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Which Police TV Drama Is The Best of All-Time?

Which television crime drama series is the most realistic in its depiction of cops and what they experience on the streets of America? One real-life heroic cop who survived the gritty gang-riddled streets of Los Angeles in the late 70s and early 80s has ranked some of the all-time best shows.


“There have been so many terrific television depictions of law enforcement life over the past 50-60 years, ranging from the ‘Law & Order’ franchise to ‘Criminal Minds,’” says Al Moreno, who just penned his memoir, L.A.’s Last Street Cop: Surviving Hollywood’s Freaks, The Aryan Brotherhood, and the L.A.P.D.’s Homicidal Vendetta Against Me (Highpoint Lit; May 4, 2020).


In addition to wearing the blue uniform from 1975 to 1982, he has run a successful private investigations operation for 35 years. He understands the criminal mind well – and has the inside perspective of what it is like to track down the bad guys.

There have also been many comedies, like Barney Miller and Brooklyn 99, but when it comes to serious, accurate, and interesting depictions of police work, here is Moreno’s take on some of the best and worst:


Dragnet:  The series was created by Jack Webb, one of America’s real patriots back in the day. Dragnet represented a whole new genre for Hollywood T. V. It was obvious that Webb sought technical support from L.A.P.D. officers and detective. The police jargon and procedures were reasonably correct, but his stiletto manner of talking to witnesses and suspects and his signature line, “Just the facts...” undermined a more realistic view of what officers and detectives really do on the job.   


Adam-12: This Jack Webb-created hit series starring Martin Milner and his partner Ken McCord, circa 1968 to 1975, was much too vanilla for me. The main characters’ uniform appearance, the radio broadcasting procedures, and their zipping back and forth from call to call in their pristine black & white lacked the grit, blood and guts of what real cops experience 24/7.   


Kojak:  This mid-1970s police show starring Telly Savalas was another Hollywood attempt to realistically depict a day in the life of police work. However, Savalas portrays a detective whose professional focus was all over the place. In one show he was investigating a homicide; in another he was tracking down an auto theft ring. The following week he was investigating a major fraud case. This process couldn’t be further from the way police departments really work, where separate teams investigate crimes against individuals, homicides, felony and misdemeanor assaults, missing persons, and other categories.


Police Story: It was in 1973 when Hollywood finally got it right with Joseph Wambaugh’s “Police Story.” Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective, set a new standard for realism in police T. V. shows. Every brother and sister officer I knew loved the show for its gritty, honest portrayal of what street cops faced on the streets, with scant attention to what today would be seen as political correctness. The writers put meat on the table with visceral stories that appeared to be based on real crime reports. to name a few.

Columbo, Hawaii Five-O and Others: These were much too “Hollywood” in their portrayal of the police. “Predictable” might be an understatement. After watching Columbo and Hawaii Five-O once, that was it for me! Likewise, In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, I could not muster much interest in “NYPD Blue,”  “Hill Street Blues,” “Miami Vice,” or “SWAT.”  


And the Emmy goes to…


The Wire: David Simons’ 2002 HBO blockbuster, “The Wire,” set a new standard of excellence in police shows. Simon was able pick-up where “Police Story” left off, with complex and gritty stories set in the multi-layered bowels of Baltimore.  His honest portrayal of police, the street drug trade run by the ubiquitous gangs and the city hall’s corruption, brought out a realistic picture of what to many inner-city communities in the United States live with 24/7, with no reprieve on the horizon. “The Wire” was based on Simon’s one-year assignment with the Baltimore PD’s homicide unit. In my opinion, it is without equal in police storytelling. When the show concluded in 2008, it left a void in genuine police programming.

Semper fi!  -Al

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