Best police procedurals of all time

Published 11:32 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Universal Network Television

Best police procedurals of all time

According to Merriam-Webster, a police procedural is “a mystery story written from the point of view of the police investigating the crime.” This broad canvas has sprung an endless amount of shows, books, plays, and films. On television, in particular, the police procedural continues to thrive from one decade to the next. What began with shows like “Dragnet” carries through to recent dramas such as “Bosch” and its spinoff “Bosch: Legacy.”

The most common TV police procedurals examine one case per episode while simultaneously exploring various character arcs. However, this is a somewhat narrow view of the subgenre, which extends well outside the traditional template of shows like “Law & Order” or “Criminal Minds.” In fact, some of the highest-rated procedurals of all time are serial dramas such as “Dexter” or the acclaimed anthology series “True Detective.”

No matter what the paradigm, viewers can expect ongoing character development along with gripping crime investigation. A number of shows pull their stories straight from the headlines, lending certain episodes a bone-chilling degree of verisimilitude. On the flip side of that coin are shows like “Lucifer,” which incorporate supernatural elements into an otherwise familiar milieu.

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But which are the best police procedurals of all time? To find out, Stacker looked at all English-language crime TV series released in the U.S. on IMDb with over 10,000 votes and narrowed it down further to police procedurals. From modern reinventions of the police procedural to the traditional greats that created the prototypical procedural formula, these are the top 25 by user rating, with ties broken by votes.

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G.W. Bailey, Tony Denison, and Phillip P. Keene in an episode of "The Closer"

Warner Bros. Television

#25. The Closer

– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Years on the air: 2005-2012

Trained by the CIA in the art of interrogation, LA Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) cracks stonewalling suspects and impossible cases alike. The show’s strong female lead and humane themes help distinguish it from various counterparts.

Tom Selleck in an episode of "Blue Bloods"

CBS Productions

#24. Blue Bloods

– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Years on the air: 2010-present

Former “Magnum, P.I.” star Tom Selleck plays NYPD Commissioner Frank Reagan in this CBS ratings smash. Blending police procedural with interpersonal drama, it centers around a multigenerational family of cops.

Ted Danson and Eric Szmanda in a scene from "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"

CBS Productions

#23. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Years on the air: 2000-2015

With its kinetic pacing and cinematic visuals, this blockbuster series helped redefine police procedurals for the modern era. The story follows a team of Las Vegas forensics experts as they solve cases by way of advanced scientific analysis. While loaded with inaccuracies, it earned a huge following and spawned multiple spinoffs.

Camryn Manheim, Anthony Anderson, and Jeffrey Donovan in a scene from "Law & Order"

NBC Universal Television

#22. Law & Order

– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Years on the air: 1990-present

Nearly every episode of this seminal drama dedicates the first half to investigating crimes and the second half to prosecuting them. Many of its stories come straight from the headlines and numerous A-listers have appeared in guest roles. After a long hiatus, it hit the airwaves once again with a 21st season in 2022.

Mark Harmon and Sean Murray in an episode of "NCIS"

CBS Paramount Network Television

#21. NCIS

– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Years on the air: 2003-present

Coming up on its 20th season, this enduring drama puts a military twist on the police procedural format. It chronicles the Major Case Response Team of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service as they tackle crimes involving Navy or Marine Corps personnel. Mark Harmon leads the ensemble cast and also serves as executive producer.

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David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel in an episode of "Bones"

20th Century Fox Television

#20. Bones

– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Years on the air: 2005-2017

While more comedic than the common police procedural, “Bones” is ultimately no less grim. In each episode, a brainy forensic anthropologist (Emily Deschanel) and a brash FBI agent (David Boreanaz) examine human remains in search of clues to a crime. Their romantic tension makes for a recurring subplot, as do the personal exploits of their respective team members.

Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, and Jon Michael Hill in an episode of "Elementary"

CBS Television Studios

#19. Elementary

– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Years on the air: 2012-2019

This beloved procedural brings Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) into modern times, with Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) for a partner. Against the backdrop of New York City, the troubled detective solves complex crimes using unorthodox methods.

Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and Afton Williamson in "The Rookie"

ABC Signature

#18. The Rookie

– IMDb user rating: 8.0
– Years on the air: 2018-present

Actor Nathan Fillion followed the series “Castle” with this entertaining crime drama, in which he plays the LAPD’s oldest rookie. Anchored around the persona of its lead, the show interweaves gripping action with witty banter and character-driven comic relief.

Tim Bagley with Tony Shalloub in "Monk"

ABC Signature

#17. Monk

– IMDb user rating: 8.0
– Years on the air: 2002-2009

Few (if any) police procedurals are as tightly tethered to their main protagonist as this one, which ran on the USA Network for eight seasons. Veteran actor Tony Shalhoub plays the title character, a private investigator who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Its high-rated finale set a record for the most-watched hour-long episode in cable TV history.

Brendan Hines and Felicia Day in "Lie to Me"

MiddKid Productions

#16. Lie to Me

– IMDb user rating: 8.0
– Years on the air: 2009-2011

This short-lived mystery drama follows body language expert Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), whose unique skills make him a human lie detector. Its main character is loosely based on the work of real-life researcher Paul Ekman.

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Jesse Lee Soffer, Marina Squerciati, Tracy Spiridakos, and LaRoyce Hawkins in "Chicago P.D."

Universal Television

#15. Chicago P.D.

– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Years on the air: 2014-present

This police procedural makes up part of Wolf Entertainment’s One Chicago media franchise and shares a universe with the shows “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago Med.” It brings viewers into the Chicago PD’s Intelligence Unit, where Sergeant Hank Voight (Jason Beghe) and his team take on the city’s toughest cases. Season 10 premieres in September 2022.

Mariska Hargitay and Amy Smart in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

Universal Network Television

#14. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Years on the air: 1999-present

The longest-running live-action series in the history of primetime TV takes place in New York City and tackles crimes of a sexual nature. True to the “Law & Order” format, most episodes divide their time between investigation and prosecution. Stars such as Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer, Christopher Meloni, and Ice-T have been with the cast for over two decades.

Jon Huertas, Wade Allain-Marcus, Seamus Dever, and Nathan Fillion in "Castle"

ABC Signature

#13. Castle

– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Years on the air: 2009-2016

Bestselling mystery writer Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion) becomes a real-world crime-solver in this ABC dramedy. He and homicide detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) make for an unlikely team as they investigate New York City’s most unusual cases. Their fraught partnership turns to friendship—and eventually to romance as the seasons progress.

Robin Tunney and Pedro Pascal in "The Mentalist"

Warner Bros. Television

#12. The Mentalist

– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Years on the air: 2008-2015

Aussie actor Simon Baker plays fraudulent psychic turned crime consultant Patrick Jane in this mystery drama series. A gifted observer and manipulator, Jane helps the California Bureau of Investigation solve cases while searching for the man who murdered his family. “This role is tailor-made for Baker,” wrote TV critic Barry Garron for The Hollywood Reporter.

Joe Mantegna, Paget Brewster, A.J. Cook, Adam Rodriguez, and Daniel Henney in "Criminal Minds"

Paramount Network Television

#11. Criminal Minds

– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Years on the air: 2005-2020

This gripping procedural chronicles an elite team of FBI profilers as they try to decipher a criminal’s next move. A ratings smash for CBS, it spawned a media franchise and outlasted two spinoffs before concluding its 15th and final season. Paramount+ is reportedly developing a 10-episode revival along with a true-crime docuseries based on real-life profilers.

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Tom Ellis and Lauren German in "Lucifer"

Jerry Bruckheimer Television

#10. Lucifer

– IMDb user rating: 8.1
– Years on the air: 2016-2021

A fantasy-based departure from the traditional procedural, this supernatural drama presents the fallen angel Lucifer (Tom Ellis) as its crime-solving protagonist. It’s based on a DC Comics character co-created by legendary writer Neil Gaiman. After debuting on Fox, it migrated over to Netflix for the final three seasons.

Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman in "The Killing"

Fox Television Studios

#9. The Killing

– IMDb user rating: 8.3
– Years on the air: 2011-2014

This serial mystery loosely adapts the Danish TV series “Forbrydelsen” and draws occasional comparisons to “Twin Peaks.” Part crime drama and part character study, it follows two homicide detectives (Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman) on a series of murder investigations. It survived two separate cancellations on AMC before concluding on Netflix with a fourth season.

Dulé Hill, Maggie Lawson, Kirsten Nelson, and James Roday Rodriguez in "Psych"

NBC Universal Television

#8. Psych

– IMDb user rating: 8.4
– Years on the air: 2006-2014

The first season of this USA crime dramedy was the most-watched new show on basic cable in 2006. It tells the story of a pseudo-psychic (James Roday) and his business partner (Dulé Hill), who must maintain their ruse if they want to keep working with the Santa Barbara PD. A 2017 feature film picked up three years after the series finale and rolled out to rave reviews.

Titus Welliver in an episode of "Bosch"

Amazon Studios

#7. Bosch

– IMDb user rating: 8.5
– Years on the air: 2014-2021

Based on Michael Connelly’s long-running book series, this taut police drama revolves around LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver). Straight-faced and insubordinate, Bosch overcomes various challenges in his pursuit of justice. It hit its stride starting in the second season and held a 100% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes each season ever since.

Titus Welliver and Madison Lintz in "Bosch: Legacy"

Amazon Studios

#6. Bosch: Legacy

– IMDb user rating: 8.6
– Years on the air: 2022-present

While technically a spinoff of “Bosch,” this series is really more of a continuation on the ad-supported Freevee streaming service. After quitting the LAPD, the titular character takes on the life of a private investigator. It employs the same no-frills style as its predecessor and has been renewed for a second season.

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Richard Belzer and Toni Lewis in "Homicide: Life on the Street"

NBC Studios

#5. Homicide: Life on the Street

– IMDb user rating: 8.7
– Years on the air: 1993-1999

Former crime reporter (and future “The Wire” creator) David Simon spent a year with the Baltimore PD when writing the book on which this police drama was based. It similarly takes a no-frills approach to the hard work performed by city homicide detectives. Seven seasons were followed by a made-for-TV movie.

Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter in "Dexter"

John Goldwyn Productions

#4. Dexter

– IMDb user rating: 8.7
– Years on the air: 2006-2013

A natural born serial killer, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) targets others of his kind in this iconic Showtime procedural. It brings the city of Miami to life in signature color and counterbalances dark subject matter with occasional comic relief. The story continues with a 2021 reboot called “Dexter: New Blood.”

Vince Vaughn in an episode of "True Detective"

HBO Entertainment

#3. True Detective

– IMDb user rating: 8.9
– Years on the air: 2014-2019

This HBO anthology series captured the zeitgeist with its heralded first season, in which two detectives (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) hunt for a serial killer. Each subsequent season examined a different crime story to somewhat uneven results. A fourth season is currently in development with Jodie Foster attached.

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in "Sherlock"

BBC Wales

#2. Sherlock

– IMDb user rating: 9.1
– Years on the air: 2010-2017

This award-winning BBC crime drama features Benedict Cumberbatch in a breakout role as the famous detective. It updates the setting to modern-day London and co-stars Martin Freeman as Watson. “The appeal is elementary: good, unpretentious fun,” wrote critic Mike Hale for The New York Times.

Clark Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Brandon Young, and Michelle Paress in "The Wire"

Home Box Office (HBO)

#1. The Wire

– IMDb user rating: 9.3
– Years on the air: 2002-2008

David Simon’s masterful series exists in a class of its own and bears scant resemblance to the standard procedural. Set in Baltimore, it depicts the disastrous war on drugs from all conceivable angles. So goes one of the most comprehensive and authentic sociological tapestries in the history of television.

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