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Seven of my all-time favorite cop shows

by Jackie Schnoop, posted Nov 20th 2007 11:43AM
An NYPD motorcycle officer by his car - don't ask why a carPolice stories make for some of the best stories either in real life or on television. I've been lucky enough to know cops over the years (not in a criminal sense, mind you) and find that it's sometimes a mutual macabre or jaded sense of humor we share. There are the by-the-book cops, the hot-doggers, the idealists, the cynical, the naive, the jaded, the good, the bad, and the "I want to get through my twenty and retire" kind of cops.

My favorite cop television shows over the years often reflect those characters and it's sometimes a bit surprising how close they come to actual police I know ... or how far they stray from the reality of police work.

I suppose I'll start this list where it all started for me in my cop show viewing and work my way to my all-time favorite which happens to be a current show. Funny how that works, eh?

7. Dragnet -- Yes, I'm talking Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, and just the facts, ma'am. I watched this in the late sixties before I became all worldly and from it I learned exotic things like people who use LSD paint their faces odd colors. I learned a real cop like Joe Friday lives, breathes, and exists just to be a cop. No personal life for him even if his partner has a wife and family! I watched the episodes thinking that one day Friday might crack a grin and the world as we know it would change before our very eyes.

Looking back, Dragnet was probably the most notable police procedural show in television however stiff and stilted. Heck, if it were on anywhere these days, I'd probably catch an episode or two to relive the days.

The cast of Barney Miller6. Barney Miller -- Although Dragnet was often unintentionally funny, Barney Miller was meant to be funny and I got a kick out of not only the bizarre array of criminals, but from the personalities of the police characters themselves. It was New York City; it was the late seventies with many television taboos being broken each day. Barney Miller ran the gamut from transvestites to over-analytical cops to stature-challenged police.

I could identify with the location and I could identify more with the characters -- a cop writing the book Blood on the Badge hit home for me. The show often pushed the edge of acceptable humor, but it won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe award. So, it wasn't just me tuning in and loving it. This series made Abe Vigoda the star he is today. That's a good thing, right? As a side note, I have to mention that Vigoda as Fish was old back then and he's aged little in the past nearly 30 years. He's still old!

5. Hill Street Blues -- This series was hailed as one of the first realistic police dramas. We're into the early eighties and the audience took to the realism very well garnering the show 98 Emmy nominations during its run. Wow. One of the grounds broken with this show was portraying the police as human -- not some sort of "just the facts" machine or for comedic purposes.

It was one of the first police series (if not the first) using hand held cameras to produce a documentary feel about the show, too. It was an ongoing drama each week with some storylines finishing while others went on for weeks at a time much like soap operas. But better, of course! It was edgy and urban city eighties gritty. Let's be safe out there.

Jesse L. Martin as Det. Ed Green on Law and Order4. Law and Order franchise shows -- Yeah, I'm lumping the entire franchise together. From its earliest straight Law and Order episodes, I've been hooked. A woman can never get too much Benjamin Bratt, right? I've learned valuable lessons from this show. For example, don't own a dog in New York City. It's always the folks walking dogs through Central Park who happen upon the dead bodies. Get yourself a cat instead. They may eat you if you die, but they won't make you late for work by finding dead bodies in the park.

I have personal reasons for liking the show, too. Every now and then I stumble upon not dead bodies in the park, but the filming of the shows themselves. And, as I watch the show, since it's actually filmed in the city, I see places I know. Many of the stories are from local headlines although they certainly don't depict real events or real people ... surely, they don't. They have a disclaimer and all. Yet they're "ripped from the headlines."

I liked L&O: Criminal Intent until Vincent D'Onofrio went into some star pressure thing, cut back his appearances, got too quirky and odd on the show, and just changed. Although I still watch it, the episodes with Chris Noth just aren't the same magic as the first few seasons with Goren. And, the recent episodes with Goren aren't like that, either.

As for L&O: Special Victims Unit, more Munch, please. Why isn't his character explored more? He's a complex and unusual character and isn't getting the airplay deserved! And ... where is the basic series this year? It's not the same as it was, but I miss it nonetheless.

3. Cops -- True, this isn't a scripted drama or even a sitcom, but a reality show, per se. But how could I list my favorite cop shows over the years and leave this one out? It's one of my guilty pleasure shows. I honestly don't understand why the stupid ne'er-do-wells, hoodlums, bad-doers and such actually sign releases to allow their stupidity to be aired.

But where else could I see toothless men in wife-beaters drinking their beers as the cops come to the door? Where else could I see drug dealers run from the cops? Where else could I see apartments which look so messy that they make mine look pristine? Where else could I see stumbling drunks flunking sobriety tests? Um, well. I live in New Jersey, so I guess all I need do is go out the door to see some of those things. But it's safer from my living room.

A few side notes about the show: It got its start during the last WGA strike and has been going strong ever since. It's also garnered four Emmy nominations. Bertram van Munster, the executive producer, director, and co-creator of The Amazing Race was the producer for Cops for over 200 episodes.

"Bad boys, bad boys. Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?" I'd probably cry ... but I wouldn't sign that release!

2. Homicide: Life on the Street -- Okay, we're down to my second most favorite cop show ever. The very odd thing is that it will tie in with my most favorite, but that's just how it is. I'm slowly gathering the series on DVD as well as catching reruns on WGN when I can. I've bought and read the non-fiction book which inspired the series -- Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets -- and even talked with series creator David Simon (and got him to sign my book).

Set in Baltimore, this series is true grit and yet with a lot of wit at times. I don't know if Baltimore has the highest murder rate per capita, but if it doesn't, it's surely up there. I know that it has a much higher murder rate than New York City or cities with which I'm familiar in New Jersey (which tend to not be any sort of spring picnic). I've always held an odd fascination for urban crime stories and this show fulfilled that need in me for those stories.

It's a police procedural in a documentary style of filming, but the show is so much more than that. The characters, the three-time action shots, the stories themselves, the cleverness of the writing, the quality of the actors on the show ... all made this show my second favorite cop show ever. It was up as my favorite until I discovered The Wire.


Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty on The Wire1. The Wire -- Yep, my all-time favorite cop show ever is also set in Baltimore and is from the same creative folks as my runner-up show. While Homicide dealt with the stories of the murder police in the city, The Wire not only covers some murders, but the drug trade, the sociological aspects of growing up with crime and more.

My biggest problem with The Wire is that it's on HBO when I only have basic cable. I can't justify adding HBO when I'd either waste time or use it just to watch the show. I started watching it when it went into repeats to BET, but the crass and way too often commercials on that network turned me off. Or, should I say they turned me on? On to going out and buying up every season available on DVD, that is! So, I'm behind. I'm awaiting my pre-order for the fourth season in a few weeks, yet the fifth season will be starting on HBO before long. Argh.

This show is like a novel. You can't just watch an episode and know what's going on ... not entirely, anyway. Sometimes storylines reference back a season or more. Sometimes things happen in a blink of an eye. Like the scene with Rawls in the gay bar. The great thing about owning the show on DVD is that when you see something unbelievable like that, you can go back and say, "Yes, it's Rawls in a gay bar! Wow!"

This show couldn't work as well if censored and probably wouldn't survive on the main four networks. But it's truly as addicting as the product often sold on the corners and at the lowrises. Each season ends with a montage, with the first one being my favorite. And, each season's theme song is "Way Down in the Hole" sung by different artists per season. Hey, it's Tom Waits. You just can't go wrong there. I'm partial to The Five Blind Boys from Alabama's cover for the first season, though.

Dang. Just writing about the show makes me want to get out my DVDs and start from the beginning all over again.

"It's all in the game."

So, there's my list of my seven all-time favorite police shows. I could add honorable mentions like NYPD: Blue, Adam-12, The Mod Squad, 21 Jump Street, and The Rookies, but I'd have to leave Cop Rock off my list. What are or were your favorite shows in the genre? After all, you can't watch television without occasionally sitting down to a police procedural, right?

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7. Life on Mars
6. Hawaii 5-0
5. NYPD Blue
4. Hill Street Blues
3. The Shield
2. Homicide
1. The Wire

November 25 2007 at 6:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What about Crime Story, Michael Mann's other 80s classic? I loved that show.
The Wire is not only the best cop show -- it's the best damn show, period.

November 23 2007 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Third Watch was and always will be the best cop/paramedic/firefighter show ever.

November 23 2007 at 11:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Third Watch is my all time favorite show. I loved Homicide too. I don't know if the Comish counts as a cop show but I loved that too back in the day.

November 21 2007 at 11:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Z Cars

November 21 2007 at 9:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Although there are plenty of deserving cop shows, the author is right; "The Wire" is easily better than any other cop show. In fact, it's probably the best show of any kind ever made.

The only problem I see is that to lump "The Wire" in as a typical police procedural is somewhat misleading. The show is a Dickensian treatise on modern American urban life, in which the police department plays a large role. However, the show is just as much about criminals, politicians, working stiffs, and schoolchildren as it is about police.

In the end, that depth and scope is what truly sets it apart from the other shows on this list, and the ones that have been commented on (The Shield, NYPD Blue, etc). I once read an interview with David Simon in which he said (and I am paraphrasing here) that if he had to write a police procedural, he would lay his head on the train tracks and wait for an oncoming locomotive. That says it all.

November 21 2007 at 8:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brent McKee

Jackie, if you've never seen the 1950s Dragnet, you haven't seen Dragnet. By the time that the 1968 series launched the show was sort of out of touch with things. There was an episode related to the assassination of Martin Luther King that was incredibly annoying. The 1950s Dragnet (I've seen some public domain episodes on DVD) lacked a lot of fancy sets and big budgets (a car chase was once done with Friday and his partner in an office listening to the police radio and Friday's partner drawing lines on a map of LA) but there were some great stories and a great chance to see people before them made their big break.

November 21 2007 at 3:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Shield
Miami Vice
21 Jump Street
New York Undercover (at least until the entire original cast left)
Homicide: LOTS
Walker: Texas Ranger (Technically a cop show!)

November 21 2007 at 1:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


November 20 2007 at 10:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was prepared to be bitterly disappointed by your list of favorites, but I have to say your top 2 are my top 2 so well done!

BTW, Dragnet was all downhill after moving from the radio to TV.

November 20 2007 at 6:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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