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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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Plus Will Shortz!)

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

In our Puzzles in Pop Culture series, we’ve featured shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls, NCIS: New Orleans, The West Wing, Hell’s Kitchen, and Parks and Recreation.

But oddly enough, the puzzliest show in the series has proven to be Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX’s hit sitcom about a New York precinct and its oddball collection of detectives. Not only did they pose a diabolical seesaw brain teaser in one episode, but crosswords were at the heart of another key moment in the show just last year.

And today’s post marks the show’s third appearance. Join us as we delve into “The Puzzle Master,” episode 15 of season 5.


The episode opens with detective Amy Santiago passing the sergeant’s exam and doing a dorky dance. Good start.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Her fiance, fellow detective Jake Peralta, has a doozy of a last case for he and Amy to solve as detectives. He presents her with a serial arson case that seem to be connected to the Saturday crossword puzzle. Amy, as a crossword fiend, is overjoyed.

Two different buildings have been set ablaze on two consecutive Saturdays, each with a puzzle left at the crime scene. The only other clue is a note sent to the puzzle’s “author” — not constructor, oddly — Melvin Stermley.

Amy immediately geeks out, mentioning that Stermley once created a puzzle where every word in the grid was the word “puzzle” in a different language. Jake then mentions that Stermley himself is coming in to help them with the case.

[Image courtesy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine Wiki.]

While Jake expects Melvin Stermley to be “a massive dork,” he turns out to be a handsome Hollywood tough guy type. Jake is instantly jealous. (For a nice bit of insider fun, Stermley is played by David Fumero, the husband of Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy Santiago.)

Amy has set up a display with both of Stermley’s puzzles connected to the fires, and the trio begin searching for leads. When Jake asks if he has the typical physique of a puzzler, he mentions that each puzzle only pays a couple hundred bucks, so he makes most of his money modeling. (No doubt a common response you’d get from any top constructor, right, folks?)

They read over the arsonist’s letter again: “Your clues I discombulate, to teach you to conjugate. The fool who fails to validate will watch as I conflagrate.”

Stermley suggests that they look at the answer grids of his puzzles for clues. Amy then jumps to anagramming some of the answer words. (The puzzler notes that Amy Santiago anagrams to “o, nasty amiga” and Jake Peralta to “eat a jerk, pal.”) Amy and Vin decide to split up the odd and even clues, leaving Jake out.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Getting nowhere with the anagrams, they wonder if “conjugate” in the arsonist’s letter means they should focus on the verbs, “the second best form of speech, after prepositions.” Jake suggests a different path, starting with possible suspects who don’t like Stermley, and the puzzler mentions the crossword night he’s hosting at a local bar. “It’s a total puz-hang,” according to Amy, and a good place to start looking.

While waiting in line outside the bar, Jake is disappointed no one is dressed like The Riddler. Amy points out someone wearing crossword-patterned pants. (Again, a common sight at the ACPT.) They chat with one of the other people in line, a woman who jokingly refers to Stermley as her future husband.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Before anyone can enter, they have to solve one of Stermley’s puzzles. Amy is tasked with anagramming the phrase “MEET A BRAINIER STUD, A” into the name of a place in the world. (Jake’s jealousy is piqued by the anagrammed message, of course.)

She quickly solves it — UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — and heads inside. But when Jake tries to follow, he discovers he has to solve a puzzle of his own to get in. The phrase “SAD ANUS LOSER, I GO IN” must be anagrammed into a film based on a classic book. Cut to Jake sneaking into the bathroom, because he couldn’t solve the anagram.

(It was DANGEROUS LIAISONS, by the way.)

While Jake waits in the bathroom for his pants to dry — he stepped into the toilet while climbing down from the window — two puzzle fans come in, discussing Stermley’s mad puzzle skills and how “Sam” must be pissed, as Stermley replaced him doing the Saturday crossword, bumping him down to work in Parade Magazine.

They mention Sam’s toughest clue, “a 5-letter word for a game popular in nursing homes,” to which Jake replies “BINGO.”

[Image courtesy of AV Club.]

Jake mentions it to Stermley, who says Sam Jepson is one of his best friends and has been out of town for weeks. Jake still thinks Jepson is a solid lead.

Amy and Stermley, meanwhile, have realized that both targeted buildings were at the intersection of numbered streets, and those numbered intersections also point to letters in Stermley’s puzzles: M and A. They plan to build a trap into Stermley’s next puzzle to catch the arsonist.

When given a choice between Jake’s approach and Stermley’s, Amy opts to go with the puzzle trap.

Back at the precinct, Amy has determined that the most common letters in people’s names that follow MA are L, X, R, and T — Malcolm, Max, Mark, and Matthew, for example — so Stermley constructs a puzzle using only one of each of those letters. (A pretty daunting challenge, but definitely doable — especially if the cryptic-style crossword grid on the board behind Amy is the puzzle in question. It would have fewer intersections.)

Amy plans to stake out the intersections for each of those four letters, assigning one of them to Jake. (Jake, meanwhile, makes a secret plan to have Charles stake out Sam Jepson’s apartment.)

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Charles spots Sam on the move — played by crossword guru Will Shortz, no less! — and Jake leaves his assignment to intercept. He and Charles follow Sam, who sits at a corner and eats soup, then calls his Mom. It turns out he has been out of town, only having returned tonight — and his marriage proposal was rejected. Bummer.

Jake returns to his assigned intersection, and the building is on fire. He has missed the arsonist.

Amy is understandably upset with Jake when they’re back at the office. Jake confesses he’s jealous of Stermley and doesn’t want Amy to wake up one day, regretting not marrying someone as smart as her. She reassures him that he’s a brilliant detective and that’s why she wants to marry him.

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Jake has a epiphany, realizing that the arsonist’s name isn’t what’s being spelled out, it’s the word MARRY. (The word “conjugate” in the letter also pointed to marriage.)

And who wants to marry Stermley?

The woman in line at the bar on crossword night.

Jake and Amy bring the woman in, and it turns out the full message she intended to spell out with her fires was “MARRY ME OR ELSE I WILL KILL YOU, YOURS FOREVER, HELEN GERBELSON.”

That would take SO MANY FIRES. (I imagine she’d have to burn down several buildings more than once, given the sheer repetition of letters and the relatively few options for numbered streets.)

But, in the end, the arsonist has been caught, thanks to the power of puzzles and good police work.

[Image courtesy of Lauren Leti’s Twitter.]

Overall, I thought this was a very fun episode of the show. The anagram gags were the puzzly highlight, though I confess, I thought they’d do more with the Will Shortz cameo.

Here’s hoping there’s a crime at the Brooklyn Nine-Nine equivalent of the ACPT next year!

Also, as someone who has seen ARSON in a thousand grids, it is funny to see someone finally link the word and the act in a puzzly way.


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Puzzly Romance Strikes Again!

For some reason, people simply do not associate puzzles with romance. And that’s ridiculous.

In this blog alone, we’ve documented several examples of puzzly romance, including several proposals delivered with the help of our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.

Pop culture also has its fair share of romantic moments where puzzles play a huge part. The West Wing shared a moment of hilarious, quiet domesticity between the president and the first lady where a crossword was involved. Parks and Rec celebrated Valentine’s Day with a puzzle-filled scavenger hunt.

And last week Brooklyn Nine-Nine — already familiar to PuzzleNationers for their seesaw puzzle episode — added its own unforgettable moment of puzzly romance to the pile of evidence.

[Image courtesy of Indiewire.]

The episode in question, entitled “HalloVeen,” has the officers and detectives of the 99th Precinct engaging in their annual Halloween heist to determine who is the craftiest and most brilliant member of the squad.

As the players double-cross, triple-cross, and outmaneuver each other with increasingly ridiculous and circuitous plans to acquire this year’s MacGuffin — a championship belt in the style of pro wrestling — both the players and the viewers are surprised by one player’s long con…

Jake has used the heist to propose to his girlfriend, fellow detective Amy.

Although there’s a lot of clever plotting in this episode, that’s not the puzzly moment. That comes later, as the characters each share a story explaining when they planted the idea of proposing in Jake’s head.

Jake replies that none of them are correct. It turns out, it was a quiet moment at home with Amy that convinced him:

[Image courtesy of Heroes and Heartbreakers.]

It’s not dramatic or overscripted or full of fireworks. It’s an everyday moment with the woman he loves. It’s nerdy and funny and silly and idiosyncratic. It’s simple. It feels genuine.

All thanks to a typo in a crossword.

Ain’t love grand?


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Puzzle Romance!

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Valentine’s Day is only a few days away, and a friend who knows I write a weekly puzzle blog asked if I’d be penning anything in particular for the blog regarding the holiday.

I replied that I was working on a post about puzzly ideas for Valentine’s Day gifts and experiences, similar to the post I did last year. And he laughed at the very idea of puzzle romance, the poor fool.

“Sir, how dare you doubt the power of puzzles to sway the heart of someone special!” I bellowed back, caught up in the moment.

I mean, seriously. Does this guy not realize that we’ve featured several wonderful stories of puzzle romance in this blog alone?

Heck, one of my favorite posts last year was about a puzzly proposal that our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles helped orchestrate.

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You can get the full story here, but in short, a puzzler in love reached out to PDP for their assistance in hiding his proposal within one of his girlfriend’s favorite puzzles, Escalators. They even did a small print run just for him to camouflage the proposal in a puzzle book!

It was a marvelous team effort, brilliantly executed…oh, and she said yes.

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Plus there’s this terrific story about a friend of mine who composed some cryptic-crossword-style clues as part of a gift for his longtime girlfriend. When she solved all of the clues, they spelled out the message “Truly happy being yours.”

There are all sorts of thoughtful and romantic puzzle ideas out there, from a relationship scavenger hunt like the one from Parks and Recreation to this video of a Rubik’s Cube-themed proposal at a speed-solving event:

With a little ingenuity — and maybe some puzzly friends — you can create a unique and wonderful experience for someone you love. Puzzle romance is real, my friends. Just look at this happy couple, united by their mutual love of puzzles:

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I wanted to close this post out with a little something for all the puzzlers and PuzzleNationers out there. And with Valentine’s Day coming up, it seemed appropriate to whip up a Matchmaker puzzle for you to solve. Enjoy!

Fill in the missing first letter of each word in the column on the left. Next, look for a related word in the group at the right and put it in the blank in the second column. When the puzzle is completed, read the first letters of both columns in order, from top to bottom, to reveal a romantic song lyric.

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Puzzle Day Kickstarter Round-up!

Happy (Inter)National Puzzle Day, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

As I explained on Tuesday, today is a day dedicated to all things puzzly, and lots of puzzlers are joining the celebration!

For instance, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles are running a timed Word Seek challenge and encouraging solvers to share pics of themselves doing the challenge on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PDPPuzzleDayChallenge!

And, in the spirit of the day, I thought I’d do a crowdfunding round-up of some of the interesting puzzly projects on Kickstarter right now.

First off, I want to talk about Unspeakable Words, a Scrabble-style word-building game with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft.

The game went out of print a while ago, and remaining copies have been in high demand since the game was featured on Wil Wheaton’s board game webseries TableTop. The goal is to print a deluxe version of the game (originally allowing for seven players instead of six, but with several stretch goals reached, they’ve expanded to eight!), with additional stretch goals allowing for better game components.

Now, this is already a Kickstarter success story, because the game funded the first day, so you’re guaranteed to see a finished game before it hits stores.

For a taste of something different, Facets is a wood-and-magnets constructing puzzle toy that allows you to make various shapes based on the Platonic solids. Whether you’re interested in 3-D geometry or just like wooden building toys with a twist, Facets is right up your alley.

Facets has just crossed its funding goal with less than two weeks to go, and it looks like this might be the start of the next generation of Tinker Toys-style constructing toys.

Now, there are a LOT of other campaigns I could mention, like the small 3-D printed puzzle ship (pictured above) or this campaign to make the fake game Cones of Dunshire from NBC’s Parks and Recreation a real Settlers of Catan-style game, but I want to focus on one campaign that’s using puzzles to spread a deeper message.

Alyssa’s Puzzle Project is the brainchild of a young lady named Alyssa who is 12 years old and wants to educate the world — and her fellow students — about the dangers of moral and governmental corruption. So she’s created an awareness-building activity around a jigsaw puzzle, designed for classrooms and students to assemble together. It’s symbolic group problem-solving to raise awareness and spark conversation.

You can read more about Alyssa’s project and her ambitious goals here.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal success of Exploding Kittens, a strategy card game that launched with a goal of $10,000 and has raised over 4 MILLION dollars in its first eight days.

It is now the most backed Kickstarter campaign in history, with more than 100,000 backers, and the sky truly appears to be the limit for this card game based on art from The Oatmeal.

I’ve been watching and funding Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns for a few years now, and I (and the rest of the world) have never seen anything like it.

Did I miss any puzzly Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns you’ve seen launched recently, fellow puzzlers? Let me know!

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Parks and Recreation

In a previous installment of Puzzles in Pop Culture, Amanda of amandalovesmovies suggested checking out a puzzle-centric episode of Parks and Recreation. Well, Amanda, your wish is our command, and by wish, I mean suggestion, and by command, I mean I finally got around to tracking down the episode in question.

Today we’ll be exploring puzzly goodness of the Season 4 episode entitled “Operation Ann.”

It’s Valentine’s Day in Pawnee, and town employee Leslie Knope has gone all out, as per usual. Not only has she organized a Valentine’s Day dance in the hopes of finding someone for her best friend Ann, but she’s cobbled together an elaborate scavenger hunt for her boyfriend Ben. (The final clue will tell him where to meet her that night.)

His first clue is a cryptex, a locked cylinder popularized by The Da Vinci Code, and the five-letter code that opens it is a word that represents their third date. Ben is totally stumped, and turns to affable dolt Andy and mustachioed he-man Ron for help. Ron smashes the cryptex open with a hammer.

Inside is a rhyming clue pointing toward several murals throughout City Hall. Ron instantly deduces that the next puzzle is an acrostic, requiring the first letter of each marked mural. The three men split up and gather the necessary letters, which Ron then solves with impressive anagramming skills.

It’s worth noting that throughout this adventure, Ron repeatedly states how much he hates riddles, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Ben is now totally reliant on Ron’s help, and as it turns out, their next clue leads directly to Ron. (Leslie has managed to hide a clue on the bottom of Ron’s shoe.)

They discover there are TWENTY-TWO more clues to go. Ron again states that he hates riddles. They decide to split up, as Ben heads for the snow globe museum, Ron to a local bar, and Andy sticks around City Hall.

Their hunt continues in the following video clip:

As Ben begins to despair that he’ll disappoint Leslie by not finishing the scavenger hunt, Ron delivers one last time, suggesting that the only thing Leslie likes more than making people happy is being right. So Ben considers anything that Leslie changed his mind on, and quickly figures out where she is. Valentine’s Day is saved!

In a hilarious episode chock full of puzzle fun — anagrams and acrostics and riddle-solving of all kinds — it’s very cool that one of the core values of puzzle-solving is what saved the day: deductive reasoning.

Every crossword clue and riddle requires a certain mindset, where you get into sync with what the riddlemaster or puzzle creator was thinking, usually in a glorious a-ha moment. Seeing Ron and Ben do the same when all other puzzle skills failed was a testament to the puzzly tenacity and deductive reasoning that makes for a truly satisfying puzzle-solving experience.

As always, it’s a real treat to see puzzles incorporated into a narrative like this. Instead of a time-killer or a mere passing interest, they become linchpins of each story. The puzzles create conflict, drive epiphanies, and bring people together.

And in that spirit, I can’t think of a more perfect way to end this entry than this video clip, featuring the episode’s last few moments: