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The Best TV Crime Shows of the 21st Century, Ranked

We rank the greatest series of the past two decades that follow legendary rule-breakers, complicated detectives and the outer limits of human nature.

10. Terriers


One of TV’s great one-season tragedies, this thoughtful spin on the buddy cop series arrived fully formed. Between recovering alcoholic wiseacre Hank and reformed-ish criminal Britt, “Terriers” helped FX (and TV at large) show that there were creative dividends to be reaped from retooling stale formulas. Taking advantage of its San Diego locale, the show also managed to balance a case-of-the-week hook with a sophisticated season-long real estate arc. Would that later seasons had been able to dig into the mystery deeper (with the willing help of a rich supporting cast), but we’ll always have Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James staring at the crossroads: a perfect, existential end for a show that still deserves more. — SG

Aden Young as Daniel, Caitlin Fitzgerald as Chloe - Rectify _ Season 4, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/Sundance TV

9. Rectify


Ray McKinnon’s masterful Southern slow-burn is a crime story that’s really an anti-crime story. Daniel Holden’s journey, captured with a uniquely compelling elegance by Aden Young, started when he was convicted of raping and killing a fellow high schooler, but the series kicked off when he was released from prison on inconclusive DNA evidence. There was enough to get him out, but not to clear him entirely. Combine this with Daniel’s fuzzy memory of the night and “Rectify” established itself as a series based around an unsolvable mystery. McKinnon focused on the man Daniel became while inside, as well as how his time away affected a loving family. It had a lot to say about the justice system and the men who run through it. The crime mattered very much to Daniel, but ultimately his journey was internal; learning to live with the unknown and moving forward as the new man he turned into after 18 years in confinement. — BT

Brad Mann and Bokeem Woodbine, "Fargo"

Brad Mann and Bokeem Woodbine, “Fargo”

Chris Large/FX

8. Fargo

2014 – present

They said it couldn’t be done. We even had our doubts, but Noah Hawley proved that his obsession and reverence for the Coen Brothers’ quirky big-screen crime drama could translate into a genre of its own. Somehow the “Oh Jeez!” folksiness and integrity of the good guys in “Fargo” comes off as admirable, not cheesy, and the criminal element is alternately incompetent, hilarious and chilling. The anthology series keeps on proving its worth: Season 1 created the best set of bangs ever seen on a remorseless criminal (those of Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo). Sad sack Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) somehow continued to fail through life, with fatal decisions snapping up everyone in his path. Somehow, Hawley topped himself in the second season, drawing in more star power and giving them the best roles of their careers in return (Kirsten Dunst, Bokeem Woodbine and Jeffrey Donovan are just three standouts in an unfairly talented cast). Season 3 doesn’t show any signs of slowing down either. “Fargo’s” wacky humor and characters may be the draw, but we’re left with the examination of a person’s individual capacity for heroism or frailty in equal measure. Okay, then. — HN

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Fox-TV/REX/Shutterstock (5885122s)Michael Chiklis, Walton GogginsThe Shield - 2002Fox-TVUSATelevisionPolice, CopAction/Adventure

7. The Shield


There’s something to be said for being the first, and “The Shield” was right there at the forefront of gritty and great Golden Age crime dramas. To this day, the FX brass credit Shawn Ryan and his seven-season cop drama for getting the network to where it is today. Critics and fans remain adamantly behind it, and stars Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, and Benito Martinez have thriving careers boosted by the show’s intense fandom. But “The Shield” is a great crime show because it examined how those who are supposed to protect us from crime justified criminality themselves. The corrupt police officers in “The Farm” lived out the ideal that “the ends justify the means,” and watching them wrestle with that idea created as much moral conflict as it did suspense. What does the shield mean? Quite a lot, both good and bad. — BT

"Top of the Lake"

“Top of the Lake”


6. Top of the Lake

BBC Two/BBC UKTV/Sundance

The stunning first installment of Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s series brought a staggering level of artistry to a missing-person mystery. Much as she has for her two other high-profile TV roles, Elisabeth Moss (as detective Robin Griffin) anchored the search for a vanished pregnant girl in a performance that combines a self-aware vulnerability with a determined, resolute strength. Set in a quiet New Zealand town, Campion and co-director Garth Davis took full advantage of the region’s natural beauty, trading in the usual bustle of city streets for an investigation that led through lush forests and open, green fields. That removal from city life also ushered in GJ (Holly Hunter) and her followers, a group of women in search of their own answers. Combining the philosophical and metaphysical unknown with an unforgiving portrait of power, manipulation and obscurity, “Top of the Lake” found beauty in the vicious. — SG

Up next: The Mount Rushmore of television dramas?

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