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What's the Best US Cop Show Ever?

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by David Vincent (subscribe)
Occasional blogger and sometimes freelance writer, hammering away in the West Midlands.
Published March 12th 2014
A staple of any TV channel worth mentioning, US cop dramas have been pulling in audiences for decades. Glancing back into television's archives, here's our selection of some of the most influential and popular series of all time... but which one is the best ever? And what have we missed?

dragnet
Based on true stories from the LAPD files.


1950s: DRAGNET
Based on true stories from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Dragnet was the brain child of actor Jack Webb who also starred in the lead role as Sgt Joe Friday. Beginning life on radio in 1949, it successfully made the leap to television in the following decade.

A police procedural drama, entire episodes could find Friday and assistant interrogating a suspect, who would only break in the final few minutes when the evidence stacked up become irrefutable.

Opening with a voice over and concluding details of the perp's punishment, there's an air of '50s film noir/ hardboiled fiction about the series as it recounted tales of teenage drug rings, brutal beatings and crimes of passion.

Often parodied, occasionally revived ('60s, '80s & '00s TV series, plus naff Dan Aykroyd '87 comedy movie), the original incarnation has never been bettered.

Columbo
Peter Falk as Columbo.


1960s: COLUMBO
Debuting in 1968 and running for 10 years, before a revival in the late '80s, Peter Falk's bumbling LAPD detective opened the door for a raft of crime fighters with quirks (McCloud: cowboy; Ironside: wheelchair; Kojak: bald with lollipops; Cannon: fat; Police Woman: a woman, etc).

Like Dragnet, Columbo was very much a police procedural and (by and large) followed a strict format as a high-profile murder is committed (typically by a name guest star such as William Shatner). As a viewer, we see every element of the crime, from build up to execution to cover up, before the raincoat-wearing detective with his wreck of a car turns up to natter about his wife, get mistaken for a tramp, and eventually pull all the clues together.

Attracting some top talent, among the episode directors were a young Steven Spielberg, Jonathan (The Silence of the Lambs) Demme and actor Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan.

Every impressionist of the period would have Columbo in their arsenal.

1970s: STARSKY & HUTCH
Running from 1975-1979, Starksy and Hutch was fresh, tough and vibrant. Some would say sexy too, thanks to young leads Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky; the dark haired one) and David Soul (Hutch; the blond).

While other cop shows featured ageing men, this street-wise duo sped around in a soon to be iconic red and white Ford Gran Torino, hung out with the oh-so-cool superfly Huggy Bear, and were never short of female attention.

Such was the series popularity, Soul even earned himself a string of UK chart hits.

A crime fighting double-act second only to Holmes and Watson, though, like Dragnet, it also spawned a lacklustre comedy movie (with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, in 2004).

1980s: MIAMI VICE
A new decade and a new duo, this time James 'Sonny' Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo 'Rico' Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), two undercover detectives working in Miami.

Produced by Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, The Insider and the 2006 film version of Miami Vice), Mann's CV interestingly also includes time with Starsky & Hutch, Police Story and Police Woman.

Like the '80s, Miami Vice was bright, flashy, and a huge influence on male fashion. Notable guest stars included Phil Collins, Sheena Easton, Bruce Willis, Gene Simmons (Kiss), Little Richard, Liam Neeson, Isaac Hayes, Ian McShane, even Leonard Cohen!

Jan Hammer's instrumental theme was a huge hit in '85.

1990s: LAW AND ORDER
Premiering in 1990, Law and Order combined elements of procedural with legal and ran for 20 years, making it the US's longest running cop series. Which is why we've included it on our list.

It also launched a string of spin-offs including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (debuting in 1999 and still going), Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: LA and a UK-based version starring Bradley Walsh.

csi
CSI, bringing science into crime detection.


2000s: CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION
Produced by movie chap Jerry Bruckheimer (known for such flashy box office smashes asTop Gun, Pirates of the Caribbean, Armageddon) the Las Vegas-set drama reinvented the police procedural with a vengeance.

With a rockin' theme (classic Who track, Who Are You), and stylish camera work that delved into wounds and holes with scientific precision, it's (at the time of writing) still going strong with over 730 episodes. It's also spawned several spin-offs (the long-running CSI: Miami, CSI: NY) and has clearly been a huge stylistic influence on not only other police dramas but also TV documentaries.

And despite a gradually changing cast, it's still a ratings and critical hit, pulling in such celebs as Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie to direct franchise episodes as well as attracting such guest stars as Justin Bieber, David Cassidy, Taylor Swift and The Who's Roger Daltry.

As it delves into the science of detection, it's no wonder criminals love it!

2010s:
The decade's not out ... but what's your choice for best US cop show? Justified? Longmire? Southland?

What's the best US cop drama series ever?

So do you agree or disagree with our choices? Where's The Wire? What about Hawaii Five-O? Does anyone remember Michael Douglas in The Streets Of San Francisco? Should we have mentioned Cagney And Lacey? Or Homicide Life On The Street? What about Bones?
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Cagney and Lacey was great and should be on the list, but you missed out one more important classic.... CHiPs!
by dr_ki (score: 0|2) 1535 days ago
Hmm, grew up without a telly, I'm afraid, but will study these shows and get back to you... Thanks!
by Max Flynn (score: 1|61) 1533 days ago
What about THE SHIELD? Anybody remember that one?
by David Vincent (score: 0|4) 1533 days ago

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