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[Editor’s Note: The below piece was originally published on May 12, 2017. It has been expanded from the 20 greatest animated series of all time to the 25 greatest as of November 18, 2020.]
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.]
25. Sons of Anarchy
Creator Kurt Sutter had a tall order with the premiere of “Sons of Anarchy.” The series focused on the criminal machinations of a Californian motorcycle club and the inner conflicts of the club’s vice president Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam). At the same time, the first season at least, was a take on Shakespeare’s iconic tale of deceased fathers and sons hellbent on revenge: Hamlet. But within all that Sutter created a crime narrative that was equal parts compelling and complex. On top of that, it took a gang of outlaws and made the audience bond with them. When characters died, and “Sons of Anarchy” had some of the most brutal character assassinations in television history, it was hard to get over it. Sure, the series had some falls here and there — it’s hard to find anyone who enjoys the Ireland plotline in Season 3 — it was a packed tale of rascally rogues. — Kristen Lopez
24. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Who better to discuss true crime than the Master of Suspense himself? “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (otherwise known as “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”) was an extension of Hitchcock’s feature films. Every episode saw A-list stars do hour-long crime narratives, usually with Hitchcock’s patented twist or moral lesson. It’s not surprising that Hitchcock was able to get the likes of Robert Redford, Claude Rains, and “Rebecca” star Joan Fontaine. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” would be a precursor to other anthology series like “The Twilight Zone.” — Kristen Lopez
23. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
What is now the granddaddy of the “Law and Order” world, “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” remains one of the more compelling, if not questionably exploitative, crime shows out there. When it initially started we followed SVU detectives Benson and Stabler (Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, respectively) as they struggled to help victims of sexual assault and battery. The series has sparked conversations over its 20 years history, with Hargitay becoming a vocal proponent for the timely processing of rape kits. Sure, the series is often mocked for how badly some of the “sexually heinous” dialogue is delivered, but without it the world of criminal procedurals wouldn’t look like it does. Not to mention it gave us one of our favorite crime-fighting duos. — Kristen Lopez
British detectives got a much needed upgrade of cool with Idris Elba as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. Like Sherlock Holmes, Luther’s level of commitment to solving crimes leads him to be obsessive and downright violent. It also puts more strain on his fractured relationship with his wife, Zoe (Indira Varma). As if Elba’s anchoring of the series wasn’t enough, the series gave us one of the most chillin baddies of all time: Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan. With an elegance befitting Lauren Bacall and a violent streak that mimics Hannibal Lecter, Wilson made us love and fear Alice. It’s no surprise that her “will they or won’t they” relationship with Luther held together much of the series. — Kristen Lopez
Mindhunter is a series that, once you watched it, it was impossible to get out of your head. Created by David Fincher, the show followed FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they investigated the early psychology of serial killers. Season 1 saw Holden become obsessively interested and friendly with notorious killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), while Season 2 dived deep into the world of the unsolved Atlanta Child Murderers. Through it all Fincher brought his patented blend of heart, humor, and love of the true crime genre to make something truly special. Unfortunately, after a two-year wait for Season 2 it was announced in 2020 that the series would not be continuing on. — Kristen Lopez
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
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