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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A Coin Puzzle: My Two Cents (Plus 97 More)

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles recently shared the following brain teaser on their social media:

Naturally, we accepted the challenge.

Now, before we get started with this one, we have to add one detail: which coins we’re allowed to use. It’s safe to assume that pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are available, but the question doesn’t say anything about half-dollar coins.

So we’re going to figure out the correct answer without half-dollar coins available, and then with half-dollar coins available.

Let’s begin.


[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

The easiest way to get started is to figure out the smallest number of coins we need to make 99 cents, since that’s the highest number we need to be able to form. Once we have that info, we can work backwards and make sure all the other numbers are covered.

For 99 cents, you need 3 quarters, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 25 + 25 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Right away, we know we’re close with these 9 coins.

You don’t need more than 3 quarters, for instance, because your possible totals are all below $1.

Now, let’s make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 24 with our chosen coins. (If we can, we’re done, because once we’ve covered 1 through 24, we can simply add one quarter or two quarters to cover 25 through 99.)

Our four pennies cover us for 1 through 4. But wait, there’s 5. And we can’t make 5 cents change with 4 pennies or 2 dimes. In fact, we can’t make 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 cents change without a nickel.

So let’s add a nickel to our current coin count. That makes 3 quarters, 2 dimes, 1 nickel, and 4 pennies. (Why just 1 nickel? Well, we don’t need two, because that’s covered by a single dime.)

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. And our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 24, because at that point, our quarters become useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just ten coins.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

But what about that half-dollar?

Well, we can apply the same thinking to a coin count with a half-dollar. For 99 cents, you need 1 half-dollar, 1 quarter, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 50 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Now, we make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 49 with our chosen coins. (Once we can, we can simply add the half-dollar to cover 50 through 99.)

Once again, we quickly discover we need that single nickel to fill in the gaps.

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. Our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. And our one quarter, two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 54. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 49, because at that point, our half-dollar becomes useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just nine coins.


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