The 40 Greatest Cop Shows of All Time

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10. NYPD Blue
Original Run: 1993-2005
Creator: Steven Bochco, David Milch

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Detective Andy Sipowicz. That’s really all you need to know about NYPD Blue. In the recovering alcoholic who suffered more than Job, Dennis Franz created one of television’s best and most iconic characters. By the end of the series’ 12-season run, Sipowicz could have spent an entire episode saying nothing at all, and we still would have known exactly what he was thinking. The landmark series may be remembered for pushing the boundaries of network television (hello, naked behinds!) or for how David Caruso infamously departed the series after the first season, but its true genius was in the way that it seamlessly and authentically interwove the characters’ personal lives with the cases they were investigating. While watching, we felt immersed in the 15th precinct. Gritty, heartbreaking, thought-provoking and, at times, hilarious, the series set the bar high for all cop dramas that would follow. If you can only watch one episode, I would direct you to “Heart and Souls,” which aired November 24, 1998 and is one of the finest episodes ever about death. I still get chills thinking about it.—Amy Amatangelo

9. Fargo
Original Run: 2014-present
Creator: Noah Hawley

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This series pulled off the nearly impossible—evoking the spirit and tone of the Academy Award winning film of the same name, while bringing an entirely new setting and characters to life. Elegantly violent and set against the freezing snow, Fargo explored the resounding effects of a seemingly innocent man when the evil lurking inside of him is unleashed. In its first season, there was a lot of talk about the fabulous performances from Billy Bob Thorton as the truly horrific Lorne Malvo and Martin Freeman as the lifelong loser, Lester Nygaard. But it was Allison Tolman as Detective Molly Solverson who stole the show—quietly, firmly, determined to solve the crime and not be defeated when everyone told her she was wrong. Currently in its second season with a whole new setting and cast of characters, Fargo is thrilling and delighting viewers all over again.—Amy Amatangelo

8. Luther
Original Run: 2010-2015
Creator: Neil Cross

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Idris Elba kicks ass and pays the consequences as an emotionally damaged police officer who can’t leave his work at the office. “You care about the dead more than the living,” John Luther’s estranged wife accuses him. And she’s right—the detective chief inspector is consumed by his cases, and a months-long suspension seems to have done little good for his mental health. Luther is nothing short of mesmerizing, slicing through suspects with the angry efficiency of a man on the brink. His already tenuous grasp on civility and basic sanity is tested further by the mind games of a woman (The Affair’s Ruth Wilson, seductive and threatening), he knows to have killed her own parents. Psychological sparring aside, this is Elba’s show, so white-hot is Luther in his rage and determination to overcome it. “Do you not worry you’re on the devil’s side without even knowing it?” wonders the tormented cop. Luther’s dread is palpable—and contagious.—Amanda Schurr

7. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Original Run: (1999-present)
Creator: Dick Wolf

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The first spin-off of Law & Order is so shamelessly its best—the only remaining member of the Law & Order family still on the air and arguably the only reason why Ice-T still has a job. The tropes here, a constellation unto itself, a universe of infinite drinking games, are legion—from the hilarious seething of the dearly missed Elliott Stabler (Christopher Meloni), to the lifelong travails of the forever-strong Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), the characters who day in and day out must endure the depravity of New York City’s never-ending parade of perverts are each a shell of barely contained emotion, be it rage, or trauma, or some viscous, volatile mixture of the two. This is to be expected: the show’s most surprising strength is its continuing desire to push past every overused archetype or narrative crutch to return, again and again, to the psyches of the people whose whole lives are filled with such intense tragedy. The main characters of Law & Order: SVU aren’t necessarily broken people—they’re just people who’ve broken so many times they’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel put-together again. They’re also people who once had to square off against Robin Williams in an episode where he was pretty much like the Riddler on Ritalin. It was, as you can guess, the kind of TV for which TV was invented.—Dom Sinacola

6. Homicide: Life on the Street
Original Run: 1993-1999
Creator: Paul Attanasio

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Following on the heels of Hill Street Blues, Homicide sought to provide a no-frills, quasi-documentary look into the chaotic, often morally questionable world of law enforcement via the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Division. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by David Simon (future creator of The Wire), the show embraced the bleak realities of police work more than any program that had preceded it—whether it be the sheer amount of cases the department must handle, the psychological toll “The Job” take on its investigators or, most shockingly, the fact that many episodes failed to result in anything approaching a happy ending. Despite low ratings in its early days as well as a notable quality drop-off in its latter years, Homicide managed to last for seven season and remains an essential bastion of quality American television. —Mark Rozeman

5. Justified (2010-2015)
Original Run: 2010-2015
Creator: Graham Yost

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In many ways, Justified is as much a Classic Western as a crime drama, with Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens serving as the standard Quickest Draw in the Land who rides into a lawless town (in this case, Harlan, Kentucky) with the intention of cleaning things up. And while the show’s ambitions were never close to that of its more prestigious peers (i.e. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones), its execution was rarely anything less than pitch perfect. When they weren’t orchestrating exciting shoot-outs and chase sequences, the show’s creative team would construct equally enthralling scenes of crackling, rich dialogue being delivered by an assortment of some of the best character actors in the business (Margot Martindale, Neal McDonough, Sam Elliott to name but a few). The heart of the show, however, remained the dynamic between Raylan and his longtime frenemy Boyd Crowder (a perfectly cast Walton Goggins). Though the show was not without its occasional creative stumbles, by the time the series finale aired earlier this year, it had become readily clear that this would be a show for the history books. —Mark Rozeman

4. Hill Street Blues
Original Run: 1981-1987
Creator: Steven Bochco, Michael Kozoll

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In many ways, the 1980s served as the coming-of-age period for TV crime dramas. With its handheld, cinema verite-style camerawork, widespread incorporation of slang and large ensemble cast, Hill Street Blues marked the first shot fired in what would become an artistic revolution. Centering on a single police station in an unspecified city, the show combined the grittiness of ’70s crime thrillers with the loose, natural feel of a Robert Altman production. In the process, it became a defining example for how TV could equal the scope and depth of cinema. Homicide: Life on the Streets, Law & Order, NYPD: Blue, The Shield, The Wire—all owe at least partial debt to the foundation laid down by the men and women of Hill Street.—Mark Rozeman

3. True Detective Season One
Original Run: 2014
Creator: Nic Pizzolatto

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So, the second outing on HBO’s anthology crime show kind of sucked. Big deal. Don’t let that color your perception of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s and Nic Pizzolatto’s incredibly excellent first season, which remains incredibly excellent, as well as unabashedly outre, no matter how bad Colin Farrell’s mustache was in the second. True Detective feels like the pinnacle of television’s golden age. It’s a show that attracted the talents of Matthew McConaughey, who won himself a Best Actor trophy at the Oscars months after the series’ premiere, and Woody Harrelson, the bridesmaid to McConaughey’s bride; it also boasted an incredible sense of craftsmanship on a technical level and leaned on such richly, willfully weird writing that you could probably absorb multiple viewings of Season One, and experience a different take away each time. If you like your cop yarns morally murky and narratively ambiguous, morals and narratives don’t tend to get murkier or more ambiguous than this. Who walks into a series about bad men keeping other bad men in check and expects it to play around in Lovecraft’s eldritch sandbox? More than anything else—more than its violent, graphic content, more than its incredible aesthetic value, more than Rust Cohle’s severely depressing philosophical ramblings—that’s what makes the cardinal season of True Detective so outrageously great, and why the show belongs on this list, even if this year’s follow-up proved to be outrageously doltish.—Andy Crump

2. The Shield
Original Run: 2002-2008
Creator: Shawn Ryan

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?Shawn Ryan’s cop drama masterpiece premiered on FX a few months before David Simon’s cop drama masterpiece premiered on HBO. Years later, if you ask anybody which cop drama masterpiece they believe to be the Greatest Of All Time™, they’ll probably say The Wire. That’s fine—The Wire’s laurels are well-earned—but give a little more consideration to The Shield, too, huh? In many ways, The Shield is The Wire’s equal. In some, it is superior; a vivid, graphic entertainment that’s no less profound than Simon’s musings on Baltimorean crime and punishment. The Shield is grimdark stuff from back before “grimdark” became de rigeur in our pop cultural diet; there are no straight-up good guys or bad guys here, just good guys who occasionally do bad things and bad guys who occasionally do good things. The series is fueled by enough doom to make the Bard himself crack a wry smile, and it’s loaded with dubious morality. We were caught in the thrall of Vic Mackey’s reckless, self-serving corruption long before Game of Thrones made character survivability a guessing game, and Breaking Bad made us root for ethically suspect protagonists. Most of all, though, The Shield put a spotlight on law enforcement malfeasance without irrevocably blurring the line between social critique and theatricalized excitement. (Also worth noting: The Shield isn’t the first TV show of its era to feature AMPAS-caliber talents in guest spots, but Forest Whitaker’s and Glenn Close’s roles on the show feel like a stepping stone to today’s atmosphere of televised prestige.)—Andy Crump

1. The Wire
Original Run: 2002-2008
Creator: David Simon

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It’s likely going to be a very long time before anyone conceives of and executes a show as great as The Wire. Until that happens, the HBO series will long be the gold standard for cop dramas, largely due to the fact that it was so much more than just a “cop drama.” Yes, we did see the inner workings of a police department in Baltimore trying desperately to rid their already broken streets of narcotics (or, as the forward-thinking Western District Captain Bunny Colvin did in Season Three, legalize it within one rundown square block of the city and contain the problem as best they could), but the show’s creator David Simon had a much bigger vision.

Through five seasons, he and his talented team of writers and directors tackled the social structures that were keeping the minority population of the city in a constant battle for survival, the plight of the working class stevedores navigating a corrupt business while trying to stay true to their roots, an education system whose sole goal was to push kids through with little concern for their future and a press that chased awards and circulation increases, as opposed to trying to be the voice of the city and its citizens.

And they did it while also giving us dozens of memorable characters, even more quotable lines, and offering up some small ray of hope that, as the saying goes, a small group of concerned citizens could, in fact, try to change the world. Yes, Colvin, McNulty, Prez, and Gus tended to fail more than they succeeded, but Simon wants us to applaud their efforts and hopefully inspire us to repair the structures in our society that, as we’ve seen of late, are still crumbling around us.—Robert Ham

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