Though we’re a booky bunch here on Crime Fiction Lover, we do love watching crime dramas and cop shows on TV. All the better if they’re written by leading crime authors. So we decided to pool our brain power and choose the best crime shows of all time. All our contributors have taken part in the process, which has gone through several rounds of voting as the long list was chopped back to a top 20.
It went right down to the wire as our writers debated which programmes stand head and shoulders above the rest. No, Magnum PI didn’t make the list, and we’re sure you have favourites of your own that we’ve neglected, but here goes with Crime Fiction Lover’s choices…
Note: we compiled our list just before the excellent True Detective began airing in the UK, but see our more recent listing of the top shows of 2014 here. You may also like our Top 20 classic crime movies feature here.
20 – The Shield (2002-08)
The Shield features a group of detectives called the Strike Team, an anti-gang unit, led by Detective Vic Mackey and based on the LAPD’s real-life Rampart Division CRASH unit. The nefarious and illegal actions of the Strike Team, maintaining control of the streets and accruing financial gain through these activities, are at the heart of this violent and confrontational piece of crime drama. As Mackey’s team struggles to evade the scrutiny of a succession of police bosses, The Shield also has a great ensemble cast of police officers with their own day-to-day investigations, and a number of compelling subplots arising from these characters. Uncompromising, gritty and a grim portrayal of the real life behind the glitz of Los Angeles.
The Shield: Complete Seasons 1-7 on DVD
19 – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
One of the oldest shows on this list, this BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War novel is still essential viewing 35 years after it was first broadcast. It’s an absorbing, labyrinthine story about a mole at the heart of the Circus (as MI6 operatives describe the organisation) who’s being run by the Russians. The title refers to the code names of the suspects in this espionage whodunit, which is all the better for its reliance on tense, talky scenes rather than elaborate action sequences. Alec Guinness’s masterful performance as George Smiley, the enigmatic spy who’s hunting the mole, lingers long in the memory after the credits. It was followed by an equally gripping adaptation of Smiley’s People in 1982.
DVD Double Pack
18 – Breaking Bad (2008-13)
There’s a reason why everybody’s been talking about Breaking Bad for the last few years. The drama about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turns to dealing crystal meth is audacious, addictive TV. Partnering with a former pupil, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) uses his scientific expertise to develop an almost pure product. He only intended to make enough money to provide for his family, but Walt’s anger at his death sentence awakens his inner gangster. He likes drug dealing and is good at it. Walt even seems to be effective at motivating his dodgy lawyer, greedy drug kingpins and junkie associates. The problem is that his brother-in-law is a senior officer in the Drug Enforcement Administration. Over five series, this brilliant cat and mouse family crime drama will have you rooting for the bad guy all the way.
Watch on Amazon Prime
Breaking Bad: The Complete Series on DVD
17 – Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99)
Fans of television crime today may not realise the debt the genre owes to a show called Homicide: Life on the Street. As the edgy successor to Hill Street Blues, Homicide brought a new level of gritty, almost documentary realism shot on location on the mean streets of Baltimore. Its TV-vérité style was enhanced by authentic banter, the chemistry between partners, and the open moral dilemmas that lurked behind each closed case. The show, which is a love letter to Baltimore, was developed by native son Barry Levinson. With its big team of detectives – all strong characters dealing with the job at hand – Homicide helped the cop show evolve as a serious dramatic medium.
Homicide: Life on the Street on DVD
16 – Edge of Darkness (1985)
Margaret Thatcher’s Britain is a hotbed of political bitterness and industrial disputes. When the activist daughter of Yorkshire copper Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) is murdered, he sets out to discover why. He uncovers a conspiracy involving the nuclear industry and high level figures in the government. There’s a mythic element to this ecological thriller, in which the fate of humanity is at stake. Written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, the six-episode drama, with its iconic theme music by Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton, mesmerised viewers. It echoed growing public concern about multinational corporate greed, the environment, and duplicitous politicians. Apparently Troy Kennedy Martin – creator of 1960s police show Z-Cars and the screenwriter of The Italian Job – actually wanted Craven to transform into a tree at the end, but wiser heads prevailed.
Edge of Darkness on DVD
15 – Columbo (1968-78, 1989-2003)
Take an odd-looking man, a half smoked cigarillo and a dirty raincoat and what have you got? Discard any thoughts of sexual depravity – the man described is above reproach. He’s Lieutenant Columbo, for heaven’s sake! Brilliantly played by Peter Falk, Columbo was a star of 1970s telly and well beyond. Behind the shambling, scruffy exterior was a mind as sharp as a razor. Viewers and smug murderers alike cringe time and again at his catch-phrase: “Oh, just one more thing…’ Yet it’s a serious mistake to underestimate this disheveled Los Angeles version of Poirot – as many a paisley trousered and flares clad miscreant discovered at their peril. Peter Falk passed away in 2011 but reruns of his cases are still being broadcast to this day.
Columbo – The Complete Series on DVD
14 – Foyle’s War (2002-06)
Set during World War II but on the home front, this crime drama was first shown in 2002, and ran for six series. Created by Anthony Horowitz, it featured a taciturn English detective working in a south coast town. Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), is supported by two stalwarts. Driver Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) is straight out of Enid Blyton, and won the hearts of countless male viewers, while the dogged Sergeant Milner (Anthony Howell) overcomes his disability (he lost a leg in the Noway Campaign) to provide solid support for his boss. With near-faultless period detail the weekly crimes are nearly always related to wartime issues, such as desertion, the black market, and spying. According to sources, the series is set to continue at least into 2015.
Foyle’s War on DVD
13 – Wallander (2005-13)
The Swedish version of Wallander, with a distinctly doughty Krister Henriksson in the title role, was made over two seasons, each separated by a year. The episodes were based on plotlines created by Henning Mankell rather than his actual novels. A third series was created and aired in Sweden last year, and while the first episode was shown in UK cinemas in January 2013, the six episodes haven’t been shown on UK or US television as yet. We have that to look forward to. Although the same Swedish production team worked on both this and the British version (starring Kenneth Branagh), there is far less moodiness and fewer telegenic close-ups of the tortured detective staring across the flat landscape in the original version. Perhaps there was less need to pander to foreign expectations of Scandinavian doom and gloom, so it is a much more straightforward police procedural, with the Swedish Wallander able to inject a note of (admittedly, fierce) humour into the grim proceedings. Understated, and dry, the crimes committed – and their consequences – speak for themselves, and that’s what makes Wallander so wonderful. There are also nine Wallander films starring Rolf Lassgärd, made between 1994 and 2007, which are worth watching, but lack the delightfully dour atmosphere of the Henriksson episodes.
Wallander – Collected Films 1-7 on DVD
12 – Life on Mars (2006-07)
A winning mix of time travel and police procedural, Life on Mars burst onto our screens in 2006 with the screeching tyres of a Mark 3 Ford Cortina and became a huge TV hit. It starred John Simm as Sam Tyler, a modern day Manchester police officer who is badly injured in a car accident and wakes to find himself back in 1973. How times have changed! Gone are the politically correct investigations of the early 21st century, to be replaced by the near the knuckle crime fighting of Gene Hunt, brilliantly played by Philip Glenister. Their approach to police work is worlds apart, leading to some fine clashes of culture. As the series ended, viewers still didn’t know whether Sam was dead, in a coma, or really had been transported back to the 1970s. A classic. And it was followed by another in the second series, Ashes to Ashes.
Life on Mars on DVD
11 – Hill Street Blues (1981-87)
Hill Street Blues was without doubt the definitive 1980s American cop show, and introduced the police procedural storytelling format to television. Though the setting is never specified – the fictional location has characteristics of Chicago, New York, Boston and several other places – it’s based around the Hill Street precinct and features Captain Frank Furillo. He commands an extensive cast of detectives, usually working in teams and solving various crimes in parallel through each episode. These range from murders and drugs and gang crime, to accidental deaths and crimes of passion. Though never credited, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of crime novels was a huge source of inspiration for Steve Bochco and the writing team on Hill Street Blues – a point McBain repeatedly made in interviews. Mike Post’s theme tune still brings a tear to the eye…
Hill Street Blues – Season 1 on DVD
10 – Prime Suspect (1991-2006)
Created by Lynda La Plante, the show broke on an unsuspecting British TV audience in 1991. Sunday nights were never quite the same again. Trading on the potent format of the mini-series – two or three long episodes on consecutive evenings – the stories featured DCI Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren, who was supported by a stellar cast of British character actors such as Tom Bell and Frank Finlay. Tennison has to battle not only her own personality problems, but sexist colleagues in the Metropolitan Police and some of the nastiest criminals ever to be beamed into our homes. Most of the series is set in London, but in the fifth season she heads to Manchester to break down a Northern gangster. Prime Suspect: The Final Act was the seventh and final season, and was broadcast in 2006. Lynda La Plante won an Edgar award for her work on Prime Suspect, and continues to be a successful crime novelist. She also contributed to the less successful American spin-off shown in 2010-11.
Prime Suspect on DVD
9 – CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000- )
Within two years of its launch, CSI was the most watched show in the US. This was not because of how accurately it portrayed the forensic detective work carried out by Gil Grissom and his team of techs, but because of the drama surrounding the crimes they solved. Some very slick production techniques helped too, giving the show strong recurring visual motifs. The original series takes place in Las Vegas, mainly at night, as we learn from the LVPD’s crime lab technicians while they lecture on GSR, DNA, exit wounds and ballistic striations in the course of their investigations. Powerful stories in Las Vegas like the Miniature Killer and later on The Dick and Jane Killer have not quite been replicated in CSI:NY and CSI:Miami though these spin-offs do carry the original’s strong visual qualities. William Peterson as Grissom was replaced firstly with Laurence Fishburne as Ray Langston, and most recently by Ted Danson as DB Russell, leading the CSI team.
CSI Season 1
8 – Justified (2010- )
Since the earliest days of silent movies, audiences have been intrigued by the battle between good and evil. Jump to the present day and the fight continues in rural Kentucky, where US Marshall Raylan Givens – played by Timothy Olyphant – is battling to keep the peace. His main antagonist is the brilliantly nasty Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). The pair have been friends since childhood and worked together in the mines – and that history is always going to muddy the waters further in a bloody, hard-hitting and thoroughly enjoyable series which was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole, and the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap.
Justified – Seasons 1-4 on DVD
7 – The Killing (2007-12)
Forbrydelsen – Danish for ‘the crime’ – is the police procedural series created by Soren Sveistrup called The Killing in the English speaking world. It is predominantly responsible for the current obsession with foreign language crime drama, and has also helped reshape the look and feel of contemporary British crime drama. Three series have been shot, all set in Copenhagen and its environs. The stories revolve around detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) and her team, with each series following a different murder case day-by-day via one-hour episodes. The gradual and in-depth approach draws audiences in far more than the one-and-done approach so typical of British and American shows. With its cold, damp and gritty atmosphere, it’s the archetypal Scandinavian crime show. Woven through with the socio-political machinations in Danish society, and with the brilliant but detached Lund at its centre, The Killing has proved itself both influential and completely mesmerising. All three series have been novelised by David Hewson. An American remake set in the Pacific Northwest lasted for three seasons as well.
The Killing – Series 1-3 on DVD
6 – Spiral (2005- )
Like The Killing, Spiral delivers tension, a strong female lead, and subtitles. It’s also a show which, across four seasons so far, has been brave enough to tackle the hot issues of contemporary French society including immigration, terrorism, human trafficking, police violence and corruption at all levels of the justice and political system. Viewers get to follow the entire criminal justice process with the police, lawyers and prosecutors working together – and sometimes against one another. The recurring characters are all very vividly portrayed, complex and each of them is flawed to a certain extent. Forceful Captain Laure Berthaud leads a team that includes the reckless Gilou, more conventional Tintin, self-serving lawyer Josephine Karlsson, increasingly disenchanted Assistant Prosecutor Clément, and cynical Judge Roban. A fifth series is currently being filmed, while a sixth one has been commissioned.
Spiral – Series 1-4 on DVD
5 – Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)
Devotees of the great Baker Street detective will argue, so long as they have breath, about who brought him to screen life with the most conviction. The current fad might favour Benedict Cumberbatch, but here at Crime Fiction Lover we believe that the best was Jeremy Brett. Pensive, idiosyncratic, alternately moody and manic, he played the part on British television between 1984 and 1994. His acid-tinged voice, facial tics and physical presence made his Holmes one which will never be bettered. There were 41 episodes, in which David Burke played Watson for the first 13, while the remainder saw Edward Hardwicke as the faithful friend. The stories were all canonical, and the series was notable not only for the superb period detail, but for the fact that such acting luminaries as Jude Law, Charles Gray and Eric Porter were happy to take featured roles. More than worthy of a top five position.
Sherlock Holmes on DVD
4 – Cracker (1993-95)
These days he’s best known as Hagrid in the Harry Potter series of films, but to a whole generation of TV viewers, Robbie Coltrane is Fitz, a criminal psychologist with more problems than most of the people he profiles. Created by television writer extraordinaire Jimmy McGovern, Fitz is a chain smoking alcoholic, who is also overweight, lazy, addicted to gambling and prone to expansive swearing. Nevertheless, he became a huge and unforgettable favourite with the viewing public. The series’ tour de force came in 1994 with To Be a Somebody, starring Robert Carlyle as a Liverpool supporter who survived Hillsborough but is driven over the edge of reason by the death of his father.
Cracker on DVD
3 – Inspector Morse (1987-2000)
Twelve years elapsed between the first Inspector Morse book (1975) and the beginning of what must be regarded as one of the most memorable TV crime series. While his character gripped the British public, author Colin Dexter continued working as an Oxford exams officer and crossword compiler. Some marriages are made in heaven, and when the intellectual, opera-loving real ale buff Morse – played by John Thaw – first hit the screen alongside his dependable but limited offsider Lewis (Kevin Whately), a legend was born. The Oxford settings, the brilliant musical score, carefully measured storylines and the legion of great supporting actors have made this TV series virtually immortal.
Inspector Morse: The Complete Series on DVD
2 – The Bridge (2011- )
Just when you thought it was safe to discard your Killing-style Scandinavian jumpers, you will be tempted to put on leather trousers and a long coat to imitate the (literally) effortless style of Malmo detective Saga Norén in this Danish-Swedish collaboration. Saga seems to have Asperger syndrome or autism, is extremely literal, and simply can’t read people. Her intelligence and focus on procedure makes her an excellent detective. Meanwhile, her Copenhagen counterpart Martin Rohde is almost too sociable and emotional. Together they make a formidable and often very funny team. As they tackle crimes which cross the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, the stories take plenty of time to unfold and breathe – 10 episodes for each of the two seasons broadcast so far. They’re full of twists that lead viewers down many deadly false paths. A third series is about to go into production, much to our relief. Excellent viewing, and bizarre theme music.
The Bridge on DVD
1 – The Wire
Like a modern day Homer’s Odyssey of American crime, The Wire revealed itself as a sharp, knowing, and compelling portrayal of Baltimore. Once home to Edgar Allen Poe, today it’s a city in the grip of social deprivation. Political corruption reaches from the police force itself, through the drug gangs, and on to the labour unions. Even the city’s dysfunctional and underfunded school system is beset. From its original inception by journalist David Simon, and bolstered by the incomparable screenwriting of crime authors like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, The Wire presented an unwavering portrayal of a city in meltdown with a cast of characters almost Dickensian in their representation of all sides of this divided society. It is widely held to be the greatest cop show that goes beyond being just a cop show. And, it’s our number one crime show too.
The Wire on DVD
What are your all-time favourite TV crime shows? Let us know in the comments below. And if you like our list also see our top 12 private detectives in crime fiction feature. Our favourite shows of 2014 can be found here.