Crime shows have been a mainstay in the primetime TV circuit for decades. They often come in the form of procedurals that fans of the genre can watch at leisure. While most have overarching storylines, the beauty is that they can be watched out of order, any time, and never get stale or fail to make sense.
Some of the best crime shows on television have aired for quite some time. Without counting non-scripted dramatic series, like America’s Most Wanted and Cops, as well as series outside of American TV, like the Scottish detective series Taggart that aired for 27 seasons from 1985 through 2010, British series Heartbeat (18 seasons), and Midsomer Murders (23 seasons), there are compelling crime shows and police procedurals that rank among the longest running.
10 ‘Hawaii Five-O’ (1968 -1980, 2010 – 2020)
12 Seasons, 10 Seasons
Other shows have lasted just as many seasons as Hawaii Five-O, including Murder, She Wrote, NYPD Blue, and Bones. But Hawaii Five-O had more episodes overall. With its initial run, there were 281 episodes compared to about 260 or so for the other series. But the show was also revived for a hugely successful new iteration featuring new characters and set in modern times. That revival ran for almost as long as the original.
The series, a police procedural, is naturally set in Hawaii and follows the heads of a fictional state police task force and the cases they try to solve.
9 ‘Blue Bloods’ (2010 – )
One of the newer crime dramas, Blue Bloods stars veteran actor Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan the Police Commissioner in New York City. The Reagans have a long history working in law enforcement in the Big Apple, and both of Frank’s sons as well as his daughter are continuing the tradition and the family name reputation.
Naturally, the family wields a lot of power in the city, dedicating their lives for generations to serving residents, preventing crime, and delivering justice. The series – which has given fans some incredible Blue Bloods episodes – has been renewed for a 14th season.
8 ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ (2009 – 2023)
Set in California, NCIS: Los Angeles is an action series that combines both the military drama and police procedural genres. It follows the Office of Special Projects (OSP) in Los Angeles, an elite division of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. This group specializes in undercover assignments to uncover crime and take down criminals.
As the first spin-off to the original series NCIS, the show has concluded its run. Through its 14 seasons, it has starred actors like Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J, the late Miguel Ferrer, and Nia Long.
7 ‘Bonanza’ (1959 – 1973)
One of the earliest crime dramas, Bonanza is a Western series, and is the second-longest-running of its genre ever for American TV, and the longest-running for NBC. Set in the 1860s, it centers on the Cartwright family, wealthy residents of Nevada.
Through the episodes, which dealt with plenty more beyond just crime, the family, headed up by patriarch Ben, must do what needs to be done to defend their ranch. The series is often named one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
6 ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ (2000 – 2015)
The original series that piqued society’s interest in the forensics side of criminal investigations, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has spawned several spin-offs, including CSI: NY, CSY: Cyber, CSI: Miami, and CSI: Vegas, the latter of which serves as a revival of the original and brings back some original cast members.
Rather than focus on those on the front lines, this series looks at the people who work behind the scenes, examining the forensics of a case to help solve murders. Instead of extroverted police officers, the main characters are introverted and socially awkward, but bring a new dimension to the crime drama. Their compelling and clever methods of figuring out the whodunit have viewers’ eyes glued to the TV.
5 ‘Criminal Minds’ (2005 – 2020, 2022 Revival)
Tackling the behavioral end of police work, Criminal Minds is a police procedural that follows a group of criminal profilers working for the FBI. They search for and interrogate the presumed perpetrators, trying to understand the motives and reasoning that might have driven someone to be the guilty party.
With sub-plots involving the personal lives of the characters as well, the series has seen major actors as part of Criminal Minds‘ cast of agents over the years. Among these are Mandy Patikin, Shemar Moore, Paget Brewster, Aisha Tyler, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. There are two American spin-offs, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. The revival, which premiered on Paramount+, is called Criminal Minds: Evolution while a true-crime docuseries called The Real Criminal Minds is also in the works for that streaming service.
4 ‘NCIS’ (2003 – )
The original series in the franchise, NCIS is a police procedural and military drama set in Washington about a group of special agents working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Born from the series JAG, the focus of the cases are high visibility crimes, including murders, force protection, and treason involving the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps.
While Mark Harmon headed up the series as Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs for the show’s first 19 seasons, Gary Cole has taken over since. The show has been renewed for a 21st season.
3 ‘Gunsmoke’ (1955 – 1975)
Another early entry on the list, Gunsmoke remains one of the greatest Western TV shows of all time. It initially started as a radio series, airing from 1952 to 1961, and became a TV series as well in 1955.
Set in Kansas, Gunsmoke is about Matt Dillion (James Arness), A U.S. marshal who works in the American frontier town, ensuring residents uphold the letter of the law. The setting, which takes place in current times at the time it was on the air, is during the settlement of the American West.
2 ‘Law & Order’ (1990 – 2010)
Arguably the gold standard when it comes to police procedurals, Law & Order was an early favorite and many of its spin-offs remain beloved among a new generation of viewers. Set in New York City, the series uniquely splits each episode to cover the two crucial parts of enforcing the law: the first hour is about the investigation of the crime and the second is about the prosecution of the defendant.
What makes Law & Order so compelling, in part, is that while the cases are fictional, many drew inspiration from real-life cases that were going on at the current time, or had occurred in the past.
1 ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ (1999 – )
Surpassing the series of which it serves as a spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit now holds the distinction of being the longest-running scripted police procedural on American television. Episodes are divided much the same way as Law & Order, looking at both the investigation of the crime and then the trial. However, SVU has a unique spin in terms of which cases are covered.
This series, based in New York, focuses on the darkest of crimes investigated by an elite force. These include sexually oriented crimes like rape and domestic violence, as well as non-sexually motivated crimes that require special handling, like those of elderly or disabled victims. Renewed for a 25th season, Law & Order: SVU has made Stabler and Benson (played by Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay) household names, and a fan-favorite pairing on TV.
NEXT: The Best, Most Rewatchable Crime Shows of the 21st Century