Police Dramas on Television (2024)

The public has a long-standing fascination with crime, law, and justice. Crime is a central feature in news, newsmagazines, documentaries, reality-based shows, and fictional drama. The experiences of police, lawyers, judges, private investigators, medical examiners, correctional workers, criminals, and victims are probed in a variety of television shows. Every year, television executives attempt to find crime and justice programs that capture viewers and enjoy high ratings (Bielby & Bielby, 1994). In particular, the police drama or procedural is a staple of television programming in the United States, and several shows have experienced critical acclaim, large viewing audiences, and longevity. Since 1950, there have been almost 300 police dramas that have appeared on network, cable, and syndicated television (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). This number does not include the large number of shows that focus on other elements of crime and justice, such as detective shows, shows based on lawyers, judges, correctional workers, and criminals. Overall, most of these police dramas were relatively short-lived and have largely been forgotten (Sabin, Wilson, Speidel, Faucette, & Bethell, 2014). Programs that succeed are often imitated, recycled as reboots (i.e., Adam-12, Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Hunter, Kojak, The Untouchables), or franchised into spin-offs (CSI, Criminal Minds, Law & Order, and NCIS). As such, the purpose of this essay is to provide a chronological history of the evolution and trends that have made the television cop a mainstream figure within American pop culture.

Setting the Stage: Private Detectives, Mounties, and Cowboys

It is important to place the police drama in historical context. In popular culture, the private detective preceded the police in terms of popular appeal and became an established genre within literary fiction. In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue featured the first fictional detective. While in 1887, arguably the most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction took place in the 1920s and 1930s, and featured Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Both Holmes’ and Christie’s detectives have been heavily featured in both television and film. In fact, their character traits are often used in both crime and police dramas, especially mysteries. In the late 1930s, American writers reinvented the private eye genre, with “hardboiled” detective novels that encompassed gritty and stylish storylines. This era is best exemplified by Raymond Chandler’s detective, Phillip Marlowe, whose tough, hard-drinking, wise-cracking personality served as an inspiration for many future protagonists in crime dramas, including fictional television police characters (Mizejewski, 2004). Many of these detectives were featured heavily in radio programming, and with the inauguration of network television, the private detective became a mainstay in television programming, which persists to this day (Dunning, 1998).

Conversely, literary figures within the world of policing did not enjoy same level of popularity as private detectives. The 1868 novel, The Moonstone (1868) is considered the first police detective novel in the English language and featured a Scotland Yard detective (Miller, 1988). Yet, the most popular policing characters were historical figures (fictional and non-fictional) from the American West and Canadian North. The American West served as an inspiration for “dime novels,” which were often based on real figures such as Wild Bill Hickok. Nonetheless, the “outlaw” dominated dime novels, and authors such as Zane Grey propelled Western folklore into a thriving genre that dominated American popular culture, eventually entering radio, film, and television (Etulain, 1996; Inciardi & Dee, 1987). Similarly, numerous journalists began to write stories about the North West Mounted Police, who are now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP. The Mounties were adventurously depicted as courageous, dashing, and romantic figures who “always got their man.” Internationally recognized, the Mountie has become a national symbol of Canada and has been the basis of novels, magazines, comics, films, and radio programs. The commercialization and popular appeal of the Mountie is demonstrated by the production of more than 250 Hollywood movies (Dawson, 1998). The radio programs were extremely popular, and that popularity carried directly over into television. For example, during the 1950s, the television program, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon was based on the radio program “Challenge of the Yukon” (later changed to “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”). Arguably, the real star of the show, was Yukon King, Preston’s canine sidekick, an Alaskan husky that inevitably played a heroic role in many episodes. Despite the early appeal, the Mountie did not appear again on network television until Due South was broadcast from 1994 to 1996, on CBS. The main character, RCMP officer Benton Fraser, played by Paul Gross, was assigned to the Canadian consulate in Chicago, where he would inevitably assist his friend Ray Vecchio, who was a stereotypical street-smart Chicago cop. In an ode to Sgt. Preston, one of Constable Fraser’s sidekicks was Diefenbaker, a deaf, lipping-reading pet wolf, which was aptly named after a former Canadian Prime Minister. The show was considered a mix between drama and comedy, as it dealt with absurd plots and stereotypes. However, Constable Fraser was more similar to the cartoon character, Dudley Do-Right, than to the more grizzled Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.

Similarly, the American West became a focal point of early television programs after huge success on both film and radio. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, the Western dominated television programming with such hits as The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Have Gun will Travel, Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Big Valley, Maverick, and Rawhide. Although, some Westerns featured law enforcement as leading characters, such as Gunsmoke’s Marshal Dillon, “justice” in the genre was generally achieved through vigilantism by legal outsiders. Legal outsiders were those not acting under the guise of the law, but heroic figures who had a strong moral sense of justice and fairness. In the Western genre, these solitary figures were generally more effective in providing justice than the established legal institutions, which were sometimes presented as corrupt, morally ambivalent, and decadent. The genre would end in late 1960s, amidst complaints from groups claiming that the genre was too violent for television (MacDonald, 1987; Mittell, 2004).

Nonetheless, in the early 1970s, elements of the Western were updated into more modern settings, with such series as Hec Ramsey, Nichols, and McCloud. Created by Jack Webb’s production company, Hec Ramsey (NBC, 1972–1974), starred Richard Boone as a turn-of-the-century gunfighter/lawman who became interested in crime science. Not only did he carry a gun, he also had his handy trunk full of forensics such as fingerprinting equipment, magnifying glasses, and scales that aided in his solving of mysteries. Similarly, actor James Garner played the title character in the television show Nichols (NBC, 1971–1972). Set in Arizona during the 1910s, Nichols served as sheriff and used a motorcycle instead of the standard horse. McCloud (NBC, 1970–1977) became popularized in NBC’s mystery movie rotation, along with Columbo and McMillan and Wife. Dennis Weaver starred as Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud from Taos, New Mexico, who was on temporary assignment to the New York City Police Department. He wore a sheepskin coat, bolo tie, and a cowboy hat. He had a heavy western accent, which was highlighted in every episode with his catch phrase “There you go!” Finally, Cade’s County (CBS, 1971–1972) featured Glen Ford as Sam Cade, a contemporary sheriff operating in a rural area in a South West State (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

In the 1990s, the western/police genre made a comeback, with Walker, Texas Ranger (CBS, 1993–2001), produced by action star Chuck Norris. Although, not critically acclaimed, the show was highly successfully, lasting for over nine seasons and gathering a “cult” following. Lacking realism, the show had a cartoonish level of violence, with karate as the main tool employed by the old-school and stoic Walker (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). Cable television breathed new life into western/police genre with Peacemakers (USA Network, 2003) and Deadwood (HBO, 2004–2006). Peacemakers lasted only nine episodes and was an attempt to mirror the success of CSI, by combining the Old West with forensic science crime fighting techniques. The critically acclaimed Deadwood told the story of Deadwood, South Dakota. Timothy Olyphant starred as Seth Bullock, a historical figure who was the original sheriff of the town. In the 2010s, western themes within law enforcement were once again introduced with a more modern twist, with Justified (FX Network, 2010–2015) and Longmire (A&E, Netflix, 2012–). Both shows featured lead characters who exhibited Old West lawman characteristics, but the stories were set in the contemporary rural areas of Kentucky and Wyoming, respectively.

The Birth of the Police Drama: The “Dragnet Effect”

Depictions of police did not fully appear until the emergence of Dragnet (NBC, 1951–1959). Like many shows of the era, Dragnet first appeared as a successful radio program before transitioning into the world of television (Dunning, 1998). However, Dragnet was not the first police drama on television; that distinction goes to Stand By For Crime (ABC, 1949–1949). On January 11, 1949, the show was the first program transmitted from Chicago to New York and televised for a national audience. The plot focused on the murderer’s point of view, in which the lead police detective would uncover and analyze the clues. Audiences were than invited to guess of the identity of the killer by phoning the network. The show was not well received nationally and was cancelled later in the year. Also, on October 12th, 1949, the Dumont network presented The Plainclothesman (Dumont, 1949–1954), a straightforward, big-city crime drama that featured an unseen lead character, simply named the Lieutenant. The audience saw the episode through the viewpoint of the Lieutenant, who with his sidekick Sgt. Brady, would solve an assortment of murders (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

From 1950 to 1951, a handful of shows featuring police officers appeared, including Dick Tracy, Rocky King Inside Detective, Racket Squad, and Crime with Father. Dick Tracy (ABC, 1950–1951) was based on a highly intelligent police detective who was more popularly known from a comic strip before being adapted for a highly successful radio program. The Dumont network produced Rocky King Inside Detective (Dumont, 1950–1954), a low-budget series that featured a hard-working detective in the New York City Homicide division, who simply followed leads and tracked down and arrested suspects, which was a similar premise to Dragnet. Racket Squad (CBS, 1951–1953) was based on actual case records and dealt with confidence rackets rather than street crime and murder. Conversely, Crime with Father (ABC, 1951–1952) involved an improbable plot, in which a homicide detective received help from his daughter in solving crime (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

Of course, the very nature of the genre changed on December 16, 1951, when NBC broadcast an episode of the original Dragnet series. The primary formula of the show was to entertain as well as to educate and inform. In an effort to offer moral education and social commentary, it was filmed as a pseudo-documentary, with the still-familiar four notes, dun dun dun dun, accompanying the story to punctuate important findings within the narrative. The creator, writer, and lead actor, Jack Webb was obsessed with crafting an accurate and realistic depiction of the working life of police officers. To create a sense of realism, Webb included visual inserts of contemporary Los Angeles, and the characters used authentic police “lingo,” as well as procedure and protocol. Webb was a regular fixture at the Los Angeles Police Department and frequently went on ride-alongs in a quest for knowledge about the police and their work. With stories adapted from the files of the Los Angeles police, the early version of the show made claims for the realism of its depictions, announcing at the start of every episode: “What you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” (Cavender & Fishman, 1998; Lenz, 2003; Mittell, 2004; Sabin, Wilson, Speidel, Faucette, & Bethell, 2014).

Even the most mundane aspects of a police investigation were included in the show, with Friday’s monotone, matter-of-fact voice-overs describing details such as weather, his partner’s name, locations they were visiting, and leads that they were following. The show had a slow and methodical pace and was focused on the ordinary, in both the type of crime and investigative techniques. For example, the crimes range from murder, to petty theft, to forgery. For instance, the episode “The Big Grandma” (S02E09, 01-01-1953) featured an elderly woman passing bad checks, while the plot for “The Big Screen” (S04E22, 01-27-1955) involved a television repairman who was overcharging customers. Yet, it would be a misnomer to suggest that the show was only focused on non-sensational crimes. Murder was a prominent feature of the show, with several episodes that featured homicide investigations. For example, the episode, “The Big Cast” (S01E05, 02-14-1952) focused on the interrogation of a suspect, played by actor Lee Marvin, who ends up being a serial murderer. Yet, even with plots that featured murder, the investigations were non-sensational and unemotional, following leads, asking questions, interrogating suspects, and eventually solving the crimes.

The show had a sharply defined sense of right and wrong. Unlike modern crime drama, there was no blurring of the boundaries between good and evil. The police, based on Webb’s interpretation, were ethical and honorable champions of morality, whose sole purpose was to serve the public and protect the innocent. Sergeant Friday epitomized this ideal by adhering to a strict moral code and did not hesitate to deliver advice about the black and white nature of justice, criminality, and policing. Friday’s efficiency, work habits, and adherence to protocol served as a shining example for the authority and legitimacy of policing. In 1954, Time Magazine put Webb on the cover and wrote a piece, which argued that the American public was now gaining a “new appreciation of the underpaid, long-suffering, ordinary policeman” and gaining a basic “understanding of real-life enforcement” (Anonymous, 1954). Scholars maintain that the show was a propaganda tool that helped legitimize the LAPD and their actions (Lenz, 2003; Sabin et al., 2014; Sharrett, 2012). Controversial LAPD chief William H. Parker benefitted from Webb’s advocacy, and his police force received a steady source of good publicity, notwithstanding the fact that the LAPD faced numerous charges of police brutality, racism, and corruption, which were not addressed on the original version of the show.

Like any successful program, Dragnet spawned numerous imitators, such as The Lineup, (CBS, 1954–1960), Highway Patrol (Syndicated, 1955–1959), State Trooper, (Syndicated, 1956–1959), Harbor Command, (Syndicated, 1957–1959), M-Squad, (NBC, 1957–1960) and Naked City (ABC, 1958–1963). The Lineup was produced in cooperation with the San Francisco Police Department and featured actual cases from the SFPD. Similarly, State Trooper was allegedly based on Nevada state police files. The police in the highly successful Highway Patrol solved crimes within an unidentified Western state’s highway system, while solving crimes on the waterways was the focus of the less successful Harbor Command. The M-Squad starred Lee Marvin as Detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger of a special unit that tackled violent crime, including organized crime, throughout the city of Chicago (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). Finally, the Naked City was based on the film of the same name and, like Dragnet, was filmed as a quasi-documentary, with the iconic closing line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” Filmed in New York, the series featured fictional detectives from the NYPD’s 65th precinct, and the storylines focused on guest stars who played either victims or criminals (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). The show had a somewhat edgy, gritty realism and was a forerunner to the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues. Although the show was not a ratings success, it was critically acclaimed and eventually became a staple of late-night television reruns (Sabin et al., 2014).

As mentioned early, the Western genre dominated dramatic television in the 1960s. There were only a handful of shows that featured police as central characters and only a few that achieved ratings success. Most of the police dramas of the 1960s were relatively short lived. The early 1960s featured shows such as Man from Interpol (NBC, 1960), 87th Precinct (NBC, 1961–1962), The Asphalt Jungle (ABC, 1961), Cain’s Hundred (NBC, 1961–1962), The New Breed (ABC, 1961–1962), Arrest and Trial (ABC, 1963–1964), and Burke’s Law (ABC, 1963–1966). Arrest and Trial is noteworthy for being the forerunner of the much more successful Law & Order franchise. The first 45 minutes featured a police investigation under direction of Detective Nick Anderson, played by Ben Gazzara, while the last 45 minutes focused on the trial, which pitted Defense Attorney John Egan, played by Chuck Connors, against District Attorney Jerry Miller, played by John Larch. The show was cancelled after only 30 episodes. Yet, the groundbreaking format was revisited almost thirty years later, with the premiere of Law & Order in 1990, which also featured a police investigation followed by a trial (Sabin et al., 2014). Burke’s Law is unique as it diverged away from the Dragnet-inspired authentic police drama that had dominated police dramas. Burke’s Law featured actor Gene Barry as Captain Amos Burke, a Los Angeles chief of detectives. The gimmick was that Burke was a millionaire driven to crime scenes in his Rolls Royce by Henry, his chauffeur. Prior to the third season, the show changed its title to Amos Burke, Secret Agent, as Burke left the police force to become a spy. At this time in the history of pop culture, the secret agent was more palatable for viewing audiences, especially with the popularity of James Bond films and the success of the television shows The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and I Spy (Stark, 1987). Surprisingly, Burke’s Law was reprised in 1994, lasting two seasons and twenty-seven episodes. This time, Burke was back as a police chief, solving crimes with his son and once again being driven around by his chauffer Henry. The show featured numerous guest stars, cheesy dialogue and music, as well as campy storylines (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). In an era, of well-written police dramas such as Law & Order and NYPD Blues, it is not surprising that this show was panned by critics and avoided by audiences.

Nevertheless, the 1960s produced some police dramas that achieved some rating success and longevity, including The Untouchables (ABC, 1959–1963) and The F.B.I. (ABC, 1965–1974). The Untouchables was a historical police drama, focused on the heroic, yet highly fictional exploits of Eliot Ness and his incorruptible treasury agents in their fight against gangsters and organized crime. At the time, it was considered the most violent show on television, with two or three violent shootouts every week. Despite the violence, the show reached number eight in the Nielsen ratings for the 1960–1961 season. Unlike Dragnet, which used real cases for storylines, The Untouchables was not historically accurate. The pilot, which aired as a two-part episode on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, overstated the importance of Ness’s role in the capture and eventual conviction of Al Capone. This is understandable, considering the producers used the self-serving autobiography that Ness had written. In 1932, Capone was convicted for tax evasion, and in 1933 prohibition was repealed, which invariably led to very little “accurate” historical material to use as storylines for the show. As a result, the television version of Ness and his agents became fictional, with storylines that featured major New York based gangsters that Ness had no dealings with, such as Dutch Schultz, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and Lucky Luciano. The episode “Ma Barker and Her Boys” (S01E02, 10-22-1958) upset J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who protested that the FBI should have been given credit for her capture. As a result, the show started issuing disclaimers that certain segments of the show were fictionalized (Sabin et al., 2014; Tucker, 2000).

Hoover was more impressed with The F.B.I., which became the one of few police dramas in the 1960s that enjoyed both rating success and longevity. The show was based on real FBI files and presented the G-Men as emotionless, efficient, and very effective crime-fighters. The Bureau dominated every aspect of this show, from script approval to screening of cast members, to guarantee that that the FBI was always seen in flattering light. Hoover even allowed the FBI headquarters in Washington to be used in background scenes, and some episodes ended with a most wanted segment, hosted by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who played the lead character, Inspector Lewis Erskine (Powers, 1983). The success of this show may have prompted the revival of Dragnet, which reappeared in 1967 and set the stage for an explosion of shows that featured police as lead characters, albeit in a new, somewhat “hip” direction (Sabin et al., 2014).

The Rebirth of the Police Drama: From Sergeant Friday to Kojak

Dragnet was relaunched in 1966, with Jack Webb producing a television movie pilot that did not air until 1969. Despite the non-airing of the pilot movie, NBC picked up the series as a mid-season replacement and aired it on Thursday nights. Webb originally wanted actor Ben Alexander to reprise the role of Frank Smith, his partner in the original series. However, Alexander was working for ABC on the less successful police drama, Felony Squad (ABC, 1966–1969), which was a standard police drama heavily influenced by the earlier Dragnet. As a result, Harry Morgan was cast as Friday’s equally straight-laced partner, Officer Bill Gannon. Whereas, the original Dragnet reinvented the television cop as a heroic figure, the new Dragnet (NBC, 1967–1970) clearly established Sergeant Joe Friday as an “old square” who was out of touch with the changing values within society. It was renamed, Dragnet 67, but used the identical cinema verite tactics of the original, replete with color and contemporary scenarios (Brooks & Marsh, 2007; Sabin et al., 2014).

Of note, in the new version, Sergeant Friday offered over-the-top moral commentary, from a very clear right wing, pro-establishment, and patriotic point of view (Lenz, 2003; Sharrett, 2012). In the very first episode, “The LSD Story” (S01E01, 01-12-1967), Friday and his partner Gannon, encounter a young man who is high on LSD. The suspect had a painted face, was chewing the bark off a tree, was rambling incoherently about various colors, and called himself the blue boy. On the back of the blue-boy’s shirt read the words “Live and Let Live, Down with the Fuzz.” The back of the shirt was clearly displayed for the audience and provided an obvious tone for the entire series. Sgt. Friday was clearly back, not just to protect citizens from degenerates, but to vociferously defend the actions of the police. In numerous episodes, Friday would engage in long-winded speeches to offer moral clarification and to defend the actions of the police (Sharrett, 2012). For example, the episode, “Public Affairs DR-07” (S03E01, 09-19-1968), was the definitive example of police propaganda. Friday and Gannon appeared on a television panel show, entitled “The Fuzz: Who Needs Them?” and they defended the LAPD against a litany of complaints from every caricature of the 1960s counterculture that Webb despised. As the ultimate apologist, Friday responded to negative comments about the police from a black activist, named Mondo Mabamba, who had the stereotypical afro and dashiki. Unlike Friday, he was confrontational and called the police “honkies” and “Nazis” while making accusations of police brutality against the black community in Watts. The emotionless Friday responded:

I am not here to say that race relations have always been perfect on either side. But things are improving, the Chief of Police is seeing to that, that’s our number one priority. But for police brutality, that’s another story, we try to prevent it in the first place by not hiring brutal men. Only one out of twenty-five who applies for a job in the department ever makes it. We have three men panels, composed of one sergeant and two civilians who pass on every man who wants to go to the academy. One black ball, and that man is out. Occasionally, a bad apple slips through, or a good apple turns bad. Well, my friend, you don’t want him on the job and the department doesn’t want him either. One trigger happy cop making headlines is all it takes to give all police officers a black eye.

(“Public Affairs DR-07,” S03E01, 09-19-1968)

Unfortunately, police brutality is not the result of a few “bad apples” and has not disappeared with the passage of time. In fact, police brutality has been an all too real phenomena within many African American communities.

Corresponding with Dragnet’s return, the late 1960s featured long-running series such as Adam-12 (NBC, 1968–1975), Hawaii Five-O (CBS, 1968–1980), and The Mod Squad (ABC, 1968–1973). Adam-12 was created by Jack Webb, and was an attempt to capture the typical day in the life of a patrol officer in Los Angeles. The storylines were based on real cases and ranged from the trivial to the serious. The show portrays police in a positive manner, as professionals who deal with a wide variety of situations, without the smarmy preaching of Jack Webb’s Sgt. Friday. Hawaii Five-O starred Jack Lord as Captain Steve McGarrett, but the show was most well known for it’s location, theme song, ensemble cast, and longevity. At one time, it was the longest running police drama in history, surpassed in 2003 by Law and Order. Hawaii Five-O was not a realistic police drama, and storylines featured action and international intrigue, with many episodes ending with McGarrett’s catch-phrase “Book ‘em, Danno” (Brooks & Marsh, 2007; Sabin et al., 2014; Stark, 1987). In 2010, Hawaii-Five-0 was successfully remade and, like the original, features beautiful settings, action-oriented plots, and predictable storylines.

Conversely, The Mod Squad broke all the rules in conventional television. It featured a “rich” white, former drug-using hippie, an attractive female “flower child,” and an African American who had participated in the Watts Riots. Under the mentorship of an experienced police captain, the unusual trio was offered the opportunity to work as undercover detectives to avoid incarceration (Stark, 1987). The show was loosely based on the experiences of creator Bud Raskin, who was a member of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department. In 1960, Raskin wrote a script based on his experiences as an undercover narcotics agent on a squad of young police officers. However, the show was not given the green light until the 1968 season, at the height of counterculture movement. In stark contrast to shows like Dragnet 67, the youthful protagonists used slang, such as “solid,” “dig-it,” and “groovy,” and despite its unlikely scenario, the characters exhibited a gritty realism that was “cool.” The show dealt with numerous social issues such as domestic violence, child neglect, racism, anti-Semitism, abortion, and student protest. The Mod Squad attempted to combine counterculture values with the mores of law-abiding conservatives, the so-called, “silent majority.” The producers felt that the Mod Squad could appeal to a divergent audience, as the unconventional “hip” characters were used as a means to an end, to promote effective law enforcement and achieve justice. Although the characters represented a new generation of law enforcers, they did not necessarily endorse a radical departure from the way that television-viewing consumers felt about law and order. There was no political agenda, drugs and sex were still taboo, hippies were depicted as threats to society, and the heroes meted out non-lethal violence only when necessary (Gitlin, 1983; Stark, 1987).

In the 1970s, police drama became a staple on network television, and a string of television shows attempted to take advantage of the police’s new found popularity on television (Sabin et al., 2014; Stark, 1987). Thirty-nine police dramas premiered during the 1970s, of which the vast majority found little success in the ratings and were relatively short-lived (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). In contrast to Dragnet, there were only a few shows that attempted an authentic dramatic interpretation of policing. These shows included O’Hara U.S. Treasury (CBS, 1971–1972), Police Story (NBC, 1973–1977), and The Blue Knight (CBS, 1975–1976). O’Hara, U.S. Treasury was produced with the approval and cooperation of the Department of Treasury, but was not a truly accurate representation of the Treasury department. Joseph Wambaugh was essential in the creation of both Police Story and The Blue Knight. Wambaugh, a best selling author known for fictional and non-fictional books about police work, portrayed police as flawed, and his work encompassed a gritty realism that was lacking in most popular accounts of police officers (Wilson, 2000). As a result, Police Story featured some of the most realistic portrayals of police and their work, including the negatives, such as corruption, brutality, alcohol abuse, adultery, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD) (Gitlin, 1983; Inciardi & Dee, 1987).

The vast majority of the shows that appeared in the 1970s can be characterized as gimmicky, in that they focused either on a “super-cop” or on innovative or unusual scenarios (Inciardi & Dee, 1987). The shows that exhibited a super-cop harken back to the crime fighters of earlier decades, in the Detective and Western genres These super-cops worked as individuals, and their dogged determination and brilliance enabled them to solve crimes in spite of the incompetence of the legal system (Chesebro, 2003; Chesebro & Hamsher, 1974; Surette, 2014). There are several examples of super-cop shows, such as Columbo (NBC, ABC, 1968–1993), Dan August (ABC, 1970–1971), McCloud (NBC, 1970–1971), McMillian and Wife (NBC, 1971–1977), Cades County (CBS, 1971–1972), Jigsaw (ABC, 1972–1973), Madigan (NBC, 1972–1973), Kojak (CBS, 1973–1978), Toma (ABC, 1973–1974), Nakia (ABC, 1974), Baretta (ABC, 1975–1978), Bronk (CBS, 1975–1976), Bert D’Angelo/Superstar (ABC, 1976), Delvecchio (CBS, 1976–1977), Serpico, (NBC, 1976–1977), Quincy, M.E. (1976–1983), Eischied (1979–1983) and Paris (CBS, 1979–1980). In some shows, the super-cops were paired as partners, such as the highly successful Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972–1977) and Starsky & Hutch (ABC, 1975–1979).

Peter Falk played the iconic homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo, the quintessential example of a super-cop. In each episode, a guest star would commit a rather clever murder, and the dishevelled Columbo would appear at the crime scene with his trademark trench coat, cigar, and clunky automobile. In direct contrast to the highly intelligent and distinguished murder suspect, Columbo gave the impression of being an incompetent, bumbling fool. In the end, Columbo would always discover the truth with his incredible attention to minute details of the evidence, much to the amazement of the arrogant and smug murderer (Sabin et al., 2014). The show was not broadcast in the standard 60-minute episode format and was included as part of the original NBC Mystery Movie, with McCloud and McMillan & Wife. McCloud, as described earlier, was a cowboy cop, transplanted to New York City, while McMillan and Wife featured actor Rock Hudson as the suave San Francisco Police Commissioner whose homicide investigations were assisted by his beautiful and charming wife, played by Susan Saint James. These series were highly entertaining, involved humor, and showed that the police were more effective without the constraints of police bureaucracy (Inciardi & Dee, 1987; Sabin et al., 2014; Stark, 1987). Of course, these types of programs are not intended to be authentic and are created as mysteries, which provide the audiences with an escape from real world crime and social ills.

In contrast, the 1970s also featured police dramas that exposed the changing landscape of crime in America. During the 1970s, crime rates in large cities soared, which not only increased fear of crime, but also led some residents to flee the cities for the suburbs, leaving only the poorest behind. The viewing audience was now exposed to violence that permeated the urban environment. In the past, the villains did not threaten the audience, as they often had clear motives for their criminal behavior. The “new criminal that appeared in the 1970s was increasingly dangerous, unpredictable, and violent. They were often violent madmen or urban delinquents with no stake in society. More nefariously, the justice system was portrayed as both ineffective and bureaucratic, with seemingly more rights afforded to criminals than law-abiding citizens. As such, the crime fighter had to be tougher, more violent, more unyielding, and more obsessed with the capture of criminals, than his television precursor (Stark, 1987; Surette, 2014). Certainly, Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak of New York City Police Department fit the description. Actor Telly Savalas portrayed Kojak, with his trademark lollipop and catch-phrase, “Who loves you, baby?” Kojak had a cynical sense of humor, bent some rules, and was outspoken and streetwise. He was described by critics as a “one-man institution” who fought both criminals and political bureaucracy (Sabin et al., 2014; Stark, 1987).The success of Kojak led to a surge of police dramas with more dark and violent themes. Toma and Serpico were both based on real life cops and were portrayed as heroic loners who went undercover to fight organized crime and systemic corruption. After lead actor Tony Musante left Toma, his character was recast with Robert Blake, and the show was renamed Baretta (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

Several shows in 1970s featured innovative or unusual scenarios. The majority of these shows were unsuccessful, as they attempted to secure audiences with a gimmick. For instance, some police dramas attempted to parlay the success of Hawaii Five-O, by featuring exotic or unusual locations such as the Caribbean (Caribe: ABC, 1975) and Alaska (Kodiak: ABC, 1974). Other shows featured lead characters who were atypical of the genre, including African American (The Protectors: NBC, 1969–1970; The Rookies: ABC, 1972–1976; Get Christy Love: ABC, 1974–1975) and female characters (Police Woman: NBC, 1974–1978; Amy Prentiss: NBC, 1973–1975; Get Christie Love: ABC, 1974–1975; Dear Detective: CBS, 1979) (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). As the result of federal legislation, greater numbers of women started entering the field of policing in 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, many of these female officers were assigned specialized duties, such as clerical or vice squad, where they went undercover to pose as prostitutes. Early police programs reflect this reality, as there were very few female police officers on television. One exception was the syndicated television series, Decoy (1957–1958), which starred Beverly Garland as Casey Jones, a female undercover officer who solved crime. In the 1960s, Peggy Lipton starred as Julia Barnes as an undercover cop in The Mod Squad. In the 1970s, female officers became more routine on television shows, appearing in small roles or as extras in programs such as Adam 12. On March 26, 1974, Police Story premiered an episode entitled “The Gamble,” which featured actress Angie Dickenson as an undercover vice officer named Lisa Beaumont. This episode served as the pilot for Police Woman, and Dickenson’s character was subsequently renamed “Pepper” Anderson. Although, Police Woman was initially a ratings success, other police dramas that featured female leads did not fare as well in the 1970s. A spin-off of Ironside, Amy Prentiss lasted only three episodes before being canceled. The show starred actress Jessica Walters, as a young investigator who became the first female Chief of Detectives for the San Francisco Police Department. Get Christy Love lasted only one season, but was noteworthy, as it was the first show to feature an African-American female as the lead character. Finally, Dear Detective lasted only four episodes and was focused on a female police officer who juggled her career, marriage, and motherhood (Brooks & Marsh, 2007; Cavender & Jurik, 2012; D’Acci, 1994; Evans & Davies, 2014; Stark, 1987).

As opposed to unique gender or racial backgrounds of the lead character(s), other police dramas focused on pioneering police strategies, such as elite units (The Silent Force: ABC, 1970–1971; Chase: NBC, 1973–1974; S.W.A.T.: ABC, 1975–1976; Most Wanted: ABC, 1976–1977). For example, Chase featured four cops who each had special skills, including a dog handler, helicopter pilot, hot-rod car driver, and an expert motorcycle rider. Similarly, other shows featured new technology, such as helicopters (Chopper One: ABC, 1974) and motorcycles (CHiPs: NBC, 1977–1983). Finally, some shows were simply unusual. A former teen heartthrob was cast as an undercover police officer in David Cassidy: Man Undercover (NBC, 1978–1979), while Lanigan’s Rabbi featured a rabbi who was an amateur criminologist who assisted the Chief of police (played by Art Carney) in homicide investigations. Sam (CBS, 1978) starred Mark Harmon as a police officer who was teamed with a yellow Labrador retriever. Harmon became more well known for his role in the more popular NCIS (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

Revolutionizing Network Television: Policing the “Hill”

The formula for using unusual scenarios or gimmicks carried over to the 1980s. During the 1980s, 42 police dramas premiered, and many were doomed, as they featured absurd circ*mstances, characters, and/or storylines. At the beginning of the 1980–1981 television season, it appeared that police drama had fizzled to an acrimonious end. Only two popular dramas from the 1970s still appeared on the air, Quincy M.E. and CHiPS. The title character, Quincy, was not even a police officer; actor Jack Klugman played a medical examiner who solved crimes. Although, formulaic, “Quince” appealed to audiences with his stubborn, yet righteous personality. CHiPS, a very popular series, is better described as a melodrama, with a focus on light drama, corny comedy, and action. Many of the plots were tacky and often resulted in the lead characters, Ponch and Jon Baker, engaging in a police chase that invariably ended with a spectacular stunt vehicle crash. New series that premiered in 1980 left little optimism for an evolution of the genre. For example, B.A.D. Cats (ABC, 1980) featured two ex-racing drivers tracking down criminals in a souped-up Nova, as special officers in the Los Angeles Police Department. Stone (ABC, 1980) was an attempt to capitalize on Dennis Weaver’s fame as McCloud. In this very short-lived series, Weaver played Detective Sergeant Daniel , a celebrity cop who doubled as a best-selling novelist. Freebie and the Bean (CBS, 1980–1981) was the only new police drama to premiere in the fall of the strike impacted 1980–1981 season. The show, based on the 1974 film of the same name, can be best exemplified as a “buddy cop” show, but it was ill-conceived as a mixture of comedy, drama, slapstick, and reality (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

Yet, one police drama forever changed the genre, with an ensemble cast and recurrent storylines. Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981–1987) not only revolutionized the police drama but television drama as well (Gitlin, 1983; Lenz, 2003; Rapping, 2003). The show debuted on January 15, 1981, receiving rave reviews from critics, but did not immediately capture large audiences until it won a record number of Primetime Emmy awards later in the year. At the time, the show was ground breaking, as it featured an ensemble cast and serialized storylines. In the first season, the show included 13 actors in the main credits, of which 11 were police officers with different ranks. In some episodes, there were up to five or six plotlines, interwoven throughout the episode. These plotlines were often serialized, with some appearing from week to week. Conversely, previous police dramas were primarily episodic, in that they presented a different plot with each episode (Sabin et al., 2014).

In the early seasons of the show, the beginning of each episode would start with roll call in the Hill Station, in which Desk Sergeant Phil Esterhaus would exclaim, “And hey, let’s be careful out there.” Symbolically, this ominous statement foreshadowed the grim reality that many of the officers would face on a daily basis on the harsh streets within the precinct. The show had a documentary feel, with seedy characters living in a poverty-stricken, unnamed, large metropolitan city. The characters were flawed and distinctly human, revealing both emotion and vulnerability. Some of the officers exhibited racist, sexist, and hom*ophobic tendencies. Some had interpersonal issues, such as alcohol and drug addiction, extramarital affairs, and financial problems. There was a clash between the officers over policing philosophies: Sgt. Lt. Howard Hunter favored the more of a law and order approach, while Sgt. Henry Goldblume preferred social work and community outreach programs. Police morality was blurred in this show, as the viewer was exposed to corruption, brutality, and bureaucracy within the police force. At the height of the conservative Reagan era, the show attempted to express an alternative liberal explanation of crime, that crime is a consequence of systemic inequality, racism, and poverty. Unfortunately, as the series progressed, it became more “soap opera-ish” and lost its audience. Yet, to its credit, the show inspired a new generation of television dramas and transformed the representation of the television cop (Gitlin, 1983; Lenz, 2003; Sabin et al., 2014; Zynda, 1986).

In addition to Hill Street Blues, a number of successful police dramas originated during the decade. Several shows produced more than 100 episodes, including Cagney & Lacey (CBS, 1982–1988), Hunter (NBC, 1984–1991), Miami Vice (NBC, 1984–1989), 21 Jump Street (Fox, 1987–1990), and In the Heat of the Night (NBC/CBS, 1988–1994) (Brooks & Marsh, 2007). Cagney & Lacey was atypical; it was a buddy-cop drama that featured two female leads. Inspired by the feminist movement, the show had been proposed in 1974, but had been turned down by all networks until a television movie appeared in 1981. The movie was a ratings success, and a limited-run series was announced with Meg Foster replacing Loretta Swit as Christine Cagney, while Tyne Dale continued her role as Mary Beth Lacy. The ratings were poor in the first abbreviated season, and executives replaced Foster with Sharon Gless, who they believed would enhance the femininity of the character, as well as tone down the perceived “lesbian” qualities (i.e., aggressiveness, tough, witty, etc.) that the original Cagney exhibited. In spite of the changes, the second season featuring Gless and Daly was a ratings disaster, and the series was cancelled. Fans of the show started a letter writing campaign, and the show eventually returned as a mid-season replacement during the third season, in which it finally cracked the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings. The detectives not only solved crime, they dealt with male chauvinism and the difficulty of maintaining a work-life balance. Although, they were not the first female cops on television, they set the standard for future female cops on television (D’Acci, 1994; Nichols-Pethick, 2012; Sabin et al., 2014). Currently, female cops are plentiful on police dramas, in leading and supporting roles. Typically, they are ingrained in multi-cast scenarios in which they work seamlessly with male colleagues (Evans & Davies, 2014). Unfortunately, the vast majority of these dramas ignore the reality of sexism that is imbedded in the field of policing (Rabe-Hemp, 2011).

Unlike Cagney & Lacey, Hunter was decidedly masculine in nature, with former NFL player Fred Dryer playing Sgt. Rick Hunter. The character was clearly inspired by the popularity of the Dirty Harry franchise. Toned down for television audiences, Hunter used catch-phrases, such as “works for me” and carried a large gun that he called “Simon.” Unlike Dirty Harry, Hunter had a beautiful, yet tough, female partner named Dee Dee, played by Stepfanie Kramer. Despite numerous clichés, the show gained an audience and was the longest running police drama that originated in the 1980s. The show was rebooted in 2003, with both Dryer and Kramer, but lasted only three episodes before being cancelled (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

Miami Vice is, arguably, the television show that best reflected 1980s. The show was both gritty and glamorous, with “hip” musical scores, cutting edge fashions, and visually appealing sets, characters, and locations. The lead characters, Crockett and Tubbs, epitomized “cool” and worked undercover to capture drug dealers and pimps. Despite the show’s importance to pop culture, it did not redefine the police genre, as it was basically an action series with standard police clichés and unrealistic storylines (Sabin et al., 2014; Sanders, 2010). In a similar vein, 21 Jump Street was the first major hit for the newly minted Fox network and launched the career of Johnny Depp. The show featured young undercover cops who could pass as teenagers and infiltrate high schools. The program also included numerous messages about youth and morality, with early episodes including public service announcements made by cast members after episodes had aired (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

“Ripped from the Headlines”: Law & Order Reigns

The 1990s introduced at least 51 new police dramas but most achieved little success. Some of the least popular shows were ridiculous, such as Cop Rock (ABC, 1990), which was a cop musical, and The Hat Squad (CBS, 1992–1993), which featured retro-cool cops who wore unique hats. Sunset Beat (ABC, 1990) was a rip-off of 21 Jump Street and starred George Clooney as Chic Chesbro, a young scruffy cop with long hair and an attitude to match. Chesbro played lead guitar in a rock band and went undercover to infiltrate a tough biker gang. Some shows had success with the buddy cop formula (New York Undercover, FOX, 1994–1998; Nash Bridges, CBS, 1996–2001), humor (The Commish: ABC, 1991–1996; Due South: CBS, 1994–1995; Martial Law: CBS, 1998–2000), sex (Silk Stalkings: CBS, USA Network, 1991–1999), science fiction (X-Files: FOX, 1993–2002), and even action that revolved around a bike patrol on a beach (Pacific Blue: USA Network, 1996–2000) (Brooks & Marsh, 2007).

Without a doubt, any discussion of the police drama in 1990s can only begin with an examination of Law and Order (NBC, 1990–2010), N.Y.P.D. Blue (ABC, 1993–2005), and Homicide: Life on the Streets (NBC, 1993–1999) (Sabin et al., 2014). Law & Order follows the activities of a recurring cast of police and prosecuting attorneys. Episodes follow a similar structure, the police investigate a crime, make an arrest, followed by a trial in which the prosecution attempts to secure a conviction. Each episodes starts with the narration, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories,” preceded by a very distinct musical effect, described as a clang that symbolizes a judge’s gavel. Like Hill Street Blues, the show features an ensemble cast, but unlike Hill Street Blues, the show rarely delves into the private lives of the characters nor does it explore the broad social conditions that contribute to criminal behavior. In fact, many of the plots are borrowed from notorious real life cases and, true to actual cases, sometimes the defense wins, as either the cops do not have enough evidence to warrant a conviction or the wrong suspect is arrested. As such, this makes for interesting television, as the viewing audience cannot predict the outcome of the cases. The show does not break new ground, as it was based on a concept first developed in the 1950s series Arrest and Trial. However, the popularity of the show has been unmatched, at it spawned several spin-offs, which included: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC, 1999–), Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC, USA Network, 2001–2011), Law & Order: Trial by Jury (NBC, 2005–2006) and Law & Order: LA (NBC, 2010–2011). Despite the success, some media scholars have argued that the show reinforced the status quo, represented conservative morals, and signified an ideological shift toward “law and order” or the crime control model (Lenz, 2003; Nichols-Pethick, 2012; Sabin et al., 2014).

Alternatively, N.Y.P.D. Blue (ABC, 1993–2005) was modeled after a formula first employed by Hill Street Blues. It featured characters who were deeply flawed and isolated from mainstream society. The police officers on the show had tortured private lives, plagued with such difficulties as alcoholism, strained inter-personal relationships, single-parenthood, suicide, and health-related issues. Their professional lives were also scrutinized, as they investigated a variety of criminals and crimes, which sometimes led to a blurring of the lines between right and wrong. Initially, the show was heavily criticized for its use of mild profanity and nudity, which at that time was unseen on network television (Lenz, 2003; Sabin et al., 2014).

Similarly, Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993–1999) chronicled the work of the Baltimore Police Department Homicide Unit. Albeit fictional, the show was based on reporter David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), which was published in 1991. The intent of the show was to furnish a blunt and uncompromising view of inner-city detectives in Baltimore. Unlike the glitzy and flashy detectives who permeated television and glorified homicide investigations, this show offered a depressing, yet authentic view of police work. The show intertwined several homicides into single episodes, which portrayed murder investigations as rather routine, tedious, and monotonous. Cynicism abounding, it appeared that clearance rates were more important than achieving actual justice (Sabin et al., 2014). In some episodes, the mystery was not solved, and justice was never achieved. For example, the episode “Three Men and Adena” (S01E05, 03-03-1993) focused on the investigation of an 11-year-old girl named Adena Watson. Despite an intense interrogation of an elderly suspect, the case remained an open investigation never to be solved. The show earned the respect of critics, who enjoyed the gritty realism and serialized plot lines. However, the ratings were low, and for the most part, viewers avoided the show. Interestingly, in 1996, TV Guide named the series “the best show you’re not watching” (Lane, 2001).

Forensics, Pseudo-Science and Crime: From CSI to Criminal Minds

At the start of the millennium, the police drama had been firmly entrenched in the television landscape. Since the year 2000, there have been over 100 police dramas produced, with several achieving both ratings success and longevity. Some of the more popular dramas featured lead characters who consult the police to solve crimes, such as a former-psychic (The Mentalist: CBS, 2005–2015) and a best-selling mystery novelist (Castle: ABC, 2009–). Others involved specialized units that search for missing persons (Without a Trace: CBS, 2002–2009), solve unsolved older cases (Cold Case: CBS, 2003–2010), and focus on an interrogation expert (The Closer: TNT, 2005–2012). Similarly, NCIS (CBS, 2003–) revolves around the fictional team of special agents in the Naval Intelligence Investigative Service who engage in counterintelligence and law enforcement within the Department of Navy and United States Marine Corps. The show has resulted into two spin-offs, NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS, 2009–) and NCIS: New Orleans (CBS, 2014–), Finally, Blue Bloods (CBS, 2010–) follows a family of police officers in the New York City Police Department. The show stars Tom Selleck as Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, whose father was the former police commissioner. Reagan has three children who work within the system, his two sons work in the police department as a detective and a patrol officer, while his daughter is an assistant district attorney. The signature of the series is the Sunday dinner scene, in which the family will discuss difficult issues around morality, policing, and life.

Unquestionably, the biggest development within the genre was the emergence of CSI, which premiered on October 6, 2000. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS, 2000–2015) started a wave of shows that focused on crime science and technology. CSI was set in Las Vegas and starred William Peterson as Gil Grissom, a forensics officer working in the Criminalistics Bureau. Employing advanced scientific techniques to analyze crime scenes, his team of experts used physical evidence to solve violent murders. Like the stylish Miami Vice, the show used music to set the tone and add an element of coolness, to the otherwise “boring” premise of scientists solving crime. The show was heavily criticized by parent groups because of its depiction of graphic violence, images, and sexual content (Sabin et al., 2014).

The show has also been criticized for its lack of realism in the depiction of police procedure. The characters process crime scenes, interrogate suspects, interview witnesses, conduct raids, participate in suspect pursuits and arrests, and eventually solve the crime. Of course, real life forensic technicians do not conduct investigations, as it would be too time-consuming and more importantly, it would be unethical to engage in the investigation, especially the testing of evidence, as it would jeopardize the impartiality and neutrality of the case. Also, some critics allege a so-called CSI effect, in which people have misguided beliefs and expectations about forensic science. For example, some investigators lament that victims and their families expect instantaneous DNA analysis and forensic analysis, which is not possible. Similarly, some prosecutors complain that jurors demand more forensic evidence, which inhibits their ability to successfully win convictions. However, there is little empirical evidence that the CSI effect actually exists, and it may be only an urban myth (Cavender & Jurik, 2012; Robbers, 2008).

Despite the criticisms of the show, it was an instant success amongst audiences, ranking in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings in its first 11 seasons. The success of the show led to three spin-offs, comic books, video games, novels, and even a travelling museum called CSI: The Experience. The spin-offs included the equally violent and stylish CSI: Miami (CBS, 2002–2012), CSI: New York (CBS, 2004–2013), and CSI: Cyber (CBS, 2015–). More importantly, the show spawned a new genre of police drama, involving crimes solved with scientific methods. In a premise similar to Quincy M.E., Jill Hennessy played Jordan Cavanaugh, a forensic pathologist who sometimes used criminal profiling to solve murders in the crime drama Crossing Jordan (NBC, 2001–2007). Although, Cavanaugh was not a police officer, she worked closely with detectives in solving crimes. Likewise, Bones (2005–) partners a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, with FBI agent Seeley Booth to investigate and solve various murder mysteries. NUMB3RS (CBS, 2005–2010) added a new twist, as a brilliant mathematician used mathematical models to assist his brother, an FBI agent, to solve various crimes. Finally, Criminal Minds (CBS, 2005–2016) was loosely based on the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) in Quantico. Virginia. The series featured a team of experts who use criminal profiling to capture a myriad of killers, mostly serial. The show generally begins with an “unsub” or unknown subject partaking in a particularly sensational, bizarre, or monstrous killing. The elite team of criminal profilers are brought in to provide a psychological profile of the killer, and episodes usually end with the dramatic capture of the “unsub” and the rescue of the victim. The show is bursting with clichés and is both unrealistic and improbable. Criminal profiling is pseudo-science with little empirical validity. In fact, most forensic psychologists would argue that profiling is more theoretical than scientific. Lack of realism aside, the show is very entertaining and, like the mystery genre, fans of the show love to watch the “new-age” sleuths crack seemingly unsolvable crimes. Criminal Minds has also been criticized for its graphic portrayal of gore and violence. The former lead actor, Mandy Patinkin claimed that “his biggest public mistake” was starring in the show, as he was upset with the gratuitous amount of violence. In an interview, he stated “I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year” (Gennis, 2012).

Moral Ambiguity and Cable’s Re-Invention of “TV” Cop

Crime programs such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Dexter, featured on premium cable networks, set a new standard, which traditional television network programs have had a difficult time meeting. These programs feature exceptional writing, fascinating characters, and high production values. Depictions of violence are more explicit and the dialogue more authentic. There are no commercial breaks to interrupt the story, and characters are even allowed to swear. Subscription-based cable networks altered the television experience of viewers and ushered in a new age of television. In this new age, the television cop was reinvented, and the police procedural evolved beyond standard clichés and simplistic plotlines (Martin, 2013).

A number of exceptional police dramas have appeared on subscription-cable television networks, such as Justified (FX Network, 2010–2015), Fargo (FX Network, 2014–), and True Detective (2014–). However, in terms of socio-cultural influence and importance, The Shield and The Wire might very well be the most groundbreaking police dramas in television history. Set in Los Angeles, The Shield (FX Network, 2002–2008) is about a four-man anti-gang unit called the Strike Team. The Strike Team is led by the corrupt Detective Vic Mackey, aptly played by actor Michael Chiklis. Chiklis was a curious choice for the role, as he was best known for playing the lovable police commissioner, Tony Scali, in the light-hearted police drama, The Commish (ABC, 1991–1996). Yet Chiklis brought the Mackey character to life with vivid brutality, charisma, narcissism, and selfishness. The show was the first police drama to feature a lead crime fighter as a villain. Although he was more than just a villain; his character was more complex and multi-faceted than a typical television villain. With HBO’s The Sopranos, the character of Tony Soprano ushered in a new wave of anti-heroes in crime dramas, leading the way for classic television characters such as Walter White (Breaking Bad), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy), and Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire) (Vaage, 2015). Mackey, of The Shield, truly believed that his immoral actions were a means to an end. He routinely beat suspects, stole from drug dealers, engaged in blackmail, and even killed. In a classic scene, during an interrogation, he beat and tortured a suspected pedophile with phone book to gain a confession, which ended up saving a young girls life. Arguably, his character is the most despicable anti-hero in television history, because as a police officer he represented authority and morality. Prior to Mackey’s appearance on television, lead police characters may have been flawed, but they definitely were not murderers and thieves. As such, the moral ambiguousness of the show’s main character enabled viewers to experience a variety of emotions, sentiments, and opinions about police and their work (Chopra-Gant, 2007; Mittell, 2015; Sabin et al., 2014).

Whereas The Shield’s main emphasis was on the anti-hero, The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008) highlighted a city in decay. The Wire centered on Baltimore’s inner-city drug trade and depicted the lives of junkies, dealers, cops, and politicians. The show featured an ensemble cast and a serialized format, in which various social problems and institutions were examined. The show was applauded for its authentic portrayal of urban life and the inner workings of police bureaucracy. It exposed audiences to the “political” nature of crime clearance rates, the economy of the drug trade, and the struggles of inner-city residents. As a police procedural, it was atypical, the police did not solve crimes on a weekly basis, nor was the path to the “bad guy” easily attained with heroic police work. The police struggled to make cases, as they had difficulty navigating police bureaucracy, politics, and egos. The criminal justice system was presented as a complex, yet imperfect system, with clear linkages to social institutions and individuals. The police, the judges, the lawyers, the politicians, the criminals, and even the junkies were depicted as human beings with good, bad, and ambivalent traits (Brody & Collins, 2013; Bruhn & Gjelsvik, 2013).

The Wire is arguably the most critically acclaimed show in television history and has been favorably compared to great literature such as the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky. In fact, David Simon, the co-creator of the show, claimed that it was structured like a “visual novel,” arguing that storylines had to be “difficult,” to avoid formulaic plots and clichéd characters (Alvarez & Simon, 2009, p. 23). Yet the show received dismal ratings, achieving only four million viewers per episode. Fortunately, the show was produced by HBO, which is not beholden to advertisers or preoccupied with huge prime-time ratings. Nevertheless, prior to the fourth season, the show narrowly escaped cancellation after Simon pitched the upcoming storylines to an HBO executive. The executive was so enthralled that he renewed the series for two more seasons (Alvarez & Simon, 2009).

This was most fortunate, as The Wire was a pioneering program unlike any program ever produced for the small screen. Its central character was not a police officer, lawyer, or criminal, but a city portrayed through the stories and experiences of dozens of complex characters. Each season intertwined a police investigation, involving high-tech surveillance and wires, with the focus on a different facet of the city, including the drug-addled housing projects, disintegrating port system, decaying public schools, corrupt political administration, and the declining newspaper industry. One of the strengths of the show was its authenticity, as some of the plots were loosely based on real stories and events. The creators of the show had life experience within the city. David Simon had worked as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, while Ed Burns, a former cop, had worked in the Baltimore homicide division. The negative portrayal of Baltimore even spurred former Mayor Martin O’Malley to complain about the show’s depiction of the city and the police department. The show was intentionally dark, complex, and hard to watch. The characters’ use of “street” language was raw and graphic, but also realistic. Like a good novel, the plots were purposefully slow moving, but viewers who stuck with the show were rewarded with pure brilliance (Sabin et al., 2014). In fact, the academic world has taken notice of the show, with conference presentations, academic papers, books, and even college courses devoted to various aspects of the show (Alvarez & Simon, 2009; Brody & Collins, 2013).

The More Things Change: The More They Stay the Same

This article has attempted to provide a historical overview of the police drama as produced on television in the United States. It is clear that the genre has changed immeasurably over the last 70 years. The characters have become more complex and diverse, the violence more explicit and grisly, the special effects more realistic and visually stunning, and the cinematography and sound effects more spectacular. Yet, despite all the changes, some elements of the police drama have remained the same. Viewers still enjoy mysteries, action, and bravery. They feel sympathy for victims, crave justice, root for heroes, and despise villains. The police drama still relies on music to provide ambiance, and catch phrases continue to help define the characters. Most importantly, the police drama continues to captivate audiences and as such, remains a staple of television programming.

Police Dramas on Television (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated:

Views: 5658

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.