The Top 20 Crime Shows on TV This Decade
This piece was originally published on May 12, 2017 and has been updated for freshness and accuracy. ]
Stories about human beings have always included the ways in which we violate each other. It's a custom that predates the Bible by centuries.
Beyond just recording the ways in which society's norms are broken, we're also endlessly curious about the people tasked with putting things right. Whether it's the police officers who investigate the crimes, the judges who decide the appropriate punishment, or the victims' friends and family, this process has become central to many cultural touchstones.
On television, where the antihero has been king for the better part of two decades, this trend is as strong as ever. When a terrifying scenario is shown to an audience, they are always asked, "How would you react in this situation?" Consequences are often extremely severe Putting your characters in a situation where they or someone close to them has broken the law is a quick and easy way to ramp up the tension.
Of course, these programs never focus solely on isolated characters. A sense of what constitutes right or wrong conduct is present even in a show centered on the most virtuous Robin Hood-esque character. Popular shows in the genre have had a significant impact on how the public views the genre, and not always in a positive way. The stories that are worth analyzing and appreciating are the ones that find creative ways to show us more of the human experience than we might otherwise see.
To celebrate the best television of this still-young century, we've compiled 30 shows that exemplify the ebb and flow of success and failure and the consequences that follow. We can find heroes in the most unexpected places. It's not always clear whose side the show is on.
[Here are the rules we've followed: all shows must have premiered in the 2000s or later and be entirely scripted.] We considered a show to be a "crime show" if it featured significant criminal activity or the investigation and prosecution of such. ]
Among others, this list was compiled with help from Kristen Lopez, Liz Shannon Miller, and Hanh Nguyen.
"Special Victims Unit"
The 30th entry is "Law & Order: S.V.U."
The original "Law and Order" series, "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," is still one of the best crime shows despite some criticisms about its possible exploitation of victims. When the show first premiered, we watched as detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) of the Sexual Victims Unit (SVU) worked hard to assist victims of sexual assault and battery. Over the course of the show's 20-year run, it has sparked numerous discussions, with Hargitay, for example, becoming an outspoken advocate for the expedited processing of rape kits. The show gets a lot of flak for the way some "sexually heinous" lines are delivered, but it also helped shape the genre of police procedurals and introduced us to a beloved dynamic duo. In honor of Kristen Lopez
Episode 29: "Dexter"
Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a blood spatter expert in Miami. This scene (featuring Hall in his best role) was bloody brilliant; it gave viewers at home a thrill to root for the guy with the knife because he was channeling his inner serial killer to exact vigilante justice on other serial killers. He had a wife and a son, and he tried to live a normal life, but his depraved urges always came back and drew him back. Case after case, murderer after murderer, the show delivered on our expectations for gore and Dexter's unavoidable knack for fooling his friends and the police. However, the show's heart and real stakes came from his relationship with his detective sister Debra. The first few seasons were excellent, especially the one with John Lithgow, who had a truly chilling arc throughout the whole season. However, the show went a little off the deep end in the later seasons. By Hanh Nguyen
"The Sinner," starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman.
Photograph: Peter Kramer/USA Network
"The Sinner" (28).
Creating a show about a detective with emotional issues is as creative as making a show about a doctor who can cure everyone but themselves. Though it didn't start out that way, "The Sinner" has become the ideal model for a series that explores not only the motivations of the criminal but also those of the investigator. When it seems like detective Harry Ambrose should be doing something other than wallowing in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of trauma, Bill Pullman is one of the few steady hands on TV in the past decade. The captivating first season of "The Sinner" revolved around a daylight beach stabbing, and the hypnotic third season delved deeply into the nature of fate and free will. Despite the dangers, the journey was exciting because of the mysterious guide. Steve Greene
Title: "The Respectable Lady"
Title: "The Respectable Girl"
Hugo Blick's eight-part series is one of the few in its genre that successfully blends political complexity, covert espionage, and the devastating consequences of distrust. A fierce focal point is Maggie Gyllenhaal's portrayal of Nessa Stein, an Israeli-Palestinian businesswoman whose family history and future infrastructure projects are entangled with the conflict between the two countries. Stephen Rea, as the MI6 agent trying to make sense of it all, is joined by an equally impressive cast including Lindsey Duncan, Janet McTeer, Tobias Menzies, Katherine Parkinson, and others. Avoiding pat explanations, it shows how the choices made by one generation can have repercussions for generations to come. — SG
BBC America/Des Willie
At number 26, we have Luther.
Idris Elba's portrayal of Detective Chief Inspector John Luther gave British detectives a much-needed edginess boost. When it comes to solving crimes, Luther is as obsessive and even violent as Sherlock Holmes. It also further strains his already fragile connections to those closest to him. Not only did Elba serve as the series' anchor, but Ruth Wilson's portrayal of villain Alice Morgan proved to be one of the most unsettling antagonists in television history. Wilson gave Alice style worthy of Lauren Bacall and menace worthy of Hannibal Lecter, making us both love and fear her. It comes as no surprise that her relationship with Luther remained a "will they or won't they?" for the majority of the show. — KL
Sebastian Gutierrez's colorful examination of a woman fleeing her past demonstrates that grit and grime need not be mutually exclusive with style and imagination in crime fiction. Daisy "Jett" Kowalski is a master burglar whose personal history is just as complicated as her list of targets, and Carla Gugino is at her best here. The time-jumping, multi-tasking protagonist of "Jett" is another victim of the trap that awaits those who venture into the underworld in search of financial gain. The show has equal parts violence and style, demonstrating how Jett's robberies can be works of art in their own right. (The show's short run was a bummer, but "Leopard Skin," a spiritual sequel to Peacock written by Gutierrez and Gugino, has a lot of the same flashy danger in its DNA. ) — SG
Landscapers stars Olivia Colman.
The HBO/Stefania Rosini
Many of the shows on this list rely heavily on the protagonist's or antagonist's ability to shift their point of view. No other show is as committed to artifice from the very first frames as "Landscapers," which takes this idea and runs with it. Director and co-writer Will Sharpe brings Ed Sinclair's reimagining of the true story of accused murderers Susan (Olivia Colman) and Christopher Edwards (David Thewlis) to life. Susan and Christopher both imagine themselves as the leads in a tragic love story, whether it's a traditional Hollywood production or one set in another era or on another continent. Rather than slavishly emulating certain genre conventions, the show gives them its own genuine, earned hazy vibe. A tragic triumph of composition, "Landscapers" combines the dark comedy of "The Office," the rosy optimism of "The Big Short," and the tediousness of "The Good Fight." The show is able to demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of a single decision by drawing from its vast stylistic toolkit. — SG
The Swedish series "Snabba Cash," based on the same Jens Lapidus books as the 2010s film trilogy, is one of the few crime shows that makes the viewer feel as immersed (and, at times, almost complicit) in the on-screen violence. The first three episodes follow Leya (Evin Ahmad), Salim (Alexander Abdallah), and Tim (Ali Alarik) as they navigate the realities and potential of the neighborhoods in which they reside in Stockholm. As events unfold and their lives intertwine, the three realize that business of any kind requires a sacrifice of the heart. Every episode has the tense, coiled feeling that something momentous and/or disastrous is about to happen, whether it takes place in a hidden storage room, a board room, or a confrontation on the street. Once the gunfire begins, "Snabba Cash's" brand of ordered mayhem is unlike anything else of its kind. — SG
BBC America/Colin Hutton
The 22nd spot goes to "Broadchurch."
America's ITV and BBC
A small seaside town in Dorset is rocked to its foundations when the body of a local boy is discovered at the bottom of a cliff. The town's residents are transformed by the police probe and media attention, revealing hidden truths and long-held beliefs. The murderer's identity is shocking (especially given the killer's close relationship with a prominent citizen), but the show's sustained unease comes from its nuanced examination of the development and inevitable breakdown of such bonds. "Broadchurch" is one of the finest British inheritors of the "Twin Peaks" formula of small-town crime that exposes the underbelly of the town itself, thanks in large part to the restrained performances of David Tennant and Olivia Colman as the investigating detectives. — HN
Next: both the darkest and brightest television series of all time
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