From left, are Tyne Daley and Sharon Gless of “Cagney and Lacey” (Special photo)
It started more than six decades ago when “The Adventures of Boston Blackie” appeared on television in 1951. Played by Kent Taylor, Boston Blackie was a reformed jewel thief and safecracker but became a Los Angeles detective. Lois Collier appeared as his gal pal and Frank Orth as Inspector Farraday.
“The Adventures of Boston Blackie,” which aired from 1951 to 1953, was the first TV police series.
It was closely followed by “Dragnet,” which starred Jack Webb as Lt. Joe Friday and Ben Alexander as Sgt. Frank Smith. The original series ran from 1952 to 1959. It was reprised from 1967 to 1970, 1989 to 1991 and from 2003 to 2004. “Dragnet” competed with “I Love Lucy” for recognition as the most popular show on television.
The benchmark for “Dragnet” occurred at the end of each episode when the arrested criminals nervously stood for mug shots and their fates were stated as a verdict of a court on an appropriate date. Since “The Adventures of Boston Blackie” and “Dragnet” hit the TV screens, more than 325 — yes, 325 — police dramas have been televised.
The genre has become so popular, police dramas are now being produced in England, Canada, Poland, Australia, India, Germany and Japan, among other countries.
Here’s a list of our favorite 12 police dramas in the order in which they first appeared. The list includes only dramas on the major networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — and excludes police comedies such as “Barney Miller,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Car 54 Where Are You?” Many were chosen because of their historical significance. It also excludes legal dramas such as “Perry Mason,” “L.A. Law” and “Matlock.”
“Columbo” (1968-78, 89-2003) — Starring Peter Faulk, “Columbo” followed the exploits of a disheveled Los Angeles police department homicide detective. “Columbo” was different because the person who committed the crime was revealed early in the show. The remainder of the show was spent revealing how Columbo solved the crime. The intent of this style was to observe the way Columbo uncovered information and followed the clues that led him to the truth.
“Kojak” (1973-78) — Telly Savalas starred as the title character, Theo Kojak, a New York City Police Department detective lieutenant. The show revolved around the efforts of the tough Kojak, a bald, dapper, policeman, who was fond of Tootsie Roll Pops and used a pet phrase: “Who loves ya, baby?” Kojak was stubborn and tenacious in his investigation of crime. He was an honest cop who was tough but sensitive. The show’s co-stars included Dan Frazier as Capt. Frank McNeil (Kojak’s boss), Kevin Dobson as Det. Bobby Crocker, George Savalas as Sgt. Heathcliff “Fatso” Stavros and Mark Russell as Det. Percy Saperstein.
“Hill Street Blues” (1981-87) — One of Steven Bochco’s first police dramas and one of his best. The show received 96 Emmy nominations and won 25, four of which were for Best Series. The show, in an unnamed American city, gained fame for its accurate portrayal of police work. “Hill Street Blues” starred Daniel J. Travanti as Capt. Frank Furillo, Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, Bruce Weitz as Sgt. Mick Belker, Charles Haid as Officer Andy Renko, Michael Warren as Officer Bobby Hill, Kiel Martin as Office J.D. LaRue, James Sikking as Lt. Howard Hunter, Tauren Blacque as Detective Neal Washington, Joe Spano as Detective Henry Goldblume and Rene Enriquez as Lt. Ray Calletano. Colorful and ulta-developed characters made this unquestionably one of the best. This series is considered by many as the most authentic police drama.
“Cagney & Lacey” (1982-88) — This was the first TV show to have females as the two main characters, rolls typically reserved for males. Set in New York City, it featured Tyne Daley as Det. Mary Beth Lacey, a mother of two who tried to balance family and work obligations, and her partner, Sharon Gless as sassy Detective Christine Cagney, who was single. Co-starring in the series were John Karlen as Lacey’s husband, Harvey, Al Waxman as Lt. Bert Samuels, Martin Kove as Det. Victor Isbecki and Carl Lumley as Det. Mark Petrie. The show featured many feminist issues, including birth control, abortion and acquaintance rape.
“In the Heat of the Night” (1988-95) — Based on a book by the same name, “In the Heat of the Night” was situated in fictitious Sparta, Miss., a small town of approximately 12,000. It was the first police drama not located in a major city. It starred Carroll O’Connor of Archie Bunker fame as aging Chief Bill Gillespie. It also starred Howard Rollins as Chief of Detectives Virgil Tibbs, ex-NFL player Alan Autry as Lt. Bubba Skinner, Anne-Marie Johnson as Tibbs’ wife, Althea, and Denise Nicholas as Councilwoman Harriet DeLong. The show had terrific story themes, including the racial divide in the small town, rape, drugs and marital difficulties.
“Law & Order” (1990-2010) “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (1999-present) and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent ” (2001-11) — Produced by Dick Wolf, “Law & Order” shares the record with “Gunsmoke” for the longest-running live-action scripted prime-time series with ongoing characters (20 seasons). “The Simpsons,” an animated series, will start its 26th season in September. Wolf’s three “Law & Order” series, all located in New York, took many of its plots from actual current events.
The original “Law & Order” starred Chris Noth as Det. Mike Logan, George Dzundza as Det. Max Greevey, Dann Florek as Capt. Donald Cragen, Mike Moriarty as Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone, Richard Brooks as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette and Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff. Among the others who starred for at least five years during the series’ 20-year run are Jerry Orbach as Det. Lennie Briscoe, S. Epithet Markesan as Lt. Anita Van Buren, Sam Waterston as Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy and Jesse L. Martin as Det. Ed Green.
Starring in the original “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” were Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson, Christopher Merloni as Det. Elliott Stabler, Dann Florek as Capt. Donald Cragen and Richard Belzer as Det. John Munch. Others who starred in the series for at least five years are Ice-T as Det. “Fin” Tutuola, Stephanie March as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot, Tamarie Tunie as Medical Examiner Melinda Warner, B.D. Wong as FBI Criminal Profiler George Huang and Diane Neal as Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak.
Starring in the original “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” were Vincent D’Onofrio as Det. Robert Goren, Kathryn Erbe as Det. Alexandra Eames, Jamey Sheridan as Capt. James Deakins and Courtney B. Vance as Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver. Nobody else starred in the series for five seasons.
“The Commish” (1991-96) — “The Commish” starred Michael Chiklis as Tony Scali, an ex-NYPD detective who became the police commissioner of a small upstate New York town. He tended to work through problems with humor and creativity as opposed to violence or force. Theresa Saldana played Rachel Scali, Tony’s wife, and Kaj-Erik Eriksen was their young son, David. Living with the family in the first season was Rachel’s freeloading brother, Arnie Metzger (David Paymer). The show focused as much on family situations as on police drama. The series often dealt with important social issues including police corruption, racism, homophobia, drug addiction, disabilities, child abuse, illegal immigration and sexual harassment. Among Scali’s staff were Geoffrey Nauffts as Stan Kelly, Melinda McGraw as Cyd Madison and Jason Schombing as Ronnie Lopez.
“Picket Fences” (1992-96) — This is probably the only list of best police dramas where you will find “Picket Fences.” Located in the small town of Rome, Wis., the David E. Kelley show followed the activities of the city’s residents and was famous for its quirky plots, including cow udders exploding and people found dead in freezers. It also dealt in topics atypical for prime-time TV such as homophobia, abortion, racism, polygamy, date rate and shoe fetishes. “Picket Fences” probably had the best cast of any police drama including Tom Skerritt as Sheriff Jimmy Brock and Kathy Baker as Dr. Jill Brock (his second wife). They had three children: Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), Matthew (Justin Shenkarow) and Zachary (Adam Wylie). Among the other key cast members were Lauren Holly and Costas Madylor as sheriff’s deputies, Fyvush Finkel as Douglas Wambaugh (defense attorney), Ray Walston as Judge Henry Bone, Don Cheadle as prosecutor John Littleton, Kelly Connell as the medical examiner and Zelda Rubinstein as the horizontally challenged police dispatcher.
“NYPD Blue” (1993-2005) — This was another superb Steven Bochco drama. It garnered a staggering 82 Emmy nominations, winning 20. The show was set in New York and focused on cops’ attempts to do their jobs while struggling with chaos in their personal lives. Bochco employed several actors from his previous efforts, including Dennis Franz as Sgt. Andy Sipowicz, David Caruso as Det. John Kelly (“Hill Street Blues”) and Jimmy Smitz as Det. Bobby Simone (“L.A. Law”). Among the other key actors were Gordon Clapp as Det. Greg Medavoy, James McDaniel as Capt. Arthur Francy, Kim Delaney as Det. Diane Russell and Sharon Lawrence as Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Costas. The series also gained notoriety for having more nudity than was previously seen on network television.
“Crime Scene Investigation” (2000-present) “CSI: Miami” (2002-12) and CSI: N.Y. (2002-13) — The superb trilogy of police procedural dramas followed the work of crime series investigators as they probed murders and atypical deaths.
The original “CSI,” which was set in Las Vegas, starred CSI unit employees William Petersen as Gil Grissom, Gary Dourdan as Warrick Brown, Jorja Fox as Sara Sidle, George Eades as Nick Stokes, Marg Helgenberger as Catherine Willows, Paul Guilfoyle as Police Capt. Jim Burrass and Robert David Hall as Chief Medical Examiner Al Robbins.
“CSI: Miami” starred investigators David Caruso as Horatio Caine, Emily Procter as Calleigh Duquesne, Adam Rodriguez as Eric Delko, Jonathan Togo as Ryan Wolfe, Eva La Rue as Natalie Buena Vista and Rex Linn as Police Capt. Frank Tripp.
The original “CSI: N.Y.” was headed by Det. Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise), Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes), Lindsay Monroe (Ann Belknap), Danny Messer (Carmine Giovinazzo), Sheldon Hawkes (Hill Harper)), Don Flack (Eddie Flack) and Dr. Sid Hammerback (Robert Joy). The shows gave tremendous insight into the workings of a CSI unit and the coroner’s office.
“NCIS” (2003-present) “NCIS: Los Angeles” (2009-present) — “NCIS” (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) probes crimes usually involving military personnel. Created by Donald Bellisario, the “JAG” spinoff is headed by Mark Harmon, who plays Supervisor Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. The original team consisted of Michael Weatherly as Senior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, Special Agent Sasha Alexander as Caitlin Todd, Special Agent Sean Murray as Timothy McGee, Forensics Specialist Pauley Perrette as Abby Sciuto and David McCallum as Chief Medical Examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard. Also playing a key role was Cote de Pablo as Special Agent Ziva David, who appeared in seasons three through 10.
“NCIS: Los Angeles” is a spinoff of “NCIS” and features Chris O’Donnell as Special Agent in Charge G Callen, LL Cool J as Special Field Agent Sam Hanna, Daniela Ruah as Kensi Blye, Eric Christian Olsen as L.A. Police Det. Marty Deeks and Linda Hunt as Operations Manager Hetty Lange.
“Criminal Minds” (2005-present) — The show focuses on an elite team of FBI profilers that analyzes the country’s most twisted criminal minds, anticipating their next moves before they are able to strike again. This is believed to be the first police drama to concentrate on profiling criminal minds. The BAU’s (Behavioral Analysis Unit) most experienced agent, David Rossi, is a founding member of the BAU who returns to help the team solve new cases. The team is led by Special Agent Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson). Other members of the BAU are Shemar Moore as Derek Morgan, Matthew Gray Gubber as Dr. Spencer Reid, A.J. Cook as Jennifer Jareau and Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia. Two others who had extended runs were Mandy Patinkin as Jason Gideon and Paget Brewster as Emily Prentiss. Patinkin appeared in the first three seasons and Brewster in season two through seven as a regular.
Barry Levine is an entertainment writer for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.