For many years, cop/detective shows have been one of the most popular genres on TV, and if you’ve watched any, you know why. Perhaps the only thing people love more than a compelling villain is watching a villain go down, and that’s where these series get a chance to shine. With so many options available today, we decided to help narrow it down for you with a list of the ten best police procedural TV shows.
Shows that follow fictional law enforcement characters are often long-form, with no ending in sight, able to go for years on end. While they usually have a rough, overarching narrative to tie things together, individual episodes typically focus on a different crime with different criminals. This method has benefits and drawbacks; while it can lead to some shows feeling stretched out purposelessly, it also provides bountiful opportunities for fun cameos and extra time with your favorite characters. There are so many great series to choose from, but we did the work for you by compiling the ten best police procedural shows of all time.
10. ‘Hawaii Five-O’ (2010-2020)
First on the list of police procedurals you have to see is Hawaii Five-O. The series follows Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) and his elite squad as they solve crime and navigate everyday life. One of the main factors that make this cop drama so popular among crime lovers is the diversity of cases the crew is tasked with solving. They tackle everything from local drug busts to international espionage cases, all while enjoying a gorgeous tropical backdrop. The show is a reboot of the classic series of the same name which aired from 1968 to 1980, but the blend of mystery, action, and problem-solving in the newer version makes it one of the best police procedurals.
9. ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ (2000-2015)
For a franchise to spawn as many spin-offs as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has, it simply has to be one of the best police procedurals. Of the many angles to approach a crime thriller, setting a series in a forensic lab run by Gil Grissom (William Peterson) may be the most entertaining. Each installment in this 300+ episode series is crafted with scrupulous details as Gil and his crew analyze forensic evidence and work with the authorities to solve mysterious crimes. CSI has had perhaps the most prominent long-term effect on police procedural dramas by mixing forensic spectacle with captivating storytelling to revolutionize the genre. The most recent spin-off, CSI: Vegas, is still running, but none can match the magic of the original.
8. ‘Harrow’ (2018-2021)
Harrow is not a conventional police procedural in the sense the main character doesn’t work in law enforcement, but it still deserves a spot on the list. The ABC crime/medical thriller follows Dr. Daniel Harrow (Ioan Gruffudd), an overly invested forensic pathologist who is determined to solve the cases of his victims. Harrow’s methods are often very unorthodox and land him in difficult spots with the police, his coworkers, and his friends. The show does an outstanding job weaving a narrative equally focused on Harrow’s work, and his dark, troubled past. Many fans are familiar with Gruffudd from his work in the Fantastic Four films in the mid-2000s, but this series is undoubtedly some of his finest work and one of the best police procedurals.
7. ‘Blue Bloods’ (2015-2024)
Tom Selleck may have traded Magnum, P.I. for Blue Bloods, but he’ll always have that iconic mustache. Number seven on our list follows the Reagans, a multigenerational law enforcement family who have committed their entire lives to protecting others. Although Blue Bloods is one of the best police procedurals, it’s also a narrative-driven family drama. When the Reagans aren’t out solving crime, they’re usually dealing with family issues, and the complexities of doing their job while also balancing personal ethics. The series provides a unique blend not often seen in the police procedural drama genre and is well worth the watch if you enjoy more intimate stories.
6. ‘Criminal Minds’ (2005-)
Some series success leads to spin-offs, and others receive continuations, and Criminal Minds received the latter. The intense, gritty crime drama follows the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit as they study and apprehend different criminals. With Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) leading the charge, the crew works together to examine past psychological patterns in an attempt to prevent further crime. Paramount picked up the franchise for a reimagining, Criminal Minds: Evolution, which follows the same characters but puts more focus on the overarching narrative in contrast to a “case of the week” method. Criminal Minds may have reached series-low viewership numbers over the last several years, but it’s still one of the best police procedurals TV has to offer.
5. ‘Psych’ (2006-2014)
Every great genre in any medium of storytelling has diversity, and a show like Psych featuring on the same list as Criminal Minds is proof the police procedural genre is beyond bountiful. The buddy cop series follows Shawn Spencer (James Roday Rodriguez) and his friend Burton Guster (Dulé Hill) as they solve crimes together, but they’re anything but ordinary partners. Spencer has a photographic memory but poses as a psychic and teams up with Gus to assist the Santa Barbara Police Department in apprehending bad guys. Known for its witty humor and heartfelt dynamic between the two leads, Psych is a must-watch police procedural if you like some laughs with your handcuffs.
4. ‘Luther’ (2010-2019)
Let’s be honest, Idris Elba as the leading star is enough to sell any show. Luther is a BBC original crime thriller that ran for five short seasons and follows gritty Detective John Luther (Elba) through intrepid crime investigations across London. Luther is not a conventional crime solver, and his unorthodox methods consistently land him in tough situations. Elba gives an outstanding performance alongside other cast members like Wunmi Mosaku as the intense series dives further and further into dark narratives and high-stakes cases. It is easily one of the most well-directed and written police procedural TV shows.
3. ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ (2013-2021)
Although Brooklyn Nine-Nine is more focused on showing the audience a good time and issuing commentary on the field than providing an authentic law-enforcement experience, it’s still one of the best police procedurals of all time. The comedy crime series follows a band of ragtag detectives, led by Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), as they work together to solve crimes and navigate a complex and hilarious work environment. The detective crew in Brooklyn Nine-Nine engages in police activities, but the real reason to watch is that it doesn’t let you go more than a couple of minutes without a sidesplitting laugh. If you’re a fan of comedy and police dramas, this show will most definitely not disappoint.
2. ‘NCIS’ (2003-)
NCIS, originally a spin-off product of the legal procedural JAG, is a special police procedural because it isn’t just beat cops taking down street-level thugs. The series, follows Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and his team, as they investigate crimes related to the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The character-driven series focuses heavily on interpersonal dynamics and complex crime-solving and is well-loved for its unique mixture of military intrigue and dry humor. Although NCIS has been steadily losing viewers over its soon-to-be 21-season run, it’s still the most popular scripted show on network TV and one of the best police procedurals.
1. ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ (1999-)
It’s fairly uncommon for a spin-off to end up more popular than the original, but that’s what happened with the previous entry and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The series follows Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her group of detectives in the Manhattan SVU borough as they investigate vicious and heinous sexual crimes. The series is widely praised for portraying strong female characters and tackling important social issues. The characters showcase resilience when faced with the systemic challenges of the criminal justice system, and continuously come out on top. SVU is inarguably the best police procedural TV show still running today.
Police Procedurals Dominate the TV Landscape
Police procedural series, like many genres, come in all shapes and sizes. Some entries on this list boast hundreds of episodes over multiple decades, while others have a much smaller portfolio. It goes to show that good stories will never go out of style, and as long as people are around, cop shows will be too. Regardless of length, setting, or any other factors, these police procedurals are more than worth your time.
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