The best cop TV shows

You asked, so I deliver

This blog is often something of a drumbeat of negativity. I disagree with the vast majority of what is said in popular media about policing and crime, and so I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why it’s wrong. And crime and violence are depressing topics anyway. But today is the Fourth of July, I’m going to go grill after I post this, and everybody should be having fun. So — at the request of several readers — I’m trying my hand at being a television critic, focusing (naturally) on the best cop TV shows.

Before I get into my favorites, I owe it to the reader to explain my criteria for what makes a “good” cop show. Good cop shows are realistic, fun to watch, or both. A lot of television shows about police are fun to watch; almost none are realistic. As such, “realism” is relative — when I say a show is “realistic”, I mean as compared to the median Hollywood production, not that it closely approximates the actual experience police work. Any television program that was remotely an accurate depiction of police work would mostly be a show about people driving places and writing reports.

On the other hand, some good TV shows don’t really even try to be realistic. They’re just fun to watch. Usually, these shows are so far removed from being realistic that their inaccuracy doesn’t annoy me, because they’re so unbelievable that I’m actually able to suspend disbelief. The trouble is when a show ends up in what I call “the uncanny valley of cop shows.” This happens when the creators try to make the show “realistic” or “gritty” but instead it just turns out to be terrible (See: Blue Bloods).

So without further ado, here’s the list.

1. Law and Order (Original)

The original Law and Order lasted for twenty seasons, making it one of the longest-running TV shows ever. When it was canceled, I was pissed.

Law and Order wins big realism points not because the plots were especially realistic (they were famously “ripped from the headlines” but often ended up being pretty convoluted) or because the police stuff was especially realistic (although it was fine) but because it is probably the only cop TV show that ever depicted what happened when after you make an arrest: You have to fucking go to court!

Dealing with court and lawyers is like, one-third of being a cop — probably even more if you’re a detective. You’ll go to court and the prosecutor will tell you all the things you’re not allowed to testify about because they’re hearsay. You’ll sit around for a while waiting to testify, and then someone will tell you that the defendant has struck a plea deal and pled guilty to a lesser charge. If you do testify, the defense lawyer will make a big show of cross-examining you, trying to gin up some drama. Sometimes it works; most of the time it doesn’t. Law and Order showed all these things — even plea bargaining, which for better or worse, is what makes the system work.

Law and Order also depicted what happens when cops screw up: suppression. Because the second half of the show needed courtroom drama, it often started with some evidence being suppressed — sometimes because the detectives screwed up, sometimes because a judge made a bad decision, and sometimes because a defense lawyer was really slick. It then falls on Jack McCoy to put the case back together. Sometimes the prosecutors would even bitch out the cops for screwing up, or vice versa. Although people tend to keep it professional in real life, the tension between cops and prosecutors is a real thing, and probably always has been.

Law and Order wasn’t really about the characters, and they were regularly swapped out anyway. But many of the longest-running characters were good. Lennie Briscoe was a crusty old cop who’d quit drinking and had an ex-wife. Jack McCoy, like pretty much all prosecutors, is a 1990s liberal — he wants to put those bad guys in jail, but by God, he also cares about the law. And Lt. Van Buren was an effective, no-bullshit supervisor who also had your back — the kind of person you’d want to work for if you’re a cop.

If you enjoy the Law and Order spinoffs, I’m sorry to say I think they all suck. Criminal Intent was fun for about five minutes when Jeff Goldblum was on the show, but that was about it. With the exception of the episode that guest-starred Robin Williams, Special Victims Unit mostly struck me as violence/rape porn. And I really did try to watch Organized Crime when it came out, but the reality is that Christopher Meloni emotes like a 2x4, and the plot, as near as I could tell, was an extremely unsubtle parable about wokeness and COVID. I just don’t feel like being bludgeoned with that after living through the last year and a half.


2. The Wire

Everything that can be said about The Wire has basically already been said. They literally have entire college classes about it. It’s a great TV show, and there’s not a whole lot I can add to what’s already been said about how great it is.

The Wire definitely gets the “vibe” of being a cop correct in a way no other show does. The bullshitting, the jaded attitudes, the backslapping. Cops pretending to be Irish, and drinking too much. The commanders being fucking assholes and politicians. The diversity — I worked with black cops and gay cops and women and everybody else. The panic when you think a partner is in trouble — the scene where Kima gets shot still raises my heart rate.

I’m probably trolling a little bit by ranking it second, but I have some nits to pick. First, remember what I said about “realism” being relative? A lot of people seem to have forgotten this when it comes to The Wire. Like, law professors have written and published actual scholarly work about police brutality in The Wire. It’s still a fucking TV show! If you want to learn something useful about police work you’re going to have to look outside HBO. Even many normal people seem to think The Wire is some kind of documentary. I’ve heard people reference things like Omar’s “code” and the “Sunday truce” as if they were real things. Maybe those were real things once in Baltimore, but my experience where I worked was that most guys who rob drug dealers don’t care about a damn thing except money, and gang-bangers will shoot people any day of the week.

It’s also past time to stop treating David Simon like an expert on policing in Baltimore or policing generally. Yes, I have read “Homicide” and it’s a great book. Simon embedded himself with the Baltimore Police Department for a year which probably means he knows more about policing than anybody else in journalism or in Hollywood. But he did that in 1988. For context, the court case I named this blog after, which regulates police use of force and is now taught in every American police academy, was decided in 1989. The Wire, which was mostly based on Simon’s experience doing research for “Homicide”, is now thirteen years old. Things have changed! They’ve changed a lot. So please, please stop treating David Simon’s Twitter rants as if they come from a font of knowledge about policing. To the extent he was ever an expert, his expertise is now severely out of date.

3. SouthLAnd

Basically every cop TV show is about detectives, and usually about homicide detectives. Southland is beloved by street cops because it was one of the only shows that gave patrol almost as much attention and glory as it gives detectives. The show is split half and half between LAPD detectives and patrol cops.

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Except for the violence (which, like all cop TV shows, is greatly exaggerated), drama (same), and the absence of paperwork (see above) the patrol scenes in Southland are extremely realistic. The 911 calls are realistic and random. The scenes with street people and lunatics are a combination of tragic and hilarious. It does a great job of capturing how police work is “the greatest show on earth.” This wasn’t by accident — several Southland scenes are literally copied directly from episodes of COPS. Some storylines are ripped directly from the notorious episodes in the history of policing, such as The Onion Field. The show also tried to be gritter than a lot of network TV made when it was made — for example, instead of avoiding profanity, it was bleeped out.

The detective parts of Southland are also interesting, with Lydia Adams (Regina King) probably being the most compelling character. The detective storylines do a good job of capturing the seriousness of people being killed, which doesn’t always happen in other detective dramas. The worst part about Southland is the writers’ decision to routinely detour into the main characters’ personal lives. Yes, many cops do have disasters happening in their personal lives, as I’ve noted here before. But watching Southland, you’d think every cop spends all their off-duty time fighting with their ex-wife or getting way too drunk at the strip club. There are, in fact, people who have their shit together.

4. Bosch

Bosch is based on the novels by Michael Connelly. I haven’t read any of them, so your mileage may vary if you are a fan of the books.

The titular character in Bosch is, in my opinion, the least interesting aspect of the show. He is kind of a standard-fare hard-boiled detective type, the stereotypical brilliant detective bad boy who doesn’t play by the rules. The show is interesting mostly because of the well-written plots, the beautiful views of L.A., and the cast of secondary characters, who are uniformly excellent and fun. Not surprisingly, several of them came to the show from The Wire (Lance Reddick, Jamie Hector). Amy Aquino does an excellent job as Bosch’s lieutenant, Hector takes on the role of Bosch’s partner, and “Money” Chandler (Mimi Rodgers) plays a money-grubbing attorney who serves as Bosch’s sometimes-nemesis, sometimes-ally.

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Bosch has adapted over the years — when it started pre-Ferguson, Bosch himself was a stereotypical tough guy cop. He kicks off Season 1 by calling an Internal Affairs detective a “rat” and being sued by Chandler for killing a suspect. Over the years, Bosch has become more “woke” — to the point where the latest season contains a shark-jumping subplot about “incels.” Additionally, Amazon has apparently decided the next season will actually be a spinoff where Bosch is a private detective, not a cop. (Part of the mass cancellation of cop TV, I guess.) I wouldn’t care too much, except for the fact that the spin-off apparently dumps the supporting cast to focus Bosch/Titus Welliver who, as mentioned, is the least interesting character.

The contrast between Bosch as written by Connelly and the current political moment leads to weird stuff, like the LA Times review of Season 7 announcing that “‘Bosch’ knew the system was broken all along” complete with quotes from Connelly saying things like, “Harry’s mission is about what’s wrong with the system.” But in the real world, a detective like Bosch is what’s wrong with the system! We’re talking about a guy who gets up in suspects’ faces, calls them “motherfucker”, and roughly handcuffs them in a way that causes pain. If you do that shit in the real world, you get suspended, no matter how good of a homicide detective you are. I’m not sure whether Connelly says this stuff to keep critics happy or if he really believes it, but regardless, the show manages a lot more nuance than other shows about policing these days.

For example, the politician who “breaks” the system in Season 7 is Chief Irwin Irving, played by Reddick. Without giving too much away, he pushes Bosch to the breaking point in an effort to keep his job as chief while playing political games over police reform with the newly-elected Latina mayor. “Black police chief thwarts justice in policing to win a political battle with Hispanic mayor” is not a very “woke” storyline! But if you’re setting a show in Los Angeles in 2020, it’s much more plausible than a hammer-to-the-face-unsubtle “the cops are racist” storyline. Irving isn’t much of a villain in any event — we see so much of him and his family, that it’s hard not to sympathize with him to some degree.

5. Flint Town

I guess it’s cheating to include a documentary on a list when I’m using “realism” as a criteria, but I just think more people should know about Flint Town.

The crew that made Flint Town followed around the cops in Flint, Michigan for about a year. How they got permission to do this, I do not know, but it’s an awesome show. Due to the city’s dire financial situation, the Flint Police Department was defunded long before “defund the police” was a thing. The mostly-black residents live in a town that can’t provide clean water and can’t even send cops to the scene of actual shootings. The cops themselves work for like $15 an hour, and several of them have been laid off and then rehired over the years — something unimaginable to me.

Unlike a lot of documentaries, Flint Town doesn’t really have a “take.” There’s no voiceover narration, there’s no obvious editorial slant. The show treats the cops like people, and gives them a chance to explain how it feels to police in post-Ferguson America. (One particularly powerful scene with Officer Frost involves him describing his previous involvement in a shooting, and how he thinks people would react if it happened today.) But it also shows the dumb side of policing — like cops being rude, and arrests for petty bullshit. The police chief is kind of a weirdo and carries around a gun on each hip, like he’s an Old West gunfighter or something. (How do you reload?)

Even though I’m rating Flint Town number five on the list, I really hope you go watch it. It’s probably the “hidden gem” here. Where I worked the financial situation wasn’t dire as it is in Flint (and I got paid a lot more), but we felt the same pressures. Chronically feeling understaffed. The sinking feeling of having a million calls for service holding. Racial tension. Trump and the 2016 election, and all the insanity that came along with it. Worrying about your family. Deciding which friends you should still talk to, and which ones you shouldn’t. They only ever made one season, so it won’t take you long to watch.

Have a happy Fourth of July, and God bless America!