6 of the Best Crime TV Shows

What is it about life on the wrong side of the law that fascinates us so? Our media is littered with tales of crooks, criminals, cops and killers, though most of us watching would never dream of stabbing a man or robbing a bank. We’re interested in the excitement and excess of the outlaw lifestyle, just as we’re interested in the hardboiled investigative procedures of the cops and private dicks trying to catch those same criminals. Our simple fascination with the illegal has yielded many of our best films and television shows, each examining the ramifications and realities of crime in their own unique way. These are the television series that managed the freshest take on a life of crime, creating epic portraits of cops and robbers and the separate worlds they live in.

1. The Wire

The Wire

Still from Season 1 of The Wire | Source: HBO

The Wire creator David Simon spent years as an investigative journalist living and working in Baltimore, which helps explain the series’ journalistic commitment to realism in its ever-expanding portrait of a once-great American city on a steep decline. The first season looked at a Baltimore PD task force’s attempts to nail down an elusive gangster kingpin, giving humanity to its extensive cast of characters on both sides of the law, but each subsequent season came to encompass another piece of the city’s failing political and economic system, creating a stunning portrait of characters struggling against a broken system where every choice has consequences and everyone is connected. The Wire isn’t just a great crime show, but perhaps the greatest achievement of scripted television in the medium’s history.

2. Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad | Source: AMC

Breaking Bad‘s premise, concerning a suburban parent driven to sell drugs in their community, was borrowed wholesale from the Showtime series Weeds, but creator Vince Gilligan and his staff of writers did far more with it, turning the soapy setup into a disturbing character evolution that revealed the ruthlessness of Bryan Cranston’s emasculated chemistry teacher Walter White. The ugly side of this everyman is slowly but surely exposed by his involvement in New Mexico’s booming meth trade, altering his familial relationships and creating a new one with Aaron Paul’s tragic burnout townie Jesse Pinkman. The inevitable decay of Walter White’s character made for a fascinating arc, but Gilligan and co. keep viewers riveted week after week with a unique atmosphere that blends impossible tension, stylish visual imagery and the blackest of black humor.

3. Fargo

Allison Tolman and Martin Freeman in Fargo

Allison Tolman and Martin Freeman in Fargo | Source: FX

Recapturing the bizarre atmosphere of a Coen brothers film is no easy feat, but Noah Hawley managed it somehow in adapting one of the brothers’ most acclaimed films to the small screen. Only tangentially connected to the original story, Fargo the TV series is mainly a spiritual sequel of similar but separate characters trapped in their own playful yet ominous struggle between good and evil. In both its first and second season, Fargo recreated the mundane north-Midwestern world of rote politeness and concealed evil while inventing new epics of cops, criminals and ordinary people pushed to their breaking points.

4. Terriers

Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James in 'Terriers'

Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James in Terriers | Source: FX

One of the greatest one-season runs in television history gave cable network FX their worst ratings in history, which explains the untimely and tragic cancellation of shaggy dog detective show Terriers. The series, which has little to do with dogs, follows a pair of private investigators living in San Diego’s sunny Ocean Beach neighborhood as they wisecrack their way through cases, most of which tie into a season-long storyline. The criminal goings-on are always interesting, but secondary to the characters who exist between two sides of the law, a drunkard ex-cop and an ex-con whose likability is only outmatched by their penchant for self-destruction.

5. The Shield

The Shield

Michael Chiklis in The Shield | Source: FX

The LA-set cop drama The Shield thrived on moral gray areas. Following the anti-gang Strike Team unit and their complex, amoral leader Detective Vic Mackey, the series spawned a large collection of characters pursuing their own interests while simultaneously trying to keep the streets safe, even when their own tactics are a little less than legal. By refusing to paint morality with broad strokes, The Shield became a gritty, intelligent crime drama where half the fun is figuring out how you’re supposed to feel about each characters’ actions while seeing how the writers developed their characters through interconnected subplots that deepened the series’ portrait of life and crime in Los Angeles.

6. Justified

Timothy Olyphant in 'Justified'

Timothy Olyphant in Justified | Source: FX

Adapted from a story by Elmore Leonard, that miracle worker of American crime fiction whose works also inspired Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, Justified was destined to join the pantheon of great crime television series from episode one. Timothy Olyphant anchors the series as toughened U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, upholding justice as he sees fit in the Appalachian town of Harlan, Kentucky. The cinematography and art direction perfectly capture the uber-specific setting while the writing goes to great lengths to depict the low-key but high-stakes world of crime through Givens’ hardened eyes.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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