The Top 10 Best TV Crime Dramas Based In New York

Big crime in the Big Apple.

With the advent of When They See Us, New York is back at the forefront of our consciousness once again.

The Big Apple is ripe (yes, I made that pun) for crime drama and has, over the decades, been the perfect backdrop for gritty crime stories.

This sprawling city, full of history, incredible characters and neighbourhoods, music and culture, and communities full of immigrants often perfectly depicts the duality of modern metropolises – the glitz and the glamour juxtapose with the grime and poverty.

There are the five boroughs etched into our minds thanks to years of brilliant TV crime drama, films and novels. Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, Staten Island and Queens each have fantastic, individual characteristics and qualities separate from the other. Add in neighbourhoods as culturally-rich as Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village, and New York is an extraordinary city with extraordinary stories to tell.

We decided to countdown our 10 favourite TV crime dramas that use the city as its base. As ever, the best ones tend to use the city as a character itself, and all of our selections have a tremendous sense of place.

Honourable mentions go to New York Undercover, McCloud (what’s not to love about Dennis Weaver playing a cop from New Mexico loaned out to the NYPD?), Ellery Queen, Blue Bloods, Castle, Without A Trace and Person Of Interest.

Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer also deserves a mention.

Netflix’s Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist should also just miss out.

Let us know what you think and whether you think we’ve missed any out!

10 Naked City
Starring: John McIntire, James Franciscus, Harry Bellaver, Horace McMahon, Paul Burke.
This prototypical noir series had a fantastic tag line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Running for five years, it was stoic, brilliant, mystery-of-the-week cop show fare, all featuring detectives based at the city’s 65th precinct in the Bronx and breaking the mould with its semi-documentary style and feel. The authentic feel was bolstered by the fact many of the stories were based on real-life crimes.

Like all long-running cop shows, the guest list was impressive, stuffed full of actors who would go on to become household names – Alan Alda, Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, Duston Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, Robert Redford, William Shatner, Martin Sheen, Piper Laurie, Tuesday Weld and Christopher Walken.

9 Jessica Jones
Starring: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, David Tennant
Within the Marvel canon of superhero stories, this felt more like an old-fashioned private investigator series than anything else, and had a pleasing old-school feel in among the superpowers and supernatural.

Ever since her short-lived stint as a superhero ended in tragedy, Jones rebuilt her personal life and career as a hot-tempered, sardonic private detective in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.

Plagued by self-loathing and an acute case of PTSD, Jones battles demons from within and without, using her extraordinary abilities as an unlikely champion for those in need.

David Tennant as the seemingly omnipresent villain Kilgrave, was superb.

8 Kojak
Starring: Telly Savalas, Dan Frazer, Kevin Dobson, George Savalas
Who loves ya, baby?

Iconic is the word when you describe 1970s stalwart, Kojak.

The bald, lollipop-sucking New York detective was (and still is instantly recognisable) wasn’t afraid to bend the rules to bust the bad guys. Cynical but upbeat, Kojak not only had a talent for detecting, he was also blessed with perfect parking karma – he is always able to find a parking space right at the crime scene, even in Manhattan. 

7 Law & Order
Starring: George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, Jill Hennessey, Angie Harmon, Benjamin Bratt
Created by the legendary Dick Wolf, Law & Order was the first of the mega-franchise copshows of the modern era, followed a decade later by CSI.

The groundbreaking series followed a two-part approach: the first half-hour was an investigation of a crime (usually murder) and apprehension of a suspect by NYPD detectives; the second half was the prosecution of the defendant by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

These seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories kept you hooked and, because the show approached each case from the law and order side of things, there was a huge ensemble cast.

6 The Alienist
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans
No list of New York TV crime drama would be complete without a period piece that acknowledged the squalour and the rich mix of cultures all living cheek-by-jowel in the city’s early years.

Based on the best-selling book by Caleb Carr, The Alienist was a psychological thriller set amid the vast wealth, extreme poverty and technological innovation of 1896 New York.

A never-before-seen ‘ritualistic killer’ was responsible for the gruesome murders of boy prostitutes, and newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt calls upon criminal psychologist Dr Laszlo Kreizler, newspaper illustrator John Moore and police department secretary Sara Howard to conduct the investigation in secret.

The brilliant, obsessive Kreizler is known as an alienist – one who studies mental pathologies and the deviant behaviours of those who are alienated from themselves and society. His job, along with his controversial views, makes him a social pariah in some circles. But helped by a band of outsiders, Kreizler’s tireless efforts eventually answer the question behind what makes a man into a murderer.

Atmospheric and gruesome stuff.

READ MORE: Our review of The Alienist

5 Elementary
Starring: Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that an American version of Sherlock Holmes would be hitting our screens.

It told (and continues to tell) the story of disgraced Sherlock Holmes, who fled London for present-day Manhattan after a stint in rehab.

He arrived to find that his father has assigned a sober companion to live with him – Dr Joan Watson, a former surgeon whose medical licence was revoked three years earlier after she lost a patient.

However, Holmes had his own plan for keeping on the straight and narrow, throwing himself into his work as a police consultant in New York City. 

Featuring a fresh male-female dynamic at the heart of the Holmes-Watson relationship, Elementary was and is one of the most consistent procedurals out there.

READ MORE: All of our news and reviews of Elementary

4 Cagney & Lacey
Starring: Sharon Gless, Tyne Daley
This groundbreaking, long-running series was a staple during the 1980s.

Mary Beth Lacey and Chris Cagney were female police officers in New York City, and the contrasting pair was at the heart of an updated buddy series.

The women were partners and friends, as well as chalk and cheese, but they led different personal lives. Cagney was a single, career-minded woman, while Lacey was a married mother. In addition to going after the bad guys, the ladies had to combat sexism in the male-dominated workplace. 

3 The Night Of
Starring: Riz Ahmed, John Turturro
Based on the BBC series Criminal Justice, The Night Of was a superb story of crime, punishment and survival in NYC.

A night that began innocently for Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan turned horrific after he met a mysterious young woman. After a night of debauchery, Naz wakes up to find her brutally murdered and he’s the prime suspect.

In custody and awaiting his formal arraignment, Naz realizes that his survival – or perhaps his demise – rests not with his attorney, John Stone, but with a particular inmate at Rikers Island.

In a gripping series full of cultural significance and incredible dialogue from Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, The Night Of harked back to the classic, gritty crime stories of the 1970s. And, in John Stone, it presented us with one of the most memorable characters in TV crime drama in recent years.

READ MORE: Our review of The Night Of

2 The Deuce
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhall, James Franco, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gary Carr, Dominique Fishback, Margarita Levieva
Created by The Wire’s David Simon and George Pelecanos (and bolstered by a writing room that included incredible crime writers like Lisa Lutz and Megan Abbott), The Deuce is arguably the most atmospheric TV crime drama ever.

It told of the germination of the sex-trade industry in the heart of New York’s Times Square in the early 1970s, a sleazy, vibrant, dangerous place. As the porn business began to shift from organised crime-backed parlours to a legitimate, culturally accepted enterprise, a large ensemble cast of barkeeps, prostitutes, pimps, police and nightlife seekers tried to take their piece of the pie. 

With a third and final series coming this year, The Deuce was (and still is) a multi-layered masterpiece.

READ MORE: All our news and reviews of The Deuce

1 NYPD Blue
Starring: Dennis Franz, David Caruso
Created by the late Steven Bochco and David Milch (who’s enjoying huge success with Deadwood: The Movie at the moment), NYPD Blue was, in many ways, the quintessential cop show. The fact that it was based in New York – at one of those precincts that you only get in New York – helped to give it more grit and unique personality.

Series one started with John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz, detectives in the 15th squad. Sipowicz was the elder partner but is an alcoholic who drinks on the job, as well as off duty, and his behaviour caused doubt that the partnership will last much longer.

Kelly had a genuine affection for his partner but became increasingly exasperated by Sipowicz’s behaviour. In addition to his alcoholism, Sipowicz was a deeply negative, misogynist, homophobic bigot.

In the pilot, Sipowicz was shot by a suspect he had attacked and humiliated earlier. This led to his decision to sober up and save his job. While Sipowicz was recuperating, the squad’s lieutenant, Arthur Fancy, teamed Kelly with a young cop from Anticrime, James Martinez.

And so it went on. And on. For 12 series and 261 episodes.

Characters came and went, but, like any long-running show, you invested in them because as much of their personal lives were explored as their working lives were.

Each episode was like checking back in with friends, in a place you grew to love.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Loved them all…except (unexpectedly) The Alienist. Will have to try again on that one. Great list Paul

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jsrtheta says:

    NYPD Blue was maybe the best cop show ever. I remember Dennis Franz from the late ’70s, when he was one of the company at the Organic Theater in Chicago. One of the first shows I saw him in was Cops, an amazing play that took place entirely inside a greasy spoon in Chicago, and Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna (another great actor). Dennis and Joe played a couple of Chicago police detectives, and it was a bit of foreshadowing of the career paths of both Franz and Mantegna.

    Dennis Franz became a favorite of Brian De Palma and Robert altman, but it was his work in Hill Street Blues that made him a fan favorite. And then NYPD Blue. It’s no wonder Dennis Franz hasn’t done much since then, by choice. I think he feels he’s said it all.


  3. Andy D says:

    Great read. I especially love the location shooting in Kojak as he speed parks a car or runs around with a gun in front of actual New Yorkers who are initially startled and then completely nonchalant.


  4. Great read as always – but Paul you do need an editor. No one, like the girl in your review of The Night Of, wakes up brutally murdered.


    1. Paul Hirons says:

      Fair point


  5. pjn0524 says:

    I’ve never watched a couple on your list. But we love Blue Bloods here, and I was a bit surprised it didn’t make the list. Should be on there for Tom Selleck alone (LOL)! I will have to check out The Alienist if I can find it online somewhere. I think Amazon Prime might carry it.


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