Watching television is my job, but it is also sometimes a recreation. The first is a solitary occupation, the second mostly shared with the person I live with, which makes it a matter of shared taste and promoting domestic harmony. Among the shows we're most likely to watch are mysteries, but not just anything with a murder. We tend to avoid anything described as "dark" or "gritty" in favor of what are often called "cozy mysteries."
The heroes are typically amateur or private detectives, possibly quirky, often women, sometimes a couple; they aren't likely to suffer the afflictions common to the hard-boiled shamus — depression, rage, alcoholism, untreated trauma. Cozy mysteries give you the benefits of more uncomfortable mysteries — the suspense, the puzzles — without the gore, the sensationalism, the foregrounded perversity. The stories often are set in small towns, in rural or far-flung settings, satisfying as a bonus the urge to travel. (Or they are period pieces, satisfying the urge to time travel.) Even when not outright comedies, they will have a comic streak, and though they involve people killing people, sometimes for the saddest reasons, they will not leave you in a funk, despairing over the human condition. Romance is often on the cards. Murder is almost beside the point.
The company may be more important than the plot; some of these shows can get pretty obvious or ridiculous, which may not be inseparable from their charm. That one may find oneself talking back to the screen, pointing out whatever the characters are slow to understand, is just part of the game. As with any mystery, there's an interactive, play-along aspect, as one seeks to solve the murder before the murderer is announced. (My own method is to accuse every character of being the killer, and so I am never wrong.) Naming the killer before the detective(s) often has more to do with one's familiarity with the genre than with any clues that might have been offered.
Once a staple of American broadcast television, they've given way there to franchised procedurals and remakes of 20th century cop shows, but some of those old favorites may still be found stuffed into various streaming platforms or in reruns on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (HMM), which also produces original cozy content like "The Aurora Teagarden Mysteries," with Candace Cameron Bure as Charlaine Harris' crime-solving librarian (18 films since 2014).
Fans of the genre are liable to subscribe to Acorn TV or BritBox, which import classic and contemporary series from the U.K., like Hugh Laurie's recent three-part adaptation of Agatha Christie's "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" (BritBox). Indeed, most of the shows discussed below are to be found on one of those two channels. But American streaming platforms have lately taken an interest — witness Hulu's gloriously crackpot "Only Murders in the Building," whose second season begins June 28, with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as true-crime podcast fans caught up in true crimes. Or "The Afterparty" (Apple TV+), an Agatha Christie-style whodunit transplanted to a California beach house and imbued with a modern comic sensibility, with Tiffany Haddish as a marvelously offbeat detective.
Here are some such series, recommended by this writer, according to his own flexible definitions of what constitutes cozy. Streaming platforms follow titles where the series is currently available as part of a subscription; other cited shows may be available for purchase as VOD or on disc, or hunted down online. Be a detective.
THE MOTHER OF IT ALL
Agatha Christie is a category unto herself, the grand dame, the fount from which so much mystery writing springs. With her wry sensibility and gift for character, she is an author made for adaptation (though reportedly she was no fan of it).
The fastidious Hercule Poirot was her first detective hero, and though the character has been played by many actors, David Suchet owned him on the small screen. Suchet's "Poirot" almost comprises two separate series: Early seasons took a cozy approach, later ones trend darker.
And then there is Miss Marple, a nice old lady with a knowledge of human behavior gleaned from small-town life and a talent for commanding attention with a quiet voice — so nice they made her thrice. First came octogenarian Joan Hickson (whom Christie herself envisioned playing the part) in the BBC's "Miss Marple"; ITV's "Marple" successively featured Geraldine McEwan, the tallest of all Marples, and Julia McKenzie. (Both series are available from BritBox.) And Marple was certainly an inspiration for Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher in the long-running "Murder, She Wrote," which may currently be found rerunning on HMM and via Amazon Freevee/Prime Video.
LOVE AND DEATH
Sleuthing sparks love and keeps love sparky. Before "Poirot" and "Marple" reached the airwaves, there was the Christie-based "Partners in Crime" (BritBox), with James Warwick and Francesca Annis as well-off newlyweds Tommy and Tuppence, who take over a detective agency for fun. Television's coupled crime-solvers go back at least to the early 1950s: "Mr. and Mrs. North" (Freevee/Prime, with episodes also available to stream from archive.org ) is pretty much Raymond Chandler's Nick and Nora Charles by another name.
Delayed sexual tension and unconventional compatible marriage were the backbone of several entertaining late 20th century American series, most out of official circulation, including "McMillan and Wife," "Remington Steele," "Moonlighting" and "Hart to Hart" (Roku), starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as rich people with a penchant for running into murder. In this century we find "Castle" (Hulu), with a puckish Nathan Fillion as a mystery writer attached to Stana Katic's New York police detective, and "Bones" (Prime Video), with forensic anthropologist Emily Deschanel and FBI agent David Boreanaz debating reason and intuition on a slow road to romance. And in the Australian import "Mr. and Mrs. Murder" (Acorn), Shaun Micallef and Kat Stewart play a couple whose business — cleaning up crime scenes — leads them to solving the murders as well.
Since before Nancy Drew picked up a magnifying glass, sleuthing has been women's work, a source of independence and identity. (The current "Nancy Drew" series does not count as cozy.) "I know that I will succeed, because a woman knows what's going on more than a man," says Jill Scott, moving to the city to reinvent herself as a private eye in the lovely, luminous, Botswana-filmed "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (HBO Max). (Sadly, it's one of the few shows in the genre to feature a nonwhite lead, a hole still waiting to be filled.) A side of garden porn makes the early-2000s "Rosemary & Thyme" (BritBox), with Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris as landscapers with a sideline in detection, especially pleasant viewing. Crime-solving provides postretirement second careers in the new, Dublin-set "Harry Wild" (Acorn), where Jane Seymour plays a retired literature professor sneaking cases from her policeman son; the unusually working-class "Hetty Wainthropp Investigates" (BritBox), starring Patricia Routledge; and the knockabout "Agatha Raisin" (Acorn), with Ashley Jensen as a glamorous publicist trading London for an eccentric corner of the Cotswolds.
From Australia come "Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries" (Acorn), with Essie Davis as a Jazz Age adventuress, and "Miss Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries" (Acorn), with similarly spritely relation Geraldine Hakiwell on the case in the go-go '60s. Also from Down Under is "My Life Is Murder" (Acorn), with Lucy Lawless baking bread when not assisting the police in their inquiries in Melbourne and Auckland.
A small tradition of crime-solving clerics may owe its existence ultimately to G.K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" stories, twice adapted for television. A 1974 series with Kenneth More and another, in production since 2014 starring Mark Williams, are both available on BritBox. A recent spinoff, the '60s-set "Sister Boniface Mysteries," features Lorna Watson as a nun with science skills advising the local constabulary.
"Grantchester" (PBS, Prime Video) isn't strictly speaking cozy, but it makes the cut here for the amateur status of its vicar detective(s) — James Norton, followed by Tom Brittney — and romantic subplots. And taking period mysteries back to the 11th century is "Cadfael" (BritBox), from the 1990s, with Derek Jacobi as a Benedictine monk looking into whatever is rotten in Shrewsbury.
HOLIDAYS IN THE SUN
U.K.-set series have an appeal for U.S. viewers stricken with wanderlust, but the British make series to satisfy their own desire for vicarious travel and something less cloudy, where people eat and drink in picturesque town squares. Set among British expats, "The Madam Blanc Mysteries" (Acorn) stars co-creator Sally Lindsay as a Cheshire antiques dealer investigating the death of her husband in the south of France; she winds up assisting the police in assessing art fraud. "Murder in Provence" (BritBox), an English-language series in which the characters are all French, pairs Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll as a chief detective and a forensic psychologist, respectively, in work and love.
BritBox also hosts the actual French series "Candice Renoir," with single-mother-of-four Cecile Bois running investigations in a Mediterranean resort town. The ruthlessly gorgeous "Signora Volpe," with Emilia Fox's British intelligence agent escaped to Umbria, applies the aesthetics of romantic drama to the form. That Italy's "Inspector Manara" (Prime Video), in its farcical sexiness, plays like an American's idea of an Italian cop show makes it even more enjoyable. And going back to the 1980s, there is "Bergerac" (BritBox), set on the polycultural Isle of Man, with a young, rakish John Nettles (later of "Midsomer Murders") investigating suspicious off-islanders for the Bureau des Etrangers.
NOT TOUGH GUYS
Male detectives can be cozy too. The may exhibit a certain naivete or roguishness or even the desire to be left alone. The humor that informs James Garner's unrivaled "The Rockford Files" (Prime Video) makes that series endlessly rewatchable. So it is with "Monk" (Prime Video, Peacock), in which omni-fearful obsessive compulsive Tony Shalhoub consults for former colleagues in the San Francisco Police Department; "Psych" (Prime Video), where James Roday Rodriguez and Dule Hill employ cold reading on the side of right; and "Jonathan Creek" (BritBox), with Alan Davies as a creator of theatrical illusions expert in solving apparently impossible crimes. In the wonderful, soft-boiled "Tenspeed and Brownshoe" ( shoutfactorytv.com ), a young Jeff Goldblum plays an accountant who enlists con man Ben Vereen in his dreams of being a private eye. No literary allusion is spared in "Shakespeare and Hathaway: Private Investigators" (BritBox), with the rumpled Mark Benton, the presentable Jo Joyner and the theatrical Patrick Walshe McBride confronting murder most foul in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Based like "Agatha Raisin" on the novels of M.C. Beaton, "Hamish Macbeth" is a Scottish small-town comedy with Robert Carlyle's policeman at its center. In "Pie in the Sky" (Acorn), quasi-retired police detective Richard Griffiths would rather be cooking in his restaurant. Starring Shawn McGinley and Allan Hawco as father-and-son detectives, Canada's "Republic of Doyle" (Acorn, Prime Video, shoutfactorytv.com ) is as much a comic family soap opera as it is a mystery series. "Lovejoy," with Ian McShane as a semi-larcenous antiques dealer, isn't really a mystery at all but there's usually some skullduggery afoot, as often as not on Lovejoy's part. Even less of an actual mystery is "Bored to Death" (HBO Max), with Jason Schwartzman as a blocked novelist advertising himself as an "unlicensed" private eye, though it's mostly occupied with Zach Galifianakis' comic book artist and Ted Danson's magazine publisher. But it's my cozy place.
AND THE KILLER IS …
"Midsomer Murders" (Acorn, BritBox, Freevee/Prime Video), the champion, running since the 20th century, in its 22nd season, seen worldwide. Two successive chief detectives, both named Barnaby (John Nettles, Neil Dudgeon), both with a dry sense of humor, investigate homicides in the villages of the green and lovely fictional English county of Midsomer. With 132 episodes logged, later seasons can tend to get a little — well, a lot — goofy, but the series has earned its place in the hearts of viewers who have grown up or old alongside it. What could be cozier?