Crime dramas have long been a staple of TV schedules, but ever since the advent of The Wire in 2002 they’ve grown in ambition and prestige, focussing on institutional dysfunction and the moral ambiguities of enforcing the law as much as the crimes themselves.
The latest to grace our screens is Cardinal, a slickly made import from Canada that follows Detective John Cardinal (The Killing‘s Billy Campbell) and Lise Delorme (Revenge‘s Karine Vanasse) as they join forces in an all-consuming race to stay ahead of a serial killer in a small Northern Ontario town.
It launches tonight (June 16) on Hulu, and got us thinking of all the recent crime dramas that have had us glued to our seats — and left us slack-jawed.
1. Spiral (2005 – )
Like Denmark’s The Killing, Spiral (or Engrenages, as it’s known in France) delivers tension, a strong female lead, and some heavy-duty subtitles. Viewers get to follow the entire law enforcement process as police, lawyers and prosecutors work together – and sometimes against one another — while recurring characters are depicted vividly as complex and flawed. It’s also not afraid to tackle controversial topics, such as immigration, terrorism, human trafficking, police violence and corruption at all levels of the justice and political system.
2. Life on Mars (2006 – 2007)
This police procedural starts off straightforwardly enough — in the first minute of the first episode, we learn there’s a killer, an abducted policewoman, and a troubled lead police officer. And then things get weird. Very weird. Specifically, they’re thrown back to 1973, where modern day Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm) meets the bare-knuckle crime fighting tactics of Gene Hunt, played brilliantly by Philip Glenister.
3. Luther (2010 – 2018)
Having left the mean streets of Baltimore, Idris Elba returned to his home town of London to play growling Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, a man who, in the great tradition of TV crime drama, is not afraid to blur the lines between right and wrong to get the job done. Crimes sprawl across multiple episodes as the series develops, with the complications in Luther’s life become ever more tangled, making it almost impossible to watch just one episode.
4. The Bridge (2011 – )
This show (originally titled Broen/Bron) about a crime committed on the bridge between Sweden and Denmark was such a hit, it was adapted into English not once, but twice: first, for the American market, with the action transported to the U.S./Mexico border, and second, for the U.K. and France, in the Channel Tunnel. The original, however, is the best, with avuncular Danish investigator Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) forced to work side-by-side with his Swedish counterpart, the prickly Saga Norén (Sofia Helin).
5. Line of Duty (2012 – )
The Wire with its forensic focus on modern policing proved that even bureaucracy can be interesting, and that’s certainly true of this drama about a police anti-corruption unit. When a botched anti-terrorism raid leads to an innocent man being shot, Det. Sgt. Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) refuses to cover it up and instead exposes the dirty underside of the British Police. He’s joined by an all-star cast that includes Keeley Hawes, Thandie Newton, Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar, Lennie James, Neil Morrissey, and Gina McKee.
6. The Fall (2013 – )
Set in Belfast, this intense series tracks Superintendent Sarah Gibson (Gillian Anderson) as she hunts a serial killer. The criminal’s identity is revealed early on (although we won’t spoil it for you here!), and with the “whodunnit” out the way, the show is free to focus on the nitty-gritty of building a case against someone accused of a horrendous series of crimes — all the while upping the stakes as he befriends a woman who may be his next victim.
7. Broadchurch (2013 – 2017)
Anglo favorites David Tennant and Olivia Colman play the two detectives at the heart of this much-loved series, which returns on for third and final season June 28. The show’s success proves that a gripping and gritty crime drama does not necessarily require an urban setting. Set in an English seaside village, the crimes being investigated are just as challenging as anything Luther or McNulty have to deal with, and eventually involve everyone in the community.
8. Happy Valley (2014 – )
This British series is a tough watch, despite its delightful-sounding title. It follows police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) as she juggles her job, her complicated feelings about a local man, and the brutal crime that drove her daughter to suicide.
9. Fargo (2014 – )
The TV series Fargo may share the same universe and sensibility (not to mention the bad haircuts and ironic jumpers) as the original Cohen Brothers film, but that’s about all. Each season is set in a different era with a different story, cast, and set of characters, featuring Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton in the first, Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson in the second, and now Ewan McGregor and David Thewlis in the third.
10. Narcos (2015 – )
The life of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar has inspired a few dramas in recent years, but none so thrilling as this series from Brazilian director and producer José Padilha. Filmed in Colombia, it follows Escobar’s life from 1970 to 1992, with real archival footage of the era added to the drama for an extra (frighteningly) realistic feel.
Which recent crime drama have you loved?Read More