The Best Puzzle Solvers on Television

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Halloween by compiling a list of the best puzzlers in horror movies. The goal was to highlight characters who stood out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

But it’s not just horror movies that feature characters with these rare qualities. Television dramas and comedies both have their fair share of top-notch puzzlers, and today, we turn the spotlight on them.

True, I certainly could have listed more detectives/investigators/crime scene techs, but honestly, they’re often part of a big team of solvers. (The casts of CSI and Bones, for instance, are effective teams, but rarely does one particular puzzler shine brighter than the rest.)

These individuals (and the occasional duo), however, most definitely perform puzzly feats under pressure.


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Batman, Batman: The Animated Series

[Image courtesy of Polygon.]

Yeah, we’re getting an obvious one out of the way first. He’s not called the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing, after all. Although the ’60s Batman leapt wildly to conclusions that turned out to be right, we’d rather lean on the cunning cartoon version of the character from the ’90s FOX show.

This Batman outwitted the Riddler, foiled the Joker, and defeated Ra’s al Ghul, all while remaining age-appropriate for the kiddies. His comic-book counterpart might get to show off his puzzly detective skills more frequently, but when it comes to TV, it’s hard to ignore the Caped Crusader.

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Sherlock Holmes / Mycroft Holmes / Jim Moriarty, Sherlock

[Image courtesy of Tumblr.]

Again, this trio is too obvious to ignore. It’s hard to pick the sharpest knife out of this particular drawer. Moriarty proves himself to be Holmes’s equal throughout the show, though Sherlock does defeat him in the end. Similarly, Mycroft is often regarded as Sherlock’s equal (or perhaps superior) when it comes to sussing out evidence.

But we always return to the often imitated but never duplicated Great Detective when we think of someone who can put together tiny details and suddenly realize the stunning whole of the case. Call it deduction or just great jigsaw skills, Sherlock has it in spades.

(Oh, and an honorable mention here goes out to Dr. Gregory House, who was based on Holmes.)

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Angus MacGyver, MacGyver

[Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.]

When you think of this iconic character, it’s likely that one of two things comes to mind: either his trusty Swiss army knife or his incredible knack for getting out of jams with jury-rigged, home-built, improvised equipment.

The man cobbled together a cannon from cigarette butts and built a functioning glider out of bamboo and trash bags. Any brain teaser, no matter how specious or obtuse, would fall before the mighty outside-the-box thinking of Mr. MacGyver.

Leslie Knope / Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

My first instinct was to mention Ron Swanson here, given his love of riddles and his impressive efforts to solve the Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt created for Ben in a famous episode. But one cannot honor a master puzzle solver and not give a fair shake to the woman who designed the devious scavenger hunt being solved.

Leslie Knope’s 25-clue puzzle hunt involved riddles, anagrams, a cryptex, and more, and not only did she amaze viewers, but she got Ron to admit his love of riddles to the world. They both merit mentioning in today’s list.

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The Doctor, Doctor Who

[Image courtesy of Vocal.]

When your life is spent traveling through time and space, experiencing events out of order, you’d have to be a pretty decent puzzler just to keep cause and effect straight, let alone to battle threats that endanger the whole of creation. And this alien with two hearts and a police box that travels through time is one heck of a puzzle solver.

He has outwitted Daleks, demigods, and the devil himself. He has defeated aliens that move every time you blink or look away, or that you forget about as soon as you lose sight of them. I assure you, no riddle or brain teaser stands a chance against someone who thinks in four dimensions.

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Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons

[Image courtesy of SketchOK.]

No, I haven’t mentioned too many actual puzzle solvers in this list — but just because people like puzzles, that doesn’t mean they’re the best solvers. Lisa, however, fits both sides of the equation.

We’ve seen her skills as a crossword whiz and her ability to crack a Da Vinci Code-esque mystery, all while navigating the perils of elementary school and a father whose choices often defy belief. Lisa is thoughtful, diligent, observant, and clever. She not only loves puzzles, but applies her puzzly mind to making the world around her a better place.

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Walter White / Gus Fring, Breaking Bad

[Image courtesy of Breaking Bad Wiki.]

From schoolgirls to drug kingpins we go. It’s hard to pick who is the better strategist between the devious Walter White and the tactical Gustavo Fring. Granted, White does defeat Fring in the end, but not before Gus outmaneuvers old rivals and new, drives a wedge between Walt and Jesse, and builds an entire empire under the noses of the local authorities.

Walt, like a sinister MacGyver, often rigs up surprising solutions to problems, but Gus is probably the superior puzzler, someone who can plan his game three moves ahead and make the best use of his resources.

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Penny and Brain, Inspector Gadget

[Image courtesy of Sassy Mama in LA.]

With the bumbling, insufferable bionic detective by your side, you almost have to be twice as good a puzzler to get anything done. And yet, the insightful Penny and her loyal canine companion Brain usually manage to foil the plans of Dr. Klaw despite the doltish antics of the show’s title character.

Penny is an able researcher, able to assess a situation and find the missing pieces with ease. Brain, on the other hand, is the one who puts Penny’s plans into action and adapting on the fly when things (inevitably) go awry. As puzzling duos go, they’re among the best around.

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[Image courtesy of Monk Wiki.]

Adrian Monk, Monk

A knack for observation will always serve a puzzler well. Maybe you notice a pattern, or something missing from a room that everyone else missed. Maybe you can draw connections faster than others. All of these qualities apply to Adrian Monk, the fearful obsessive investigator from USA’s Monk.

Monk is the ultimate logic problem solver, drawing out the tables in his head and neatly placing information in each box, then finally drawing his conclusion once he has even detail. And he’s never wrong. A master of observation and deduction, Monk is a world-class puzzler (even if he probably doesn’t solve the daily crossword often for fear that the newspaper will smear ink on his hands).


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from television? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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Riddle Me This, Batman!

With so much Dark Knight-related news floating around, this might very well be the Year of Batman.

Not only is it the 75th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in comics, but he’s going to be all over screens in the coming months. There are already teaser images out for the 2016 Batman Vs. Superman film, plus Fox’s upcoming prequel drama Gotham. As if that wasn’t enough, it was recently announced that the entire 1960s television series is coming to DVD and Blu-ray!

So it’s the perfect opportunity to take a look at Batman’s puzzliest foe, The Riddler.

Played by Frank Gorshin (and John Astin, in one episode) in the 1960s TV series, The Riddler was absolutely manic, often breaking into wild fits of anger and laughter, compulsive in his need to send taunting riddles to the Caped Crusader. (This actually became a point of contention with his fellow villains in the Batman film, since they didn’t appreciate Batman being tipped off to their plans by the Riddler’s riddles.)

His riddles were similarly inconsistent and unpredictable. Some of them were genuine puzzlers (highlight for answers):

  • How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people? Make applesauce.
  • There are three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches. How do they manage to smoke? They throw one cigarette overboard and make the boat a cigarette lighter.

Others were similar to children’s jokes, silly in the extreme:

  • What has yellow skin and writes? A ballpoint banana.
  • What suit of cards lays eggs? One that’s chicken-hearted.

While Gorshin’s Riddler is probably the most famous and familiar version of the villain, my personal favorite was the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series.

This Riddler (voiced by actor John Glover) was more suave, sophisticated, and cunning. In his debut episode, entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, he challenged Batman and Robin with a boobytrap-filled labyrinth, complete with numerous riddles that were far more challenging than Gorshin’s Riddler would ever use.

Fittingly, a final riddle — the Riddle of the Minotaur — awaits Batman at the center of the labyrinth. Can you solve it?

I have millions of eyes, but live in darkness.
I have millions of ears, but only four lobes.
I have no muscles, but I rule two hemispheres.
What am I? The human brain.

This version of the Riddler only appeared a few times in the animated series, due to the writers’ difficulty coming up with his riddles and keeping his complex plots simple enough to fit into a single episode’s runtime. Nonetheless, this Riddler remains a fan favorite.

In the film Batman Forever, Jim Carrey actually gives us three versions of the Riddler: the scientist Edward Nygma (who definitely has a screw or two loose), the businessman Edward Nygma (a charming, public facade betraying none of his truly villainous tendencies), and the Riddler (a diabolical, borderline insane villain with an ax to grind with Bruce Wayne). Whether you like Carrey’s take on the character or not, he embodies an effective combination of Gorshin and Glover’s Riddlers.

Of course, despite his bizarre plan to read people’s minds through television and become smarter by doing so, this Riddler had one advantage over the previous versions: he had puzzlemaster Will Shortz designing his riddles for him.

While each riddle by itself meant little, except for providing a challenge to Batman’s intellect, all of them combined revealed the Riddler’s identity and set up the final showdown between the heroes and villains.

As for the newest version of the Riddler in Fox’s fall premiere Gotham, we don’t know a lot about him, since this is set in the days before Batman prowled the streets.

Apparently, the younger Edward Nygma (played by theater actor Cory Michael Smith) is a forensic scientist working for the police (who may formulate his notes in the form of riddles).

Hopefully, this Riddler will carry on the fine tradition of Riddlers past, challenging the defenders of Gotham to outthink him, rather than outfight him.


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Riddle me this!

The spirit of puzzle-solving has always been with us — every problem is a puzzle of some sort, after all — so it’s surprising to realize how relatively brief the history of paper puzzles is in the long run.

I mean, the Sudoku puzzle as we know it first appeared in print in Dell Magazines in 1979, a little over thirty years ago! (Yes, some puzzles with similar attributes appeared in French publications nearly a century before, but the Sudoku as we know it is a modern creation.)

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle. One hundred years! Amazing when you think about it, but also just a drop in the bucket when compared with the span of human history.

So, if the two most famous puzzles are both fairly recent developments, what sort of puzzles kept humans occupied for centuries and centuries before that?

Riddles.

Yes, plenty of wordplay and mathematical games predate the modern puzzles we know and love, like the famous ancient word square found in the ruins of Pompeii that features a Latin palindrome.

But I suspect that riddles were, in fact, our first experiments with puzzles and puzzly thinking.

They appeal to our love of story and adventure, of heroes with wits as sharp as their swords. Riddles are the domain of gatekeepers and tricksters, monsters and trap rooms from the best Dungeons & Dragons quests.

The Riddle of the Sphinx — in its most famous version: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” — has origins as far back as the story of Oedipus and the tales of Sophocles and Hesiod, more than 2000 years ago.

And variations of logic puzzles and riddles have been with us at least as long. Consider the famous “a cabbage, goat, and wolf” river crossing, or the Man with Seven Wives on the road to St. Ives.

Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, Lewis Carroll unleashed a doozy of a riddle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one we discussed in detail in a recent blog post.

In more recent times, one of Batman’s most capable and dogged adversaries has employed riddles to confound and challenge the Caped Crusader.

His debut episode of Batman: The Animated Series features a corker of a riddle: “I have millions of eyes, yet I live in darkness. I have millions of ears, yet only four lobes. I have no muscles, yet I rule two hemispheres. What am I?”

While we’ll probably never be able to trace the history of riddles as definitively as that of crosswords and sudoku, it’s fascinating to consider just how long puzzles in one form or another have been with us.

And so, in the spirit of puzzling, here are a few riddles for the road. Enjoy.

A man lay dead on the floor, fifty-three bicycles on his back. What happened?

Bob walked into a bar and asked for a glass of water. The bartender pulled out a gun and pointed it at Bob’s face. A few seconds later, Bob said, “Thank you” and walked out. What happened?

Rhonda lay facedown in the middle of the desert. On her back was something that could have saved her life. What is it?

Frank did not want to go home because of what the masked man held in his hand. What is the masked man holding?

Joe was dead. Across his back was an iron bar. In front of him was some food. What happened?

[Answers will be posted on Friday!]

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