10 TV Cop Shows That Changed the Medium


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If you want to succeed as a drama on American TV, you better be a cop, doctor, or lawyer. The rules are a little different for sitcoms, but when it comes to the straight-up, hour-long programming that you can find anywhere on the dial, most of it's about one of those three professions. It's easy see why, too: those jobs deal with high-stakes, high-reward lifestyles that are foreign and exciting to most viewers, especially the cop shows. The paradox is that the popularity of those series means that the market gets flooded with them and they wind up becoming less exciting or interesting to the casual viewer, so that it takes a special type of show to break through. There have been hundreds of TV series about police over the years, but only a few have really had an impact on the medium of TV itself and changed the way we tell these stories.

  1. Miami Vice: Cheesy? Kind of. (Well, OK, actually it was pretty cheesy.) But past the wicker shoes, neon jackets, and pet crocodiles, Miami Vice was the cop show that dragged the medium into the modern era. The myth of the show's creation is well-documented: NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff hit upon the phrase "MTV cops," which eventually led to Anthony Yerkovich creating the show with a heavy injection of style and tone from producer Michael Mann. The show focused on the drug trade running through Florida and did it with a fantastic eye for color and photography; unlike many other cop shows, the environment itself was a living, breathing character. It's impossible to imagine the show existing in any other era than its 1984-1990 run. This clip from the pilot, set to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," says it all:
  2. Hill Street Blues: Before Miami Vice, Yerkovich worked as a writer and producer for another seminal cop drama, Hill Street Blues. Created by Steven Bochco (another name who'll pop up several times on this list), the show ran from 1981-1987 and debuted to stellar reviews but horrible ratings, earning a then-record eight Emmys for its first season that helped it survive for another year. One of the biggest storytelling innovations that the series brought to the genre was the way stories didn't always resolve at the end of the episode. Sure, many of them did, but there were just as many plot lines devoted to the personal lives of the police officers that carried over from week to week, creating a series that straddled the line between disposable procedural stories and serialized drama. Hill Street Blues introduced viewers to the gritty cop drama viewed through the lens of character relationships, not just heroes and villains.
  3. Crime Story: The success of Miami Vice let Michael Mann call his shots at NBC, and he used that power to produce Crime Story, a modern noir set in the early 1960s that ran for two seasons beginning in 1986. Created by a former Chicago detective and a former investment banker, the show was one of the first heavily serialized crime dramas on network TV. As the story unfolded, the location moved from Chicago to Las Vegas, which Mann and others intentionally did in order to give the show a sense of scope and length. Far from offering weekly villains and pat lessons, Crime Story was ahead of its time in its weekly portrayal of a band of detectives battling it out with organized crime, and though the description and execution sound familiar to today's viewers, you have to remember this was years before anyone every dreamed of mounting shows like The Wire or The Shield. This was also network television, which still takes far fewer risks than cable.
  4. The Shield: Speaking of The Shield: it's impossible to talk about police dramas without mentioning this show, which was FX's first foray into original drama. Premiering in 2002, the series was inspired by the scandal in the late 1990s that revealed widespread corruption in an LAPD anti-gang unit. As such, The Shield was a pioneer among cop shows for blurring the line between good and bad. Good dramas always recognize that bad guys don't set out to be bad, they merely act out of narrow self-interest. But The Shield pushed that even further by making its cops, led by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), employ a variety of morally questionable methods to achieve their own ultimately legal ends. It's the kind of series that could only really happen on cable, and its influence has trickled down to other shows in its wake.
  5. NYPD Blue: Co-created by Steven Bochco (of Hill Street Blues) and David Milch (who would go on to create Deadwood), NYPD Blue just about dominated the 1990s. It was a top 20 show in its first seven seasons, and it stayed in the top 50 (with a brief dip to 51) for the rest of its run. The show relied heavily on its ensemble cast to carry the stories, and it was also revolutionary for the way it pushed the envelope of network decency with stories and scenes that dealt frankly with sexuality and language. This show is the reason some people with too much free time got together to form the Parents Television Council and complain about episodes they were sure had corrupted America beyond repair. Bochco's drama was a provocative, personal one that dug even deeper into the lives of the officers than Hill Street Blues had done, and it earned its place as a modern classic.
  6. The First 48: This isn't a typical cop show. In fact, it's a reality show. Yet it's not a reality show in the fake-reality sense of real housewives and celebrity dating; it's an actual documentary series that follows real homicide detectives as they work to catch killers. Taking its title from the maxim that a detective's chance of solving a case decreases dramatically if they don't have a lead or suspect within the first 48 hours after a murder is committed, the show is a stripped-down approach to storytelling that's refreshing in its honesty. Aside from genre-standard music cues and cliffhanger moments, the series focuses on the daily grind of casework that gets thrown at homicide detectives in cities like Miami, Baltimore, and Dallas. It's arguably the best non-fiction cop show ever made. Yes, better than Cops. It's that good.
  7. The Fugitive: The original 1960s version of The Fugitive gets overlooked thanks to the (admittedly awesome) film version from 1993, with all the attention going to jokes about the one-armed man. But the TV series was a fantastic mix of the anthology series of the time and the far-sighted police serials that would come later. Richard Kimble's medical knowledge and fugitive status kept him on the run and meeting new characters week to week, but the overall premise allowed for series-long continuity in a way that was totally fresh for 1963. The rarely seen one-armed man only appeared in a few episodes, but the series was still a pop culture phenomenon. The second half of the series finale, airing in 1967, was the most popular TV episode ever broadcast at the time and was watched by half of all U.S. households with a TV. Not bad at all.
  8. Homicide: Life on the Street: Created by Paul Attanasio in the early 1990s, Homicide: Life on the Street was a modestly rated but critically adored cop show on NBC based on reporter David Simon's nonfiction bestseller about a year spent shadowing the murder police of Baltimore. Although mishandled at the time by the network (which aired episodes out of order), the show earned praise for its bracing story lines about the cost of doing good and the phenomenal acting from leads Andrew Braugher and Kyle Secor. The series was the most starkly realistic to date, opting for washed-out color palettes and stories that often ended in unsolved cases. The show built on the legacy of series like Hill Street in its multilayered portrayal of a squad room, but it went a step further in its commitment to realism and authenticity. It was rewarded for its efforts with trophies from the Television Critics Association, three separate Peabody Awards (a first for a TV drama), and a cult fan base.
  9. Law & Order: There have been seveal spin-offs of varying quality and even an attempt at a cross-country reboot, but the original Law & Order was a standard-setter in police procedurals. Episodes touched occasionally on the personal lives of the cops and prosecutors involved in whatever case was up that week, but for the most part the series stuck to its anthology set-up, bringing in new killers and victims every hour. Even the revolving door of officers and lawyers couldn't stop the juggernaut of the show, which ran for 20 seasons and more than 450 episodes before calling it quits. This is the series that cleared the way for the CSI and NCIS franchises, but no other show will ever have the cultural resonance of the flagship Law & Order. It was tightly polished, well executed, and rock-solid TV.
  10. The Wire: The success of Homicide gave David Simon the experience and opportunity to try The Wire at HBO, and as many critics and viewers attest, he created what might be the best television show ever made. The first season is a rich, dense story of a special task force in the Baltimore PD that's targeting the local drug trade, and Simon would've had something great on his hands if that's all he ever did. But The Wire, like others before it, looked beyond the lives of the officers to tell stories about the drug dealers, neighborhood children, homeless citizens, school teachers, politicians, and other residents of Baltimore with a breadth and ambition that united all the stories into one sweeping epic about a modern American city in decline. Simon's show is anything but a typical cop show, but it would be nothing without the police who drive the stories and investigate the drug kingpins, street thugs, and killers that are threatening to take Baltimore past the point of no return. Along with the others on this list, the show charted new ground in police dramas and forever changed the way we watch them.
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