Sure, its total seriousness borders on ham-fisted, and it inspired several great parodies, both during its run and after. But credit where due: Jack Webb’s long-running drama (it ran on radio and television from 1949 to 1959, with subsequent revivals in 1967-1970, 1989-1991, and 2003-2004) pretty much set the template for the police procedural, and its stylistic trademarks — hard-boiled dialogue, detailed investigation play-by-plays, “ripped from the headlines” narratives — continue to influence the genre to this day.
24. The Unusuals
If this title prompted a head tilt and a “huh,” you’re not alone; I had frankly never heard of it. But you know who had? Our mad-genius TV editor, Pilot Virulet, who explains it thus: “The short-lived The Unusuals only ran on ABC for 10 episodes but it had a lasting impression especially because of its great cast — Amber Tamblyn, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau (ABC loved to promote The Unusuals was on after Lost), and Adam Goldberg. On the surface, it was a lighthearted drama about a group of quirky cops, but underneath it was darker. One character is so preoccupied with death he wears a bulletproof vest everywhere; another is secretly suffering from a brain tumor but refuses treatment. It was a unique cop drama but it was its uniqueness that ultimately killed the show.”
23. Starsky & Hutch
The quintessential ’70s cop show, with all the trimmings: car chases, goofy fashion, a good-looking buddy hero team, and, yes, a supporting character named “Huggy Bear.” It’s hard to take it too seriously these days (hence its 2004 film adaptation was pitched as full-on comedy), but it was, and remains, an awfully good time.
22. Sledge Hammer!
Network television in the 1980s was about as play-it-safe an environment as you can imagine, so it remains one of those weird pop culture miracles that a television program as utterly insane as Sledge Hammer! even made it to the pilot stage, much less to the airwaves for two seasons. Creator Alan Spencer took his inspiration from the Dirty Harry movies and period cop shows that took rule-breaking, trigger-happy, no-nonsense detectives as their heroes, and wondered what would happen if that hero was just a little bit… well, nuts. He came up with a wickedly funny, borderline surrealist comic masterpiece.
21. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Sure, we’re only one season in to Fox’s single-camera cop comedy, but what a season it’s been (and I’m not just talking awards-wise). Creators Michael Schur and Dan Goor brilliantly meld the Law & Order aesthetic with the streetwise, station-house humor of Barney Miller, cooking up an ensemble comedy with huge laughs, yet real love for its characters (and The Job). And Andre Braugher is pure comic gold.
It’s a little nuts to discover that this quintessential ’70s cop show only ran for a season and a half, since its pop culture shadow feels so much longer. (Maybe it’s just that amazing theme song.) Then again, maybe it just disappeared before it had a chance to wear out its welcome (as so many of those shows did); instead, this fast-paced procedural kept the energy high and the team dynamics lively for its entire 37-episode run.
19. Law & Order
For a still-astonishing 20 years, television sets across the country tuned in to the dulcet sounds of a stern-voiced narrator, explaining the separate yet equally important groups that represented the people in the criminal justice system, and so on and so on. Dick Wolf’s initial gimmick — to fuse the cop show and the law show — turned into a full-on empire, prompting four spin-offs, countless international remakes, and more “clang clang”s than you can shake a gavel at. And sure, it’s junk food — but at its best, in the glory years of the original iteration and the early seasons of SVU, it’s addictively binge-watchable junk food.
18. 21 Jump Street
In April of 1987, in its second week of programming, the nascent Fox Network debuted its first hour-long drama, a Mod Squad for the ’80s, about cops going undercover in high school. It lasted five seasons (four on Fox, one in syndication), launching the career of star Johnny Depp and prompting a recent hit movie adaptation. Viewed today, it plays like the ’80s time capsule that it is — but it’s undeniably entertaining, both consciously and unconsciously, while the efficient writing of co-creator Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files) and his team keep things fast and clean. And Depp remains a marvel, immediately at home in front of a camera that loves him.
17. The Mod Squad
But it was no match for its spiritual heir, Aaron Spelling’s five-season cop show that sent three young, presumably rehabilitated criminals into places the cops can’t go to solve crimes they can’t crack. Capturing the counter-culture for a network television audience is a tricky proposition, and The Mod Squad was guilty of the occasional trip to Squaresville. But it often captured the flavor and feeling of the era, and its cast — particularly the endlessly cool Clarence Williams III — is top-notch.
16. Miami Vice
Creator Anthony Yerkovich and producer Michael Mann’s NBC hit didn’t just influence cop shows — it took over popular culture, influencing fashion, music, and filmmaking, while also capturing those elements and packaging them for a mainstream audience. Miami Vice shook off the gritty greyness of Hill Street and its ilk to create, in the words of network president Brandon Tartikoff’s original memo, “MTV cops,” its neon-tinged cinematography capturing not just the Florida location, but the aesthetic of the era.
15. Crime Story
Flush from the success of Miami Vice, Mann exited that show in 1986 to take over a new series: an ambitious period crime drama from creators Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger, concerning the long-running battle between Chicago mobster Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) and Lt. Mike Torello (cop-turned-actor Dennis Farina, in his breakthrough role). Though it only ran two seasons, Crime Story remains a huge influence on shows in the current “Golden Age” — both for the moral complexity of its characters and the show’s habit of telling longer, serialized stories rather than locking in to stand-alone episodes.
Our notion of the cop show tends, by the genre’s very definition, to be urban — big city cops taking down big city criminals. The exceptions are few and far between; there’s The Andy Griffith Show, and then there’s Justified, which logs time in both Lexington, Kentucky and the hill country nearby. But locations isn’t all that makes the show unique; it’s got Timothy Olyphant being a badass, flawless supporting players (including, but not limited to, Walton Goggins, Margo Martindale, and Jeremy Davies), and the distinctive voice of the late, great Elmore Leonard.
13. NYPD Blue
It veered into soapy self-parody in its later years, but in its prime, few shows on television could touch NYPD Blue. It made headlines upon its 1993 premiere for its (now commonplace) profanity, partial nudity, and adult themes, but Blue became a critical and popular success for its challenging narratives, off-the-cuff style, and rich characters — chief among them Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz, as thrillingly complicated an antihero as we’ve seen on network television.
TV guru Pilot is our resident Luther enthusiast, so I’ll again turn the floor over to her: “Idris Elba plays the eponymous detective in Luther, which is reason enough to watch it. But it’s also more psychological than most cop shows, one that really likes to dive deeper and deeper into its characters. Luther is a genius detective able to solve a case based on the tiniest of a suspect’s actions but he’s also completely unhinged, prone to explosive outbursts that pick at his career and marriage. Luther is most successful because it’s decidedly not a by-the-numbers crime procedural; one of the main characters is a guilty killer Luther failed to arrest, who sticks around to provide a cat-and-mouse dynamic throughout the series (which will soon get a film adaptation).”
11. Barney Miller
Cop comedies were a bit of a rarity when Barney Miller debuted in January of 1975, and those the preceded it — Car 54, Where Are You?, for example — tended to play for very broad laughs. Barney Miller didn’t go that way at all; creators Danny Arnold and Theodore J. Flicker used a single setting (the Greenwich Village police station) that gave the episodes a theatrical feel, similar to the live teleplays of the 1950s, and resisted the urge to play for dumb laughs and slapstick. The result was a very funny show with more edge than was common at the time.
10. True Detective
We’ve only had eight hours of True Detective so far — but those eight hours were strong enough to slam Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s limited series into the top ten. Masterfully photographed, structurally magnificent, and acted with stunning skill, True Detective initially seemed an exceptionally well-done procedural, but a procedural nonetheless. Yet over the course of those eight (revisitation–worthy) hours, it revealed itself to be something deeper, darker, and more sinister — an honest-to-goodness television phenomenon, so rich and bizarre that everyone saw something different under its surface.
9. Police Squad!
No film, series, or sketch satirized the police procedural as brilliantly as Police Squad!, the tragically short-lived spoof show from Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. The ZAZ boys were quite a get for ABC when the show aired in 1982, just two years after their smash film Airplane!, but the network cancelled the years-ahead-of-its-time show after just four of its six episodes aired. But those six shows were packed with more gags than a season of any other television comedy, wickedly sending up the conventions — from dramatic music to hardboiled writing to “special guest stars” — of shows like Dragnet, M Squad, and S.W.A.T., while showcasing the deadpan comic brilliance of Leslie Nielsen (who had appeared, playing it straight, in many of those shows). Thankfully, the show got a second chance on the big screen, with the Naked Gun films, which popped up later in the decade.
When Ann Biderman’s Los Angeles cop drama debuted on NBC midway through the 2008-2009 season, it seemed more like a cable show than a network one; by season two, it was, with the Peacock unceremoniously yanking the show’s already-produced second season less than a month before its scheduled premiere. TNT stepped in, picking up those episodes and producing three additional seasons of this sprawling, mature, intelligent ensemble show — and proving that such programs have become an endangered species on the Big Four.
7. Naked City
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” went the famous closing narration of this four-season drama. “This has been one of them.” Sterling Silliphant’s adaptation of the brilliant 1948 film took a while to find its footing, knocking around the ABC schedule, tinkering with format, going from 30 to 60 minutes. But once it settled in, it was something new and exciting for episodic television: a semi-documentary style look at cops and criminals, shot on location in New York City (instead of on the soundstages and backlots that were the norm at the time). In other words, it was a proto-Law & Order — and like that show, it would become famous for the countless up-and-coming New York actors who drew early paychecks from it: Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Jon Voight, Diane Ladd, William Shatner, and a young man named Peter Falk, who would later make his name on a cop show of his own…
The adventures of Lt. Frank Columbo weren’t conventional mysteries — no attempt is made to hide the culprits of the murder at each show’s center. Instead, we see how they do it, and then we wait, patiently, for Columbo to discover their mistake. Peter Falk’s deservedly iconic creation — rumpled trenchcoat, cheap cigars, sideways style — is a tricky contraption, a performance of a performance. He plays dumb, confused, naïve, and faux-ingratiating (“Oh, listen, I’m sorry about that…”), but all the while, he’s just setting a trap. And there’s nothing more beautiful than watching him spring it, usually with a bemused “There’s only one thing that I’m not clear about…”
5. Cagney & Lacey
This seven-season CBS drama is most often referenced as a groundbreaking moment for women on television, a major network cop show fronted by two actresses. It should be celebrated as such, but not at the cost of forgetting that it was also just a damn fine police drama, with stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless creating a powerful partner dynamic and leading up a sharp station-house ensemble (including Welcome Back, Kotter’s Robert Hegyes and The Karate Kid’s Martin Kove).
4. The Shield
Shawn Ryan’s seven-season FX cop drama centered on a four-man anti-gang unit in the Los Angeles police department, and drew its style from theirs: fast, mean, and rough-and-tumble, shooting first and asking questions later. Its ensemble cast (and the big names, like Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker, who came in for one and two-season arcs, respectively) was flawless, but this was Michael Chiklis’s show; his Detective Vic Mackey was the 21st century Andy Sipowicz, a real sonofabitch who you just couldn’t take your eyes off.
3. Homicide: Life on the Streets
In 1991, a Baltimore newspaper reporter published a riveting book called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the result of a year-long embed with the Baltimore PD. The reporter’s name was David Simon, and the book was so vivid that filmmaker Barry Levinson thought it would make good television material — primarily because it so effectively countered the fictions about police work that earlier cop shows had created. It did that, and much more, creating a cast of indelible characters, introducing a score of remarkable character actors in its ace ensemble cast (chief among them Andre Braugher, whose six seasons as Frank Pembleton remain among the finest acting in television history). It did the handheld, you-are-there thing months before NYPD Blue, but most importantly, it introduced Mr. Simon to the storytelling and reporting possibilities of the television medium.
2. Hill Street Blues
With its melancholy opening theme and images of grey, overcast streets, Hill Street was a marked departure from the stylish, action-packed cop shows of its era; creators Steven Bochco (again!) and Michael Kozoll adopted a gritty, off-the-cuff style reminiscent of ’70s cop movies like Serpico and The French Connection, using rough, occasionally handheld photography and overlapping dialogue (particularly in each episodes “roll call” prologues). And their protagonists weren’t the supercops that had been television’s preference for so long either; these were dysfunctional personalities, their personal lives a junkyard of failed marriages and bad habits. This variety of rich, complex characters would lead, rather directly, to the current “antihero” vogue. Or, as AV Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff so succinctly put it recently, “You don’t realize how much you’re watching now is just riding Hill Street Blues’ coattails until you watch it.”
1. The Wire
So much has been written about David Simon and Ed Burns’ five-season HBO masterpiece that it seems impossible to sum up what makes it great in a mere paragraph. It is, in fact, The Great American Television Series, a sprawling, insightful, heartbreaking testament to what the medium is and what it can do, telling stories of greater scope and depth than films, plays, or even novels. It wasn’t strictly a “cop show” (it wasn’t strictly an anything show), but it started as one, and tackled its later subjects — education, city politics, dock workers, newsrooms — in the procedural style. Authenticity was always job one, and The Wire always felt real, overheard, transcribed. People don’t fill in obvious details and call each other by their full names in real life; likewise, cops and drug dealers and dock workers and journalists speak in their own language, rarely pausing to spell out their shorthand to outsiders. Seldom has the viewer felt more like an eavesdropper — which, to some degree, was the thematic thrust of the entire program. Simon and Burns’ characters operate in shades of grey; they give us flawed and human cops (some good, some not so much) interacting with dealers who are often bright and interesting but doing the wrong thing for a variety of possible reasons. There are no easy answers and no naïve solutions, but we see the drug epidemic from every angle, and no one gets off easy. Yet the humanity of the characters is always front and center, which seems as good an aim as any for the cop shows following in Homicide, Hill Street, and The Wire’s giant footsteps.