A great crime show has a twisted and charming reliability: Who doesn't love the intrigue of a heinous fictional crime, with the promise that it will be neatly resolved within an hour?
The best crime shows add a little more nuance.
The Wire isn't a series about choosing sides — jaded lawmen vs. strategic gangsters — but about seeing how everyone's soul is compromised in the rat race toward a phony American dream. HBO's more recent follows a similar pattern to its predecessors: There isn't just one experience when it comes to cops and crime — perspectives vary drastically based on where you are and what you look like.
The Night Of
The real criminal justice system seems closer to a horror-thriller these days, so the shows ahead might even be a little inspiring, too. In these series, dutiful, hardworking people try to make an inherently biased system work for everyone. The charm of all 450-plus episodes of
Law & Order comes from its dependable formula. These are good cops working toward a fair conviction. That's not always true in real life.
Dino De Laurentiis Company/Doheny Prods./Gaumont International TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
(2013-2015) Hannibal Starring: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen You think Dexter's scenes of blood gratuitously spewing on white sheets was bad? Then you haven't seen Hannibal, a show so imaginative in its violence that some scenes couldn't be aired on TV. Hannibal is about the professional relationship that develops between F.B.I. profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and sharply intelligent psychologist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). Hannibal is so skilled at helping Will catch serial killers because he's a serial killer himself.
(2005-present) Criminal Minds After you're finished with Mindhunter, the Netflix drama about the nascent stages of the F.B.I.'s Behavioral Analysis Unit, you can delve into Criminal Minds' tremendous backlog. The show focuses on members of the same elite unit, who spend their days tracking and catching serial killers, and attempting to understand their psychology.
(2017) Mindhunter Starring: Anna Torv, Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany Based on the book Mindhunter, written by one of the FBI's first criminal profilers, this dark Netflix thriller gives a glimpse into the study of serial killers. The show focuses on the F.B.I.'s budding Behavioral Analysis Unit, manned by two agents and a psychologist. Holden Ford (Groff) is an enthusiastic 29-year-old with the revolutionary idea of interviewing convicted serial killers, and use their insights to solve more crimes. The more traditional Trench (McCallany) goes along with it. Everything coalesces once Wendy Carr (Torv) is on board.
(2017) Law and Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders Starring: Edie Falco Law and Order jumped on the true crime train, because hey — it's a popular train to be on. For seven years and three trials, Erik and Lyle Menendez' fascinating and horrifying crime transfixed public attention. On August 20, 1989, the boys murdered their parents in their Calabasas mansion, and proceeded to spent $700,000 in their insurance payout.
Michael Muller/Fx Network/Fox 21/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
(2008-2014) Sons of Anarchy Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Maggie Siff, Ron Perelman When it comes to crime shows, either you're watching law enforcement solve crimes and hunt down "bad guys," or you're learning the motivations behind said "bad guys." Sons of Anarchy is the latter. Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam) plays a high-ranking member of an outlaw motorcycle club who begins to question the group's lawless ways. Since Jax's mother (Gemma Teller Morrow) and stepfather (Ron Perelman) are the ringleaders of the Sons of Anarchy club, it doesn't look like Jax could extract himself even if he wanted to. For now, Jax is ensconced in his town of Charming, California, and the doings of his motorcycle gang.
(2010-2015) Justified Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy The real crime of Justified? That is was criminally overlooked by the American TV-watching public. In this show, cowboy hat-wearing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) angers the wrong people with his old-fashioned, stubborn conception of right and wrong. When the action begins, Raylan has just been reassigned to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, a place to which he'd never intended to return, because he killed a fugitive.
(2013-present) Brooklyn Nine-Nine Starring: Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Chelsea Peretti Most of the shows on this list take their crime seriously — extremely seriously. Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn't follow that same pattern as it follows a dysfunctional group of New York City cops trying to to catch the bad guys. Although the FOX sitcom tends to be a silly office comedy at times, it does spend a lot of time focusing on actual crimes too. The entire Nine-Nine crew is actually great at their jobs and Andy Samberg's Jake Peralta is so obsessed with his career, he has his own criminal nemesis, The Pontiac Bandit (Craig Robinson).
(2010-present) Blue Bloods Starring: Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg It's like Parenthood, but with cops. Tom Selleck plays Frank Reagan, the New York Police Commissioner, and head to a boisterous and complicated family of policemen and women. It's cheesy, but like all multi-generational shows, it's also impossible to resist getting attached over the episodes.
(2005-2011) Medium Starring: Patricia Arquette Some psychics advertise on street corners. Others host Long Island Medium. But housewife Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) uses her ability to commune with the dead to help her local Arizona District Attorney's office with their investigations. Throughout the show, she struggles to balance her criminal investigations with her home life — a husband and three psychic daughters.
(2013-present) Top of the Lake Starring: Elisabeth Moss In a remote town in New Zealand, Robin Griffin (Moss) investigates the disappearance of a 12-year-old pregnant girl named Tui. In addition to leading the high-profile investigation, Robin must exhume ghosts of her own trauma, which occurred in the very town in which Tui vanished.
(2005-2012) The Night Of Starring: Riz Ahmed, John Turturro This eight-episode HBO miniseries starts with a crime, but turns into a long, bleak meditation on the American criminal justice system. A woman is found brutally murdered in her Upper West Side apartment, and authorities are quick to frame Nasir Khan, the young taxi driver who slept with her that night. But nothing in this show, which looks at the crime from every possible angle, is cut and dry.
(1997-present) Midsomer Murders You saw that right: this mystery show has been running for twenty years. While the English countryside is quaint and picturesque, the crime-fighting Barnaby family knows about its seedy, murder-prone underbelly. Each episode of this sinister crime show focuses on a different incident, so you can fit it flexibly in your schedule.
(2015-present) American Crime Starring: Felicity Huffman, Regina King Each season of this acclaimed anthology series peers into a different trial, providing a fascinating, multi-faceted perspective on all the lives impacted in a crime. The most recent season focuses on a group of migrant workers in Alamance County, North Carolina, who are pulled into a world of forced labor, sex trafficking, and drug addiction.
(1990-1991) Twin Peaks Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Mädchen Amick, Sherilyn Fenn The question haunting this eerie show is, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" FBI Agent Dale Cooper arrives to the quiet, rainy town of Twin Peaks, Washington to find out just that. Definitely the most aesthetically conscious crime show of all time, Twin Peaks was the first, and perhaps the only, of its kind.
(2008-2013) Breaking Bad Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn This is a crime show, only it's on the side of the criminal. Watch as Walter White evolves from timid chemistry teacher with terminal cancer to a kingpin of the meth trade. Since Breaking Bad is widely known as the greatest TV show of all time, you don't need us to tell you to watch it. You already know you should watch it.
Photo: Courtesy of Showtime
(2002 - 2012) Dexter Starring: Michael C Hall, Jennifer Carpenter When this show about a do-gooder serial killer premiered on Showtime, it toppled conventions on what — and who — a protagonist should be. Dexter’s adopted father Harry recognized his son would be unable to rise above his insatiable thirst for, well, murder. Harry, a police officer, knew just how a criminal could get around the cops. As a gift from father to son, Harry teaches Dexter how to kill without getting caught, and how to choose victims who are already guilty of other crimes. The twist? In addition to being a murderer himself, Dexter is an indispensable Forensics Expert of the Miami police department. Throughout its eight seasons, Dexter redefined what a crime show was, and who a criminal is.
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
(2016-present) Quantico Starring: Priyanka Chopra The show that sent Priyanka Chopra to America saw major success after the first season, which aired just last year. Chopra plays Alex Parrish, an FBI agent who becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack on Grand Central. After successfully clearing her name, Alex begins the second season of the series, which is currently airing on ABC, as a newly hired CIA operative.
(2010-present) Sherlock Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman Benedict Cumberbatch is the emotionless detective Sherlock Holmes in this BBC adaptation of the character. What makes this iteration rise above all others — Luther excluded — is Cumberbatch's robotic performance as our socially inept hero. His chemistry with straight man Watson, played by Martin Freeman, keeps us interested. At face value, Sherlock is a campy procedural, but beneath the tongues in cheeks, the show is an elegant depiction of reluctant male friendship.
Photo: Courtesy of CBS.
(2016-present) Search Party Starring: Alia Shawkat, John Early, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner Though it be but young, Search Party is powerful. The genre-bending show combines quirky New York comedy with crime procedural, and it wins at both. Four young Brooklyn folk (think characters from HBO's Girls) become entangled in a crime when a friend from college disappears without a trace. Suddenly, they have to grapple with real life and — gasp! — something other than themselves. Search Party will please your crime show cravings without tasting stale.
Photo: 20th Century Fox Television/REX/Shutterstock
(2005-2017) Bones Starring: David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, T.J. Thyne, Michaela Conlin, Tamara Taylor Say what you will about Fox's will-they-or-won't-they procedural — Bones is just plain addictive. The series follows a forensic anthropologist, Dr. "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), and FBI agent Booth (David Boreanaz) as they solve crimes and try not to fall in love. The banter between the two recalls our faves Scully and Mulder of the X-Files. After 12 seasons, one wonders if the show is living on borrowed time, but the fact remains that the show is prime crime television. There's rotting corpses, scientific jargon, and sexual tension. What more can you ask from a crime show?
(2010 - 2014) Boardwalk Empire Starring: Steve Buscemi, Michael K. Williams, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Vincent Piazza, Jack Huston, Michael Pitt "You can't be half a gangster," this Martin Scorsese-produced HBO show proclaimed in its third season. That's the biggest and best theme of the show, which follows Atlantic City bootlegger Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. He tries being half a gangster and half a politician, but it never works out. The show frequently sputters, and is sometimes slow. But visually it's still pretty astonishing. If you're not in it for the long haul, stream the second season, when Michael Pitt puts in good work.
(2013-present) Broadchurch Starring: David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker This British import stars David Tennant of Jessica Jones and Dr. Who fame and Olivia Colman as detectives in the small town of Dorset, UK. The first season (or series, if you will excuse the British-ism), begins when the body of an 11-year-old boy appears on a nearby beach. The following episodes detail the fallout from the death, which, incidentally, looks an awful lot like murder. Broadchurch has the ingredients of a been-there-done-that procedural, but the setting, in combination with superb performances from the two leads, makes for a haunting drama that lasts far beyond your average crime show. A warning for beginners: the accents in this show are pretty thick, so you may want to watch with subtitles.
(2015-present) Narcos Starring: Wagner Moura, Pedro Pascal, Boyd Holbrook, Paulina Gaitán This gritty and addictive Netflix drama isn't for the faint of heart. The show follows Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, who's feeling the pinch of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Even though we know how this ends — the "King of Cocaine" was eventually shot and killed by the Columbian National Police in 1993 — the series is exciting and bloody.
(2010-2016) Luther Starring: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson DCI John Luther is a brilliant but tormented British police detective. His dedication to catching killers borders on an obsession that tends to consume him. For much of the series he chases the beautiful but cunning serial killer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). The searing crime drama has been called Elba's best work since The Wire. He won a Golden Globe for the show in 2012.
Photo: Courtesy of BBC.
(2013-2016) The Fall Starring: Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan Jamie Dornan is, objectively, an attractive man. The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise does not make good on his appeal. The Fall, however, does. But Gillian Anderson is The Fall's true star. As high ranking detective Stella Gibson, Anderson is hot on the trail of a serial killer targeting white, brunette women. That serial killer is — shocker — Dornan's character. These two face off in this slow burning BBC series.
Photo: Courtesy of AMC.
(2011-2014) The Killing Starring: Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman Detectives Sarah Linden (Enos) and Stephen Holder (Kinnaman) star in this moody, intense drama about Seattle crime. The duo occasionally butt heads — she's stern, he's unfettered — but they have to work together to solve four seasons worth of grisly murders. The Killing's greatness was spectacular, but ultimately uneven: "Every year, fans rolled that rock up the hill of fine acting, great dialogue and stunning visuals," wrote Joel Keller for Indiewire, "only to be crushed as it rolled back down, thanks to the end of the season making no sense, or executed so poorly that you found yourself yelling at the screen."
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
(2014-present) True Detective Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan Ok, we know the second season of this HBO show was flaming hot garbage fire. But the first season of — for all of the "time is a flat circle" goofiness — was pretty compelling. True Detective True Detective's central crime unfolded beautifully, with bold camera work and precise commentary on religion, politics, and the American south. A pair of grizzled Louisiana detectives tried to track down the man who murdered a prostitute in two timelines. The past and present converged to make for a really great whodunit. That first season also did right by its women: At Grantland, Molly Lambert made a good case this. "But I don’t think the women on True Detective are mere virgins and whores. Far from it. I think that it’s through them we are made to see the very obvious problems with Marty’s view of women as virgins and whores," she wrote. "The show is also equally weighted toward Rust’s POV, which questions much of that worldview."
Photo: Courtesy of CBS.
(2003-2010) Cold Case Starring: Kathryn Morris, Danny Pino, John Finn Vintage unsolved mysteries got a second look in this CBS series. Detective Lilly Rush was an expert at closing cases whose files were weathered with decades of age and buried evidence. The Cold Case crew took on old missing persons cases and unsolved murders. They always seemed like the underdog against aging witnesses, and the limitations of technology when the cases were first opened. That, plus Detective Rush's struggle as her squad's only woman investigator, made this a compelling crime drama.
Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
(1999-present) Law & Order: SVU Starring: Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Ice-T, Richard Belzer, B.D. Wong SVU is the best of the franchise, and the one readily available on Netflix. Olivia Benson and Elliott Stabler were the most reliable partners, a perfect balance of friendship, cynicism, truth, and toughness. All the conventions of the original series were carried over into this spin-off, which dealt primarily with sex crimes. To the credit of the producers, the show confronted sex shaming and victim-blaming for women other shows considered high risk targets. To date, SVU is known for timely takes on the news. Recent episodes have taken on GamerGate, Robert Durst, and sexual assault on college campuses.
Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
(1990-2010) Law & Order Starring: Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jerry Orbach, Anthony Anderson The OG Law & Order exemplifies the franchise's signature mix of compelling, timely cases and interesting cops and attorneys. Over 20 years and 450 episodes, the show became a benchmark for great serialized crime dramas. In its final seasons, Law & Order was up against cable heavyweights like Lost and 24. It's better than both, wrote Mike Hale for at the time of the show's cancellation, and will likely age better, too: "Through 20 seasons, the message of The New York Times Law & Order was always about living to fight another day."
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
(2002-2008) The Wire Starring: Wendell Pierce, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sonja Sohn No show deals with the intersection of crime, the judicial system, race, power, and the cynicism that pervades each as well as The Wire. The show launched a host of impressively textured careers — including those of Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Michael K. Williams, and Dominic West — and established creator and showrunner David Simon as one of the smartest and most influential figures in TV. The Wire shines because of its moral ambiguity: In a city beset by inequality, the lines between the good and bad guys aren't easy to draw.
Photo: Courtesy of TNT.
(2009-2013) Southland Starring: Regina King, Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz Southland's vision of the LAPD is dark and conflicted. The character-driven drama sees LA crime on a granular level, through the eyes of the detectives who patrol the streets daily. The show's run was short, but it presented a grittier take on police life on a major network. Also, who wouldn't support a show that kept The O.C.'s Ben McKenzie employed?
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
(2014-present) How to Get Away With Murder Starring: Viola Davis, Liza Weil, Alfred Enoch, Matt McGorry Shonda Rhimes' reign continues with HTGAWM, anchored by Viola Davis. The show's characters are always escaping their own murder charges or defending clients against a conviction, but its standout strength is the compelling character of Annalise Keating (Davis). "I wanted to play a fully realized, dark-skinned woman, and just doing that alone could be revolutionary," Davis told . The show's realistic, assertive look at sexuality and power has earned it high praise.
The New York Times
Photo: Courtesy of TNT.
(2005-2012) The Closer Starring: Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons Kyra Sedgwick plays Brenda Johnson, an Atlanta police detective with a particular talent: getting confessions. Johnson is kind of an oddball character to her peers — her bright, confident outfits stick out in a sea of police blue and gray — but she is a titan interrogator. "Women are not successful because they act like men...femininity is a power," executive producer James Duff told at the time of the show's end. "It is not a weakness or something that needs to be compensated for. So I was very concentrated on making sure that Brenda remained a woman in this world."
The Christian Science Monitor
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