Cop shows have been around since radio. Dragnet began as a radio show before it moved to television in the 1950s. The staples of television going back almost 70 years are: lawyers, cops and private eyes. Westerns were big and then petered out, replace by the popularity of medical shows like Ben Casey, Medical Center and Marcus Welby, before E.R., Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy and many others.
Picking 12 cop shows was difficult considering the many possibilities. I’ll admit, this is a very odd list. Everyone has their favorites and my list won’t match too many other lists. My list lacks many top rated shows of the past couple of decades. You won’t find Blue Bloods, NCIS, NYPD Blue, The Shield or many others on my list. I’m going mostly old school. Big Surprise. I added an Honorable Mention category for those that did not make the list.
The only one of these shows that doesn’t seem to be in syndication. Only one season is on DVD, and that’s sad. This is a wonderful show, created by Joseph Wambaugh, a former L.A. cop turned writer. It ran from 1973 to 1978, in the anthology format. Each week, a different lead character and story. Occasionally, a character reappeared in a later episode and the series spun off a few other series including Police Woman. The series portrayed police officers as real characters, with problems, vices, and flaws. While realistic, the series was not pretentious or overly dramatic, it did not throw reality in your face, it just presented it through the daily victories and successes of police officers.
The only true comedy of the bunch, this was no sitcom, it used comedy to make a point. The first couple of seasons, the comedy was broader and the characters were stiffer in their portrayals, but they loosened up over time. The squad room was the center for all types of interactions with victims, criminals and other cops. Sometimes topical, the show explored the human condition. Because it mostly takes place in the squad room, it feels like we are watching a stage presentation, except with three cameras it feels more intimate. The show ran from 1975 to 1982.
Life inside a police car traveling the streets of Los Angeles, mainly going from call to call, but sometimes solving cases. From Jack Webb, the show ran from 1968 to 1975. When the show began it was a veteran officer training a rookie. Malloy and Reed were right in the middle of changing societal norms and differing attitudes toward the police. Jack Webb embraced issues of the day, but he often stacked the deck in how these issues were portrayed. Unlike Dragnet, Webb did not direct the series and brought in solid writers and producers to give the show a more realistic feel. They covered a lot of ground in 30 minutes.
Just the facts, ma’am. The 1967 to 1970 version is a classic. Webb as the stiff but determined Joe Friday, is the cop you want on the case. The show dealt with drugs, juvenile delinquents, trafficking in firearms, child abuse, racism, and prejudice against police. When confronted by Friday or Gannon, you usually got a lecture of statistics, the show was a bit preachy. The Harry Morgan character often functioned for comic relief against Friday’s more serious manner. You never really learned much about Friday, and only saw Gannon’s home life on rare occasion. If you wanted to learn police procedure, this was the show for you.
It took me awhile to like this show but it grew on me. It is easy to be both amused and irritated by the Monk character. His obsessive-compulsive disorder can grate on you. One of the strengths of the show is the supporting cast, who each get time in the spotlight. These are very likeable characters and you grow to care about them. Even though this show usually involves a murder, it is filled with a lot of kindness. The other strength is the quality of the writing. Ran very successfully on cable from 2002 to 2009.
Streets of San Francisco
Stylish setting, cool opening theme, great relationship between the co-stars. A Quinn Martin production, known for quality writing and well-developed characters. Karl Malden was the straight, fatherly detective, by the book and beyond honest. Michael Douglas was the younger, hip, college educated, and sometimes brash junior partner. Besides the writing and characters, Quinn Martin always got the best guest stars, usually several “names” per episode. The show ran from 1972 to 1977, with Douglas departing prior to the final season. From the first few bars of the opening theme, you knew you were in for something cool.
The original series. The best seasons were the ones with William Peterson. The science and cool, high tech gadgets, and the special effects photography that takes you inside the human body. Petersen was a cool geek, very nerdish but not pretentious, and very likeable. This series ran 15 seasons, changing many cast members, and spinning off four other series. Set in the neon glow of Las Vegas, the show has a look like no other.
What can you say about Columbo? A detective who did not ever draw his gun, who didn’t have a partner, wore the same suit and rumpled raincoat, and drove an old funny car. In every episode you saw the murderer and how they did it. The fun was watching Columbo figure it out. He liked or was impressed by most of the murderers he was after. You didn’t know much about Columbo, never saw his wife, but you might want to have a beer with him. Besides the main character, and great guest stars, the strength was the writing. The series ran intermittently from 1968 to 2003.
Cagney & Lacey
Groundbreaking, a show about two policewomen; gritty and not your Charley’s Angels type characters. One, career-focused and single, the other, a working mom with a husband who worries about her. Interesting fact, for six consecutive years, either Sharon Gless or Tyne Daly won the Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The shows focused on real issues and believable characters. There was more grit than glitz in the series. The show ran from 1982 to 1988.
The life and times of two motorcycle officers, the show ran from 1977 to 1983. Described as an action, crime drama, it also had a great deal of comedy, but not at the expense of the stories. The characters were often light-hearted but they weren’t buffoons, certainly not like the recent movie version. Disputes with producers caused cast changes in the fifth and sixth seasons. The series took liberties with real highway patrol officers but portrayed them in a respectful light. The show embraced topical charms of the time, so there was roller disco, water sports, motocross racing and hang gliding.
The granddaddy of hardboiled crime shows. Criticized for its violence, the show rarely allowed Jack Lord to crack a smile. From it’s rocking theme music to the stylishly cut opening credits, this was a show that had an extra gear. McGarrett was a cool dude in handsome suits and styled hair. The Five-O crew worked efficiently in the background as McGarrett took the point. The construction of the stories gave a lot of screen time to the guest stars. On rare occasion, the show would take a lighter feel to embrace an unusual character or episode theme, but mostly it was battling organized crime, stories of international intrigue, drugs or kidnappings. One in a great while the viewers learned something about McGarrett’s personal life, or one of the Five-O crew was featured in the lead. The show ran from 1968 to 1980.
A show about a medical examiner who solves crimes but also crusades against hazardous waste, nursing home abuse, drunk driving, airline safety and other social issues. There may have been other shows that used medicine and science to solve crimes, but Quincy had style and Jack Klugman fought for victims and justice. The show ran from 1976 to 1983, and graduated from the Mystery Movie format that spawned Columbo. Quincy fit Jack Klugman as well as the Oscar character.