On March 21, 2011, I posted by top ten list of favorite private detective television shows, available here. I promised at the time to create a similar list of my favorite police detective shows from TV history as well. Accordingly, here is that list along with my reasons for enjoying these shows. Everyone’s list will be different, and that’s what makes this so much fun, but these are the ones that I remember enjoying. I’d be interested in hearing about those you have liked over the years.
10. Kojak (1973-1978): This popular television series starred Telly Savalas as the bald New York City Police Department Detective Lieutenant Theodopolous Kojak. The lollypop licking police detective never failed to catch the bad guy, and usually did so with a certain flair. He was an admirable character, indomitable, incorruptable, and stubborn in his efforts to bring felons to justice.
9. Sledge Hammer! (1986-1988): This was ingenius, short-lived satire of the tough cop meme. In the style of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, David Rasche stole every scene as Inspector Sledge Hammer. The humor was really about out of control, on the edge cops. The recent show, 24, played this type of violence straight. Sledge Hammer! was more socially redeeming. It pointed up the absurdity of it all. The show served a valuable social function in an era when the United States of the Reagan era was rapidly careening toward the cliff of human rights that we have driven off of since 9/11.
8. Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988): Starring Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, this show demonstrated that women can be effective detectives even without men as partners, something we see in all of the Law & Order, NCIS, and NYPD Blue series. The show was also quite successful in showing the two detectives differing lifestyles: Christine Cagney (Gless) was a single career woman, and Mary Beth Lacey (Daly) was a married working mother. Quite impressive was the fact that the duo teamed up for Emmys for best actress in a drama six straight years.
7. NCIS (2003-Present): I’m not the greatest fan of this series, but my partner likes it a lot and I have, as a matter of course, seen several episodes. I’m probably including it on this list largely because Monique is such a fan. Still, it has good characters, anchored by the impressive Mark Harmon as Jethro Gibbs, but I’m a real fan of forensic whiz Abby Sciuto played to goth perfection by Pauley Perrette. They always get the bad folks. Also, I should say, I have been in a lot of government offices over nearly thirty years of work for the Feds, and I have not seen one nearly as well appointed as those depicted for these detectives. I wish!
6. Mod Squad (1968-1973): This is an oldie but a goodie. I watched this all the way through high school and haven’t seen an episode since but it has stayed with me. The squad, played by Michael Cole, Peggy Lipton, and Clarence Williams III, were identified as “one white, one black, and one blonde.” In the Woodstock era these were cool detectives standing up for the ordinary citizen against evil doers of all stripes. The plots were unusual for the time since they portrayed a multicultural society, dealt with the politics of race, the reality of a rising drug culture, and the quest for a counterculture that would overturn many of the ills that had been left by an older generation.
5. Miami Vice (1984–1989): I made a lot of fun of this show when it first aired. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as Miami undercover cops Crockett and Tubbs seemed as sterotypical and shallow as the era in which they reigned. With a “New Wave” soundtrack and flashy visuals the show featured our crime fighting heroes constantly in danger, then escaping, and then finally saving the day. It was predictable and comfortable and enjoyable in the same way that a catchy tune playing in the background is predictable and comfortable and enjoyable. It’s hard to believe that as this show was running at the same time that the pace setting Hill Street Blues was also on the air. They seem like night and day.
4. McMillan and Wife (1971-1977): This was never a very serious show, but I loved Rock Hudson (God rest his soul; no one deserves HIV) and Susan St. James as the husband and wife team that solved crimes in San Francisco. He was the police commissioner and she was his slightly daffy, busybody wife who was equal parts Lucille Ball and Honey West. One of the most interesting things about this show was its origins. NBC premiered it with two other rotating detective shows, Columbo and McCloud, on its NBC Mystery Movie. I really liked Columbo and you will see it mentioned next on this list, but I never cared for Dennis Weaver as McCloud. This was a unique format and it proved out; giving more time to the producers of the three shows to enhance production values for each episode.
3. Columbo (1971-1978, 1989-2003 intermittantly): This was a masterful series, the part of a lifetime for the great Peter Falk. Columbo was an always disheveled Los Angeles homocide detective whose personal style was to cut an unimpressive figure and then to badger the suspect with “just one more thing” until he solved the mystery. Like McMillan and Wife this show aired on the NBC Mystery Movie and took on a life of its own. It was brilliant. God rest Peter Falk’s sweet soul.
2. Dragnet (1951-1959, 1967-1970): How could I compile such a list without including this one? Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday and Harry Morgan as Det. Bill Gannon were the central characters but the show replaced various actors over the years with revivals, radio versions, and the like. These fellows were the epitome of the no-nonsense upholders of justice that Americans wanted to believe filled every precinct in the nation. “Just the facts” was a great buzz phrase, and it made me feel better that Friday and Gannon were on duty ridding the world of criminals. Interestingly, this show changed very little from the time that first aired until its last episode. It was a bit of throughback to an earlier, consensus era before the social revolution of the 1960s. The characters were male, conservative, and the epitome of the dominant culture.
1. Barney Miller (1975-1982): I did not see this show very often during its first run since it coincided almost completely with my graduate school years, but I caught it occasionally and thought it was brilliant. I have seen all of the episodes in syndication, however, and it remains brilliant. It looks more like a stage play than anything else since it was almost always filmed in the squad room of the set of New York detectives featured in the series. Barney Miller (Hal Linden) led the crew, and the comedy involved quirky characters, weird happenings, and the running gag of bureaucracy and red tape. The premise of the show was that everyone it a bit off kilter. Most are not dangerous, but they are definitely weird. My favorite episode was when they arrested a fellow that everyone believed was crazy; he claimed to be an historian from the future who had used his time machine to come back to New York for field research. When he meets Det. Arthur Dietrich, the brainy intellectual in the squad room, he gushes, “are you THE Arthur Dietrich?” He lets it be known that Dietrich will do great, memorable, historic things in the future. Great stuff. It was a cutting edge show with a social conscience, multicultural before that was a trite term, and just excellent all the way around. If you get a chance, be sure to watch Barney Miller.