As the sixth series of Line of Duty heats up, the good old police procedural drama is clearly back in fashion. If you need an additional fix before the next helping from AC-12, here are our favourite cops on television:
Jimmy McNulty, The Wire
As a rule of thumb, fictional cops tend to gravitate towards two moral archetypes: rule-breaking mavericks at one end and corrupt cynics at the other. But David Simon’s seminal work about the city of Baltimore blew that spectrum wide open, showing its various police teams as every bit as complex and compromised as the criminals they pursued. At the heart of it all is Jimmy McNulty: the obstinate and obsessive detective with overlapping talents for solid police work and relentless self-sabotage. A worthy lead man in a truly iconic series.
Rust Cohle, True Detective
Television cops don’t come much more disillusioned than Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, a man for whom the chance to re-investigate the unsolved murder of a prostitute from 17 years earlier at least provides a break from a private life besieged by family tragedies and recurrent drug addictions. Cohle’s partner, played by Woody Harrelson, is equally fascinating. Like the best conceptual dramas, True Detective also manages to put its location firmly on the map, using its vivid Louisiana backdrop to bring us an unforgettable slice of dark southern gothic.
Sam Tyler, Life on Mars
A smash hit in the early 2000s (and since imitated the world over) Matthew Graham's breakthrough drama began with an unforgettable premise: a modern-day police officer catapulted back in time to 1973. Underpinning the show's success was the irresistible dynamic between its two leads. But while Philip Glenister's heavy-handed Gene Hunt provided the sizzle and swagger, it was ultimately John Simm’s Sam Tyler who drove forward the best police work - at least when he wasn’t being haunted by the girl from the BBC test card. Fans can rejoice that the series is set for a return soon, with John Simm currently in talks with producers.
Sarah Lund, The Killing
Denmark’s national broadcaster NR1 didn’t just break the detective mould when it came to The Killing; it ended up inadvertently setting a new standard that would come to define a whole subgenre. With her signature knitwear and introverted temperament, homicide cop Sarah Lund seems like an unlikely television hero - at least a first. But as the plot picks up, we soon appreciate the magic. Absent the usual machismo, Lund gives us the chance to admire the intellectual side of police work - whilst also giving us a heroine we can root for without reservation.
Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad
For all their brilliance, the early episodes of Breaking Bad didn’t seem to have particularly high hopes for Hank Schrader: the bomber-jacket-wearing DEA agent whose life largely revolved around roughing up local street dealers. By the latter seasons of the show, though, the script has flipped, as a wisened and more emotionally-sensitive Schrader found himself plotting to outsmart the biggest meth mogul of all: his own brother-in-law. Their final showdown, in the acclaimed To'hajiilee, remains one of the finest moments of 21st century television.
Vic Mackey, The Shield
In its high-octane pilot episode The Shield leaves us under no illusions as to the nature of its lead man. From conducting a very direct strip search on a cocky drug dealer to using a telephone directory to beat a confession out of an abusive parent, Vic Mackey doesn’t mess about. Hence his appointment as head of a crack squad of cops tasked with cleaning up a crime-ridden LA neighbourhood. By the end of the episode, though, we learn the truth: that Mackey’s ultimate motivation is less about delivering justice, and more about protecting the reputation of his corruption-prone colleagues. The Shield might not be subtle, but it’s still a riveting watch.
Maya Cobbina, Undercover
Former barrister Peter Moffat sure knows how to pen a decent legal drama. Having made his name with Kavanagh QC, he’s now writing for Bryan Cranston in the new US legal drama Your Honor. Prior to that, though, Moffat gave us Sophie Okonedo as Maya Cobbina QC: a former human rights lawyer and anti-racism activist elevated to the role of Britain’s most senior prosecutor in BBC One’s Undercover. The promotion is thrown into disarray when Cobbina receives a visit from a former lover (played by Adrian Lester), who, unbeknownst to her, had been working as an undercover cop when the two met in left-wing protest circles some years earlier.
John Luther, Luther
For anyone who’d already binged The Wire, Neil Cross’s Luther - which arrived on BBC One back in 2010 - came with an irresistible premise: the chance to see Idris Elba, aka economics-reading drug lord Stringer Bell, swap sides and take up the law enforcement mantle. Thankfully, DCI Luther turns out to be a character just as rich and engaging as his Baltimore alter-ego: a whip-smart renaissance man with a knack for navigating moral grey areas. When he encounters his nemesis, in the form of Ruth Wilson as psychopathic Alice Morgan, things get really interesting. Thanks partly to the lockdown filming drought, all five series are currently available on iPlayer.