In light of my recent musings about El Chapo and the ever-shrinking gulf that separates fact from fiction in the real world, I thought I would visit the other side of the coin.
Here are my top 10 most favorite television crime series of all time.
Just to be clear, my definition of a “crime show,” is one in which crime is a central thematic element. Many shows of other genres will dabble in crime, but they are not the main emphasis. Also, programs such as Glee, Duck Dynasty, Grey’s Anatomy and Hardball with Chris Matthews don’t count. They may perpetrate crimes against society by their very existence, but they don’t use it as a fictional device on a regular basis. Well…Chris Matthews…never mind.
Here we go!:
#10. Perry Mason:
This is the pioneer of the television courtroom drama. Raymond Burr plays Perry Mason, a lawyer who will go the limit to defend his client, who is always innocent of the murder of which he/she is accused. Erle Stanley Gardner’s series of novels are vividly brought to life by Burr and company in all of their black-and-white glory. The first three seasons come closest to the spirit of the literary version, featuring Perry Mason as more of a renegade who is unafraid to skirt the boundaries of the law, thereby creating an adversarial relationship with Lt. Tragg and open hostility between Mason and D.A. Hamilton Burger. The show is formulaic; you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen’em all. Yet, there is no spectacle that is more entertaining than Perry Mason closing in on the real murderer in court.
Another literary adaptation, this one from the pen of Elmore Leonard. The series features Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, who is transferred to his home in Kentucky as punishment after the questionable shooting of a suspect. Raylan must contend with his violent past while chasing his childhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) along with an assortment of other colorful criminals. The series is uneven at times, but the joy comes in the off-beat dialogue and vast arrayed of characters that are so common to Leonard’s stories.
#8. Prime Suspect:
The only entry in the top 10 that comes to us from across the pond. This British series features Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison, a female cop who copes with sexism in the workplace while chasing serial killers, pedophiles and the like. Though feminism is a recurring theme throughout the series, it is not done to death. Tennison is not the minority super cop that you often see in Hollywood. Like her fictional male counterparts, she struggles with alcoholism and a damaged social life in the wake of her career, but at the end of the day, she is a talented cop who knows how to catch a bad guy.
This series is based on the Coen Brothers cult classic film from 1996. I found the movie to be cartoonish and farcical, but the TV series (while existing in the same universe) is a much more three-dimensional presentation. It is a limited series, meaning that each season is comprised of different characters from a different time period in the same setting.
Season one stars Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman. It concerns a sociopathic hit man who stops in a small town in Minnesota and has a chance encounter with a downtrodden businessman. Soon, bodies start falling and a local lady cop takes interest. The second season stars Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson and Jean Smart and concerns the war of two Midwestern crime syndicates and the subsequent police investigation in 1979.
The series features alternately dark, quirky humor and brutal violence, but at it’s heart are relatable, fully-realized characters.
6. The Shield:
“The road to justice is twisted.”
That is the tagline of The Shield, and it couldn’t be more apt. This police drama is anything but a procedural, featuring four crooked cops attached to an anti-gang squad in L.A. Michael Chiklis stars as Vic Mackey, a cop who has learned that street justice is far more effective than the law. If he and his partners can line their pockets along the way, so be it. But, as always, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
This series is known as the inverted detective mystery; you see the criminal commit the crime and then watch as the cop unravels his/her supposed perfect scheme. In this case, the cop is an unlikely hero; a diminutive slob who constantly wears a raincoat, smokes a cigar and is far less stupid and bumbling than he seems. Peter Falk plays Columbo to perfection and is always able to outwit those who think themselves superior. Some of his best foils include Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp and Leonard Nimoy. It’s also worth noting that the original movies that were featured as a part of the NBC Mystery Movie lineup in the 1970’s are the best. The revival movies that aired on ABC from 1989 through 2003 tend to play up Columbo’s eccentricities for comical effect and are therefore not as compelling.
#4. The Rockford Files:
From the ’50’s through the ’80’s, the television landscape was littered with private eye shows. The cream of the crop is Jim Rockford, played by James Garner. Rockford was a man wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison before receiving a full pardon. Jim decides to become a private detective as a means of balancing a flawed system. While other TV private eyes were consummate womanizers who drove fancy cars, dressed in smart suits and carried a gun, Jim was quite the opposite. He lived in a rundown trailer, hid a gun in his cookie jar, seldom wound up in bed with the woman of the case, lost more fistfights than he won and usually had a hard time getting his clients to pay his bill. The assets that carry Jim along are his charm and his brains. Garner’s likability, along with intelligent writing, are what make The Rockford Files a timeless classic.
#3. Homicide: Life on the Street:
The progenitor of the television police procedural is Dragnet. But if you ask me what the definitive cop show of all time is, I have to say, Homicide. It is adapted from David Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” It features the homicide squad of the Baltimore police department and chronicles the lives of the investigators as they go from one dead body to another. But it’s not merely about the solving of the case. Homicide takes an in-depth look at the cops who deal with man’s inhumanity to man on a daily basis and the toll that the job takes on them. The breakout star was Andre Braugher who played Frank Pembleton, a gifted cop who was a master at eliciting a confession from a suspect. Other noteworthy performances include Kyle Secor as Tim Bayliss, the troubled rookie of the unit, Melissa Leo as Kay Howard, the only female detective in the squad and Richard Belzer as John Munch. Yes, it’s the same Munch who later went on to Law & Order: SVU, though the Munch of Homicide is far more nuanced and funny than the later incarnation.
Sidebar: Katy, if you’re reading this, listen up. If there’s one show that I want you to watch and hope you’ll appreciate, it’s Homicide. If you’re not reading this…yer silly.
#2. The Sopranos:
A mafia boss starts having panic attacks, so he goes to a therapist to talk about his problems. And man, what problems he has! A nagging wife, spoiled kids, untrustworthy business associates, snooping FBI agents and worst of all…a vengeful mother who wants to see him dead. That’s a surface description of this groundbreaking epic. Beneath the surface, there is so much more. James Gandolfini does a masterful job of bringing Tony Soprano, father, husband, Mafioso and murderer, to life. Through six seasons of whackings, family drama, double crossings and therapy sessions, we watch Tony and can’t look away. Is he a sympathetic figure or a monster? You be the judge.
And…who is the one knocking at our number one spot?
#1. Breaking Bad:
None of my friends who are reading this will be surprised that this is my top pick. A high school chemistry teacher gets lung cancer and starts cooking meth so that he can provide for his family after he’s gone. On paper, it looks stupid. On the small screen, it is sheer brilliance. Many networks (including HBO) passed up on this little dark horse. Five seasons later, after multiple Emmy awards and massive critical and fan love, they all regretted it. Bryan Cranston’s turn as a man who experiences the ultimate midlife crisis, transforming from mild-mannered Walter White to the ruthless drug lord known as Heisenberg is a sight to behold. Also noteworthy is the performance of Aaron Paul as Jesse, his former high school student who becomes his unwilling partner in crime, Anna Gunn is Walter’s too-smart wife and Dean Norris as Hank, Walt’s brother-in-law who just happens to be a DEA agent. This series is beautifully shot, masterfully written and superbly acted. It’s the only series on this list that doesn’t have a single glaring flaw.
Honorable Mentions: Dragnet (1951), Law & Order (original series), Sherlock, Hill Street Blues, The Equalizer, Boardwalk Empire, Terriers and Broadchurch.
Extra-Special Honorable Mention: I know what some of you may be angrily muttering right now. “Damn you, RyanO! You snubbed The Wire…again! You’re no better than those Emmy whores!”
Look, I respect The Wire as much as the next guy. Yes, it’s a smart, densely-plotted crime epic full of social commentary about how the drug war in America is failing. I’ve seen it once and, while I respect it mightily, the rewatchability factor is way low. Next to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, it’s still bottom of the barrel in the gloomsville department. Right or wrong, it’s just not in my top 10 favorites. Besides, David Simon gets his due for Homicide. Take it and be happy.
P.S.: Katy, if you’re still reading this, you’re probably wondering, “Hey! Where’s Dexter!? Yer silly.” Dexter is the perfect example of a show that starts out great and takes a massive nosedive half-way through. The finale was so hideous…so ludicrous…that I can’t even place it in the honorable mentions slot because the resolution ruins the entire experience for me. I know this makes you say, “Eep!” but your dark passenger will just have to deal.