Honorable Mentions: Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), Cracker (1993-1996), The Closer/Major Crimes, NCIS, Police Squad! (1982), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Miami Vice (1984-1990), CSI, Sledge Hammer! (1986-1988), Cagney & Lacey (1981-1988), Hawaii Five-O (original and remake), The Good Guys (2010), Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001)
5. T.J. Hooker (1982-1986)
This William Shatner star vehicle started out as a sort of gritty examination of the work of patrol cops and what it takes to become one, as Shatner's badass Sgt. T.J. Hooker, when he wasn't riding around looking for bad guys, spent his time teaching at the old LCPD Police Academy. The show eventually became a "crime-of-the-week" deal that focused on Hooker, his young partner Romano (Adrian Zmed), and their friends Officer Jim Corrigan (James Darren) and Officer Stacy Sheridan (Heather Locklear). Shatner had great buddy cop chemistry with Zmed and it was always fun watching Shatner laugh at his younger partner's up and down love life. It was also a hoot to watch Hooker run roughshod over his captain, LCPD detectives, and anyone Hooker thought was getting in his way. I mean, why would a beat cop have so much sway? The answer was always the same: because he's T.J. Hooker.
The show also had a great theme song. Check it out:
4. Flashpoint (2008-2012)
This excellent Canadian-American co-production about an elite SWAT team in Toronto should have garnered more respect and accolades but, because it aired on CBS, most people likely figured that it was just like the other cop shows on CBS (low brow, unserious, not art, not on cable, etc). It did have a "crime-of-the-week" structure and plenty of action, but it also had plenty of quiet character moments and just had a different feel than other cop shows. Hopefully the show garners a larger audience now that it's over and in syndication because it deserves to be discovered (I can't say rediscovered because, again, most critics initially dismissed it). Enrico Colantoni deserved an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Drama Series each year the show was on. He was the emotional backbone of the show and his Gregory Parker was the kind of cop Id imagine most people the world over would love to have working for them.
3. Dragnet (1967-1970)
There have been several versions of Dragnet, and they're all good in their own way, but I think the version where Jack Webb's Sg.t Joe Friday partners with Harry Morgan's Bill Gannon was the best. It's the one that I watched as a kid and is the one I watch every once in a while when it's on TV in the afternoon. It's kind of boring by today's standards as it's not what you would call an exciting, action packed type show. It's pretty much just Friday and Gannon trying to solve the case of the week, asking questions, interrogating people, ferreting out evidence. I think it would be interesting to see someone try to do this kind of show again, where it's just the cops asking questions and whatnot. I'm surprised that HBO hasn't tried to do it.
2. Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011)
This second Law & Order spin-off dealt with the detectives of the Major Crimes division in Manhattan and the criminals those detectives dealt with. Each episode would start off with the audience seeing the crime committed and the criminal/criminals involved, and then we'd see the detectives (Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe as Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames for the first few years, and then Chris Noth, Julianne Nicholson, Jeff Goldblum, and others sort of took turns with D'Onofrio and Erbe) figure out how the criminal did it. D'Onofrio was always awesome as Goren, using his super folder to gather the necessary evidence and figure out what happened, while Erbe's Eames sort of stood back and watched. Even when the episode in question was so-so at best D'Onofrio was always incredibly watchable (he should have been won an Emmy for Goren. He really was that good). And it was ballsy to change up the lead detectives every episode, alternating main casts later on in the show's run. How many shows since have tried that?
1. Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
Homicide was about homicide detectives in Baltimore. It started out as an ensemble show and stayed an ensemble show throughout its seven year run. The first two seasons saw Ned Beatty and Andre Braugher as the ones to watch, with Daniel Baldwin doing great work, too. Jon Polito was awesome, too, despite only appearing in thirteen episodes. Richard Belzer started his TV career as John Munch on Homicide, and Clark Johnson kicked ass as Lewis (the guy with the hat). Kyle Secor did his best work as Tim Bayliss. Melissa Leo made a mark on the show, too, doing 77 episodes. And Yaphet Kotto, as Lt. A Giardello was always a hoot. He was always pissed about the white board in the squad room, the one with the case names on it. He never wanted to see "red" on the board. Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton is probably the character most people remember. He chewed the scenery at times, sure, was a tad boisterous, but it was that enthusiasm and fury that made you watch every week. And when Pembleton had a stroke and he could no longer be the Frank Pembleton we saw from the beginning the show didn't lose any of its edge. Anything could freaking happen.
The show ended in 1999, but I think it's cool that the show's world still sort of exists out there. It's a part of the Law & Order universe, which also has Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. in it, too. It probably won't happen, but it's possible that, one day, we may see someone still working in Baltimore show up in Chicago. Life on the Street lives on. That's comforting.
5. Police Camera Action!
I don't really know why this sticks out in my mind when it's a bloody terrible show but I remember watching tonnes of this as a kid growing up. Police Camera Action was the UK equivalent of Cops but with a super serious tone and tipping of the hat to the various Brit police forces with near propaganda levels of worship levelled at the force amongst the numerous car chases. Overly serious without a drip of humour, you knew how this was meant to be taken by having primetime news anchorman Alastair Stewart as it's presenter. It feels like ITV's answer to grisly BBC docu-drama 999 but more low rent with the rough cut tapes of police chases being shown. I won't lie - it's pretty laughable nowadays and totally deserves it's parody in I'm Alan Partridge ("Crash! Bang! Wallop! What a video!") but, back in the times of only four channels in the Lewis household, this qualified as entertainment.
Okay, I know Dexter himself isn't a police officer and just a blood splatter analyst, but the people he works with in Miami Metro police department are and I'd be lying if they weren't one of the most engaging bunch of detectives and the like you can see on television. The adventures of anti-hero police detective by day and serial killer at night Dexter Morgan were pretty damn interesting when he first hit Showtime and the show reached it's climax at the end of Season 4 before lumping out another four disappointing years. The complex relationships he had with his friends and family behind his dark favourite past time was some engrossing TV and had great nods to the serious science side of police work.
I umm'ed and arr'ed about including this since it's not exactly about a bunch of traditional police officers and the like but at the end of the day, the continuing long-ass misadventures of Counter Terrorism Unit agent Jack Bauer in 24 involve a fair amount of cop show tropes. There's rapid response investigations into various plots and plenty of bad cops torture scenes to gain information of where the bomb/Jack's daughter/president's neck is. Whilst I'm not up to date as most people are with the show, the numerous double crossing and secret deals to protect America and her interest from darn evil terrorists who invades it's freedoms with it's ultimate weapon with Jack is pretty police-y when you think about it, as it explores justice and the like as a theme.
2. The Shield
My favourite 'normal' police procedural show ever. The Shield is wonderfully gritty with the tales of bent cops in LA working against the tide of numerous west coast gangs with the head of the strike team Detective Vic Mackey more than happy to use dirty tactics and methods to make sure his team gets their way and to further his own ends with an eye on the pursuit of justice. What's the intriguing aspect, this show is usually never far away from unhappy endings with a fair amount of crimes going unsolved or being swept away due to bureaucratic bullshit reasons. Amazingly dark at times, the show swallows you whole into it's bleak yet hoping core and doesn't let you leave.
1. Life On Mars (UK)/Ashes To Ashes
The two BBC series based about two police detectives warped back in time to the 70's & 80's eras respectively were pretty magical stuff to begin with, thanks to marvellous scene setting and kickass soundtracks. But yet it's Phillip Glenister's portrayal of politically incorrect, bent and ruthless DCI Gene Hunt with numerous brutal put downs and one liners which make these two shows and five seasons an absolute winner for me. It makes something memorable into an absolute classic with stories of coma suffering modern police members trying to figure out if they're hallucinating their trips back in time, dying or ways to deal with comas. Fantastic two shows and I'm pining to watch it all again.
5. Homicide: Life on the Streets
The ensemble cast may have changed over the years but this NBC series remains one of the best the genre has ever seen. The cases were gripping, Baltimore a hard town with hard crimes and the cops knew it was an uphill battle to try and win but could never give up. The cast itself was amazing: Yaphet Kotto as the boss hating to see red anywhere; future Oscar-winner Melissa Leo as an unglamorous but dedicated detective; Kyle Secor as the smart cop trying to outwit others; Richard Belzer starting his record-setting role as Munch; and of course Andre Braugher in his justly Emmy-winning performance as the cop murderers prayed never to get stuck in an interrogation room with. Fantastic episodes abounded like Robin Williams as a man dealing with his wife's murder on vacation and the two-hour movie finale was a great capper to the show. Top to bottom, one of the best of all cop dramas and one where you never knew what would happen next.
4. Barney Miller
I've seen various polls where real cops are asked what TV show gets police life right and almost always, Barney Miller tops those lists. This ABC sitcom showed the true hard life of a group of cops at a small New York precinct, handling quirky minor suspects in petty crimes, day-to-day paperwork, noting how dull cop life can be. Hal Linden was good in the title role handling things with a great cast including Abe Vigoda's Fish and Ron Glass as the educated black cop who couldn't give up his high-living lifestyle. The show was quite funny but also heart (see the moving episode paying tribute to late cast-member Jack Soo) and reminded you how cop life isn't as glamorous as on TV but still meaning a lot. One of the first workplace comedies of its type, it's also one of the best as these may not be the best cops around but definitely the bunch you'd most want to hang around.
3. Crime Story
Far too short-lived, this 1986-88 NBC drama was a brilliant look at crime-fighting in the early 1960's. Created by Michael Mann, it gave us a fantastic showdown between Denis Farina's hard-bitten cop who's willing to bend the rules and Anthony Denison as a rising mob boss who wants to take over as the "old days" of the mafia are passing by. Beautifully shot to capture the era of Chicago and later Las Vegas, it was one of the first real attempts of a series that was like a novel on screen, the cat and mouse game between the cops and crooks fascinating to watch. It may have suffered some slumps in season 2 but still a great show that should have lasted so much longer to remind you how noir is done right.
2. Hill Street Blues
The groundbreaker. Yes, cop dramas had been around before but Steven Bochco's long-running NBC hit set a new bar. A fantastic ensemble worked every facet of the police force, from patrol to homicide cops, showcasing not just street work but the legal aspects as well. The cast was terrific, highlighted by Daniel J. Travanti as the captain and Dennis Franz in his star-making role as tough cop Buntz. The series was one of the first of its kind, weaving in multiple storylines in each episode along with real-life issues like minority police officers battling racism, females handling sexism and language that was pretty blue for the early '80's networks. Added on were the hand-held cameras for a "documentary" feel, making it unlike anything shown on TV before. For 146 episodes, viewers were enthralled as Hill Street set the bar that every cop drama has tried to match ever since. Go ahead and catch up and "remember...let's be careful out there."
1. The Shield
The series that not only put FX on the map, it helped change the face of television itself. This stunning drama proved broadcast cable could offer the same hard-hitting, cutting-edge drama that HBO or Showtime could, paving the way for the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and so many more. It showed the dark side of the job, cops pushed to break the law in their quest for justice and riches but also showed the day-to-day life of patrolmen, homicide detectives and more. Dominating, of course, was Michael Chiklis in his justly Emmy award-winning role as Vic Mackey, masterfully making you cheer and feel sorry for a man who could commit cold-blooded murder to get ahead. Guest stars like Glenn Close's own hard cop and Forest Whitiaker's obsessive internal affairs officer added more power to a show that almost never sagged creatively. The show was dark and yet still a sign of the presence of police in our lives, good and bad and its chilling finale remains one of the greatest in television history to cap a fantastic police drama.