There were some great network television crime series. Many of them, like Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, were must-sees when they came out. I was hooked. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I tried to get the barber to cut my hair like Craig Stevens. Unfortunately, most of these old shows don’t seem to stand the test of time. Even so, as it turns out most of my list is comprised of more recent dramas mostly from network TV or PBS. I may have overlooked some worthy cable crime dramas. Your comments, as always, are welcomed.
1. The Wire — Nothing touches this. It is miles ahead of the rest of the pack, of everything, even films. Tough, gritty, real. A mix of crime and politics that made me feel like I was eavesdropping on the real thing.
2. Prime Suspect (English Version) — A pioneer in realistic police dramas with vulnerable characters in believable relationships. It doesn’t hurt to have Helen Mirren as the central character, who must fight old boy police as well as criminals.
3. Homicide, Life on the Street — I see this as a predecessor to “The Wire.” Not being a cop, I couldn’t know for sure; but this appeared to be authentic — lives on the edge of surreality, the kind of day-to-day that the police must face. The effective use of dark humor sets it above most TV dramas.
4. DaVinci Inquest — This is “The Wire” in realistic, but less intense situations. In “The Wire” we spend most of our time in the poorest and most violent neighborhoods. In “DaVinci,” we are exposed to a broader range of crime and class with that same sense that we are not viewing a program, but are somehow privy to the unvarnished ins and outs of crime and politics.
5. NYPD Blue — Fine acting, fine stories. While I have little other than good to say for a series that showed cops as screwed up as the rest of us, I tired of a steady diet of anger and sadness. I believed Andy Sipowicz, but he and the others could have used even the slightest sense of humor. As nurses, firefighters and cops will attest, there are at least flashes of comedy, dark as it might be, in the worst of human situations. “NYPD” didn’t quite get that.
6. Sherlock Holmes (the Benedict Cumberbatch series) — All right, all right, it’s too early to tell. Three episodes. That’s not enough. But the show was so bright, so fresh and so much fun, it’s already earned its place on my list no matter what they do next.
7. The Rockford Files — Perhaps I’ve let a little sentiment sneak into my evaluation. What I can say is that it holds up very well, the best of the vintage TV private eyes. I’m in the midst of watching them all again. As of this writing I am at episode 83 and I’m enjoying it. What I liked about James Garner’s “Maverick” is what I like about his Rockford. Here’s a man who is not afraid to run away and fight another day. (But if I were Rockford, Angel would be dead.) Even at its weakest moments, “The Rockford Files” easily remains the best fictional private eye series ever on American television.
8. The original Law and Order (first few seasons) — For a while there, I thought there would be a spin-off showing the drama surrounding the lives of the parking meter police. But when the original came on some years ago, it was a fresh idea — from police investigation to the courtroom — and the stories and acting were top notch.
9. The Good Wife — Another surprise. Just when I was about to give up on network TV, “The Good Wife” comes up with fascinating characters, people who deal with crime, law, political corruption, private detection, and flawed moral fiber. A fine mix.