[Editor’s Note: The below piece was originally published on May 12, 2017.]
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.
Of course, these shows are never just about individuals. Even a show about the most righteous Robin Hood-like character exists inside a perception of right or wrong behavior. Some of the most popular shows in the genre have had an outsized effect on those public perceptions, and not always positive. The kinds of stories that then become worthy of parsing or praise often come down to how they use that power to reveal something more than just a narrow view of humanity.
So to honor some of the best television of this still-young century, we’ve gathered thirty 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.]
Kristen Lopez, Liz Shannon Miller, and Hanh Nguyen contributed to this list.
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, including 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 (and it gave us one of our favorite crime-fighting duos). — 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
Making a show about a troubled detective is about as original as a show about doctor who can heal everyone but themself. Even though “The Sinner” didn’t begin that way, it morphed into a best-case scenario for a series that balances the “why” of not only the crime but the person leading the investigation. There are few steadier hands on TV in the past decade than Bill Pullman as detective Harry Ambrose, even when it feels like the character should be doing anything other than wallowing in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of trauma. From a captivating first season built around a plain-daylight beach stabbing to a hypnotic Season 3 steeped in the very nature of fate and free will, “The Sinner” rarely chose the easy path. Having an enigmatic guide along the way made it a journey worth taking, however treacherous. — Steve Greene
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. — SG
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 those closest to him. As if Elba’s anchoring of the series wasn’t enough, the series gave us one of the most chilling 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. — KL
Sebastian Gutierrez’s rainbow-colored look at one woman trying to outrun her past proves that dark and gritty crime stories don’t have to come at the expense of flair. Carla Gugino has rarely been better than here as Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, an all-around burglary expert with a personal history as complicated as her list of targets. Hopping around in time between jobs and other complicated responsibilities, “Jett” is another story of how once someone takes a dip into an underground world in search of riches, they can never fully make their way out of it again. The show has violence and style in equal measure, working together to show how Jett’s heists can be works of art, too. (The show’s one-season run was painfully short, but for anyone looking for more, Gutierrez and Gugino’s spiritual Peacock follow-up “Leopard Skin” has a lot of the same dangerous and flashy DNA.) — SG
The ability to change perspectives is fundamental to so many of the shows on this list. No other show takes that idea and makes it as slippery as “Landscapers,” a show dedicated to artifice from its opening frames. Ed Sinclair reimagines the true story of accused murderers Susan (Olivia Colman) and Christopher Edwards (David Thewlis) through a number of different lenses, brought to life by director and co-writer Will Sharpe. At points, both Susan and Christopher see themselves as stars of their own misunderstood tale, be it a classic Hollywood romance or a story set in a different era or continent. The show doesn’t merely copy specific genre touches but instead gives them a real, earned hazy feeling too. A tragic mix of dark comedy, warped rose-colored optimism, and the drudgery of investigative work, “Landscapers” is a triumph of design. Using that stylistic cornucopia as a starting point, the show is able to present a 360-degree view of how one action or choice can impact so many other lives. — SG
Few crime shows make the viewer feel as immersed (and, at times, almost complicit) in the on-screen violence as “Snabba Cash,” the Swedish series drawn from the same Jens Lapidus books as the 2010s film trilogy. The series begins with three separate threads of Leya (Evin Ahmad), Salim (Alexander Abdallah), and Tim (Ali Alarik) all trying to balance the realities and potential of the corners of Stockholm where they live. As things progress and their lives become linked, each of the three find that business of any kind demands a part of your soul. Whether in secret storeroom back areas, board rooms, or confrontations on open streets, there’s a coiled snake feeling throughout every episode that something significant and/or disastrous could happen at any minute. Once the bullets start flying, the specific “Snabba Cash” brand of controlled chaos is unlike anything else in the genre. — SG
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