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10 Best True Crime Shows of All Time

by Danny Gallagher, posted Jan 6th 2011 12:00AM
Crime scene tapeSome of the greatest television dramas like 'The Wire,' 'CSI' and the never-ending stream of 'Law & Order' spinoffs ripped some of their best plots straight from the crime blotter.

But some of the best headlines don't need fictional characters or enhanced-for-TV plot twists, which is why true crime shows have become so popular on networks like truTV, A&E and Investigation Discovery, which debuts its newest program 'Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets' Jan. 10 at 10PM ET. This true crime show tells the story of a murder -- from the victim's point of view. Viewers must piece together the killer's identity based on clues given by family members, friends and investigators.

We took a look back at some of the best true crime shows on TV. See if your favorites made our list!

Cops10. 'COPS'
It's difficult to put this show on any list other than "Shows That Are Driving Humanity to Drink" or "Reasons to Wish for a Nuclear Holocaust." Then again, it's hard not to give credit to a show so ahead of its time.

'COPS' may have been seedy and suggestive long before the terms were regularly applied to reality shows, but it was among the first to present reality in its purest form. There were no well-quaffed hosts trying to enhance the drama with corny scripts or pounding soundtracks. It was just a camera crew in the back seat of a squad car with a couple of the nation's finest as they roamed the streets doing the job.

9. 'DEA'
This show may have taken more than a few nods from shows like 'COPS,' but it does such a good job of showing the dangerous world of hardcore drug enforcement that it's very hard to look away. It's almost like our eyes are being ordered by our brains to watch it.

It does play up the more macho side of the job to the point that one wonders if Hank Schrader from 'Breaking Bad' will step in the frame, but the drama is built into the job. The dangerous task of chasing down drug cartel leaderss and gun runners through the gritty inner streets of the world requires more than a bit of machismo; it requires a level of metal guts that should be examined by the American Medical Association.

8. 'Cold Case Files'
Long before A&E became a wasteland for celebrity-infused reality shows, they actually had an impressive roster of true crime documentaries and specials. This series paved the way for them all.

Hosted by gruff newsman Bull Kurtis, this series compiled some of the most baffling and compelling cold cases with the even hand of a serious news show. It didn't play up the drama of the cases because the cases themselves were interesting enough on their own. Compared to this early cable pioneer, the actual news shows look more like fluffy reality TV.

Chris Hansen7. 'Dateline NBC'
The primetime newsmagazine might have started out covering other topics, but it became more notorious for covering crime stories -- and becoming part of some.

The show always did pieces on grisly murders or cold crimes, but it hit a lurid nerve when host Chris Hansen and company introduced the "To Catch a Predator" segment. The show's host and crew worked with local law enforcement to set up sting operations that lured potential sex offenders to a dummy house. Once inside, they sat down with Hansen for the world's most uncomfortable TV interview before police swept in and slapped on the cuffs.

The show crossed a line when one of the suspects failed to show. He killed himself as police moved in on his house with Hansen and his camera crew waiting on his lawn. 'Dateline's' "To Catch a Predator" may have been a groundbreaking idea for true crime shows, but it also proved that there are lines even TV cameras shouldn't cross.

6. 'Forensic Files'
'CSI' always made for interesting viewing, but it gets bogged down in the same needless, inevitable drama between its characters that every crime drama has.

'Forensic Files' gets to the heart of crime science by showing how forensic advancements help detectives fill in the gaps that their cases need to secure a solid prosecution. It still has the edginess of a typical crime show, but it takes its time to explain how the science works. You're not just watching a crime show to fulfill your inner desire to see justice served for some semblance of inner security. You're actually (gasp!) learning something. Does the FCC know about this?

5. '48 Hours Mystery'
It's very hard for the mainstream networks to dedicate any primetime blocks to anything but repetitive sitcoms, mindless reality shows or some twisted combination of the two (coming soon: it's 'The Darndest S&*# My Dad Says'...).

The fact that this long-running primetime crime magazine has been on since 1988 is in itself worthy of a mystery series. There isn't anything unique or specialized to it that makes it more viewer-friendly. It's just a straightforward newsmagazine show that dedicates every episode to sucking as much information and facts out of a case as it possibly can. It's so effective that it even turned one of its producers into a federal criminal.

4. 'American Greed'
Of course, not all criminals are beer-swilling rednecks with obvious deficiencies in basic hygiene. Some of the most notorious and cutthroat baddies work in high-rise offices and wear suits worth more than your entire life savings.

This CNBC documentary series chronicles the evil thoughts and deeds of some of the financial world's greediest piggies and dedicates a lot of its time not just on how they got so high so fast, but how they came crashing down thanks to the tireless efforts of federal stock watchers and white-collar crime detectives.

It lays out every aspect of their rise and downfall in layers of enthrawling detail and actually makes you angry that these people could claw their way to the top by stepping on the heads of everyone in front of them. It's enough to make you want to grab your torch and pitchfork and march a mob to Wall Street -- until you realize that Jim Kramer is on and if stock watchers are anything like him, they'll probably do it to themselves.

Unsolved Mysteries3. 'Unsolved Mysteries'
Robert Stack might be better remembered for playing another criminal smash as Elliot Ness on 'The Untouchables.' Nothing struck fear in the hearts of criminals in my mind, however, more than watching him emerge from a cloud of omnious fog in a frumbled trenchcoat to the creepiest TV theme song of all time. Just try going to sleep after listening to its creepy synthesized tune.

The show sometimes focused on mysteries of the unknown, like ghosts or secret government UFO projects, but it's real meat-and-potatoes goodness came from its crime stories. It covered everything from grisly, unsolved murders to tragic, unsolved kidnappings and not only did they interview the people affected or investigating these strange, unsolved crimes, they even held creepy, unsolved reenactments.

The show not only helped breath new life into Stack's nostalgic career, but even it became a memorable corner of television kitsch. Even its iconic utterance of "Update" became a pseudo-catchphrase for office clowns to annoy their co-workers with every time a new memo ran through the fax machine.

The First 482. 'The First 48'
One of the most overused plot conventions of crime dramas is the ticking time clock; i's the laziest way to drive a plot through a gripping and successful conclusion.

For true crime shows, it actually has the opposite effect. This contribution from A&E takes viewers through those crucial first few hours of a homicide case and follows detectives everywhere from the interrogation room to gruesome crime scenes. It works because it's not a "make it or a break it" scenario in which a case completely dissolves if the clock runs out. It shows in minute detail the process and procedures officers use to catch their man without skimping on the drama.

America's Most Wanted1. 'America's Most Wanted'
You can't deny the impact 'AMW' has had -- not just on television, but on law enforcement and criminal prosecution.

The long-running Fox crime show created by victims' rights advocate and host John Walsh has reportedly helped law enforcement agencies bag over 1,130 accused criminals for cold cases and grisly crimes that otherwise would have gone unsolved without its help.

It also deserves special mention for Walsh's lifelong dedication to help grieving families and friends find closure, a feat that's even more impressive since he himself has been such a person when he lost his son Adam, a case that went unsolved for more than 30 years. Not many shows can boast that they are actually giving something back to society other than another lurid TV show.

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Forensic files is easily number 1,

August 05 2014 at 11:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I stopped reading when you grouped The Wire and CSI together. lolololol

June 15 2014 at 12:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Forensic Files is so much better then any of the others you listed and didn't list.

Peter Thomas is amazing and I know that he is almost 90 years old.

I am a Peter Thomas groupie!!! I requested and received an autographed photo of him. Love it!

He is such an elegant man an the consummate professional.

January 26 2013 at 9:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sorry, but Forensic Files should be #1!!

July 22 2012 at 11:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Potvin

forenic files is the most exciting true crime tv shop i think because the cases always get solved,

October 28 2011 at 5:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Very few television shows get it right. they dont want to get into the boring work that has to be done. not hollywood enough. first48 and cops do a great job. http://homicideinvestigations.blogspot.com

March 07 2011 at 8:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Doug Bush

HEY! Stop knocking COPS! I have been watching this show religiously since it started and I enjoy it. It's entertaining. I also heard Cher Bono once say she watches COPS every Saturday night, so it can't be all THAT bad. :)

January 08 2011 at 8:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
james russell

Cops filmed in El Paso several years ago and hasn't been back since because the Police Department violated their agreement with the COPS producers. Everything you saw in the El Paso sequences was real. The Chief's Office promised that there would not be anything or action taken against the Officers and Supervisors for use of language. The Internal Affairs office previewed the shows before production was completed and filed against officers and supervisors for improper use of language and tactics. THE filming stopped and COPS told the Chiefs office they would play the sequences filmed but further filming would stop due to the violations of contract with COPS.

January 06 2011 at 10:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Cops is reality. I agree all those others you mention are fake or at best reinactments. It's just like pro wrestling, Kardashions, and the housewives of all over the place.

January 06 2011 at 9:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to notjeff's comment

That was supposed to be a reply to ken, at the beginning.

January 06 2011 at 9:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Texas NDN

"Car 54 Where Are You" was the best one

January 06 2011 at 8:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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