There are a ton of cop shows on these days — I count 22, and that’s probably excluding a few others that aren’t on my radar. I suspect this is because cop shows generally get decent ratings and it’s fairly easy to continue making new episodes — storylines aren’t particularly hard to come by and they are easily recyclable. Unfortunately, there are hardly any actually worth watching unless you’re terribly bored on a Saturday afternoon and have a weird jonesin’ to see homicides solved. In fact, of the top ten here, I only really watch three, and two of those just started their runs while the top show in this list just ended its run, probably forever. But, I’ve reviewed way too many cop shows this year not to put together this list.
A couple of notes: To qualify, the show has to involve the solving of murders by law enforcement personnel or someone employed by law enforcement. FBI Agents and federal marshals count. However, spies do not (which is why “Chuck” is not included). I’d also note that many of the still running cop shows not included on this list might have been included in seasons past; “Law & Order,” for instance, would probably warrant the top spot in, say, 1999, and “SVU” would have as recently as two years ago (not anymore, however). “Monk” may have also broken the top five in its first couple of seasons. Not anymore. I’ll also note that I haven’t seen the “CSI” spin-offs. However, since “CSI” wouldn’t make the top ten, it seems logical that the spin-offs wouldn’t either. Note also that most of the blurbs below come from our original reviews of the shows.
10. “In Plain Sight”: This show, which just debuted its second season over on the USA network, was the impetus for this list, as I didn’t feel like writing a full-length review for it. It doesn’t deserve one, and that it makes the top ten list only demonstrates how weak the current crop of cop shows on television are. “In Plain Sight” is about a couple of federal marshals who are charged with protecting those people who are put into the federal witness protection program. It’s not a particularly good show — only slightly better than “The Closer,” and Kyra Sedwick’s nose-breakingly awful Southern accent — but it makes the top ten for one reason: Mary McCormick — the show’s lead — is a kick-ass, super-hot federal marshal, who almost makes tuning in to “In Plain Sight” worth your time. — Dustin Rowles
9. “NCIS”: The show — which was spun off from another show I’ve never seen, “JAG,” plays along like most procedurals do: Each episode opens with a dead body or two; the computer guy traces credit card statements and phone calls; the medical examiner determines cause of death; the forensics woman reveals how the person died; the computer guy cracks a code; the field agent strong-arms people; the Liaison officer bats her eyelashes; and the boss walks around intently, grunts some orders, and figures it all out in the end while holding a gun to the suspect’s head. Then, in the end, the director stoically gives everyone their attaboys. In other words, I didn’t hate it. It’s not a stupid show, just not a particularly smart or convincing one. — Dustin Rowles
8. “Lie to Me”: “Lie to Me” has an amazingly dumb premise working against it: It’s about a guy who has a freakish ability to tell whether a person is lying or not, a gimmick they work into yet another criminal procedural. Hooray! Another criminal procedural. I wonder if they’ll rip from the headlines, too?! On the other hand, that guy is Tim Roth, and Tim Roth was Mr. Orange, and Mr. Orange gets the benefit of the doubt. Also, Tim Roth is the shit. He’s also pretty frickin’ great in “Lie to Me.” He’s slick, kind of squirrely, devilish, sly, and weirdly sexy. You know: Basically Tim Roth. All in all, “Lie to Me” is not a great show, but when your alternatives are “American Idol,” “Desperate Housewives,” or that lie detector reality show on FOX, “not great” with a side of Tim Roth gets at least a four-show commitment. — DR
7. “Castle”: It’s not any better or worse, really, than most procedurals — it’s aided by an occasional dose of humor, which unfortunately doesn’t go very far to offset what looks to be a series of boring investigations. The biggest problem with “Castle,” in fact, is that it’s far beneath the talents of Nathon Fillion. I’d have never bothered sitting through it if it weren’t for Fillion’s massively charming presence, but then again, here he only reminds you of how mediocre everything else about the show is. — DR
6. “Fringe”: “Fringe” follows an FBI agent, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who winds up teaming up with crazy scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his smart but pain-in-the-ass son Peter (Joshua Jackson, R.I.P.). Dr. Bishop isn’t just crazy in the “mad scientist” way — he’s actually been locked up in a loony bin for 17 years. And that’s how his son gets roped into things, because Dunham needs Dr. Bishop’s help for a bizarre case she’s been put on, and only Peter can get the good doctor released. Suffice it to say that Dr. Bishop used to work in the realm of “fringe science,” studying all sorts of crazy shit. By the end of the first episode, the trio are set up as a sort of team to start looking into a variety of other paranormal cases. Seth Freilich
5. “The Mentalist” & 4. “Bones”: I developed a soft spot for cornball procedurals like “The Mentalist” and “Bones.” There’s something completely comforting about a show with no surprises that’s still shot and presented like you have no idea what will happen!, you know? Simon Baker and The Girl From The Craft are fun together, as are Angel and Older Deschanel over on “Bones.” Plus that show has John Francis Daley — yes, Sam frakkin’ Weir — as a psychiatrist, which means it deserves at least a couple of viewings out of nothing but loyalty. The shows aren’t great in the typical sense of the word we mean to use, well, great, but they are consistently watchable in that way that lets you zone out, do a load of laundry, check your mail, and still be alert enough to catch every cheesy zinger and last-minute “twist.” They’re comfort food, if comfort food came from Taco Bell. — Daniel Carlson
3. “The Unusuals”: “The Unusuals” does something that most other cop shows — save for “Life” — don’t do. It adds a smart sense of humor. There are no jokes, of course; but the humor is wry, a little offbeat, and borderline dark, without being uncomfortable. It’s the sort of cop show you’d expect from Peter Tolan (“Rescue Me”), who serves as an executive consultant; Noah Hawley (“Bones”) is the series creator. But what’s so remarkable about “The Unusuals” — in contrast to so many of the other midseason pilots this year — is that it’s not a pilot episode that presents a premise that might be good if the writers change this or that. “The Unusuals” is not only promising, the actual pilot is good in and of itself. In under an hour, the writers manage to make you care about the four lead characters while also creating the base for a compelling season-long case. — DR
2. “Southland”: “Southland’s” strength will undoubtedly be the talented Benjamin McKenzie. That his presence is a main reason to tune in continues a trend this spring season in TV, such as with Jeremy Renner on “The Unusuals” and Nathan Fillion on “Castle” stealing their respective shows. The shows aren’t great, but with great actors taking what they can get, we’ll have to do the same as well. Which brings us full circle. “Southland” can only represent reality as it’s deemed acceptable by broadcast networks and advertisers. It’s grittier than, say, “Law & Order,” and will be worth keeping up with for now, but we’ll watch it mainly because it’s on, and it’s one of the better cop shows airing and, well, why not? We hit the peak with “The Wire”; now there’s nowhere to go but down. — Sarah Carlson
1. “Life”:”Life” gives me the itch. The last time I had the “itch” was “Veronica Mars.” That was a full-blown venereal, strip-down and bathe in calamine itch. With “Life,” it’s a nagging itch, one that burrows in slowly and the claws at you from the inside. You want to let the show wash over you. Immerse yourself into the storyline. It’s hard to fully explain the itch. It has as much to do with the characters, and Crews in particular (he’s sort of the procedural counterpoint to Hugh Laurie’s character on “House”), as it does the show’s tone — it’s serious, but not heavy; weird but not obnoxiously quirky; amusing but not funny; and accessible but not dumb. It’s the most compelling cop show on TV, and the most entertaining. It’s just a shame it probably won’t be back for a third season. — DR
Unranked: “The CSI Series,” “Without a Trace,” “The Law & Order Series,” “Monk,” “Cold Case,” “Criminal Minds,” “The Closer.” Unwatched: “Numb3rs.”