I love a good police procedural. I grew up watching them. From the setup to the arraignment and arrest, conviction through sentencing, all the technicalities and evidence collection… I love watching bad guys get their comeuppance. And I love watching the good guys deliver it to them. It gives me such a feeling of security, you know? I love them all, from Carmen San Diego to some of the crime shows you’ll see listed below, and here’s your lineup (get it? get it?) of some truly excellent police procedurals for a long binge.
Let’s start out with a few of the most straightforward police procedurals. If we’re going for the most famous first, it’s got to be Columbo. This one’s inverted—rather than a “whodunit,” it’s a “howcatchem,” meaning, the audience is introduced to the crime and the perpetrator from the jump. Lieutenant Columbo just has to catch them. It’s nostalgia at its highest, ‘70s style and archetypical trench coat and cigar all the way through. And one more thing, you can stream all eight years of this neo-noir on Peacock.
First of all, this theme song slaps, am I right? Second, this procedural is super fun because it’s regional. I grew up outside of Atlanta, and I watched this procedural with my grandfather. Who doesn’t want to watch Andy Griffith solve crime in a seersucker suit? (My grandfather actually bought one and wore it regularly because of Matlock! He had a maroon Crown Vic for a while, too, but I don’t know if that’s because of the show.) Anyway, this procedural follows (twist!) a criminal defense attorney, whose one goal is to prove reasonable doubt of his client’s guilt… and he usually ends up establishing his client’s innocence by getting the actual perpetrator on the stand. (Dean Hargrove created both this show and Perry Mason, so if you like one, you’ll probably like both!) You can watch Matlock on Prime Video.
This one might be the best police procedural of all time. It definitely is a procedural, in the sense that each episode has the main characters solving a crime, but it is next-level in so many ways: the police are just as flawed as the criminals, and the show really examines a cross-section of time and place in post-9/11 Baltimore. From the war on drugs to the shipyards to the education system and counterterrorism, this show has everything. And every character is rounded in a way that feels more like literature than a formulaic procedural—not that there’s anything wrong with the procedural’s formula! Every episode is available on HBO.
Speaking of Idris Elba (he’s a lead villain in The Wire), you might have forgotten that he’s actually British. I mean, what with such a compelling Maryland accent, I would have, if it wasn’t for this show. Follow DCI John Luther as he pursues the criminal Alice Morgan… who becomes more and more obsessed with him (I mean… I get it) as he continues to investigate her on the series of murders she committed. He just can’t gather enough evidence to arrest. You can watch Luther in a few places, including Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and the Roku channel.
When I was a kid, I thought the main character Adrian Monk was a little… magoo. That’s because of several reasons: for one, my love for the main actor Tony Shalhoub hadn’t yet fully actualized itself, and two, I wasn’t grown yet. His obsessive/compulsive quirks didn’t ring as true to me then as they do now—like, of course, he flosses his teeth. Of course, he wipes down surfaces before he touches them. Of course, he doesn’t want children to cough all over him. The premise here is that Adrian Monk is a twice-gifted detective. After his wife was murdered (and he was unable to solve the crime), he developed an anxiety disorder. It manifests as weird to the other gross detectives, but it actually helps him solve other crimes because he notices clues that his colleagues overlook. The show definitely has some injections of humor (baby wipes under every handhold on a ladder, for example), but the character is not what we’re laughing at. You can stream this on Peacock, which I definitely recommend.
This show is one of my more recent loves. It, too, tweaks the formula of the police procedural in that Charlie Cane (played by Natasha Lyonne, another hot selling point) is not a policeperson. She’s a regular woman with a clear sense of justice and a special gift: she can tell when people are lying. She’s 100% accurate, too. It helps her when playing cards, but otherwise, it can kind of get in the way. She can’t tell the truth, and she can’t tell why someone is lying, only that they are. It’s a well-established conceit by the creators of Knives Out and Glass Onion, so it’s perfect for the viewer who likes their crimes a little quirky and a little cozy. Charlie Cane is on the lam, and murder seems to follow her. Every episode, she encounters a new crime scene, all while the main narrative arc plays out, chasing her from town to town. It’s super fun. You can stream it on Peacock, too.
You’re probably thinking, wait, isn’t Brooklyn 99 a Mike Schur sitcom? Yes, it is. It’s also a favorite procedural of mine. The cast is full of real “characters,” in the colloquial sense of the word, from big softy Sergeant Terry (played by Terry Crews) to mean and scary Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), who fights crime in Brooklyn’s 99th precinct. It draws on all the elements of police procedurals that we love, but it makes them funny. My favorite thing about this show is that even though it is a comedy, the conceit is real—you can track the consistencies through the more straightforward shows listed above—and they’re actually good at their jobs, too. You can stream this show on Peacock as well, which is apparently the main hub for police procedurals. I swear, this isn’t an ad for Peacock. Not sponsored, just my genuine go-to, evidently.
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Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.