Ranking my favorite crime shows on TV really kills me. For one thing, I don't like countdown lists. By nature I am a thumbs-up/thumbs-down kind of guy who doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about the finer shades of appreciation. I tend to love whatever I like, and whatever I dislike I loathe.
For another thing, television is a mind-eroding force for evil. It's one thing to enjoy TV and quite another to praise it. (I am being facetious here.) Nevertheless, we seem to be living in a golden age of television, mainly because -- if you'll excuse a novelist saying so -- the best shows have become so much more novelistic. Episodic structure is on the wane now that the series arc has been discovered, which means character and plot development loom larger than mere premise.
Since I'm a crime novelist, I'll focus on my top picks for crime shows. This list will also focus on recent American endeavors. Later, I will come clean with my top British picks as well.
This is cheating, because Thief is technically mini-series, but to my mind it exemplifies everything that's good with the best crime shows these days. It's a drum-tight little work of art. Andre Braugher is in the lead, and he delivers. The storyline is intricate and takes its time to unpack. The visual style makes Thief interesting to watch, too -- in contrast to so much television, which so often forgets it's a visual medium.
4. The Shield
Vic Mackey is a corrupt copper with a heart of gold. He gets the Stike Team into deeper trouble every season, which leads to more and more No Way Out-style episodes. What's fresh about The Shield is its sympathetic portrayal of cops who, in a more traditional procedural, would be the bad guys.
I hate the serial killer fascination, so the idea of a serial killer who, because of his "code," only preys on other serial killers strikes me as a great send-up of the genre. Dexter pays attention to its craft on every level, from the storytelling to the performances to the photography. It also manages to explore interesting moral questions, something I appreciate in art.
2. The Wire
Audacity is the only word to describe The Wire. This show dramatizes the parts of policework the others skip over -- and makes them fascinating. It gets inside a world most cop shows don't seem to realize exists. And just when you think it can't take any more risks, you get a whole season in which the main characters become minor characters, taking a back seat to a group of high school kids. America, we don't deserve television this good. We haven't earned it.
1. Breaking Bad
A high school science teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer starts cooking meth to provide for his family after he’s gone, only it’s the most chemically pure meth anyone has seen, leading to high demand and a whole lot of trouble. Done. I'm all in. And this show really cares about its craft:
Again, the moral questions explored are gripping. Jesse Pinkman's Season 4 speech at the NA meeting about responsibility for your actions is one of those places most shows never earn the right to go.
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Well, that's it. Did I leave something essential out or get them in the wrong order? Let me know.