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The Quirky Male-Straitlaced Female Detective Show Paradigm (And Why It's Terrible)

I love Lucifer. It’s quickly grown from a guilty pleasure to a straight up enjoyable television show. Most of that, in fact, is due to Tom Ellis’s portrayal of the hedonistic, sarcastic Devil. There is one problem, however, with it: it’s part of a new trend in television where a quirky, independent male character is paired with a straitlaced, hard-nosed female character. Which is terrible.

This trend could be traced back to the original X-Files, where Mulder was the out-there conspiracy theorist believer, while Scully was the by-the-book skeptic. However, The X-Files was actually subverting a trope that had been used quite a bit before: the skeptical male, the believing female. In The X-Files, this situation was reversed, giving us something new. Mulder and Scully were also both FBI agents, meaning that them being partners made sense.


In this new paradigm, the male character often comes from outside of law enforcement: Lucifer (male character: the Devil), Sleepy Hollow (male character: time-displaced revolutionary), Castle (male character: mystery writer), Psych (male character: fake psychic), The Mentalist (male character: magician? no idea), and The Blacklist (male character: total criminal).

Meanwhile, the female characters are all in the same or similar fields: Lucifer (female character: cop), Sleepy Hollow (female character: cop), Castle (female character: cop), Psych (female character: cop), The Mentalist (female character: member of the “California Bureau of Investigation,” later the FBI), and The Blacklist (female character: FBI agent).

In fact, I can only think of one show where the positions are reversed: Bones, where the male character is the straitlaced FBI agent and the female character is the quirky forensic anthropologist. (This makes sense when you consider the show is based on the books written by Kathy Reichs, who was herself a forensic anthropologist.) You also might be able to argue this is the case with iZombie, but it’s much less pronounced, as the story is more about Liv and her struggles with being a zombie.

So why does this paradigm exist? Why are all these male characters quirky and “out there,” while the female characters are stuck in the “by the book cop” mode?


Part of it, I think, has to do with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In romantic comedies, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the “wild and free” female character who shows the brooding male character (often suffering from a breakup or dead girlfriend/spouse) love again. It’s a tired and tiresome trope that has existed from 1938 (Bringing Up Baby) to today, with almost anything with Zooey Deschanel (enough so that people still have to be told that (500) Days of Summer is a deconstruction of the MPDG and not an actual example). But what happens when your movie isn’t a romance or romantic comedy?


The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is to the Romantic Male Lead as the Quirky Male Pseudo-Detective is to the Female Detective in detective shows. It’s the “Hey, isn’t he wacky/quirky/different! Look, she’s a stick-in-the-mud! CHEMISTRY!” It’s a shortcut that comes all the way from the original Quirky Male/Straitlaced Female Detective Comedy: Moonlighting.

Yes, Moonlighting: where the quirky, funny private detective David Addison (Bruce Willis) teamed up with the stick-in-the-mud former model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) and made sweet, sweet comedy on your television screens. The only difference between the current shows and Moonlighting is that, well, it was David who was the detective and Maddie who was the outsider. And the show carefully built up their relationship, enough so that David wasn’t just the “quirky guy” and Maddie wasn’t just the “stick-in-the-mud.” Plus, both of them were genuinely funny:

After David and Maddie had sex on Moonlighting, the ratings fell quite a bit. From this, a lot of writers got the “Moonlighting Law”: if two characters have a will-they/won’t-they, don’t get them together until the very end of the show. However, the real reason that Moonlighting’s ratings dropped is because both stars became busy with other things (Cybill Shepherd became pregnant, Bruce Willis became a famous movie star with Die Hard) and thus a lot of the third (and final) season only starred one of them at a time. The dichotomy between the two were the real show and once that was gone, people left.


So we have two problems now with the Quirky Male-Straitlaced Female Detective Show:

  • The characters are shallow and only thrown together because, hey, one’s a wacky male (writer/revolutionary/Devil) and the other’s a female cop! Pilot episodes are especially bad about this, not letting the female character have much character development, only giving the funny lines to the male character. Some shows (like Lucifer) grow out of this as time goes on and they develop a real rapport between the characters and real character development happens.
  • The “Moonlighting Effect”: once the dichotomy of the characters is gone, the show is gone. Once Mulder left The X-Files, they tried to replicate the effect with Doggett and then Reyes, but it didn’t work. And writers are still falling to this effect, considering the Quirky Male Character more important than the female character. See the modern examples of Sleepy Hollow, The Blacklist, and Castle, all of which lost or are losing their female lead characters.
  • Both of those combined seem to be sending the message that the female character is disposable, while the Quirky Male Pseudo-Detective isn’t. Which is why the paradigm is terrible, even if it does produce some good shows.

Seriously, though, are there any shows besides Bones where it’s the female character who is a quirky pseudo-detective? Or any shows where both characters are female? Where’s my Whiteout television show?

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