On Sept. 26, Law & Order: SVU kicked off its 21st season, making it the longest-running live-action TV drama ever.
The previous record holder was the original Law & Order series (1990-2010); television audiences seem to save their most enduring affection for police procedurals.
In these days of complex, sprawling, multi-season plots and Big Bad Villains, there’s something to be said for case-of-the-week cop dramas. Yes, after two decades, we’re invested in the personal lives of Capt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her co-workers in New York’s Special Victims Unit, but SVU is still the kind of show you can dip into every other week or two, the kind of show that’s a reliable go-to on a plane or in a hotel room.
There is no shortage of shows about cops and the justice system on network TV. This season alone offers CBS courtroom drama All Rise and NBC’s Bluff City Law, starring Jimmy Smits (who got his start on police and legal-system procedurals in the 1980s and ’90s with L.A. Law and NYPD Blue).
Streaming services, meanwhile, offer up a bounty of worthy, noir-style crime-related shows from all over the globe, such as Iceland’s Trapped or Britain’s The Fall. The bulk of the content on British service Acorn TV seems devoted to tales of cops in small seaside towns who discover that crime, malfeasance and murder aren’t restricted to London.
In this instalment of Don’t Sleep on This — a semi-regular series in which the Free Press Arts & Life department provides (spoiler-free) recommendations of the shows you should be watching — we focus on ungimmicky cop shows that put procedure over private lives.
No mentalists, no lie-detecting psychologists, no novelists given special dispensation by the mayor to join the NYPD — just the facts, ma’am (and maybe a special appearance by Alexander Graham Bell).
Streaming on Netflix
New to the streaming service, this international series focuses on just one aspect of police procedure: the interrogation.
The anthology series features contributions from four countries — England, Spain, Germany and France — with three episodes each. (It’s worth noting that all the non-English episodes are dubbed, which is endlessly distracting; for better viewing enjoyment, select the language of origin and use the subtitles option instead.)
Though the cat-and-mouse aspect of most procedurals is reduced — the police, it would seem, already have their man (or woman) — it’s fascinating to watch the games interrogators play with the suspects and viewers may find their sympathies shifting throughout.
Each episode deals with a different case, and although they’re all available for viewing now, Criminal is a show that lends itself well to occasional viewing rather than bingeing, as the concept can be repetitive.
The acting is top-notch, with faces that will be familiar if you dabble in other foreign-language Netflix shows (the first Criminal: Germany episode, for example, features Sylvester Groth of time-twisty series Dark and Peter Kurth of the Weimar Republic-era police drama Babylon Berlin; David Tennant stars in the first U.K episode).
Streaming on Acorn TV
Britain has always done gritty police shows right, from the groundbreaking Prime Suspect (streaming on Prime Video) to the heartbreaking Happy Valley (Netflix), but this 45-minute drama is in a class of its own.
Almost entirely improvised and shot with shaky handheld cameras and little in the way of lighting or set design, it has a vérité feel that gives the stories real weight.
Like the early days of the original Law & Order, Suspects does not spend time exploring the personal lives of the London detectives — DC Charlie Steele (Clare-Hope Ashitey), DS Jack Weston (Damien Molony) and DI Martha Bellamy (Fay Ripley) — it follows. It’s all about cracking cases (there’s no justice element) with a tense, beat-the-clock pace and horrific crimes.
Some viewers might find it a bit unrelenting — there’s no wise-cracking Lennie Briscoe to lighten the mood like in Law & Order — but for those who appreciate unvarnished realism free of melodrama, it’s a corker.
Streaming on Netflix
Another British show, because it can’t be overstated: when it comes police procedurals, the Brits have a real knack (you can also play a fun drinking game where you take a shot every time someone says "Check the CCTV" or "No joy, guv").
Starring the peerless pair of Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) and Lesley Sharp (The Full Monty), this 2011-16 series has been described as "the Cagney & Lacey of Manchester," but that sells short the shocking cases and the realistic-feeling dialogue and police work.
It’s got an endearingly soapy side, but writer Sally Wainwright (Gentleman Jack, Happy Valley) sought out a former detective inspector, Diane Taylor, to help bring verisimilitude to the scripts.
Over the course of its five (six- or eight-episode) seasons, viewers are immersed in the often-troubled private lives of the two detectives, but it’s entirely possible to watch just to enjoy seeing the pieces fall into place after a satisfying investigation. The cases can be harrowing, though rarely as graphic as those on SVU.
New episodes on CBC, streaming on CBC Gem, Netflix, Prime and Acorn TV
You know a show has legs when you can watch it in several countries and stream it on multiple competing platforms. This CBC period drama is comfort cop TV with a Canadian twist. Set in the 1890s, the series just entered its 13th season, and it’s a much kinder, gentler show than L&O: SVU; the crimes are more "poisoned wine" than "gruesome rape and murder."
Starring the charming mom-crush Yannick Bisson as Det. William Murdoch of the Toronto Constabulary, it also features a wealth of historical figures, from electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla to telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who aid the detective in developing his cutting-edge (for the time) investigative techniques.
There’s some light romance (less homewrecking affairs and more "Are you sweet on this girl, George?") and the added appeal of Newfoundland comic Jonny Harris (Still Standing) as wet-behind-the-ears Const. George Crabtree.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.