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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An Escape Room in a Box!

[Image courtesy of Escape Game Addicts.]

Escape rooms have been all the rage lately, as teams of people pit themselves against riddles, puzzles, codes, and other challenges in order to escape a room within a certain amount of time. It’s about as close as you’ll get to being MacGyver or Batman in this life, and it can be great fun.

They’ve been around long enough that themed escape rooms are beginning to emerge. From post-apocalyptic and horror themes to hockey, schools, pirates, and more, escape rooms are constantly innovating to keep solvers on their toes.

So when I heard about an upcoming escape-the-room-style event in Chicago, I had to share it with my fellow puzzlers.

Revolution Brewing Tap Room in Chicago will be hosting Creatures on the Loose on December 28, a creation of The Mystery League, and they’ve put a curious twist on the escape-the-room scenario: everything you’ll need is inside a locked briefcase.

From the announcement on Eventbrite.com:

Ten terrible creatures, each from an alternate dimension, have been let loose to wreak havoc on our town. The culprit’s identity and motives are unknown. Hunters have been on the case, snooping around town and collecting evidence. But they too have vanished, leaving just their locked briefcases behind. You will need to break into the briefcase, find the creatures, and figure out who is causing all this mayhem.

Inside the briefcase you will find all the tools you need to solve the mystery, including (but not limited to): a newspaper, a magic wand, a bible, a calculator, a wallet of money, a pile of stocks, a Wonka bar, a leather strap, a code wheel, a map, and an enigmatic computer.

The idea of an escape room that comes to you is an awesome one, and I hope the Mystery League finds great success with this challenge. (And the winning team gets a round of pints as their prize!)

Tickets start at $29 for a 90-minute event, and that sounds like a great deal for a puzzly experience like this. Let me know if you participate! I’d love to hear about it!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Square One TV

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we’re jumping into the Wayback Machine and looking back at the math-fueled equivalent of Sesame Street: Square One TV!

[The intro to Square One TV, looking more than a little dated these days.]

This PBS show ran from 1987 to 1994 (although reruns took over in 1992), airing five days a week and featuring all sorts of math-themed programming. Armed with a small recurring group of actors, the writers and producers of Square One TV offered many clever (if slightly cheesy) ideas for presenting different mathematical concepts to its intended audience.

Whether they were explaining pie charts and percentages with a game show parody or employing math-related magic tricks with the aid of magician Harry Blackstone, Jr., the sketches were simple enough for younger viewers, but funny enough for older viewers.

In addition to musical parodies performed by the cast, several famous musicians contributed to the show as well. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bobby McFerrin, The Fat Boys, and Kid ‘n’ Play were among the guests helped explain fractions, tessellations, and other topics.

[One of the many math-themed songs featured on the show.]

Two of the most famous recurring segments on Square One TV were Mathman and Mathcourt. (Sensing a theme here?)

Mathman was a Pac-Man ripoff who would eat his way around an arcade grid until he reached a number or a question mark (depending on this particular segment’s subject).

For instance, if he came to a question mark and it revealed “3 > 2”, he could eat the ratio, because it’s mathematically correct, and then move onward. But if he ate the ratio “3 < 2”, he would be pursued by Mr. Glitch, the tornado antagonist of the game. (The announcer would always introduce Mr. Glitch with an unflattering adjective like contemptible, inconsiderate, devious, reckless, insidious, inflated, ill-tempered, shallow, or surreptitious.)

Mathcourt, on the other hand, gave us a word problem in the form of a court case, leaving the less-than-impressed district attorney and judge to establish whether the accused (usually someone much savvier at math than them) was correct or incorrect. As a sucker for The People’s Court-style shenanigans, this recurring segment was a personal favorite of mine.

But from a puzzle-solving standpoint, MathNet was easily the puzzliest part of the program. Detectives George Frankly and Kate Tuesday would use math to solve baffling crimes. Whether it was a missing house, a parrot theft, or a Broadway performer’s kidnapping, George and Kate could rely on math to help them save the day.

These segments were told in five parts (one per day for a full week), using the Dragnet formula to tackle all sorts of mathematical concepts, from the Fibonacci sequence to calculating angles of reflection and refraction.

These were essentially word problems, logic problems, and other puzzles involving logic or deduction, but with a criminal twist. Think more Law & Order: LCD than Law & Order: SVU.

Granted, given all the robberies and kidnappings the MathNet team faced, these segments weren’t aiming as young or as silly as much of Square One TV‘s usual fare, but they are easily the most fondly remembered aspect of the show for fans and casual viewers alike.

Given the topic of Tuesday’s post — the value of recreational math — it seemed only fitting to use today’s post to discuss one of the best examples of math-made-fun in television history.

Square One TV may not have been nearly as successful or as long-lasting as its Muppet-friendly counterpart, but its legacy lives on in the hearts and memories of many puzzlers these days.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The West Wing

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped classic episodes of M*A*S*H and MacGyver, as well as the numerous puzzly plotlines that’ve been featured on The Simpsons over the years.

But when it comes to erudite, hilarious references to solving crosswords, you’d be hard-pressed to find sharper puzzle-infused dialogue than the moments featured in episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s landmark political drama The West Wing.

Set in the West Wing of the White House, the show focused on the lives of the president and his advisors and staffers as they navigated political situations at home and abroad. To this day it’s a regular feature on most reviewers’ lists of the top television shows of all-time.

And in a show noted for sparkling wit and all kinds of intellectual wordplay, it’s hardly a surprise that the New York Times Crossword was referenced in the very first episode.

In the video below, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is frustrated with the Times for misspelling the name of Muammar Qaddafi, and his attempts to contact the editor of the Times Crossword and get it corrected are stymied at every turn:

The White House staff’s dubious relationship with crosswords is revisited in the season 3 episode Dead Irish Writers. This time around, as the president’s wife Abbey prepares for both a birthday party and a potential ruling on her medical license, the President busies himself with a crossword in his own inimitable style:

Beyond the spirited humor of both scenes, there’s a marvelous undercurrent of how smart people react when their intellectual superiority is challenged. Leo responds by trying to correct what he sees as an egregious error, while the President bends the rules to suit his own expectations.

In addition to being a wonderful launchpad for the show’s signature rapid-fire banter, it’s a simple and effective way of shedding light on how each character views the world and his role in it. (With writing and direction this layered and engaging, it’s easy to see how The West Wing earned an astounding 26 Emmy Awards!)

Even as subplots in a much-larger narrative, these puzzles added color and personality to scenes that took us inside the minds of these characters. Pretty impressive for crosswords that are only mentioned briefly.

Puzzles… is there anything they can’t do? =)

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: MacGyver

From Stanley’s love of crosswords on The Office to the clever conundrums constantly conjured by the Riddler in various iterations of Batman, puzzles have played roles both big and small in numerous TV shows and films.

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped a classic episode of M*A*S*H and discussed the numerous puzzle-centric episodes of The Simpsons.

This time around, we’re delving into the rich history of another famous TV puzzler, tinkerer, and all-around problem solver, Angus MacGyver.

Oh yes, make no mistake; while plenty of bullets were flying and criminal enterprises unraveling over the course of the show, MacGyver remained a puzzle solver through and through, displaying at least once an episode an almost-magical ability to solve brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, and other challenges.

True, the average puzzle-solving experience doesn’t usually include building an airplane out of bamboo or making a cannon from a garbage can and discarded cleansers, but a lot of the same skills apply, like abstract thinking and an affinity for combining contextual clues with a storehouse of personal knowledge and trivia.

At heart, I think we can all agree that when he wasn’t globetrotting, battling shadowy conspiracies, debunking UFOs, or encountering yet another ex-girlfriend in peril, MacGyver was probably doing the Sunday New York Times Crossword and solving Rubik’s Cubes with his feet.

And so, with that in mind, let’s take a look at a season-six episode of MacGyver titled “Eye of Osiris.”

In this Raiders of the Lost Ark homage/ripoff, MacGyver is recruited to help out at an archaeological dig seeking evidence of Alexander the Great’s tomb. (MacGyver has one third of a medallion that will supposedly lead to the tomb; the researchers have the other two pieces.)

As expected, there are criminal forces at work, and two (count them!) former foes of MacGyver’s are lurking in the shadows. The puzzling — well, poetry-decoding / riddle-solving, really — begins when MacGyver deduces the location of the tomb after the crooks steal the medallion.

(MacGyver, naturally, manages to reproduce the medallion from an imprint of the original in a box of sand.)

He and the scientists head for the tomb, only to be sealed inside with the criminals by an ancient booby trap. (Ain’t that always the way?)

Here, MacGyver confronts the first of the puzzles awaiting him inside the tomb, as the episode basically becomes a monsterless Dungeons & Dragons-style dungeon romp.

A statue of Anubis is in the room, along with a few dozen urns of different shapes and sizes. Naturally, Mac realizes they have to find the right urn, and it becomes a classic mechanical balance-the-weight puzzle.

When they do so correctly, a door opens, and they head into a grand crypt for Alexander the Great, with another elaborate mechanical puzzle (based on the Tree of Life, and requiring fire, water, and all kinds of elemental shenaniganry).

Any viewer who has been paying even the slightest attention can solve the puzzles faster than the heroes or villains, and soon enough, we earn our reward:

Yup, a sapphire the size of a small watermelon or a fat house cat, supposedly created when a meteorite crashed to Earth nearby.

Naturally, disturbing the sapphire activates another trap — closing walls this time — and more riddle-solving allows MacGyver and the scientists to escape the room before a giant stone smashes through the wall and chases them down a corridor. (Sound familiar?)

One last puzzle awaits our heroes before they escape, sapphireless but alive. (The various traps managed to thwart the villains for the heroes, as you’d expect.)

Once again, a solid knowledge of trivia and puzzling has saved the day!

Hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane. Until next time, keep calm, puzzle on, and I’ll catch you again soon.

P.S. It’s worth noting that I first saw this episode years and years ago while home sick from school. In the years before the Internet became the storehouse of all information, trivial and otherwise, I could find little to no proof that this episode existed as I remembered it.

Until a few years ago when I tracked the episode down on Netflix, I was half-convinced I’d conjured it in some sort of fever dream. *laughs*