Cop TV Shows: A Brief History of the Police Procedural

Scripted television is all but unimaginable without the soothingly formulaic, reliably satisfying police procedural. But the genre has evolved with the medium, becoming grittier, more realistic and more sophisticated — up to a point. In the same way some argue that all war movies are pro-war movies, critics maintain that cop shows inescapably glorify police officers and denigrate perpetrators.

Here’s a look at several important cop shows and how the genre has changed over the decades.

Adapted from a radio program by its creator and star, Jack Webb, “Dragnet” was one of the most popular cop shows ever, rising as high as No. 2 in the ratings behind “I Love Lucy.”

“Dragnet” set the genre’s resilient template: Each episode featured a new crime for the detective partners to solve. Made in extensive consultation with the real-life Los Angeles Police Department (which provided a steady supply of authentic cases on which to base episodes), it also introduced the trend of what critics characterize as an overly deferential view toward law enforcement.

After “Dragnet,” popular cop shows like “Kojak,” “Columbo” and “Cagney & Lacey” injected additional personality into its crime solvers, according to the book “Cop Shows.” But it was “Hill Street Blues” that successfully depicted the sour tones of the job and the toll it could take on officers.

Its critical acclaim, including five Emmys for outstanding drama, ensured its influence over the next generation of police procedurals. “With its serial structure, ensemble cast of characters, willingness to be dark and have the characters be unlikable on some level, it was a real stretch from ‘Dragnet,’” said Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, a professor of media studies at DePauw University.

Along with “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” which brought the profession’s R-rated language and themes to the screen, “Law & Order” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” helped pave the way for the prestige television boom. Each show was brought to network television in the early 1990s with the help of “Hill Street Blues” alumni, building on that show’s realism and sense of place.

“Law & Order” has lasted 22 seasons and spawned no fewer than eight spinoffs, while “Homicide: Life on the Street” used vérité-style camerawork to plumb race relations in Baltimore. “N.Y.P.D. Blue” tracked Detective Andy Sipowicz’s evolution to more enlightened racial views over a dozen seasons.

The commitment to realism had a range of implications. Bill Clark, a former New York City detective who was a producer on “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” said melodramatic story lines were not always reflective of regular policing methods.

“One of the things I was always offended by in other cop shows was in an interrogation room where cops beat the crap out of the guy,” he said.

The innovation that “CSI” provided the cop show was technology, with its investigators using the latest in forensic know-how to crack Las Vegas’s hard cases. In other ways, though, “CSI” was a throwback, relying heavily on the procedural structure that dates back to “Dragnet.”

It worked: “CSI” was a top 10 show in each of its first nine seasons, peaking at No. 1. It resulted not only in three direct spinoffs but even more copycats.

Some have theorized that the show also generated a “CSI Effect,” in which real-life jurors unrealistically expect compelling forensic evidence.

There had never been a crime show quite like “The Wire.”

It not only depicted problems with the aims and methods of policing, but at times placed the blame on fundamentally corrupted systems and initiatives like the war on drugs.

The critically acclaimed show was created for HBO by Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective, and David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who had written for “Homicide: Life on the Street,” a series that was based on his 1991 book.

The crime novelist George Pelecanos, who wrote for “The Wire,” said Simon’s pitch was not “a thought-provoking look at the issues in the inner city,” but a show about cops and drug dealers. But, Pelecanos added, “I knew where his heart was. This wasn’t going to be the usual thing where bad guys are pursued and caught.”

“East New York,” which debuted on CBS on Sunday, follows in the tradition of the police procedural. But its producers are hoping to highlight underemphasized aspects of policing, such as officers building relationships with the community.

“Catching bad guys is what cops did in the days of ‘Dragnet,’ and it’s what they still do,” said William Finkelstein, a creator of “East New York” and a veteran of “Law & Order” and “N.Y.P.D. Blue.” “But how do they do it? And what’s their relationship to the people they’re policing?”