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Top of the cops: We look at some of the best police dramas

Published 12/11/2016

Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless in Cagney and Lacey
Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless in Cagney and Lacey
Top cop: Gillian Anderson in The Fall
Mariska Hargitay from Law and Order
Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect
Jimmy Ellis in Z Cars

Police TV series have morphed over decades from binary tales of cops and robbers to morally nebulous psychodramas. While each generation favours the ones it grew up with, Graeme Ross reckons he has nailed down the best.

From the early days of television, the police in all their guises have been an essential subject for programme makers worldwide. From the bobby on the beat in the cosy world of Dixon of Dock Green to the emotionally damaged detectives of today, with diversions into police procedurals and Scandinavian noir, the cop show has become a beloved TV institution containing many of the most compelling and memorable characters ever found on the small screen.

It's a challenge to pick the best from the myriad out there, but here is my countdown of the 12 greatest TV cop shows.

12. Life on Mars (2006-07)

Nostalgia might not be what it used to be, but the biggest mystery with Life on Mars is why it took someone so long to come up with this inspired paean to the pop culture and TV cop shows of the 1970s.

Throw in the fish-out-of-water time travel motif and the tongue in cheek non-PC scripts and characters, and its not hard to see why the series struck a chord with audiences.

11. The Fall (2012-16)

Gillian Anderson is the deliberate, dedicated senior detective on the trail of an equally meticulous serial killer in this controversial drama filmed and set in Northern Ireland.

The Fall survived accusations of misogyny and voyeurism to lift a Bafta for best television drama and keep viewers hooked for three series, but remains a troubling, unsettling experience for many.

10. Cagney and Lacey (1981- 88)

The cop show that more than any other blew the stereotypical image of female police officers out of the water, and challenged the sexist attitudes of many executives in the television industry.

Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless won the hearts of millions of viewers, and six Emmys between them, as two dedicated New York police officers who happened to be women with normal lives and challenges like everyone else.

9. Z Cars (1962-1978)

Set in the fictional northern town of Newtown, Z Cars broke new ground in police drama shows, challenging the homely predictability of the likes of Dixon of Dock Green.

Devised by Allan Prior and Troy Kennedy Martin, the series centred on not just one central protagonist, but rather several police officers both uniformed and plain-clothed. Z Cars brought some iconic characters into the nation's living rooms such as detective Charlie Barlow, PC "Fancy" Smith and desk sergeant Bert Lynch, played by Belfast-born Jimmy Ellis.

8. Prime Suspect (1991- 2006)

If Cagney and Lacey blazed the trail for female cops, then the first series of Prime Suspect in particular indicated a seismic shift in the perception of, and the attitudes towards, the female police officer.

Helen Mirren is outstanding as DCI Jane Tennison, who heads a murder squad hunting a sadistic serial killer, but has to overcome opposition and resentment from her team as well as the institutionalised sexism of the police department itself.

7. The Killing (2007-2012)

This Danish police procedural and prime example of Scandinavian noir attracted criticism for its violence against women.

It did, however, become an international success particularly in the UK. Viewers were gripped by the formula; that of each episode reflecting 24 hours in the same murder case, and by the cold-fish female detective protagonist Sarah Lund, while developing an almost fetishist fascination with her knitwear.

The Killing paved the way for other subtitled European crime dramas and equally popular and acclaimed entries such as The Bridge and Borgen quickly followed.

6. Law and Order (1990-2010) Filmed in New York City with a two-pronged approach of the investigation of a crime and arrest of a suspect, followed by the suspect's trial, Law and Order introduced one of the great small-screen detectives, recovering alcoholic Lennie Briscoe. (Jerry Orbach).

The show's boast was that many of its subject matters were "ripped from the headlines" and it was this approach that gave it a compelling topical feel and made it the longest-running American crime series and the benchmark for police procedurals.

5. Columbo (1971- 2003)

After Bing Crosby turned the role down, Peter Falk became synonymous with the cigar smoking, dishevelled police lieutenant in a shabby raincoat, winning four Emmys and a Golden Globe. Referred to as a "howcatchem" by its creators, Columbo deviated from the traditional whodunit in that the audience and, it seemed, Columbo himself, knew the identity of the murderer from the start.

4. Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-98)

Baltimore native Barry Levinson was a natural fit as executive producer of this ultra-realistic police procedural, based on The Wire creator David Simon's book chronicling his experiences following homicide detectives at work in the so-called "City of Firsts". From the very first episode Life on the Street succeeded in dispelling the myths and stereotypes about the television cop, showing that murder and violence were just a routine parts of the job.

Indeed the murder of a schoolgirl in that first episode was never solved. Aficionados rate this show even better than The Wire. Some have called Homicide: Life on the Street the missing link betweenHill Street Blues and The Wire. Beg, borrow or steal the box set and find out why.

3. Inspector Morse (1987-2000)

Such is the renown of the celebrated television adaptation of Colin Dexter's novels featuring the enigmatic real-ale swilling, arts-loving, crossword buff detective, that there's very little left to say apart from it's basically a brilliant variation on the classic English whodunit, Kevin Whately's Lewis is to John Thaw's Morse as Dr Watson was to Sherlock Holmes, and Thaw is simply wonderful.

2. The Sweeney (1975-78)

It has become so caricatured and parodied in recent years that it's easy to overlook the fact that The Sweeney made Z Cars look as antiquated as the former did Dixon of Dock Green a decade earlier.

Created by Ian Kennedy Martin, brother of Z Cars co-creator Troy, The Sweeney was shot in 16mm film and that, along with extensive location shooting, gave it a more cinematic look than other studio-bound rivals. Focusing on the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad, The Sweeney was all booze, cigarettes, car chases, punch-ups and catchphrases that quickly entered the public consciousness. It was fast-paced, hold-on-to-your trousers, non-PC entertainment - and at the heart of it all lay the model for the tough, volatile, maverick policeman that would inhabit similar programmes for years to come.

1. Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)

Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll and still celebrated, still hugely influential, and still the cop show to which almost everything that has come since owes a huge debt. From Mike Post's iconic theme and the innovative cinema vèritè-evoking handheld camera, to the brilliant ensemble cast creating beloved characters and dramatic storylines in the urban sprawl of an unnamed US city, Hill Street Blues pioneered a new wave of cop shows.

Ironically, it never gained huge audience ratings, but garnered a grand total of 98 Emmy nominations. Groundbreaking, thought provoking, emotional and funny, Hill Street Blues stands tall in the canon of truly great television.

Belfast Telegraph

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