5. Life on Mars (BBC, 2006-07)
Series One of this highly imaginitive UK show just came out on DVD, right when ABC was busy canceling the lesser American remake. Detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a Manchester police officer in 2003 who wakes up to find himself in 1973 after getting hit by a car. With no idea whether he's "a time-traveler, a lunatic or lying in a hospital bed in 2006 and none of this is real," he copes as best he can, trying to do police work without the benefits of modern technology. What makes the show great, though, is its exploration of misogyny and abuse of power on the '70s police force. Tyler's modern sensibilities are at odds with the rest of the boys in the police department, particularly DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who rides roughshod over suspects' rights and well... anyone or anything else who stands between him and closing a case. As the show progresses, though Tyler keeps searching for his own truth, he starts to make the best of a strange situation.
4. Dexter (Showtime, 2006-Present)
Putting the "vice" back in Miami, Dexter makes it easy to forget that the show is about a guy who works for the local police force—what with all his serial killing. Rooting for a bloody murderer makes this an even guiltier pleasure than 24. And three seasons in, the storyline keeps getting crazier—thanks to the brilliant introduction of Jimmy Smits.
3. NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-2005)
Steven Bochco created a new kind of cop show with Hill Street Blues and struck gold again in the '90s with NYPD Blue. The reason this show lasted a dozen years was not because it was "soft-core porn," a charge levied by the American Family Association that caused 225 affiliates to preempt its series debut, but because the characters' flaws made it more interesting than just the good guys vs. the criminals. Well, that and Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz.
2. The Shield (FX, 2002-2008)
What happens when the cops are the bad guys? Shawn Ryan's series portrays a corrupt unit of Los Angeles police officers, based loosely on a real L.A. anti-gang unit in which more than 70 police officers were implicated in the Rampart Scandal. L.A. feels as dirty as the cops on the take. But as my friend and Shield aficionado Dan wonders, "Is Det. Vic Mackey (The Commish's Michael Chiklis) a good cop who does bad things or a bad cop who does good things?" Guest appearances from Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker and Anthony Anderson each took the series up a notch, and the the storylines wove almost perfectly through seven seasons.
1. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008)
Before The Wire, journalist David Simon's first book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets had already been adapted into an NBC police procedural that ran for seven seasons. He'd also turned his book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood into an HBO mini-series about the West Baltimore drug market. Simon took what he learned about both sides of the law and made The Wire, which follows both the drug kings of Baltimore and the police who try to stop them. The good guys can be sons 'o bitches and the criminals can be quite decent when they're not shooting at each other. I'm only on Season 3, but every day that a new DVD arrives from Netflix is a good day. It may be the best cop show in history.