Arguably one of the strongest aspects of my personal brand is an intense love of cop procedural shows. I’m pretty sure my roommate and fellow Nerd Logan can be quoted as having said to me, “I can tell how bad you’re feeling by how bad of a cop show you’re watching.” CSI: Miami was a rough time for me. But besides a lot of trashy reality shows, pretty much the only TV I do watch is in the cop show genre. So I could try to bullshit my way through a list about the best shows of the decade or I could present to you, dear readers, my Definitive Guide to the top 10 cop procedurals of the 2010s. Let’s get sleuthing:
A reality show? As a cop procedural? You dare?
Yes I dare, and moreover I’m thrilled to give some small amount of recognition to a criminally underrated show. Whodunnit? was the campiest reality show I’d ever encountered, and it was 100% fun. Contestants lived in a lavish mansion replete with British butler, and every episode one of them was “murdered” in an overly dramatic fashion, leaving the rest of the contestants to figure out how they died and who of the remaining players was the serial killer orchestrating the entire affair. It was gloriously absurd, and exactly what I wanted. Watching regular people try to live out their secret detective fantasies and realize it’s way harder than the TV shows make it seem was uniquely satisfying. Plus, at the end of every episode they all had to dress in formalwear and pace around an ornate study, monologuing about how they think the murder happened. Give me eight more seasons of this please.
I think you’ll start to notice a theme of how fast and loose I play with the genre “cop procedural” somewhere around the ghost cop show. But Adam Scott and Craig Robinson are a great comedic duo, and it’s criminal that we only got one season of them as buddy ghost-cops. I love the supernatural take on a standard form – shoutouts to Warehouse 13 and Eureka – and Ghosted did a fantastic job of balancing the serial format with the overarching story of Max and Leroy, and the lives they lived before they became secret government agents. See previous request for more seasons.
Death In Paradise (2011- )
Americans are definitely the best at creating cop procedurals, but I’d give a solid runner up to the UK. Death In Paradise is one of their finer exports. It starts off as a miserable British Inspector who gets transferred to Saint-Marie despite hating the sun and the beach, and finds himself in a very dramatic culture clash. At the beginning of the third season the British Inspector is (spoiler) killed off and swapped out for a new one, and honestly? That doesn’t harm the show. Often when a show loses a main character for someone new, especially in the case of a procedural show, it’s a huge detriment to the story, but that isn’t true in this case. Sure, the transition is a little awkward, but on the whole I’d argue it improves the show. More main characters are actually traded out in later seasons, but it never seems to matter as much as the setting and atmosphere do. The island of Saint-Marie gives this show its identity. Also, this is the most diverse cop procedural I’ve ever watched (only one of the main characters is white at any given time) and that deserves recognition.
I know, technically none of the main characters in “Leverage” are cops, so how is this a cop procedural? And to that I would argue, a crime is committed in every episode, so it counts. Additionally, in before anyone points out that this show premiered in the 00’s and not the 10’s. It won’t be the last show on the list to be that way, but it was on air in this decade, so let’s all just move past it.
What catches me about this show is the main premise of the whole thing. A diverse group of thieves come together and decide that actually, they’re going to stop committing crimes for personal gain and instead become a band of merry Robin Hoods. Criming in the name of. They represent the vast grey area between good and evil; bad deeds carried out for good reasons. The road to hell and all that. Throw in the chemistry between the lead cast and how smoking hot Christian Kane is and I am sold.
Criminal Minds (2005- )
Criminal Minds lasting for 15 seasons is in itself a testament to why it belongs on this list. It spawned two spinoff shows and has spanned so many character changes that the core cast is barely recognizable as the same show from the series premiere. But there’s something to be said for that level of adaptability. In shows like Ghosted, it’s important to balance the baddie of the week with the backstory of the detectives. In Criminal Minds, the backstories matter a lot less. This show has always excelled in its writing. The ability to provide a deeply unsettling and somehow realistic story week after week for 15 years is truly stunning. Showrunner Jeff Davis produced an intimate look into the core of an evil mind, and we can peek in from the safety of our living rooms. Creepy, captivating stuff.
Prodigal Son (2019- )
This is the newest show on the list by far, but it hooked me immediately. In my seasoned 24 years I’ve seen a lot of twists on the cop show, and it takes a little more than “son of serial killer” to really get my motor running anymore. Prodigal Son found the recipe for success, and it lies with the stellar acting and the dry realism with which it presents its characters. Michael Sheen plays a truly eerie incarcerated serial killer trying to manipulate his grown children. His facial expressions alone are some of the best acting I saw all year. But it was Tom Payne as Malcolm Bright, the serial killer’s son, who really caught me. It would be so easy to give us a son who goes to his murderous father for perspective on cases and stays totally cool about it. Payne presents a man constantly on the edge of mental collapse. His very real portrayal of trauma and the lingering damage it causes is in many ways relatable (I promise my parents aren’t serial killers) and it makes a decent show absolutely incredible. I’d watch it for Payne alone.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013- )
Another comedy cop show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine gives us a diverse cast of characters in race, background, and sexuality. In 2020 that shouldn’t be as rare as it persists in being, but it is still something of note. The comedic chops of this entire cast are mind-blowing, with jokes so tight and witty that sometimes it takes a second watch just to keep up. The cold opens on this show are some of the funniest sketches of the decade, easily topping anything SNL has given us: I’m looking at you, “I Want It That Way” lineup.
Jake Peralta is the best leading detective of his time, specifically because of how he sheds his initial toxic masculinity. Throughout the course of the show, Peralta learns that being a tough old boy cop who relies on violence and sexism isn’t as fulfilling as embracing his emotions, supporting his female coworkers, and finding his compassion. Andy Samberg is providing a role model worthy of admiration with Jake Peralta, someone who is in touch with himself and his feelings, but still a strong and effective detective.
Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013)
Scooby Doo is my favorite franchise in all of television. So much so that I kept up with every iteration of Scooby Doo, both the shows and the movies, until 2009. I would go so far as to call myself an expert in the field of talking dog detectives.
So I can say with the utmost certainty that Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated is in the top three TV series of all time for the Scooby Doo franchise, and is easily the best remake for the modern era. The animation is stunning, with beautiful watercolor backgrounds that at times remind me of Lilo and Stitch. What’s most catching about this series, and what puts it in this list at all, is that it’s a version of Scooby Doo that becomes an arched procedural. Of course every episode has a villain to unmask, but there’s an overarching plot that gives stakes to an otherwise whimsical concept. The mystery of Crystal Cove hides behind every episode and drives the gang to new heights. Also, the Hex Girls come back with a brand new banger.
I’ve been in love with Nathan Fillion since I first saw him in Castle back in 2009. I remember seeing an ad for the newest episode with my grandmother, and we both thought it sounded so ridiculous that we vowed to stay up late to watch it together. In that one episode we were hooked, and we watched it together every week for three years.
Is Castle just Murder, She Wrote for the modern era? Sure. But it’s the ensemble cast that really shines in this show. The bullpen of detectives bounce off of each other flawlessly, ensuring it isn’t just Castle and Beckett and their persistent sexual tension. The comedy is well-paced and the characters are people you can root for outside of their solving crimes. The drawn out tension of Beckett and Castle’s will-they-won’t-they is perfect, not getting together too soon and ruining the drive of the show. Castle’s novels are a good running gag for the show, and as they’re published in the show they were actually published in real life, ghost written by Tom Straw. And they’re pretty good! Again though, Nathan Fillion. Me-yow.
I really waffled back and forth with my number one cop procedural of the decade. Castle came really, really close to taking the top spot. Ultimately though, the honor goes to Psych, a cop show that vows from the start to never take itself too seriously. Starring James Roday as Shawn, a hyper-observant man who fakes being psychic to avoid jail time, this show is an absolute romp from start to finish. Every episode has me in peals of laughter, and it’s a show I can go back and rewatch once a year and still fully enjoy. The cast dynamic is spectacular; it’s easily believable that Roday and Dulé Hill (who plays psychic-sidekick Gus) are best friends in real life, as opposed to just the show.
Every character is fully fleshed out with backgrounds and personalities, and it’s this in-depth characterization that makes you feel so connected with every story. The show makes you love its characters. I want to give a particular shoutout to Detective Juliet O’Hara, played by Maggie Lawson. More than halfway through the run of the show, (spoiler) Juliet and Shawn start dating. They have a bit of back and forth, just missing each other sort of relationship for about a season, but before that there are three seasons where Juliet is developed as a character. She’s a gorgeous detective who isn’t introduced just as a foil to leading man Shawn. Funny and empathetic and strong, Juliet becomes someone you root for way before she becomes Shawn’s girlfriend, and that’s a testament to the writing of the show. The characters aren’t there just to provide support to the protagonist. They’re all crucial, and if you take even one of them away, the show falters. Psych is orchestrated to perfection; every episode is memorable, every joke is funny and every character shines. The whole package of execution is what makes this the absolute best cop procedural of the decade.