For over a century, cops and detectives have been icons of American masculinity. Combining brain power and brute force, these gumshoes represent the myth of the lone hero who is forever faced with new challenges and puzzles, a man who must rub shoulders with the criminal element but maintain his integrity, a prototype of the old pioneer, courageously facing down fear to make the world safe for women and children. The cop/detective icon has such a powerful grasp on the American imagination that many of the most popular TV shows in U.S. history feature cops or private investigators as the main characters.
Although TV today abounds with plenty of cop and detective shows, I always find myself going back to watch the genre’s classics. A big reason is straight up nostalgia. I remember watching these shows with my dad on our huge wood-encased TV with rabbit ears. I guess it’s a way to relive my childhood a bit.
But another reason I like the oldies is because of their simple rawness. Cop and detective shows today are too slick and glossy. There’s no heart to them. Shows like CSI and Bones like to wow audiences with fancy technology and buxom lab techs, but at the end of the show, I just don’t feel connected to the characters. The classics have a grit and straightforward simplicity that I find appealing.
Below, I put together a short list of my favorite classic cop and detective shows. I think all of them showcase men who encapsulate that rugged and edgy manliness that we often admire. (Oh, and you can watch many of these shows for free on Hulu.com. If the show’s available on Hulu, I provided a link to it so you can watch it when you need a dose of crime-fighting manliness.)
Mannix is a damn manly name. And Joe Mannix lived up to it. He started his sleuthing career working at a high-tech detective firm called Intertect, but decided that he could do a better job than a bunch of crappy computers with just his wits and a gun. So he left and started his own detective agency. Mannix worked hard and played hard. He drove convertibles with awesome 1967 car phones. He told the hot L.A. sun to go to hell by wearing heavily patterned tweed sports coats. Yeah, Mannix was all man.
Tom Selleck plays Thomas Magnum (apparently having an uber-manly name is a prerequisite in this business), a private investigator that lived and worked in Hawaii. Magnum solved cases while sporting his signature manly mustache, Detroit Tigers ballcap, Rolex GMT Master wristwatch, and Hawaiian shirts strategically unbuttoned to let his manly chest hair peek out. Magnum was so damned manly that after the writers killed him off in the seventh season, he came back to life just so he could make an eighth season. You can’t keep a good man down. Or dead.
Kojak was the man. Just look at him. His big bald Grecian head struck fear in the hearts of criminals prowling the South Manhattan streets. Theo Kojak (played by Telly Savalas) was a tough and tenacious NYPD cop who dressed well and liked to suck on his trademark lollipop. He had a gravelly voice with a tough New York accent that made the ladies melt, especially when he dropped his foolproof line, “Who loves ya, baby?”
The Rockford Files
Ex-con turned private investigator, Jim Rockford (played by James Garner) wasn’t your typical TV private dick. He’d just as soon avoid a fight and go fishing than bust down a door with pistols a-blazing. Rockford rarely carried a gun and instead relied on his wits, smooth talking, and patented Rockford Turn, executed in his gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit. Rockford didn’t make much money as a private eye, mainly because his clients weaseled out of his “$200 a day plus expenses” fee. So Rockford lived in a trailer by the beach and bought off-the-rack clothing. But he did it with the kind of charm and style that richer men could only aspire to.
In the Heat of the Night
Based on the awesome movie of the same name, In the Heat of the Night follows small town police chief Bill Gillespie (played by Caroll O’Conner) and detective Virgil Tibbs (played by Howard Rollins). The show takes place in a small town in Mississippi where as a black man, Detective Tibbs must solve crimes while contending with the locals’ deep-seated racism. It doesn’t help that you got Archie Bunker as your boss. I’ve got a lot of memories of watching this show. It was one of my dad’s favorites.
Sgt. Rick Hunter (played by Fred Dryer) was a rule breaking L.A. homicide detective who couldn’t hold onto a partner. On top of that, he had family in the mob. Needless to say, Hunter’s leaders weren’t too happy to have him around and tried to give him the boot. Eventually Hunter partnered up with Sgt. Dee Dee ‘The Brass Cupcake” McCall (played by Stepfanie Kramer), a tough and sexy female crime detective. I guess having a broad around helped smooth out Hunter’s rough edges. He ends up staying with McCall for 8 ass-kicking years.
This was a quintessential 80s show filled with white suits, New Wave music, and of course, crime fighting. Don Johnson played Sonny Crockett and Phillip Michael Thomas played Rico Tubbs. The two team up as undercover detectives to fight drug trafficking and prostitution rings in Miami. Filled with epic car and boat chases, Miami Vice had plenty of action to go around. And, for better or for worse, Miami Vice had a big impact on men’s style. Come on, admit it. If you were a 20-something in the the 80s, you wore black t-shirts under a white blazer. Oh yeah….
Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues changed American TV dramas. Before Hill Street Blues, most TV dramas had very simple plots. Hill Street Blues was the first show to introduce multiple story lines and incorporate elements of the characters’ personal lives into their professional work. The show takes place in an un-named American city (it was Chicago) where the cops and detectives fight gang violence and other crimes. It’s a pretty straightforward, day-in-the-life-of-a-cop show. A memorable catch phrase from the show that other cop shows and movies have endlessly recycled came from Michael Conrad’s character, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus. He ended every briefing by lifting his finger and telling his officers, “Let’s be careful out there.”
Adam-12 spun off from the wildly successful 60s cop show, Dragnet. The show follows two LAPD patrol officers, veteran Peter Malloy and rookie cop Jim Reed. The stories in Adam-12 were pulled right from LAPD case files. One episode might feature an exciting chase with the help of a helicopter pilot while another episode would show mundane police procedures like bookings or debriefings. The plots are simple, but highly entertaining.
Dragnet is the Great Granddaddy of pretty much every cop/detective show in television history. Jack Webb created, produced, and starred as the iconic Joe Friday in Dragnet. The show began as a radio program, but made its way to television in 1951. Webb wanted to create a cop show that portrayed police work as realistically as possible. To do that, Webb attended police academies, went on night patrols with LAPD officers, and frequently visited police headquarters to research for his episodes. During its run, the main detective, Joe Friday, went through a few partners, but his most memorable partner was Officer Bill Gannon played by Harry Morgan. Gannon played the funny man role, while Friday played the straight man in this double act. An interesting fact about Dragnet is that while Joe Friday is often quoted as saying “Just the facts, ma’am,” he never actually uses that line during the series. The closest he came was uttering, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”
Five-0 is a special police force that takes orders only from Hawaii’s governor. Ex-Navy intelligence officer Steve McGarrett leads the squad. He battles murderers, terrorists, and kidnappers on Hawaii with his guns, brains, and awesome hair. The show featured a bevy of bikini clad babes and awesome car chase scenes with Hawaii’s beauty in the background. At the end of every episode, we could count on McGarrett telling his subordinate to “Book ’em Danno!”
Broderick Crawford plays a gruff state police commander named Chief Dan Matthews. Every episode you’ll find Chief Matthews barking orders into a two way radio while wearing his signature fedora. In the show’s early days, the California Highway Patrol actually provided technical assistance to help make the show as realistic as possible. Nothing fancy here. Just good old fashioned storytelling.
What are your favorite classic cop and detective shows? Share them with us in the comments!
Last updated: October 10, 2017