Crime dramas are popular for a variety of reasons. Some enjoy watching justice get doled out while others root for the criminal underdogs to get away with their nefarious deeds. They explore the procedures that either make or break investigations, delve into the darkest depths of human psychology, and highlight the parts of society that we often don’t see. They’re thoughtful and frightening, compelling and intriguing. Scrolling through the genre, there are hundreds of fantastic options to choose from. We went through and found the sixteen best crime dramas of all time.
Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)
When a high school teacher (Bryan Cranston) gets cancer, he recruits a former delinquent student (Aaron Paul) to cook methamphetamines to pay for treatment and take care of his family if he dies.
It might be easy to forget exactly how obsessed we were with Breaking Bad now that the show is over. But this dark drama had millions of us perched on the edge of our sofas every week as their gripping examination of the failing American Dream turns the everyman into a corrupt villain.
The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)
When mob crime boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has a panic attack, he does what no mobster should ever do: goes to a therapist. Over six seasons we saw the violent mafia lifestyle juxtaposed with a man taking care of his family. The Sopranos racked up multiple awards by pushing the stereotypes typically presented for that style of show and pushing the conventions of the genre.
Hannibal (2013 – 2015)
Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is an FBI special investigator tormented with a disturbing talent for seeing crime. He sees and develops a friendship with a forensic psychiatrist (Mads Mikkelsen). But Dr. Lector has dark secrets and Will is in danger of uncovering them.
Based on the novel by Thomas Harris, Hannibal is a visually stunning show that delves into the darker side of humanity. It’s visceral and emotional with more gore than one might expect from a network show.
Fargo (2014 – 2020)
An anthology series loosely based on the 1996 Coen Brother’s film, each season follows a different cast of characters, but the storylines converge around a crime syndicate operating out of Fargo, North Dakota. Ranging from a mild-mannered insurance salesman guilty of murdering his wife to an ambitious beautician to a homicidal nurse.
With a rotating all-star cast, each episode weaves strange stories with a hefty dash of dark comedy leading to shocking and unexpected twists.
Ozark (2018 – 2022)
Quiet, unassuming Marty McBride (Jason Bateman) finds his money laundering side hustle taking a dark turn when his partner steals from the cartel. Talking his way out of being murdered, he uproots his family to the Lake of the Ozarks to make back the money his partner stole.
Praised for its dark, Southern Gothic vibes, Ozark is a violent story that is brought to life through gripping performances with an incredible cast.
Peaky Blinders (2013 – 2022)
Crime boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) heads the Peaky Blinders, a street gang running the streets of Birmingham, England in the early 1900s. With help from his family, he sees the highs and lows as he tries to avoid disaster and reels from the consequences of his violent life.
The fictional gang is loosely based on a street gang of the same name, Peaky Blinders is an explosive, violent, and powerful show highlighting the trauma of war and violence through one man’s exploits.
Law & Order (1990 – present)
It doesn’t matter what version of this show you watch, they are all addicting. The second longest-running scripted show on primetime television, Law & Order follows the investigation and prosecution of crime in New York City. Each show focuses on a different crime, often taken straight from the headlines. With half a dozen spin-off shows, each one featuring the signature “clang-clang” opening sound, there have been over one thousand episodes aired.
The Wire (2002 – 2008)
Created and written by former police reporter David Simon and based largely on the experiences of his partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective, The Wire was a gritty, realistic drama depicting the war on drugs in the streets of Baltimore.
Each of the five seasons focused on different areas of crime and law enforcement, but each of them was brutally honest in their criticism and portrayal of how policy plays out in real life.
Sherlock (2010 – 2017)
Consulting Detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) assists the Metropolitan Police in modern-day London with the help of his flatmate and friend, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman).
Sherlock takes the classic elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and throws them in a modern setting. Cumberbatch and Freeman are a delight to watch together, giving just the right chemistry to this iconic duo.
Luther (2010 – 2019)
Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) relentlessly pursues Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a serial killer who taunts him with her crimes. A haunting show that is brilliant and intense, Luther and Morgan are tied in a psychological battle-of-the-wills. The more Luther hunts Morgan, the more he is driven to the brink of sanity as he in entangled further in her depraved crimes.
Columbo (1968 – 1978, 1989 – 1998)
One of the most famous fictional detectives, Columbo (Peter Falko) is an LAPD homicide detective who solves a new homicide every week. The show opened with the murder, giving the focus to the investigation rather than a typical whodunnit mystery. In his rumpled trench coat and half-smoked cigar, Columbo captured the hearts of millions with his tagline, “Just one more thing” to catch the suspect in his investigative web.
Justified (2010 – 2015)
When U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is reassigned from Miami back to his home state of Kentucky. His Wild-West style of dispensing justice creates conflict with both the criminals he hunts and his superiors at the Marshals Office.
Based on the novels by Elmore Leonard, Justified was an award-winning show that consistently ranks high with viewers and critics alike. Five of the six seasons are considered universally acclaimed.
The Shield (2002 – 2008)
Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is part of the Strike Team, a group of detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department tasked with using criminal methods to infiltrate drug rings and arrest traffickers. But their methods are often suspect, and the line between legal and illegal is easily blurred.
Hailed as being one of the devastating critiques of law enforcement at the time, The Shield is filled with indecent characters breaking the law in order to uphold their version of justice.
The Sinner (2017 – 2021)
An anthology crime series where the only constant is detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) as he investigates various crimes. Ambrose does more than simply try to find the culprit, he wants to understand their motivations. It’s a compelling and thoughtful exploration of why seemingly ordinary people are capable of doing heinous acts. Through his own dark past, Ambrose gives a quiet empathy to each case, making The Sinner a powerful and intriguing character study of human behavior and motivation.
American Crime Story (2016 – 2021)
An anthology series with three critically acclaimed seasons under its belt so far, American Crime Story dives into some of the most high-profile cases of our time. The first season portrayed the trial of O.J. Simpson, the second explored the murder of Gianni Versace, and the most recent featured the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
Narcos (2015 – 2017)
Two DEA detectives (Boyd Holbrook & Pedro Pascal) are in Columbia during the 1970’s to take down the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura). The show blends archive footage to depict the real-life horrors of the drug war while portraying Escobar as somehow brutal and terrifyingly human at the same time.
With a new spin-off series, Narcos highlights the international perils of hunting some of the most ruthless criminals in the drug trade around the world.