As long as humans have been passing down stories, those tales have included our capacity to transgress against each other. It’s a tradition literally as old as the Bible.
And beyond documenting how people break the rules that govern our evolving notions of society, we’re constantly fascinated by those charged with righting those wrongs. Whether it follows the detectives who investigate those crimes, those within the judicial system who determine the proper level of punishment, or the friends and family members left in the wake of these actions, this process has become the cornerstone of many of cultural touchstones.
On the TV side, for the better part of two decades when the antihero has reigned supreme, that trend is as prevalent as ever. For every harrowing situation that asks an audience “How would you react in this situation?” there are often dire consequences. There’s no simpler way to raise the stakes than by plunging characters into a situation where they or someone in their orbit have broken the law.
So to honor some of the best television of this young century, we’ve gathered twenty series that best chart this cycle of rise, fall and consequence. Sometimes, the criminals are our heroes. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who the show is fighting for.
[Some criteria: We’ve stuck to shows that aired a majority of their episodes in the 2000s or later and only included scripted programming. The definition of a “crime show” is elastic, but if criminal activity (or the prosecution thereof) was central to the show’s ongoing plot, we deemed it eligible for this list.]
The concept of Miami blood spatter expert Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall in his finest role) channeling his serial killer urges to exact vigilante justice on other serial killers was just bloody brilliant and gave viewers at home a thrill to root for the guy with the knife. While he attempted having a normal life with a woman by his side and a son, the urges would always come back and draw him inexorably into the sphere of the most depraved. From case to case, killer to killer, the show made good on our fascination with blood and Dexter necessarily hoodwinking his fellow friends and cops. But it was his relationship with his detective sister Debra that gave the show heart and real stakes. While the later seasons went a little off the deep end, no one can dispute the excellence of the first few seasons, especially the year that John Lithgow dropped by for a truly chilling season-long arc. — Hanh Nguyen
19. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
2013 – present
Crime and comedy aren’t a natural mix, and perhaps the shakiest element of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is how the series, a workplace comedy set in a police precinct, handles the actual cases being investigated by the detectives in question. However, thanks to recent episodes like “Moo Moo” pushing harder into current attitudes regarding cops in America — while otherwise balanced with a light-but-grounded touch when necessary — the series has managed to find the funny in uncertainty. — Liz Shannon Miller
18. The Honorable Woman
A bleak but razor-sharp tale of international diplomacy, Hugo Blick’s eight-part series blends political intricacy, covert espionage and the devastating consequences of distrust in a way that few shows of its kind have. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as Nessa Stein, a businesswoman whose family history and pending infrastructure projects are intertwined with Israeli-Palestinian relations, makes for a ferocious centerpiece. And she’s surrounded by a supremely talented ensemble: Lindsey Duncan, Janet McTeer, Tobias Menzies, Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Rea as the MI6 agent trying to make sense of it all. Avoiding easy answers and neat conclusions, it’s an example of how the actions of one generation echo through so many after. — Steve Greene
The Appalachian James Bond, Raylan Givens is one of the great crime show protagonists and right up there with the best of the Elmore Leonard characters to grace any-sized screen. Timothy Olyphant’s leading-man coolness guided “Justified” through a number of different formats, from its brilliant freshman season procedural phase through the overarching crime family drama that sustained later years. As the Kentucky webs began to widen, Boyd Crowder’s seesawing between villainy and unlikely partner (ditto Wynn Duffy and Arlo) made sure the show at its best never got comfortable with the status quo. The result is an ever-shifting landscape that let a bevy of character actors flourish against a rural backdrop. — SG
Colin Hutton/BBC America
When the body of a local boy is found off of a cliff in the seaside town of Dorset, it rocks the close-knit community when it’s revealed that he was murdered. The police investigation and media attention transforms the townspeople, drawing out their secrets and long-held beliefs. While the revelation of the murderer is a shock (especially since that person has a close relationship with a prominent citizen), it’s the nuanced examination of how such relationships are built and inevitably break down that keeps the show disturbing throughout. David Tennant and Olivia Colman deliver intensely contained performances as the investigating detectives, helping make “Broadchurch” one of the finest British inheritors of the “Twin Peaks” formula of small-town crime that exposes the underbelly of the town itself. — HN
Up next: One of the darkest TV series of all time…and one of the brightest