bloodstream over the course of seven hours, and will leave you more than a bit shaken. The show stars Elisabeth Moss as Robin, a detective who must return to her remote, unwelcoming hometown to investigate the disappearance of a pregnant twelve-year-old. Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan also go all-in for strange and gutsy supporting roles. Campion creates a brutal, near-surreal setting in Laketop, a town where violent crimes are an open secret among the community. Top of the Lake has a lot to say about masculine anger and feminine pain and does so in an elegant, thoroughly unsettling way. Fair warning: this show will haunt you long after it’s over.

3. The Killing

The mystery: Who is killing the teen runaways in Seattle?
Number of episodes to an answer: 12 (season three)

After two grueling seasons spent investigating a single murder (you seemed cool, Rosie Larsen, but it was too much), The Killing pulled off one of the single greatest creative comebacks in recent TV history during its third season. This time around, Detectives Linden (Mireille Enos, excellently messy in this performance) and Holder (Joel Kinnaman) uncover a string of killings that may be connected when Seattle’s homeless youth starts going missing. The nuance and care that clearly went into this season makes its relatively under-the-radar reception disappointing, and it’s tough to sell viewers on a perfect third season when the first two are exhausting, but The Killing is absolutely worth it. Bex Taylor-Klaus makes an indelible impression as a plucky androgynous street kid, while Peter Sarsgaard puts in some of the best work of his career as death row inmate Ray Seward. The season’s tenth episode, “Six Minutes,” remains one of the most powerful hours of television I’ve ever seen.

2. Twin Peaks

The mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer?
Number of episodes to an answer: 16 (season one and part of season two)

Between the Log Lady, the Red Room, BOB, and all of Twin Peaks: The Return, it can be tough to remember that this classic, mythic show is a murder mystery at heart — and that it’s the prototype for so many whodunnits since. Dreamlike, beautiful, tragic, menacing: over the course of the show (and the movie and revival), Laura Palmer becomes less of a real person with a solvable case and more of a looming specter, representative of something Agent Dale Cooper needs but can’t quite grasp. And yet, solve the case they do. David Lynch and Mark Frost draw out the mystery of Laura’s death for sixteen offbeat, cinematic, incredible episodes of television, and when they finally give us the big reveal, it was twice as disturbing as expected. Of course, solving the crime tanked the original series, but that was just one more page in the reality-bending history of Twin Peaks.

1. True Detective

True Detective X

The mystery: Who killed Dora Lange in 1995, and why does it matter now?
Number of episodes to an answer: 8 (season one)

From episode one, Nic Pizzolatto’s auteurist crime saga feels deeply lived in, like it was scuffed up and down in the bloodied dirt long before we came along. Set in Louisiana, whose rivers and landscapes meander like its characters’ memories, the show is a lofty combination of gritty detective fiction, Southern Gothic sensibilities, and uncanny, metaphysical anxiety. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, never better) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) anchor a story of grotesque violence and personal darkness that spans several decades. Aside from the balls-to-the-wall acting and the visual poetry of director Cary Fukunaga, the show is a new classic thanks to its harrowing portrayal of the occult crimes that possess the two men’s minds. A fictional murder investigation has rarely been scarier or more captivating.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)