As Amazon Prime streaming service brings back Bosch for another season, how does today’s best cop show (based on the best series of mystery novels of its generation) rank with other American police procedurals in television history?
Sure, it’s easy to make fun of Dragnet’s iconic elements, from Joe Friday’s deadpan lines to the theme song; but it was the first real police procedural—even if not only the names were changed, but the stories were sanitized to protect the innocent viewer.
Besides, who doesn’t think we could use Joe Friday these days to face down campus protesters with withering logic?
14. The Naked City
Blue Bloods would make this list if it only took a page from The Naked City and expanded its cast so that it didn’t appear there were only a half dozen cops and one assistant prosecutor dealing with the “8 million stories.”
Much like the underrated Western, Rawhide, and it’s own spinoff, Route 66, The Naked City took a semi-anthology approach with terrific guest actors taking the lead as civilians with a crisis.
Of all the ’70s iconic cops from Steve McGarrett to Starsky and Hutch, only Kojak seemed to care about to how things might actually work in real life (especially in the terrific TV movie written by Abby Mann that served as the show’s premier). And unlike the other famous “lieutenant” on TV at the time, Barretta, Theo Kojak actually had administrative responsibilities—though he was in the field an awful lot.
12. Police Story
Conceived by the great cop writer Joseph Wambaugh, Police Story was a true anthology show, with only a couple of recurring characters, played by Tony Lo Bianco and Don Meredith as Robbery Homicide Division detectives appearing five times in the series’s five seasons. The guest list is a veritable roster of familiar 70s character actors.
The show not only attempted to show every aspect of police work in the LAPD in its run, but Police Story was the first show to emphasize the toll the job can take on workaday cops.
11. Barney Miller
In the 1980s, a Flint, Michigan, cop told me that Barney Miller was easily the most realistic cop show ever made because it was the only show that captured the day to day absurdity and stupidity that marks the things detectives spend most of their time on.
It was also the funniest cop sitcom ever. The evidence for that verdict? Every new police-oriented sitcom that comes out is still compared to it—and the best are still found to come up short.
10. Hill Street Blues
Now that serialized crime shows are common, it’s hard to explain to a younger person just how revolutionary Hill Street Blues was in 1981. At the time, it was often described as a “cop soap opera” because it was unusual for a show of this type to have continuing storylines. (Magnum P.I., which debuted at the same time, also introduced a hero with more of a continuing and intriguing backstory than other shows.)
Hill Street Blues was also unusual in that it took an unflinching look at urban decay, but it was still sometimes side-splittingly funny. Show creator Steven Bochco perfectly captured the sometimes anarchic chaos of a big city precinct in a way that had never been attempted before.
9. Crime Story
Forget Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s contribution to television was this gritty series about a Chicago cop’s personal battle with a mobster as the Mob is moving its operations to Las Vegas in the 1960s.
Just as stylish, but not as stylized as Vice, Crime Story always struggled for ratings because it was really the first TV cop show in which an episode really was like a chapter in a book. Watching them out of order was almost out of the question.
The late great Dennis Farina became a star with a terrific turn as the obsessed cop who was sometimes unlikeable in his quest. Mann would later perfect this pattern in his greatest film, Heat.
8. NYPD Blue
Steven Bochco continued his winning ways with NYPD Blue, which lasted twice as long as Hill Street Blues. It’s hard to remember these days, but this was supposed to be a star vehicle for David Caruso and Amy Brenneman, with Dennis Franz’s alcoholic detective Andy Sipowicz as a dark side character.
But everyone should have known better. Just as he dominated Hill Street’s last couple of seasons as rough and tumble detective Norman Buntz, Franz took over here, too, and Andy Sipowicz became television’s top detective for the next decade.
Fargo only ranks this low on the list because it’s not primarily a cop show. However, the forces of good in this pitch-perfect return to the dark comedic universe of many people’s favorite Coen brothers movie still has a pure of heart cop as the story’s moral center—and it’s just so gosh darn good that any excuse to brag about it is worth taking. You betcha.
It was fitting that at the end of the great thriller writer Elmore Leonard’s life, one of his characters was finally done justice in Justified. It combined the elements of the Western and a modern crime story—as Leonard’s career included Hombre, Joe Kidd, Out of Sight and Get Shorty.
The long battle between gunslinging flawed hero U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and backwoods Kentucky crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins of The Shield) is the best of its type in TV history—and so was its vivid cast of supporting characters on both sides of the law.
5. The Shield
I confess that I quit The Shield halfway through the first season. I just couldn’t see spending all that time with a character who murders a police officer in the first episode to cover up his crimes.
Then a mystery writer friend explained to me that if I watched this superior show—keeping in mind that the real heroes are CCH Pounder as no-nonsense detective Claudette Wyms and her geeky partner Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes)—it would help.
Not only does Michael Chiklis’s corrupt cop Vic Mackey compete with Tony Soprano as TV’s most absorbing and appalling villain, but this show does one other thing like The Sopranos: It draws you into Mackey’s troubles and makes you almost sympathize with him (he does spend half his time fighting really, really bad guys) before slapping you in the face again with the utter immorality of what he’s about.
But unlike The Sopranos, the finale to The Shield is almost perfect in its ultimate justice.
And as the focus of the Justice Department shifts to gangs like MS-13 and the hell they create for the residents trapped in their neighborhoods, it’s worth noting that The Shield depicted it 15 years ago. In fact, it’s hard to believe anything about this show is 15 years old.
The cop show centered on a detective who is the iconoclastic title character has never been done better than Bosch. But that should be no surprise, as Michael Connelly, the great author of the book series, is an active part of adapting his novels.
Titus Welliver is perfectly cast as the LAPD detective who is a former special forces soldier and orphaned son of a murdered prostitute with a thirst for justice, but he’s joined by an equally impressive cast of actors and writers.
(Oh, and the latest terrific Harry Bosch book, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, is just about to come out in paperback.)
3. Homicide: Life on the Streets
Television viewers’ first introduction to the colossal mess that is Baltimore was Homicide: Life on the Streets, based on David Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of almost the same name. Simon would later produce The Wire and take his observations of urban collapse even further.
An amazing initial cast included film character actors Ned Beatty, Jon Polito, Yaphet Kotto, and Melissa Leo. As the show went on, NBC tried to broaden the viewer base by making the cast better looking, but it was never better.
At the core was arguably TV’s all-time best detective, Frank Pembleton, indelibly played by Andre Braugher. Frank was partnered with Tim Bayless (Kyle Secor), a rookie detective who was obsessed with his first case, the unsolved murder of a little black schoolgirl. (This case also was the heart of the book as the real-life detective actually worked himself into the hospital trying to solve it.)
Southland was the best of the ensemble cops shows that looked at a precinct from top to bottom, from rookie patrolman to seasoned detective.
Moved from NBC to TNT after it’s short debut season, Southland was never on a network where its gritty and ultra-realistic storylines had a ready-made large viewer base (FX or Netflix would have suited it better).
But TNT stuck with it for four seasons, hoping to establish itself as the home of such programing, encouraged more by critical acclaim than ratings. The show also established Ben McKenzie (Gotham), Michael Cudlitz (The Walking Dead), and the formidable Regina King (every show that can get her) as TV actors to be reckoned with.
1. The Wire
Trying to add more superlatives to any summary of the great HBO show The Wire became impossible after that description, which tickled writer/producer David Simon so much that he included the phrase in a Season 5 newsroom discussion.
Nothing that happened in the last couple of years in Baltimore—from a mayor reluctant to crack down on rioters, to the vicious prosecution of cops on no evidence, to the mealy-mouthed politicians pointing fingers in every direction but home—was a surprise to anyone who watched The Wire, or for that matter Homicide: Life on the Street.
And as someone who has run campaigns in Flint and Detroit, let me assure you that the depiction in The Wire of the intersections of law enforcement, politics, and shady characters of every stripe, along with the utter failure of big institutions to cope (and even make things worse) has a far larger application than merely to Baltimore.
I recently introduced my wife to the show, and she could not believe that Season 1 premiered in 2002. Even now, 15 years later, it seems prescient, not dated. This is arguably not only the greatest television series ever created, but no other show deals with the biggest problem of our time in such a bracingly straightforward manner.