TV crime dramas are some of the most enduring genres of entertainment on television. The stories typically involve the investigation of a crime — usually homicide. With a few of the series, there is also an element of the prosecutorial process included in the storyline.
Crime dramas have been part of television virtually since the beginning. The popularity of the genre has waxed and waned over the years. As with any type of entertainment, the genre has produced some great shows – and a few duds.
Several people have listed their favorite TV crime shows in blog posts. Often, such lists reflect the age of the author. That’s natural – we generally write about the familiar.
This is my list, which differs from some of the others in that I am of an age where I have personally viewed more than 60 years of crime dramas.
I have identified nine series which, to me, represent some of the best of TV crime drama. Because the nature of the shows varies dramatically, I found it difficult to truly identify a “favorite.” So for this article, I have listed the shows in the order that the series was first aired on television.
In the late 1940s, Jack Webb was a minor radio and film actor. In 1948, Webb had a small role as a police forensic scientist in the film He Walked by Night. He was so impressed with police procedure that he wanted to produce a radio show based on actual police cases. The result was Dragnet, which premiered on radio in 1948.
By 1951, the program was well established on radio, and Webb had achieved celebrity status for his portrayal of the taciturn Detective Sergeant Joe Friday. The leap from radio to television seemed natural, but Webb balked at playing the part of Friday in front of a camera. However, he was so well established in the part that NBC executives insisted that he continue.
The Most Famous
Dragnet is regarded as the most famous and influential police procedural drama in media history. The series gave audience members a feel for the boredom and drudgery, as well as the danger and heroism, of police work. Many police officers have described the job as “hours of sheer boredom punctuated by minutes of sheer terror.” Dragnet earned praise for improving the public opinion of police officers1.
Dragnet first aired on television on December 14, 1951, and continued until August 23, 1959. The 1953-54 season ranked as the #2 most popular show on television that year.
Webb revived the series in 1967. Although it continued until 1970, the new series lacked much of the dramatic punch of the earlier presentation.
Perry Mason (1957-1966)
This series was the most successful adaptation of the character of Perry Mason, a Los Angeles defense attorney. Author Erle Stanley Gardner created the character in 1933 and Mason appeared in 82 novels.
The TV series2, which ran from 1957 to 1966, featured Raymond Burr as Mason, Barbara Hale as secretary Della Street, and William Hopper as Mason’s investigator Paul Drake. William Talman appeared as district attorney Hamilton Burger (a name which always caused a chuckle), who never seemed to win a case against Mason.
Each episode centered on someone wrongfully arrested for a major crime and diligently defended by Mason. Episode titles always began with “The Case of …”. Examples included The Case of the Velvet Claws and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.
It was interesting that this series, which slightly overlapped Dragnet, took a nearly counter-point view. Whereas Dragnet highlighted the diligent work of the police to solve a crime and arrest the correct perpetrator, Perry Mason relied on routine police incompetence in locating valuable evidence.
In almost every case, it appeared that Mason’s client would be convicted. But Drake would uncover last-minute evidence that pointed to another perpetrator.
Despite the formulaic presentation of the series, I enjoyed the series. The courtroom scenes seemed well-presented, especially for television.
The F.B.I. (1965-1974)
This series, not to be confused with the 2018 series FBI, was the second major cinematic presentation of the work of the FBI. The first was a 1959 movie called The FBI Story starring James Stewart. In both instances, the FBI itself provided script support but also ensured that the presentation always put the FBI in a favorable light.
The TV series starred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Inspector Lewis Erskine3
As with Dragnet, The F.B.I. portrayed diligent investigators in dogged pursuit of criminals and tended to cast law enforcement in a good light.
At the time, I was considering a career in the FBI, so I found this series especially interesting.
This was another lawyer series, this time starring Andy Griffith as Atlanta lawyer Benjamin Matlock. The series was very similar in format to Perry Mason, although Mason usually got an admission of guilt from someone other than his client in the pre-trial phases of a prosecution. Matlock, on the other hand, usually obtained his witness-stand identification of ‘the real killer’ in front of a jury during the trial itself.
Matlock’s daughter, Charlene (Linda Purl), initially assisted with his cases. After the first season, ‘Charlene’ moved away to start her own law firm. Matlock’s friend, Michelle Thomas (Nancy Stafford) replaced her. In the final two seasons, Ben’s older daughter, LeAnn, became his law partner. Brynn Thayer played that part.
As with Perry Mason, Matlock had a trusted private investigator who helped him identify the true criminal. Across the nine seasons, Tyler Hudson (Kene Holliday), Conrad McMasters (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), Cliff Lewis (Daniel Roebuck), and Jerri Stone (Carol Huston) fulfilled this job.
Unlike Mason, Matlock had no grounding secretary except in the pilot.
Griffith played the part of Ben Matlock as a folksy and popular, albeit sometimes cantankerous attorney. This reflected Griffith’s own North Carolina upbringing. Conversely, Mason was more business-like in his approach, perhaps more true to his British Columbia, Canada childhood.
I particularly enjoyed this show for two reasons. First, I liked the way Andy Griffith played his characters, going back to No Time for Sergeants and The Andy Griffith Show. I also liked the way Matlock would often present himself as a bumbling attorney, thereby fooling a suspect into revealing himself. It was a touch of humor in a serious process.
Law & Order (1990-2010)
Although I mentioned at the top of this article that I had some problems identifying my favorite TV crime drama, Law & Order is near the top.
The series was set and filmed in New York City. It followed a two-part approach. In the initial segment, a crime (usually murder) occurs in Manhattan and New York Police (NYPD) detectives investigate. The second segment concentrates on the prosecution of the identified offender by attorneys of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
The cases featured on the show were often suggested by actual criminal cases, although the method and motivation might vary from the actual event.
Through the series run of 20 seasons, the characters changed – none of the initial characters stayed past the 10th season. As with any such long-running series, characters exhibited individual strengths and weaknesses in the role.
I discussed my thoughts on many of the principal characters featured throughout the series in a separate post.
While there were several good portrayals, I felt that Jerry Orbach’s portrayal of Detective Lennie Briscoe really hit the mark. Many others apparently felt the same way because when Orbach left the show in 20044, the ratings began a steady decline.
Mostly, I found this series to be very true-to-life in the way the detectives and prosecutors went about their jobs.
This series departed from the usual TV crime dramas in that it dealt with a criminal prosecutorial and defense unit’s work unknown to many Americans – the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the United States Navy. JAG attorneys both prosecute and defend military members – in this case, those of the Navy and Marine Corps – accused of a crime connected with their military duties. These crimes are prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which differs from normal civilian law and procedures.
The series starred David James Elliott as Harmon Rabb, Jr., a Navy lawyer. During the series, Rabb’s rank increased from Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander (for most of the series) to Commander.
The other principal characters were Catherine Bell as Marine Major Sarah MacKenzie, also a JAG lawyer; Patrick Labyorteaux as Lieutenant Budrick “Bud” Roberts, Jr., another JAG lawyer; and John M. Jackson as Admiral Albert Jethro “A.J.” Chegwidden, commander of the JAG Corps.
Like Law & Order, JAG used a “ripped from the headlines” format, which used actual cases involving Navy personnel, although the storyline often modified the facts.
I found this series most interesting because I had considered joining the U.S. Navy at one time in my life. The Vietnam War and other considerations changed my course – I served in the U.S. Army – but the series brought back some memories.
This series, involving the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, was a natural spin-off of JAG. In fact, the initial NCIS characters – notably Mark Harmon as Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, were introduced in JAG episodes.
Whereas the JAG Corps prosecutes and defends Navy and Marine personnel in criminal actions, NCIS agents investigate the incidents leading up to JAG’s court actions. NCIS can be compared to local detectives, and JAG is comparable to local district attorneys and defense attorneys.
One of NCIS‘s interesting aspects is that cases often have a crossover with civilian authorities – a U.S. Navy sailor accused of murdering a civilian, for example. The series does a good job of showing how these investigators sometimes have to work between the two justice systems – civilian criminal law and the UCMJ.
Harmon is the only NCIS character who has remained throughout the series, which is still in production. Other primary characters have included David McCallum as medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard. McCallum, known to many viewers as Illya Kuryakin from the 1960s series “Man from U.N.C.L.E,” appeared in credits of all shows since the beginning. However, McCallum did not appear in several shows in recent years.
Additional major characters have been Sean Murray as Special Agent Timothy McGee (still with the series), Cote de Pablo as Mossad Agent Ziva David, Michael Weatherly as Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, and Pauley Perrette as forensic technician Abby Sciuto.
NCIS has sparked two spin-offs of its own – NCIS-Los Angeles and NCIS-New Orleans. While I watch those, I don’t think either of the spin-offs is close to the original series’ quality. In particular, NCIS-Los Angeles spent a lot of time with their agents running all over the world combatting terrorism rather than the actual mission of handling cases involving Navy and Marine personnel in Southern California.
Criminal Minds (2005-2020)
Like many of the cases handled by the real BAU, Criminal Minds dealt with many truly evil people. Part of the series’ draw for some was in understanding the depths to which some human beings have sunk. That was also part of the turn-off for many.
The storylines also affected the cast. Lola Glaudini left the series after the first season, and Mandy Patinkin left at the start of Season 3. Patinkin specifically cited the disturbing content of the show as his reason for leaving.
The series garnered critical acclaim for its characterization, pacing, atmosphere, acting, directing, and writing. I agree that the series faithfully delved into some of the highly-disturbing cases, such as those handled by the BAU. However, there were times I felt that it was over gratuitous in its depiction of depravity.
Blue Bloods (2010-)
Blue Bloods centers on a tight-knit Irish Catholic Reagan family in New York who are all involved in the criminal justice system. The series explores this family’s dedication to the concept of justice and delves into the conflicts such dedication can create.
For example, Detective Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg) is a tough detective who sometimes bends the rules to get the bad guy, much to the consternation of his sister, Assistant District Attorney Erin Reagan (Bridget Moynahan). Sibling Jaime Reagan (Will Estes) is a uniformed patrol officer and later a sergeant who does his best to do the right thing. He also has occasional conflicts with his more seat-of-the-pants detective brother.
Police Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck), their father, is the head of the New York Police Department (NYPD). His father, Henry (Len Cariou), is a former NYPD Commissioner, so police service runs in the family.
One of the highlights of the series is the regular Sunday dinner, a mandatory gathering for all Reagan family members. Here, the members can relax away from their jobs, although sometimes the job does spill over to the dinner table. This is particularly true of the professional relationship between Danny and Erin.
There are some anomalies that I don’t understand. Frank Reagan is sometimes shown wearing a uniform with four stars as his rank. In reality, the New York Police Commissioner is not a sworn police officer, but rather a civilian head of the department. Therefore, he or she never wears a uniform. The four-star officer is called Chief of Department and is the senior uniformed officer in the NYPD, but subordinate to the commissioner. I’m not sure why the writers felt a need to put Frank Reagan into a police uniform from time to time.
Still, I feel the series accurately reflects some of the conflicts of being a police officer and some of the challenges of being a police chief. The series also explores some of the political conflicts of being a police chief. This is particularly true in a large city like New York but is a factor in police chiefs’ lives everywhere. Politicians often seek to bend the actions of the police to suit their own agenda.
Blue Bloods is still in production and it’s a show I enjoy watching each week.
What do you think about this list? Are any of your favorite TV crime dramas on it? What others do you enjoy?
Tell me in the comments below.
- Support for police wained in the 1960s after vivid images of police officers in the south attacking civil rights protestors appeared on television. However, the police retained political support. Public support reemerged in the 1980s and continued, with some ebbs and flows, until the early 21st century.
Then a series of police-involved shootings of African-Americans brought additional scrutiny of police. Political support wained as even the President of the United States began to question police actions publicly. By 2020, following two highly-publicized police-involved shootings in Minneapolis and Louisville, violent protests broke out in several cities. Politicians began considering defunding police departments – in some cases proposing total elimination of police and replacing them with unarmed social workers.
- This was the first of three television series about the character. Besides the 1957 version, there was a short-lived 1985 series featuring Monte Markham as Mason. In July 2020, HBO announced a continuing series that began as a special with Matthew Rhys in the title role.
- Typically, Inspectors in the FBI do not investigate cases. Most often, they review procedures of the field offices to ensure that they are following FBI policies. Inspectors actually outrank Supervisory Special Agents. Apparently, the producers wanted to portray the idea these cases were so important that they required investigation by a high-ranking agent.
- While the reason for Orbach’s departure was not revealed for several years, it eventually came out that he had been battling prostate cancer for nearly 10 years. Orbach died of cancer nine months after he left the show.
- I was particularly interested in this topic because as an instructor at the University of Louisville, I worked with a retired FBI agent who had been a member of the BAU. He taught me some of the basics of profiling, and my novel, “Ghost,” was based on one of the cases he used in his classes.