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The 40 Greatest Cop Shows of All Time

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The 40 Greatest Cop Shows of All Time

Like so many other lists, The 40 Greatest Cops Shows of All Time got practically every writer at Paste all fired up and ready to defend the honor of their personal favorite. But there can only be one G.O.A.T. (and, okay, 39 others that are pretty good too). In an attempt to narrow our focus, we limited our choices to police procedurals and/or series with detectives as the main characters, and excluded shows centered on PIs (we’ll save Rockford Files, Veronica Mars and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for another list). Get ready to overload your Netflix queue—here are our picks for the 40 Greatest Cop Shows of All Time.

40. The Unusuals
Original Run: 2009
Creator: Noah Hawley

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Before he found himself elevated to the upper echelons of TV royalty with Fargo the series, showrunner Noah Hawley spent years cutting his teeth in the network TV trenches. Perhaps his most notable contribution, which demonstrated his talent for crafting well-defined, if idiosyncratic, characters, was the quirky one-season police dramedy The Unusuals. The show centers on Amber Tamblyn’s Casey Shraeger, a by-the-books, somewhat naïve young cop who is transferred to the NYPD’s notorious Second Precinct to help reform the station and its tainted reputation. This naturally proves to be easier said than done, considering the sheer neurosis on display, including one detective who is suffering from a brain tumor that induces hallucinations at inopportune times. Pitched as a “modern day M*A*S*H” the show boasts the same unorthodox mix of grounded realism and absurdist comedy as that classic series. A fresh, funny and compelling take on the police drama, The Unusuals’ inability to garner a second season proved to be a classic case of “wrong place, wrong time.” —Mark Rozeman

39. Naked City
Original Run: 1958-1963
Creator: Stirling Silliphant

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Based on the celebrated 1948 movie of the same name, Naked City sought to introduce a still-young TV audience to the idea that quality crime stories could be enjoyed in the comfort of their own living room. Filmed on location in various areas of New York City, the adventures of NYPD’s 65th Precinct boasts a lived-in, noir-esque atmosphere that still manages to hold up, even after 50 years of imitators. What’s all the more entertaining is seeing just how much the show served as a training ground for young talent. Though the series featured no shortage of established thespians of stage and screen (Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, Hume Cronyn), it also made room for quite a few young bucks, including Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken and Robert Duvall. Indeed, part of the fun in watching the show today is catching the early work of actors who would soon enough become legends in their own right.—Mark Rozeman

38. Happy Valley
Original Run: 2014-present
Creator: Sally Wainwright

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It was with dismay that I received the news from Shannon, compiler of this list, that nobody else had picked Happy Valley. That’s inexcusable, and the only explanation is that nobody has seen it—if they had, it wouldn’t have been left off. However, not seeing it is also inexcusable, since it’s available on Netflix. There’s only one season so far (the sophomore season is coming in 2016), and the plot centers on a kidnapping in the down-at-the-heels English town of West Yorkshire. I could say more, but the greatness of this show is so immediately self-evident that if you commit to watching the first ten minutes, there’s a 60-80 percent chance that you’ll have finished all six episodes before you go to sleep. And then you can berate all your friends who remain in the dark, just as I’ve done to you.—Shane Ryan

37. Streets of San Francisco
Original Run: 1972-1977
Creator: Edward Hume

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For five seasons, a young Michael Douglas and a not-so-young Karl Malden cruised around the titular avenues and highways of the Bay Area in a Ford Galaxie, solving murders and maintaining the kind of love-hate relationship that has been the heart of buddy cop movies and TV shows for decades. Okay, it was actually for just over four seasons, as Douglas left at the start of the fifth when his career as a film producer and actor starting taking off. But while he was there, he was an undeniable presence and held his own against Malden, a member of Hollywood’s old guard, who was as gruff and engaging as in his best film roles.—Robert Ham

36. Castle
Original Run: 2009-present
Creator: Andrew W. Marlowe

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Castle has replaced Burn Notice as the show people make fun of because they don’t know anybody who actually watches it. The series has aired over 150 episodes, but even its star Nathan Fillion joked about the fact that nobody really knows what it’s about at the last Emmy Awards. However, it is because of its aforementioned longevity that Castle is now the butt of all those jokes. It’s a fairly simple show about a crime novelist who begins shadowing, and working with, a homicide detective. Naturally, romance begins brewing. Fillion and Stana Katic (Beckett) remain forever charming, and the consistently entertaining storylines are the reason the show has its fans.—Chris Morgan

35. Monk
Original Run: 2002-2009
Creator: Andy Breckman

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“Homicide detective with OCD” might seem like a cheap concept on paper—after all, Detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)’s obsession with the tiniest of details is an easy, plausible explanation for his uncanny ability to solve even the most convoluted crimes by episode’s end. But Monk used its central character’s mental illness as so much more than plot device; though the show was a procedural, character development was always its driving force. We continue to learn bits and pieces of Monk’s backstory (his wife Trudy was killed by a car bomb, resulting in his nervous breakdown and worsening of his OCD), we watch as his mental health gradually improves, and through it all we’re treated to an expert blend of comedy and drama that makes it so obvious why Shalhoub was nominated for eight Emmys (taking home three) for the role.—Bonnie Stiernberg

34. Wallander
Original Run: 2008-present

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Kenneth Brannagh stars as the older, wounded, but still deeply insightful detective in this show, adapted from the Swedish program (and novels) of the same name. What sets this series apart is Brannagh’s muted, world-worn performance and the excellent cinematography, which makes terrific use of the Swedish seaside to cultivate an atmosphere that’s melancholy and menacing by turns—sometimes at once. There are three seasons, each three episodes long, and I’ve yet to run across a dud. All three seasons are on Netflix, and the fourth and final season will air later this year. And if you don’t trust me, trust the great Patti Smith, who refers to it more than once in her book M Train as one of her go-to detective shows.—Shane Ryan

33. Inspector Morse
Original Run: 1987-2000
Creator: Colin Dexter, Tony Warren

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Played by John Thaw, the title character of this influential British detective drama is a refreshingly flawed iteration of the classic “gentleman detective.” Appearing in 33 two-hour episodes spanning 13 years, the figure of Inspector Morse, along with his trusty sidekick, Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whately), looms large over more recent series like Idris Elba’s Luther. Unlike so many other genius police detectives on television, Morse is often, at least initially, wrong. And though it’s suggested his path to promotion is opposed by enemies he’s made in his career, he’s also pretty unambitious. While the series doesn’t necessarily care much about portraying the daily ins and outs of a police station or its procedures, it’s nonetheless saturated the popular perception of how the British go about solving murders.—Michael Burgin

32. The Bridge
Original Run: 2013-2014
Creators: Elwood Reid, Björn Stein, Meredith Stiehm

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Considering the sheer amount of detective shows that have existed over the decades, it’s incredibly rare to find one that can bring something legitimately new to the table. The Bridge took the concept of jurisdictions and turned it into a topical look at border issues, like immigration and drugs. Despite the fact that teaming up the Mexican detective Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) with the American detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), often felt a bit stereotypical (Ruiz does whatever it takes, while Cross’ character felt heavily influenced by Carrie on Homeland), the duo created an intriguing dynamic. As the two dug deeper into the politics across the border while searching for a serial killer, The Bridge rarely shied away from tragedy and the horrific nature of the socio-political it was dissecting.—Ross Bonaime

31. Sledge Hammer!
Original Run: 1986-1988
Creator: Alan Spencer

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By the mid-1980s, the “loose cannon cop” archetype popularized by the Dirty Harry franchise (and encouraged by a culture of Regan-era conservatism) had already become a tired staple of film and TV. Four years after Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker tried and failed to launch their own crime show parody with Police Squad!, comedy writer Alan Spenser sought to do the same with Sledge Hammer!. David Rasche stars as the titular Inspector Sledge Hammer, a cop who’s motto is to “shoot first and ask questions never.” Along with his more level-headed partner, Detective Dori Doreau, Hammer would spend each week solving cases, though this typically meant causing immense, unneeded property damage before ultimately cracking the case due most often to an unexpected streak of luck. Though it only lasted two seasons (and, as evidenced by the infamous Season One finale, even that was a major surprise to the creative team), the show eventually found international success in syndication, lending credence to the idea that the Hammer probably had a few more years of hilarious ineptitude left in him.—Mark Rozeman

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