Rewatching The Sopranos of late has got me thinking about crime fiction and television. Crime is a great source of drama, and crime shows are among some of the most popular scripted shows that people watch on the box. At their most basic, they are crime of the week shows, at their most complex they become stories as much about their time and place as they do about providing that vicarious thrill of watching bad things happen without the consequences affecting our lives. Here are my top 10 crime shows and the reasons they work.
10 - Crime Story
9 -Life on Mars (UK)
John Simm was the lead, but the star of the show was Philip Glenister as DCI Gene Hunt. A TV show about a modern cop travelling back to the un-PC seventies sounded daft, but somehow everything about this series came together in exactly the right way. It only lasted for two seasons, and that ending resulted in a number of debates about what actually happened, and if the producers had been smart that's the way things would have stayed. Sadly they made a sequel set in the 80s which made Gene the lead and provided a few dissapointingly definitive answers that really negated the power of the original show. But LoM was one of the finest British dramas of its time, and the crime drama aspects of its scripts were rarely less than compelling, drawing great paralells between what Britain was and what it had become.
8 - OZ
This prison drama was frequently unsettling, massively melodramatic and never less than utterly compelling (although frequently, one would feel the need for a long shower after watching: this was one disturbing show, not for the easily offended). There were no good guys - the best you could find was amorality - and the violence was frequently shocking and unexpected. Adibissi ranks as one of the most memorably terrifying characters of all time, even if his little hat defied the laws of physics. Brave, bold, a show that tried to ask tough questions about the penal system and even if it all got a little surreal (the musical episode was both brilliant and head scratching), and occasionally too focussed on the horrific violence inside a max security pen, there's no denying that it was hugely powerful and often debate provoking television.
I love french crime dramas. The ones they make for the movies, anyway. Their TV has been more hit and miss until a little show called Spiral (Engrenages) came along and paved the way for a new way of looking at cop shows. Written by an ex cop, Braquo took the baton offered by Spiral and ran with it. Its a show about corrupt cops, about good people doing bad things, about how power can corrupt. Its a show with a spiky edge to it. And its utterly compelling. If you haven't seen it, seek it out, now. I'm just about to hit season 2 and I can't wait...
Homicide at number 6? Oh someone's going to lynch me for this. Homicide was a brilliant, brilliant show. But it was interesting how its early grittiness (the first season was based quite closely on David Simon's brilliant Baltimore reportage) gave way to a cleaner cop drama that nevertheless retained its bite with some great central performances. I still think killing John Polito was a mistake, but luckily the show continued to impress with a career defining role for Richard Belzer (his character, John Munch, has now appeared on around a dozen other shows including, bizarrely, Sesame Street) and the constant presence of the brilliant Yahpett Koto as the squad commander. And of course, there was always A brilliant show, even
5 - Justified
Based on my favourite Elmore Leonard creations - US Marshall Raylan Givens - Justified had a strong first season that really grabbed me. Mostly it was the cool moments cribbed from Leonard's own writing, but it was also something in Timothy Oliphant's turn as Givens that grabbed me. Then Season 2 came along, turned everything on its head, ensured that this was a drama that was about more than just solving a crime. It became a show about families, about what they mean to us. And it quickly became one of the best goddamn shows I'd seen in a long time. Effortlessly cool, and unexpectedly smart, Justified is absolutely brilliant television.
4 - Spiral
The show that changed French TV for the better is a labarynthe, complex series that owes a huge debt to America's THE WIRE in the way that it mixes procedural machinations with a cynical examination of the justice system in modern Paris. The cops are flawed human beings, the judges are subject to their own failings and the criminals are often far more complex than we might at first assume. Every season works in its own story arc, but threads that you thought long gone soon re-emerge when you least expect them. This is appointment TV at its finest, and crime drama with a brilliant coating of true French cool.
3 - NYPD Blue
This is the one that might get me in trouble as a lot of people do prefer Homicide to Blue. But frankly Blue is the show that really got gritty first. Those first few seasons, where Andy Sipowicz was at his drop down drunk worst were compelling television as Blue presented cops who were every bit as human as the people on the mean streets they patrolled. And while, like Homicide, Blue got more comfortable in its later years, the creators acknowledged this by refocussing the show on Andy Sipowcz's evolution. And any show that can take the lead from early 90s sitcom Saved By The Bell and make him into a credible and - more importantly - a foil for Dennis Franz's powerhouse performance as Sipowicz deserves to be hailed as a classic.
2 - The Sopranos
The two and one slots are interchangeable in my book. The Sopranos is simply one of the greatest character studies ever committed to television. Tony Soprano is more than just a mob boss; he's a barometer of the times. He's all our worst instincts in one empathetic package, and even when he tries to do the right thing, its often in the wrong way. That any show can make us care for not only Tony but his wholly sociopathic crew is a minor miracle. But care we do, so much so that when that final shot aired, you could hear the collective gasps of nations of TV viewers who all took something different and personal from the meaning of those final moments.
1 - The Wire
After the dry run of Homicide and the HBO adaptation of The Corner, David Simons produced this incredible examination of the modern world wrapped up in the guise of a crime show. More than cops and robbers, The Wire was all about the evolution of a city, a microcosm of humanity on a larger scale. It was a show about injustices on small and grand scales. It was about how all our lives are determined by larger forces. It was about how we must recognise injustice to make any kind of chance. And it was about some of the most complex and most completely human cops ever put on television. The Wire was television as novel, and frankly, it reinvigorated the television cop show to remind us of the power of visual storytelling and how it can be as subtle and thought provoking as any straight prose.
For those wondering, there are shows I have missed. The Shield, for example, never really quite worked for me. Mostly down to Vic Mackey, a character who never really evolved over the show (although that may have been the point) and the fact that the show reveled a bit too much in its own over the top approach. I'm not denying its fans, but it never quite held together for me. Law and Order and CSI were all huge shows, but again they never worked for me in the same way that many of these shows did. And yes, I have a US bias, but its the same as in my reading that there's something about the US way with dialogue that always seems to work for me. Its a personal list, so feel free to disagree in the comments or remind me about the great goddamn TV crime shows I may have missed...