Most TV cops shows can be pretty standard. Many producers know audiences like shows that don’t stray too far from the usual crime-solving format, with some cliche characters abounding.
Yet now and then, a cop show can offer a lead detective character (or two) who breaks the mold a bit. Sometimes, it’s the show’s unique setting or storyline, but it’s also fun when the cops themselves seem like they’re on a different show than the standard police series.
Some of them are maverick cops who bend the rules, but a couple stand out for playing by a different rulebook altogether. It helps when they’re played by great actors who make the show stand out better.
For those wanting a break from the standard police procedural series, these eleven TV detective shows are worth checking out for some unique TV cops who stand out from the procedural pack.
Before his Emmy-winning turn on Homeland, Damien Lewis broke out in this NBC drama.
He plays Charlie Crews, who spent 12 years in prison for a series of murders he didn’t commit. Given a vast settlement, Charlie lives in a mansion while back to his job as a detective.
His time in jail has given Charlie a zen attitude that throws people but makes him a good crime-solver. He’s paired with Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), a recovering addict with her own issues.
The pair balance each other out as they tackle a variety of bizarre crimes in Los Angeles. Charlie also secretly works to find out who framed him for those murders.
The show was affected by various issues to only last two short seasons, but Lewis’ excellent performance shows a cop show that deserved a much longer life.
The Good Cop
Netflix doesn’t do many procedural shows, but they made an exception for this 2018 series.
Josh Groban plays TJ Caruso, a cop so by-the-book that he won’t cross a red light to chase a suspect and believes “you break one rule, they all break.”
Ironically, his father (Tony Danza) was a rule-breaking cop whose antics landed him in prison. Fresh out, he rooms with his son and offers his help solving crimes.
The banter of the two is terrific, with the irony that the rule-loving cop is less liked by his fellow officers than his semi-corrupt dad. There’s also TJ’s fellow cops ranging from an eager partner to one doing as little work as possible.
The mysteries are also well done, with nice flashbacks explaining the crime as, for all their differences, the father and son make a good team.
While canceled after just one season, the unique dynamics of the leads make it a good show.
21 Jump Street
Johnny Depp was launched to instant stardom with the Fox Network’s first hit series.
Fresh out of the academy, Depp is assigned to a special unit of cops who go undercover at high schools to sniff out crime thanks to their youthful appearances.
Many episodes were funny, playing on the adults adjusting to being “kids” and getting into their roles a little too much.
But the series could also tackle severe issues of addiction, prejudice, and other topics quite daring for the late-1980s. It got darker with Richard Grieco as a more daring cop.
While most may be familiar with the movies, the actual TV series was one of the more exciting and unique cop shows of its time.
This wonderful A&E series rested on its charming setting and more charming leading man.
Jim Longworth (Matt Passmore) is a Chicago cop who gets a settlement after accidentally being shot by his captain. He moves to Florida to be a detective for a resort town.
Jim has an annoying self-confidence and wit but is still very capable of solving crimes. He notes the irony that this “sleepy” Florida town has more murders than he ever dealt with in Chicago.
A great turn is the banter between Jim and nurse Callie (Kiele Sanchez), which develops into a wonderful romance. The show’s setting also helps with some funny cases mixed in with serious fare.
Fans were outraged it was canceled on a cliffhanger when a return to this neighborhood would be a delight.
Perhaps the best way to describe this 1990s USA Network hit is “Baywatch with bikes.”
A special division of the Santa Monica Police Department, bike cops handle various crimes on the beaches of L.A. It may sound silly, but it’s played straight with the attractive cast running into a surprising amount of serious crime.
The show bounced between some cheesy storylines and more intense fare from serial killers to smuggling cases. The highly attractive cast sold it nicely, with some romances abounding between the cops.
The show added to the cast, including Mario Lopez in the later seasons. It also got more serious with darker cases and some great action.
Surprisingly more fun than it sounds, Blue was a sunny cop show to enjoy.
Women’s Murder Club
When an unusual murder occurs in San Francisco, four friends join forces to solve it. A cop (Harmon), a medical examiner (Paula Newsome), an assistant district attorney (Laura Harris), and a reporter (Aubrey Dollar).
The show has fun with the banter of the four women at crime scenes and Harmon dealing with her ex (Rob Estes), now her boss.
The cases were fun involving high society murders, clearing an innocent man on death row, and the various personal lives of the ladies.
The show was one of the many victims of the 2007 Writers Strike as the Club deserved to last longer.
The Closer/Major Crimes
These two TNT series each offered a compelling female cop in a unique world of crime.
Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) is a former CIA interrogator turned LAPD detective in The Closer. Her sassy Southern charm hides a steely investigator cracking complex cases and breaking down a suspect.
For every dead-serious case, there could be a laugh-out-loud episode, usually due to the bumbling of Detectives Provenza and Flynn (G.W. Bailey and Tony Denison) with J.K. Simmons as Brenda’s boss.
The spin-off series focuses on Sharon Raydor (Mary McConnell), whose job is to trick criminals into taking plea bargains that can’t be appealed in court. She works with the same team while also raising a foster son.
Each series boasted a unique female lead and showcased some terrific crime cases with a few laughs along the way.
The cops in this short-lived 2009 ABC series sure lived up to their title.
Jeremy Renner played the top cop of an NYPD unit suspected of corruption. Investigating him is a rookie detective (Amber Tamblyn) who her bosses know can’t be bribed because she’s secretly a billionaire heiress.
The other cops include one (Harold Perrineau) who wears a bulletproof vest everywhere as he’s convinced he’s going to die at 43; his partner (Adam Goldberg), who has a brain tumor and thus throws himself into danger; and another (Kai Lennox) who refers to himself in the third person.
The cases were just as offbeat as the cops, from a break-in artist with a weird motive to one cop hiding her own money problems.
While it lasted just one year, the quirky nature made this an underrated cop show to enjoy.
This CBS series was so surprisingly popular that not only was it saved from a first-season cancellation but got extra life on A&E.
Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery) possesses a rare condition that gives her near-perfect memory. She can recall a grade school class as well as she remembers what she had for breakfast yesterday.
This is naturally a gift for a homicide detective as Carrie works for the NYPD and can recall tiny details of a scene that allow her to crack the case.
She has a good partner in her ex-boyfriend (Dylan Walsh), and Montgomery is spirited in the role. The show has a good time showcasing Carrie’s memory used for cases and going from homicides to terrorist threats.
While sadly canceled on a cliffhanger, it’s still a show worth remembering.
Mention Peter Falk, and most people instantly think of his iconic role as the trenchcoat-wearing eccentric detective in this long-running crime classic.
The series was unique as it was never a real mystery. Each episode opened with a special guest star committing what appears to be the perfect murder before the viewer’s eyes.
Just as it looks like they’ll get away with it, in enters a rumpled, stammering, seemingly absent-minded detective. Throughout the episode, Columbo slowly but surely pulls apart the killer’s story before making the arrest.
Falk was always a genius making viewers wonder how much of Columbo’s persona was an act or not. It was also glorious seeing the killer realize too late they’d fallen into his trap and be exposed.
All the way into the 1990s, Falk could still entertain for one of the most delightful unique detectives in TV history.