Police TV: Ten Classic Cop Shows

While it’s true that many people today dislike and even don’t trust the police, there’s no denying that television shows about cops have always been a staple of the medium. Over the course of TV history, a number of shows have even been responsible for making young people want a career in law enforcement because of the way they glamorized police work and made it appear exciting.

The formula would seem to be relatively simple: bad guys do something illegal, cops chase and nab suspects, recover stolen loot. It hasn’t always been that simple. Some shows took us behind the scenes, going to great lengths to describe what the cops go through during their investigations. While you would think this would be abominably boring, one program that did this was so memorable that even its theme music is known around the world by its opening four notes. Police shows have been made into comedies and one was a musical showcase that was revolutionary but failed miserably. Called “Cop Rock”, it involved officers, judges, and even juries who broke into song at the drop of a handcuff, and was cancelled after eleven episodes.

If you were expecting to find “Cops” listed here, you’ll be disappointed. That program is one of my favorites, but we’re here to talk about fictional drama cops, not the real ones. So, are you ready for a ride-along with the cops? Put on your bullet-proof vest and join us as we check out some of the most influential police shows on TV.

Racket Squad (Syndicated/CBS June 7, 1951-September 7, 1953) Reed Hadley starred as Captain John Braddock, a fictional cop who introduced and partially narrated programs dealing with how criminals swindle average citizens. Like a good number of cop shows, Racket Squad episodes were based on actual case files from all over America, but were usually set in nondescript cities that were named but rarely located on a map. “Squad” was nominated for an Emmy two times, and quite a few episodes are available on DVD. When compared with modern cop shows, it gives great insight on how little con men have changed.

Adam-12 (NBC September 21, 1968-May 20, 1975) Executive producer Jack Webb actually branched this show out of his own “Dragnet. In fact, officers Pete Malloy (Martin Milner) and Jim Reed (Kent McCord) made several cameos on the Webb classic before having their own show. The incidents were pulled from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department. Home base for the show was the then-new Rampart Division, which was where another related Webb program, “Emergency!”, was set. Reed was a rookie fresh out of the Academy and Malloy was partnered with him to complete his training. This show was instrumental in making young people consider a career in law enforcement.

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Highway Patrol (Syndicated October 3, 1955-September 1, 1959) Gruff, no-nonsense Chief Dan Matthews (Broderick Crawford, who lampooned this role as part of a Canada Dry Ginger Ale commercial in the 1980s) brought the phrase “10-4” into mainstream language. While the whole show was fairly generalized by never naming an actual state, it was based on California cases. In a similarity with “Dragnet”, an actual cop, in this case the head of California’s Highway Patrol, was a consultant. Art Gilmore, who later had a recurring role on “Adam-12”, was the narrator who appealed to future recruits as he made the tales of wild chases with fast cars, helicopters, and motorcycles appealing.

Hill Street Blues (NBC January 15, 1981-May 19, 1987) This was a pioneering TV show, featuring interconnecting story lines that often continued over several programs. It also showed more of the private lives of the characters and how it affected their work. Blues was filmed in Los Angeles but many of the exterior shots were done in Chicago. No city was usually mentioned as home base, and the cars sported the words “Metro Police. The language, while not obscene, was rough and broke quite a few network taboos. “Hill Street” made wide use of handheld cameras for a more documentary-type feel to the show.

Dragnet (NBC December 16, 1951-August 23,1959) This is it-the granddaddy of all TV police shows, which sprang from a popular radio program with pretty much the same cast. The first four notes of its opening theme are almost universally recognizable. Producer Jack Webb starred as Sergeant Joe Friday, and he went through several partners during the show’s main run in the 1950s. Its opening statement that “The story you are about to see is true” is probably more widely known than the Miranda rights. Dragnet was played out like a documentary. It always opened up on a panning shot of the city of Los Angeles and Friday would say “This is the city. The documentary angle was preserved with short takes, shifting back and forth between the actors saying dialogue, a style that became fodder for satirists and comedians. A color version ran on NBC from 1967 to 1970, and these are the shows that are most popular in the current syndication cycle, which unfortunately cheats fans out of some of the best shows of the series.

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SWAT (ABC February 17, 1975-April 3, 1976) Critics like to say that what killed this program was its intense violence. Compared to today’s shows, it was downright tame. Like many ABC hits of that era, it was produced by Aaron Spelling, and he had the magic touch back then. Anything he was involved with was just about guaranteed to go on the air. SWAT starred Steve Forrest as team leader Lt. Hondo Harrelson, and a young Robert Urich was featured as Jim Street. The show’s theme song became a number one hit for the group Rhythm Heritage. This was the first program to delve into the operations and tactics of SWAT teams. A 2003 feature film remake of the show flopped miserably in theaters.

Police Squad! (ABC March 4, 1982-July 8, 1982) Although it lasted for only six episodes, this show became a cult phenomenon. Squad” was the brainchild of Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers, creators of “The Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Airplane!. Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) was a Los Angeles cop who was part of an elite squad of the department, and the comic foil for the rest of the cast. The total parody began in the opening credits, where announcer Hank Simms spoofed his same job on shows like “The Fugitive” and “The F.B.I.”, and a “special guest star”, usually a popular actor, was killed each week. Three highly successful feature films were spun off from this series, but their TV showings are limited these days because of the appearance in them of O.J. Simpson as Nordberg, a role that in the TV series was handled by Peter Lupus.

The Untouchables (ABC October 15, 1959-May 21, 1963) Although this was a highly rated program, it drew a lot of negative press for its violence and the way it presented Italian-Americans as criminal figures. Apparently, Americans forgot that in the days of F.B.I. agent Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) and his crew, the mob ran Chicago, and Italian-Americans ran the mob. Why lie for the sake of appeasement? Giving this series a heavy dose of extra panache was the narration by well-known journalist Walter Winchell. The Untouchables were an elite group of federal agents handed the job of clearing the mob out of Chicago in the 1930s, not an easy task since many police officers were on the mob’s payroll.

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CHiPs (NBC September 15, 1977-May 1, 1983) Another show that made police work appealing to young people, “CHiPs” followed the adventures of two motorcycle cops on the California Highway Patrol. The acronym has entered mainstream language and has come to represent motorcycle officers everywhere. Francis “Ponch” Poncherello (Erik Estrada) and Johnathan Baker (Larry Wilcox) rode as a team, even though today you rarely see two cycle cops together unless they are working a speed trap. The incidents on the show were based on actual Los Angeles area Highway Patrol cases, but were often embellished by overzealous writers.

Hawaii Five-O (CBS September 20, 1968-April 26, 1980) Jack Lord portrayed Steve McGarrett, head of a totally ficticious special department of the Hawaiian State Police named Five-O. His immediate subordinate and right-hand man was Danny Williams (James McArthur). Danny was very much the clean-up guy, and McGarrett’s catch phrase “Book ‘im, Danno” became a part of Americana. Shot almost exclusively in the fiftieth state, in and around Honolulu, the show made Jack Lord so enamored with the place that he moved to, and eventually died in, Hawai’i. Despite some occasional overly contrived plots, this was a solid show that remains popular in syndication today.

The popularity of police shows on television is exemplified by the fact that their characters often made indelible impressions on viewers, and their stars became identified for all time with the role they played. Jack Lord was an accomplished actor with respectable film credits, as was Robert Stack, yet when you see Mr. Lord on TV, you automatically think of Hawaii Five-O. Probably, the first time you saw Robert Stack walk on as host of NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries”, you said “Wow, Eliot Ness is hosting this show. The face of Jack Webb will forever be equated with Joe Friday, and just about everyone over the age of 40 knows what his badge number was on the show (714). In that vein, perhaps television drama cops are more powerful that the real ones who patrol our streets and are the stars of Fox TV’s “COPS”.