1. The Wire (HBO, ’02-’08) Okay, so hyperbolic assertions that this is the greatest series of all time might overstate it a bit, but it definitely did more than any other cop show to portray the police experience in America in its full range of frustration, futility, corruption and occasional measured success. Very rarely was there the satisfaction of a case tied up neatly, but there was always the fascination of seeing how real police work gets done (or, more often, doesn’t).
2. Homicide: Life on the Streets (NBC, ’93-’00)
Network television’s finest cop drama, hands down. Stark Baltimore settings; an uncompromising vision; the incredible acting of Andre Braugher, Kyle Secor and Richard Belzer. Enough said.
3. The Shield (FX, ’02-’08) The most terrifying cop show in the history of television, with a protagonist who’s the closest thing to a human pit bull you’re ever likely to see.
4. Hill Street Blues (NBC, ’81-’87) No less than the template nearly every cop show since has followed, and for good reason; it humanized its characters in a way no other show before it had.
5. NYPD Blue (ABC, ’93-’05) Those who initially boycotted this show in 1993 missed one of the decade’s best. It single-handedly launched David Caruso’s career (for better or worse), and its look—the hand-held camera with rapid zooms—remains influential to this day.
6. Crime Story (NBC, ’86-’88) Cited as an influence on everything from Casino to The Sopranos to 24, Crime Story charted the titanic battle of wills between a ’60s Chicago mobster and the police crime squad determined to bring him to justice. Shifting gears from cobalt Chicago to sun-scorched Las Vegas, Michael Mann’s grit-meets-glam follow-up to Miami Vice gave tough guy Dennis Farina his first starring role.
7. Miami Vice (NBC, ’84-’89) Sure, the music, the clothes—even that dangerous, white Testarossa—might be dated. But the MTV/cocaine-cowboy visual panache of Miami Vice, and its style-over-substance ethos, is as American as apple pie (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?). The series’ opening story arc, which detailed Crockett and Tubbs’ attempt to bring down drug kingpin Calderone, also packed its share of dramatic muscle.
8. Police Squad! (ABC, ’82) Every genre needs its own parody, and Police Squad! was a spot-on spoof of the staid police procedural, bringing goofy visual jokes and nonstop puns to its chronicle of straitlaced cop Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The show lasted only six episodes, but it gained a huge cult following in subsequent years, and ended up spawning the three-film Naked Gun series. As is usually the case, the original is best.
9. Hawaii Five-0 (CBS, ’68-’80) From its earwormy theme song to its catchphrase-generation (“Book ’em, Danno”; “Five-O” as slang for the police) to the way Jack Lord’s hair foreshadowed the rise of sleek modern plastics, Hawaii Five-O has been a pop-culture wellspring far out of proportion to its impact as a cop show. On the other hand, it ran for 12 seasons. Its influence (emphasizing location filming; focusing on the characters’ jobs, not their lives) lives on in such shows as Law & Order, which finally deposed Five-O as our longest-running crime show.
Just one more thing ...
10. Columbo (NBC, ABC, ’68-’03) Yep, those dates are correct; Peter Falk’s perpetually underestimated LA homicide detective was so beloved, he kept getting asked back—for 69 episodes that spanned five different decades. Hell, for all we know there’s a new special in the works at this very moment. Maybe the criminal masterminds will finally take him seriously ... or not.