Cop shows have been around almost as long as television itself and have run the gamut, from procedurals to sitcoms to serialized dramas. They’ve given us some of TV’s most memorable and enduring characters, not to mention some of the medium’s best performances. Yet, upon examination, disproportionately few of the detectives who grace our screens are particularly great at their jobs and often those that are have any number of person issues that get in the way. Between alcoholism, anger issues, corruption, family drama, and neuroses, a reliable TV cop can be hard to find, let alone one who’s great at their job. This isn’t a list of the most interesting cops or the best performances or even the most realistic. This list looks at the detectives we would want working our case if the need arose.
Note: Due to the specific parameters of this list, beat cops and higher ups are excluded, so great examples like Barney Miller, Frank Furillo, Don Cragen, and Anita Van Buren aren’t eligible. Also, to those who claim they’d like Vic Mackey or other similar cops hunting down their bad guy, a reminder- if one of their associates is responsible, you’re on your own.
Det. Munch has been around. He’s seen just about everything, between his time in Baltimore and New York. One of the staples, and gems, of two of TV’s strongest police procedurals, Munch has been chewed up and spit out by life and through it all kept his wry sense of humor. Besides, if nothing else, you could talk conspiracy theories and ask him about that time he met the Bluths (or Mulder and Scully. or Luther. or Jimmy Kimmel).
Talk about going through fire and coming out the other side. Det. Crews may run his own off-books investigation into the conspirators responsible for his 12 years of wrongful imprisonment, but on the job, he remains by the book, if unorthodox. His experiences give him a unique perspective that helps in his work and allows him to make connections others don’t. If there’s any one trait he has it’s patience, but more than anything, his time in prison gave him a window into the criminal mind and an appreciation for life outside, and just what people will do to keep it.
“Just one more thing…” With a decades-spanning run, Lieut. Columbo is one of the most popular detectives in TV history. It’s understandable, too- he always gets his man and his particular method relies on the hubris of others, letting the guilty hang themselves through the smallest word or action. He’s dogged and intelligent, friendly, and happy to play the fool if it will catch a perp. He also, it should be noted, collects hard evidence, not relying on circumstantial evidence or coerced confessions that may not hold up in court. When Columbo makes his arrest, he does so knowing that the perp is guilty and will be convicted.
One of the originals is still one of the best. This straight-as-an-arrow sergeant investigates his cases with the same determination regardless of the charge. He’s smart, dedicated, and has strong instincts. The famous catch phrase attributed to him, “Just the facts”, is not actually said by Friday- he often patiently listens to rambling witnesses, picking up clues from their statements that might be otherwise overlooked. His actual line is, “My name is Friday—I’m a cop”. A damn fine one at that.
The Wire is filled with detectives who are smart and persistent. However, very, very few walk away from the series with their hands clean. Cool Lester Smooth (Det. Freamon) may be slightly better at his job, but his season 5 trip to the dark side keeps him off this list. Det. Greggs, on the other hand, acquits herself well, building case after case against the criminals of Baltimore using her intellect, instincts, hard work, and drive. She does what she has to when presented with police corruption and false evidence and while she may not be a paragon in her personal life, she doesn’t let that affect her work on the job.
Det. Lennie Briscoe is perhaps the quintessential TV detective. He has a two failed marriages, a rocky relationship with his children, and he’s a veteran and recovering alcoholic. He’s also smart, resourceful, unrelenting in his pursuit, and, despite claims made by perps and attempts made by former colleagues, he refuses to become a dirty cop. Though he falls briefly off the wagon early in his Law and Order run, he climbs back on and stays sober for the rest of the series. Briscoe is often cited as one of the more realistic TV detectives, particularly on network TV, a fact that inspires confidence. (He was also the pick of the police officer consulted for this list.) He does his job, does it well, and does it for years, compartmentalizing in such a way that, unlike some other alums from the Law and Order family, he can put away his notepad at the end of a case, go home, and come back in the next day refreshed.
Like The Wire, The Shield is full of detectives who do their jobs, and usually do them well, but also have no interest in following the law themselves and the few detectives who are not corrupt are usually happy to look the other way. Not so with Claudette. She is has a strong moral code and is an absolute believer in her role as an officer of the law. She is able to work with the dirty cops around her when the need arises, but she always spares an eye to keep her case legit. She’s dedicated, smart, and just as strong in the interrogation room as on the scene. Despite her skirted suits, her inner resolve and toughness shine through, making her a cop you don’t want to cross. She is able to use her femininity, maternal instincts, or piercing stare just as effectively, depending on the situation, and perhaps the single trait distinguishing her and earning her the top spot on this list is her unwillingness to cut corners in the pursuit of “justice”, be it real or imagined.
Who are your favorite TV cops? Who would you want working your case? Post your thoughts below in the comments!
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