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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Alex Trebek Wraps Up His 35th Season of Jeopardy! with a Surprise!

It’s hard to believe that less than two months ago, Jeopardy! was on everyone’s mind as James Holzhauer embarked on his thrilling streak of money-making trivia performances, shattering records and raking in an impressive amount of dough.

Things are a bit quieter now. The show recently wrapped up its 35th season, a landmark few television shows ever reach. And integral to the show’s success is Alex Trebek, who has served as the show’s host since 1984.

Trebek is a certifiable pop culture icon these days. Not only is he a member of that elite pantheon of game show hosts that are instantly recognizable to virtually everyone, but he actually holds the Guinness World Record for hosting the most episodes of a game show. He was awarded with the honor on June 13, 2014, having hosted 6,829 episodes (up to that point).

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[Image courtesy of IMDb.]

My personal favorite Trebek moment is when he showed up unexpectedly in an episode of The X-Files, playing one of the mysterious Men in Black. It’s unclear if he was playing himself, though. As Agent Scully states, “Mulder didn’t say it was Alex Trebek, it was just someone who looked incredibly like him.”

Although he received devastating medical news earlier this year — a diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer — he has said in recent interviews that he’s responding exceptionally well to treatment, giving his many fans and well-wishers hope that he will not only see out the end of his contract (currently set to end in 2022), but many more years of health and happiness.

It’s in that spirit that we write today’s blog post, as Season 35 concluded with one last surprise for Mr. Trebek, courtesy of the Jeopardy! All-Stars (Ken Jennings, Austin Rogers, Brad Rutter, and others):

It’s a wonderful gift to a television icon that millions have been welcoming into their homes for decades now. When it comes to figures in the world of puzzles and games, there are few as iconic as Alex Trebek.


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TV Trivia for Tipplers!

[Geeks Who Drink, hosted by Zachary Levi from Disney’s Tangled and NBC’s Chuck.]

Back in July, I discussed The Chase, 500 Questions, and BOOM!, three game shows that represent a resurgence in TV trivia over the last year or so.

Naturally, a week or so after I posted, another trivia-based game show debuted, this time on SyFy: Geeks Who Drink.

Now, bar trivia fans may recognize that name, as Geeks Who Drink is a trivia company that licenses trivia questions for bars all over America to use on Trivia Nights to bring in customers. (My first Geeks Who Drink experience was in Alaska while visiting my sister, and I was pretty impressed by the wide variety of clever questions and themes.)

Like its namesake, punny team names are encouraged on the show. A few of my favorite team names include “Hot Pub Time Machine” and “Beer Me Up, Scotty.”

Unlike its namesake, the TV show version focuses pretty heavily on science fiction and fantasy movies, TV shows, and books. (Understandable, given its host network.)

Whether you’re putting horror movies in order based on the year they debuted, naming as many Stephen King novels as possible, or solving a math problem by adding the number of horcruxes in Harry Potter to the number of wheels on the DeLorean from Back to the Future, you’ll definitely find your knowledge of pop culture put to the test.

[Eric Christian Olsen from NCIS: Los Angeles leads the team “Han Solo Cups.”]

The show also incorporates celebrity guests as team captains and bar-game-style physical challenges — imagine a boozy version of Double Dare — to spice up the show. Now, we have to be a little liberal with the definition of “celebrity guest” here, in the same vein as the “Stars” on Dancing with the Stars, but they do add a lot of humor to each show.

Although it may be a bit too niche for most viewers, I think genre fans in the puzzle community will find plenty to enjoy here. And with each episode only running 30 minutes, it’s an easy time investment.

Geeks Who Drink airs on SyFy at 11 PM Eastern on Thursdays.


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5 Questions for Director and Editor David Rogers

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have David Rogers as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

An Emmy-award-winning editor, producer, and director, David has worked on NewsRadio, Seinfeld, Entourage, and The Office (as well as the sadly short-lived but very funny shows Andy Richter Controls the Universe and The Comeback).

During his time on The Office, he edited 60 episodes and directed 9, including the funniest episode of the show’s final season, “A.A.R.M.” He’s currently contributing to The Mindy Project, which is in its second season on Fox.

David was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for David Rogers

1.) You’re both a director and an editor for The Mindy Project, which means you play a significant role in taking disparate scenes and shots and assembling them into a cohesive, entertaining whole. Sounds like just about the ultimate in real-life jigsaw-style puzzle solving. What goes into the production of a given episode, and what are your thoughts as you prepare it for air?

I think the process of putting together any episode of any television show is more like solving a puzzle than anybody watching at home actually realizes, and The Mindy Project is a perfect example of this. From the moment the writers start on a script, they have to be conscious of who is currently doing what and what has happened before, and what’s going to happen down the road. Once the script gets into the hands of a director and the production staff, then more puzzle solving begins.

You break it down and start scouting locations and casting guest stars and then the first ADs (Assistant Directors) put together a shooting schedule. But they have to build it in a way where they can accommodate actors’ availabilities, place locations on a day where we can get the most done, and they also have to be aware of “turnaround issues” for cast and crew, that is whenever we wrap on one day, the cast and crew get a certain amount of time off before the next day’s call time.

An example I’ll give is when I directed “Bro Club For Dudes,” we shot two days, Thursday and Friday, of a Mixed Martial Arts Arena fight down at Hollywood Park. But we had a cameo from Dana White, the president and owner of the UFC, but he was only available Tuesday morning and we didn’t have the location for that day.

So we shot at another location that looked like a dingy hallway that looked like it was a part of our arena, and we also shot a street fight in the loading dock there between Morgan and Ray Ron, and since they were near our stages at the Universal lot, we finished a little after lunch and then came back to our stages and shot more there.

Another example was Adam Pally, who really kicked ass in his fighting scenes, wasn’t available to shoot on the following Monday and we had a hospital room scene of he and Mindy bonding as she stitches him up. Our solution was to build a small three-wall set at our Hollywood Park location and shoot the scene at the end of Friday night.

As an editor, you’re getting multiple takes and different jokes and plenty of alternate lines and performances, and you really have to sift through everything to figure out what’s the funniest, what’s the best, and how do they all connect together to make a cohesive story. It just takes time and building different versions until you see what truly works the best.

And in the process of cutting out time and sharpening the story, you move scenes around, add and change lines with additional dialog recorded later, and there are lots of other elements that come into play including music, sound FX, and what we call “invisible” visual FX that all help make the show we want to make.

[David with his Emmy Award for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series (one of two he’s won for The Office!)]

2.) You’re a big fan of comic books. What influence does that sort of long-form serialized storytelling have on your approach to TV production?

I am a huge fan of comic books and have been ever since I was 5 years old and got my first “The Brave and the Bold.” It’s interesting that when I was younger I was all about the art, and as I got older it was all about the writing and the art didn’t have to be from John Byrne or George Pérez or Neal Adams. But when you read a comic book, you’re really watching a TV show or movie in your head. You’re “casting” voices for the different heroes, you’re imagining what the action scenes and explosions are like, and you’re giving life to still images on a page much like a director uses a set of storyboards.

And that’s the part of a comic book where even if the artist isn’t a favorite like the ones I mentioned above, their work is still essential to what makes the comic book a living, breathing thing. There are these great examples given in How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, where John Buscema and Stan Lee demonstrate two different pages of art work for the same material. One is fine and gets the story across, but the other is so much more exciting and dramatic and really puts you into the action — and that’s what good directors are constantly aware of when they’re shooting a scene.

What is visually better for the material? What adds to the humor or the drama or the action? And in TV where the schedule is so tight and the budget is always being looked at, what can you do with the tools and time that you have?

I came from The Office, where we were limited with how to shoot scenes because of the hand-held documentary style of the show, but we would still focus on things like shooting it spy or in the room, cross-covering with two cameras, or whipping around with just one, and really blocking positions and making the most of what our shots looked like without them looking like they were set up.

In the penultimate episode “A.A.R.M.,” I directed a scene where Dwight runs Angela off the road and then proposes to her with a bullhorn as traffic goes by in the background. The shots included a go-pro camera set up in Angela’s car where we would see Dwight pull alongside of her as they both “free-drove” — that’s when the actors are really driving the cars.

Meanwhile we get a “boat to boat” shot, where a free-driving process trailer — a truck made for rigging cameras and lights — leads in front of them with two cameras shooting straight back to cover the action. The shot from inside Angela’s car shows their faces very clearly as the scene plays and really brings out the comedy of the situation. Then from the outside, our Stunt Driver Dwight cuts off and runs Stunt Driver Angela off the road and this shot really highlights the action and danger of the stunt.

When we get to the next part of the scene and the cars are on the side of the road, we blocked the actors and cameras in a way so that when Dwight is tender and heartfelt (and yet proposing with a bullhorn), we can see the noisy cars going by on the street behind them, which adds to what should be a very intimate and yet very comedic marriage proposal.

Choosing how to shoot and compose a scene like that, and then executing it is absolutely like putting together a gigantic, complicated, wonderful puzzle!

3.) I understand you’re also a classic television automobile enthusiast. What can you tell us about that?

I don’t know if I’m so much a classic television automobile enthusiast as I am a Super Car enthusiast. I love the Mach 5 from Speed Racer, the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future, the 1966 Batman television show Batmobile, Herbie the Love Bug, and of course K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. I just bought a full sized Trans-Am Firebird replica of K.I.T.T and I’m in the process of adding a Season 4 1-TV dash and really making the interior look like the car did on the show. It’s a fun side project and it’s something I’ve wanted since even before I could actually drive!

4.) What’s next for David Rogers?

I hope to continue editing. directing, and producing on The Mindy Project, which I really think is an exceptionally funny, very high quality, well-made show. I am also starting to develop some of my own ideas for TV shows as I look to direct more things down the road, including hour-longs and maybe even an independent film.

5.) If you could give the readers, puzzle fans, and aspiring TV and filmmakers in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Persistence. Never give up and always work on your skills. So often getting the first job is really all about being in the right place at the right time. And you have to be ready to deliver when the pieces all come together and the time comes for you to step up and show everyone what you can do!

Many thanks to David for his time. You can see his work on The Mindy Project, which airs on Tuesdays at 9:30 P.M. Eastern on Fox, and be sure to check out his full filmography on his IMDb page. I can’t wait to see what he crafts for us next.

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