Favourite Crime TV shows: part 2

Here’s the second half of my list of favourite Crime TV shows. Of course there are many more that I watch and enjoy – these are just the ones I love best! As before, I hope that by sharing these favourites some of you will discover new stories to love.

Here we go …

NYPD Blue

Co-created by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, Murder One) and David Milch (Deadwood), NYPD remains one of the single best dramas ever committed to film. For my money, at least! And even though it started to wind down, quality-wise, towards the end of its twelve season run (which really isn’t surprising) at the height of its power it’s pretty well flawless.

One of the reasons the show works so well is because it’s deeply rooted in truth. Milch had phenomenally strong ties with members of the police force, especially Bill Clark, so most of the stories they told in the series grew out of real-life experiences related to them by working cops of all kinds. When it comes to truthful, transcendent storytelling there is no substitute for reality. We know when a story we’re being told is true, even as we know it’s a crafted narrative. At its heart that’s the power of NYPD Blue: it’s an unflinching examination of the human heart and soul in all its darkness and light.

In the first season, the story very much focused on David Caruso’s character, Dectective John Kelly. It was written and executed as more of a one-man-band kind of show. For whatever reasons, Caruso grew disenchanted with his lot and he decided to leave the series. As a result, something truly magical happened. It was utter serendipity, nobody could have planned it … and because of it we were then gifted with some of the most extraordinary writing and performances to be seen on TV.

With Caruso gone, the spotlight shifted to his not-at-all likeable partner Andy Sipowicz, played by the extraordinary Dennis Franz. And because Sipowicz needed a partner, there came to the 15th Precinct one Bobby Simone, played Jimmy Smits.

As much as I love the character journeys of Whedon characters Spike and Wesley, I think Sipowicz’s story eclipses them. His life as its unfolds through seasons 1 to 12 is a roaring tour de force of writing and performance. I can’t imagine anyone else bringing Andy to life the way Dennis Franz did – and without his sheer talent, I can’t imagine the writers could have crafted the stories that they did.

The Sipowicz/Simone partnership is a classic for the ages. A case of the sum being greater than its parts, as their personalities and styles mesh seamlessly to make them formidable soldiers in the war against crime. No other Sipowicz pairing worked as well. Theirs was the platinum standard.

All the character work in the series is fabulous, from the other detectives on the squad to the regular criminals and one-off bad guys, the informants, the bosses, the politicians … it’s a wonderfully constructed world, a rich tapestry. NYPD Blue is the kind of show that you can rewatch and rewatch and always find something new. That kind of complexity is rare in any kind of storytelling, and should be treasured.

With 12 seasons I can’t list my favourite episodes or I’d be here all day! But as I said, for me the most satisfying run is from seasons 2-6.

In addition to loving those years, I really love the introduction of John Irvin, a civilian aide who becomes an integral member of the detective squad. This is how you write a gay character: with humour, dignity, intelligence, humanity – and honesty without playing any kind of victim card. There is one scene at the conclusion of one narrative arc that every time I watch it makes me want to leap through the tv screen into that world and just hold onto John. Bill Brochtrup is magnificent in the role.

Reflecting the cultural melting pot that is New York City, the range of ethnicities in the show is excellent, with both good guys and bad guys. And the issues of race and culture are tackled as well as they can be, I think, given the restrictions of network television.

Given that the production team was almost totally male, the treatment of female characters isn’t too bad, on the whole. Probably the most complex and well-realised was Diane Russell, played by Kim Delaney. Her best period was during the Bobby Simone era too – after that, well … they wrote some pretty crap stuff for her in an attempt to keep the show’s established romantic/sexual subplots rolling. The other really great female character was Assistant District Attorney Sylvia Dacosta, played by Sharon Lawrence. I think the worst served of the female characters was Detective Jill Kirkendall, played by Andrea Thompson (whom you might recognise from her time as Talia Winters in Babylon 5). The other women kind of slide along the continuum between those two women.

Which leads to my one great big nitpick with the show. Now, the thing is, Dennis Franz might well be one of the most talented actors the US has ever produced, but an oil painting he ain’t. Not to be cruel, but he’s middle-aged, balding, overweight and very, very plain. All his beauty is to be found on the inside, in his heart and soul – and that goes for Sipowicz, too. The same can be said of Gordon Clapp, the actor playing Detective Greg Medavoy. And yet both of these very ordinary looking men ended up with drop-dead, bombshell good looking women as romantic/sexual partners. And frankly, that pisses me off beyond the telling.

Here’s the deal. Absolutely in the real world those kinds of men often end up with stunning women – but generally it only happens when they’re rich. There’s a quid quo pro thing happening. Otherwise, as a rule, like attracts like. But in NYPD Blue world, the ugly men get the beautiful women – and it’s really hard not to think that this is the male producers indulging in some pretty amazing wish fulfillment fantasy. Once, just once, I want to see the plain, overweight woman adored by the drop dead gorgeous guy, who sees past the packaging to the truth of the woman inside.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

Anyhow! That complaint aside, the show is brilliant and you should watch it. After much waiting and hoping and despairing, all 12 seasons are out on dvd and they are totally worth the investment.

Vera

And here’s another British police procedural, this time based on the novels written by Ann Cleeves. Like The Closer, it’s a story driven by a central female character. Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is the senior homicide detective for the (fictional) Northumberland City Police department. The series, therefore, is set in the north of England (the name Northumberland derives from England’s past, where the old kingdoms were divided by landmarks. Hence north of the Humber River became … Northumberland!) with all its gloriously rugged scenery and brisk, no-nonsense attitudes.

This show is totally owned by its star, Brenda Blethyn. She is wonderful in the role, which requires intelligence and compassion and also courage – because Vera Stanhope is a tricky customer. Emotionally isolated, impatient, suffering fools not at all, she marches through life with only intermittment self-reflection. In fact, she’s the kind of prickly, difficult character most often played by a male actor – like NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz. The focus in this series is on a complex person who happens to be a woman. It makes a refreshing change from the ubiquitous use of female characters as eye candy and sex partner for the male characters – or their consistent sidelining for the male characters in the series (Yes, NCIS, I am scowling at you!). In that respect, Vera is reminiscent of The Closer, even though Vera and Brenda Leigh are very, very different women.

Vera’s offsider is Detective Sergeant Joe Ashworth, a highly valued colleague and Vera’s surrogate son. Joe is married with a young family, and those domestic pressures play out through the series. He loves and respects Vera, even when he’s driven to distraction by her brusque manner, unwillingness to share and indifference to her own well-being.

The crimes investigated in the series are local, low-key, but still intensely human. In many ways the community Vera polices is another character in the series. It’s lovely, subtle world-building, and it lends great atmosphere to the show. There aren’t any wild car chases, no maniacally fetishistic serial killers, no gun battles. This is crime television on a deeply interpersonal scale, character-driven and dependent on human interaction and needs. For that reason I find Vera enormously entertaining and attractive – and of course, the brilliant work of Brenda Blethyn.

Interestingly there’s another series based on some of Ann Cleeves’ work: Shetland. The lead character this time is male. It’s also great crime tv.

Justified

Now here’s an interesting entry. Being brutally honest, the further this show has gone the less I’m enjoying it. But I include it here because when it’s good, it’s brilliant. Airing on the FX cable channel in the US and Foxtel in Australia, it starts its sixth and final season in January 2015.

Based on novels and short stories written by the late Elmore Leonard and produced by Graham Yost (Boomtown, Band of Brothers), Justified is the story of US Marshall Raylan Givens, whose old-fashioned approach to law enforcement sees him transferred from Miami to his home town of Harlan, Kentucky. Harlan is the last place Raylan wants to be. He left it for good reason, and returning means poking a lot of sleeping grizzly bears.

Raylan is wonderfully played by Timothy Olyphant, who is now a Justified producer as well. Also in the regular cast are Nick Searcy, Jacob Pitt, Natalie Zea, Joelle Carter and Erica Tazel, for starters.

Each season of Justified focuses on a particular crime or set of criminals, as well as dealing with Raylan’s horribly complicated personal life. I won’t say more than that, because spoilers, but trust me – it makes for entertaining TV.

Season 1 is Raylan vs the Crowder family, an old Harlan family mixed up in the drug trade. Complicating matters is Raylan’s relationship with Boyd Crowder (an amazing performance by Walt Goggins, from The Shield), oldest son of the crime family’s patriarch. It’s this barbed-wire bromance that really lights up the first season – and continues to inform the series as it progresses (to varying degrees of success, though, I think). I must now give a shout out to Australian actor Damon Herriman. His turn as the hapless Dewey Crowe is exquisite, a blend of comedy and pathos that’s unlike anything I’ve come across.

Season 2 is the saga of the Bennet family and it’s arguably the best season of the entire series. Raylan has history with the Bennetts, and it comes back to bite him in a big way in this story about the collision of past and present, Mags’ marijuana empire and the inroads of big coal into the community. Performances across the board are again amazing, but for me the standout is Margo Martindale, who plays the clan matriarch Mags Bennett. One of the best seasons of any TV drama you’ll find.

And here’s where things get tricky. For me, the show has struggled since season 2 because it was so fantastic, so critically acclaimed, and I’m not sure they were expecting the leap in profile. To me it’s like they’ve been trying to live up to it ever since – and not always successfully. Choices have been made that don’t work for me. At the start Raylan was front and centre of the narrative, and that was great because Olyphant is a wonderful actor and Raylan is totally engaging. But after season 2 it seems that he’s been given less and less story time and the guest criminals have been given more. And frankly, I don’t care about them. Or at least, I only care about them in the context of Raylan and how they affect his life, and the other marshalls, and the lengths they’ll go to in order to win the fight against crime. It’s almost as though the Yost and his team have said: well, the more the fans want X, the less of X we’re going to give them. And that makes absolutely no sense to me. By all means don’t give in and start pandering … but don’t turn your back on your show’s greatest strengths!

However, I know mileage varies. Bottom line is, you’ll go a long way to find better writing and acting than what you’ll find in Justified, when it’s on song. And I do know some people love the other seasons. Of course I’ll tune in to season 6 to see how they finish Raylan’s story … but when it comes to a rewatch, I tend to stick with the first two seasons. They are totally worth it!

And there you have it! So now it’s over to you. Do you enjoy these shows too? If so, why? What crime shows would you include on your list?

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