Best crime TV shows of the 21st century: Did Dexter beat Fargo?

We rank the greatest series of the past two decades that follow legendary outlaws, conflicted detectives and the outer limits of human nature.

(Editor’s note: The following piece originally appeared on May 12, 2017.)

For as long as people have passed on stories, those tales have included our ability to transgress against each other. It is a tradition as old as the Bible.

And in addition to documenting how people violate the rules governing our evolving ideas about society, we’re constantly fascinated by those tasked with correcting those mistakes. Whether it’s the detectives investigating these crimes, those within the justice system who determine the appropriate punishment, or the friends and family left in the wake of such acts, this process has become a cornerstone of many cultural touchstones.

On the TV side, for the better part of two decades of anti-hero rule, the trend is as prevalent as ever. For every harrowing situation, the audience asks, “How would you react in this situation?” often has serious consequences. There’s no easier way to raise the stakes than to put the characters in a situation where they, or someone in their path, has broken the law.

Of course, these shows are never just about individuals. Even the most righteous Robin Hood-like character show exists in its perception of right or wrong behavior. The genre’s most popular shows have had an outsized impact on public opinion, and not always in a positive way. The stories that then merit analysis or praise often come from how they use that power to reveal something more than humanity’s narrow vision.

So in honor of the best television of this young century, we’ve rounded up thirty series that best depict the cycle of rise, fall, and fallout. Sometimes criminals are our heroes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the show is fighting for.

(Some criteria: we stuck to shows that aired most of their episodes in the 2000s or later and were only scripted. The definition of a “crime show” is flexible, but if the crime (or criminal procedure) is central to the show’s plot in his plot, so we found it suitable for the list.)

Kristen Lopez, Liz Shannon Miller, and Hanh Nguyen contributed to this list.

"Law and Order: SVU"

“Law & Order: SVU”


30. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”


Now the granddaddy of the “Law and Order” world, “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” remains one of the most fascinating, if not questionably exploitative, crime stories. When it initially launched, we followed SVU detectives Benson and Stabler (Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni) as they struggled to help victims of sexual assault and abuse. The series has sparked conversations throughout its 20-year history, including Hargitay becoming an advocate for timely processing of rape kits. Sure, the show is often derided for how poorly it got its “sexually awful” dialogue, but without it, the world of criminal justice wouldn’t be what it is (and it gave us one of our favorite law enforcement duos). — Kristen Lopez

Michael C. Hall, "Dexter"



29. “Dexter”


The concept of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall at his best) as a Miami gore expert who is driven by a serial killer to bring vigilante justice against other serial killers was very brilliant and gave viewers at home a thrill to root for the guy. knife. As he tried to live a normal life with a wife and a son, the urges kept coming back, drawing him inexorably into the realm of the most depraved. Case by case, killer by killer, the show has honed our penchant for gore, and Dexter has necessarily winked at his friends and the cops. But it was his relationship with his detective sister Debra that gave the show its heart and real stakes. While the later seasons went off the rails a bit, no one can dispute the excellence of the first few seasons, especially the year John Lithgow went down for a truly chilling season-long arc. — Han Nguyen

THE GUILTY -- "part III" Episode 103 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti, Bill Pullman as Detective Harry Ambrose -- (Photo by Peter Kramer/USA Network)

Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman, “The Guilty”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

28. “The Guilty”

United States

Making a show about a troubled detective is about as original as a show about a doctor who can cure everyone but himself. Even though “Guilty” didn’t start out that way, it turned into the best script of a series that balances not just the crime, but the “why” of the person leading the investigation. Few have had a steadier hand on TV in the past decade than Bill Pullman as Detective Harry Ambrose, even if it feels like the character should be doing something other than wallowing in an Olympic-sized trauma pool. From a riveting first season built around a slick sunny beachside sting to a hypnotic season 3 steeped in the nature of fate and free will, “The Sinner” has rarely taken the easy way out. The mysterious guide along the way made a trip worth taking, however treacherous. — Steve Greene

“The Honorable Lady”


27. “The Honorable Woman”


Hugo Blick’s eight-part series is a bleak but razor-sharp tale of international diplomacy that combines political intrigue, covert espionage and the devastating consequences of mistrust in a way few other shows do. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as Nessa Stein, a businesswoman whose family history and ongoing infrastructure projects are intertwined with Israeli-Palestinian relations, plays a ferocious central role. And he’s surrounded by a hugely talented ensemble: Lindsey Duncan, Janet McTeer, Tobias Menzies, Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Rea as MI6 agents trying to make sense of it all. Avoiding easy answers and tidy conclusions, this is an example of how the actions of one generation resonate with so many. — SG

Idris Elba as DCI John Luther - Luther _ Season 5, Episode 1 - Photo by Des Willie/BBCAmerica


Des Willie/BBCAmerica

26. “Luther”


British detectives get a much-needed update with Idris Elba as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. Like Sherlock Holmes, his dedication to solving crimes makes Luther obsessive and downright violent. This also puts more strain on his damaged relationship with those closest to him. As if Elba anchoring the series wasn’t enough, the show gave us one of the creepiest baddies of all time: Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan. With Lauren Bacall-esque elegance and a Hannibal Lecter-imitating streak of violence, Wilson made us both love and fear Alice. Unsurprisingly, his “will they or won’t they” relationship with Luther held most of the series together. — KL

Jett Cinemax



25. “Jet”


Sebastian Gutierrez’s rainbow-hued look at a woman trying to overcome her past proves that dark and gritty crime doesn’t have to come at the expense of sensuality. Carla Gugino has rarely been better than here as Daisy “Jett” Kowalski, a jack-of-all-trades burglar whose personal history is as complicated as her list of targets. Bouncing between jobs and other complicated tasks, “Jett” is another story about how once you dive into an underground world in search of riches, you can never fully get out. The show is equal parts violence and style, working together to show how Jett’s robberies can also be works of art. (The show’s one-season run was painfully short, but for those looking for more, Gutierrez and Gugino’s spiritual peacock follower, “Leopard Skin,” contains much of the same dangerous and outrageous DNA.) SG

Landscapers HBO Olivia Colman True Crime True Story

Olivia Colman in ‘Landscapers’

Stefania Rosini / HBO

24. “Landscape builders”


The ability to change perspective is fundamental to many of the shows on this list. No other show takes this idea and makes it as slick as “Landscapers,” which devoted its opening frames to artifice. Ed Sinclair imagines the true story of accused murderers Susan (Olivia Colman) and Christopher Edwards (David Thewlis) through several different lenses, brought to life by director and co-writer Will Sharpe. At certain points, both Susan and Christopher see themselves as the stars of their own misunderstood tale, whether it’s a classic Hollywood romance or a story set in another era or continent. The show doesn’t just copy certain genre touches, it gives them a real, well-deserved sense of obscurity. A tragic mix of dark comedy, warped rose-tinted optimism and the drudgery of detective work, “Landscapers” is a triumph of design. As a starting point for the stylish cornucopia, the show can present a 360-degree view of how one action or choice can affect so many other lives. — SG

Snabba Cash Salim

“Snabba Cash”

23. “Snabba Cash”


Few crime dramas make the viewer as immersed (and sometimes almost complicit) in the violence on screen as “Snabba Cash,” the Swedish series based on the same Jens Lapidus books as the 2010 film trilogy. The series begins with three separate threads: Leya (Evin Ahmad), Salim (Alexander Abdallah) and Tim (Ali Alarik) trying to balance the reality and potential of the corners of Stockholm where they live. As things progress and their lives become intertwined, all three find that any business requires a piece of your soul. Whether it’s the back rooms of the secret warehouse, the courtrooms, or the confrontations on the open streets, every episode has the snaking feeling that something major and/or catastrophic could happen at any minute. Once the bullets start flying, ‘Snabba Cash’s’ brand of controlled mayhem is unlike anything else in the genre. — SG

Olivia Colman, "Broadchurch"


Colin Hutton/BBC America

22. Broadchurch

ITV/BBC America

When the body of a local boy is found on a cliff in a coastal town in Dorset, the tight-knit community is shocked when it is revealed that he has been murdered. The police investigation and media attention transform the townspeople, revealing their secrets and old beliefs. While the reveal of the killer is shocking (especially since he’s closely related to a prominent citizen), it’s the nuanced examination of the building and inevitable breakdown of such relationships that remains disturbing throughout the show. David Tennant and Olivia Colman give intensely understated performances as the detective detectives, helping to make “Broadchurch” one of the finest British heirs to the “Twin Peaks” formula of small-town crime that explores the very underbelly of the town itself. — HN

Next: One of the darkest TV series of all time… and one of the brightest

Register: Stay up to date with the latest movie and TV news! Subscribe to our email newsletter here.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *