Of all the television genres, the detective shows are my favorite. A well-written crime drama keeps us on the edge of our seats for the entire show. Dick Wolf, creator of the “Law & Order” empire, has it down to an art form. There are only a few others that made my list of the best detective TV shows in history. By the way, these are listed in no particular order.
The writing and acting on “Law & Order” has combined to make this TV franchise the best of the best for detective shows. On this original drama the detectives of the NYC police department were only the focus of half the show, but still managed to be the best. Actors Jerry Orbach, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Chris Noth had us rooting for them weekly, even after 20 long seasons. The “ripped from the headlines” stories often gave us the justice we hoped for in reality, but rarely get. The detectives, even through a myriad of actor changes, remained real in appearances right to the end of the series.
Over the course of 11 years (and still going strong), we’ve grown fond of all of the detectives of the NYC Special Victim’s Unit. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) lead the charge against the worst sexual predators on the streets. Every actor on the show looks like they belong inside this unit of TV cops. If you can make me like Richard Belzer (as Detective Munch) for this long, you must have a well written show.
“Law&Order: Criminal Intent”
Focusing strictly on the detectives of the Major Case department, Criminal Intent took Law & Order even deeper into the investigations and how crimes are plotted. It was obvious from the start that Detectives Goram (VIncent D’Onofrio) and Eames (Kathryn Erbe) were going to be popular. The same “ripped from the headlines” writing has intertwined in all the Law & Order series. We can only hope that the worst criminals are facing the wrath of this type of detective work.
The first detective tv show to have a male “butt shot” may have been what made NYPD Blue famous, it was the writing that kept us coming back every week. Detectives Sipwitz (Dennis Franz) and Detective Kelly (David Caruso). Many thought the show was in jeopardy after the removal of Caruso’s character, but when Jimmy Smits stepped in as Detective Simone the following grew. This show reminds me of the detectives on the original Law & Order in long form. With the entire hour dealing strictly with the daily lives of the characters.
“Cagney & Lacey”
Cagney & Lacey was one of the few cops TV shows that featured a female detective team. It worked well. Though ratings seemed a bit meager to the network, fans managed to bring back the show after an early cancellation. That was quite a feat since this was long before the Internet. You really had to care about the show and its characters to sit down and write a letter to the network powers. We got to know the personal lives of Detectives Christine Lacey (Sharon Glass) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly). I’m usually not concerned with the home drama, but it worked well to show the stress of daily life as a female detective trying to work and manage a family.
America’s original favorite TV detective show is still fun to watch in reruns. Frumpy Detective Columbo (Peter Falk) worked primarily on his own to solve crimes. It worked perfectly since Falk played the role so well. Never rough with suspects, Columbo simply did his job. He solved crimes, period. He also managed to make us laugh… at the criminals.
The dryness of Detectives Joe Friday (Jack Web) and his partners showed the seriousness of this fledgling TV genre. Though it was out in the 50’s, Dragnet continues to be one of the most loved detective shows. Created and directed by Web, the show was as dramatic as the television audience would allow at that time.
The first real bad boy TV detective show featured Lt. Kojak (Telly Savalis). Think The Shield before there was cable. This was the show in the late 70’s that my mom had a hard time letting me watch. Kojak always walked the fine line of good cop, and often slipped to the other side. He was never dirty in the sense that he was a bad cop, but his hands were never quite clean. Kojak was the kind of cop you were happy to have on the streets, even if you had to look the other way a lot of times.
“Streets of San Fransisco”
The young, good looking Inspector Steve Keller (Michael Douglas) under the supervision of veteran Detective Lt. Mike Stone (Carl Malden) were a perfect fit for “The Streets of San Fransisco.” When Keller wanted to be brutal, Stone would show him how to do his job “the right way”. Both cops had the right idea, and worked amazingly together to solve the cases.
I know they aren’t actually detectives, they are FBI agents. Simply put, “Criminal Minds” is the best written cop drama on TV today. Hunting the absolute worst criminals, serial killers, the team at the BAU (Behavioral Analysis Unit) invite us in once a week. The season cliff hangers have featured the scariest killers allowed on prime time including “The Reaper” and “The Prince of Darkness”. If you are looking for a new TV cop show to watch, this is the one to tune into on CBS.
For this list I used detective shows that aired on broadcast TV, where everyone could watch them weekly for free. While there are some detective shows on cable stations that were long running and still going, such as “The Shield,” they could not be viewed by all people due to content. The cops shows listed here all managed to produce quality while adhering to the strict standards of the major networks.