Basic premise: In a startling twist, crystal meth helps cure cancer, indirectly.
Why it’s here: Bryan Cranston was, before this show, a decent actor, but not much to write home about. This show made him into a star. More than any other show on this list, it looks hard at society and doesn’t pull punches.
Why it isn’t higher: I haven’t seen the last four episodes yet, and a big part of how successful this show turns out will be how they resolve the character. Skyler is also annoying as hell on occasion.
Basic premise: The unholy offspring of CSI and Murder, She Wrote, with a dash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Why it’s here: Because it is probably the best show on FOX right now. The cast works really well together; even the intern concept (a rotation of actors to fill one of the key spots) is innovative and works well. The relationship between Brennan and Booth is exceptional.
Why it’s not higher: In earlier seasons, they rode Bones too hard (that’s what he said!) for the whole “fish out of water/social outcast” trope. It works with her really well, but only in small doses. I still don’t like Eugene Byrd’s character. It’s also incredibly disgusting, sometimes overly so.
Basic premise: The FBI tracks down serial killers by thinking like them.
Why it’s here: Rich characterization for all the parts; every character is fleshed out and crucial to the plot. Matthew Gray Gubler is a scene stealer (even if eidetic memory is overused in modern fiction, with him it works). They turned Tim Curry from loveable, cheesy villain into outright monster. Plus, Xander from Buffy!
Why it isn’t higher: If this show has a flaw — and I’m not sure it does — it’s perhaps an over-reliance on Gubler’s character for plot exposition. Again, it’s not so much this show deserves to be #5 as the top four deserve to be top four.
Basic premise: A more realistic CSI with fewer puns.
Why it’s here: Jack Klugman is underrated as an actor; this is the oldest show in the top 10, and each time I think about it I wonder if I might not push it a little higher. There’s an emphasis on realism and practicality that CSI doesn’t always have. Quincy never carries a gun; he doesn’t need to.
Why it’s not higher: The top five are better. There might be some excessive nostalgia propping this up, which I can’t discount.
Basic premise: Biker gangs run guns and occasionally drugs.
Why it’s here: A phenomenal cast and plot, about both the biking sub-culture and the role the club plays in the psychology and society of their small town.
Why it isn’t higher: The subplot of “the Sons are really just knights on motorcycles” gets harder and harder to accept as time goes on. “Will Jax leave the club or not?” also gets mighty tiresome until it’s resolved.
Basic premise: Solving crime with Science!
Why it’s here: Although not the first show to use forensics as the main basis for crime solving, it’s one of the few modern shows to make the point. It’s done a great job of lasting as characters arrive and leave (although Grissom is still the best), working in character subplots without overwhelming the viewer.
Why it isn’t higher: The science is, occasionally, weak. Grissom’s horrible puns are equal parts awesome and horrible, especially with his little cock of the head to one side as he says it. It’s also getting to the point where it’s overly long in the tooth. It’s outlasted both spin-offs, but I just don’t know how much longer they can go.
Basic premise: Hannibal Lecter in a TV series.
Why it’s here: This show represents the ultimate in dramatic irony — we know who’s responsible for the murders, but no one else does. It’s very, very gory at times, but the gore never seems unnecessary — it’s always part of the story. Mads Mikkelsen is brilliant as Hannibal — not Anthony Hopkins brilliant, but few people are. Hugh Dancy is also good as Will Graham, although Ed Norton did that role best.
Why it’s not higher: They play really fast and loose with the source material: if you’ve read the books, you’ll notice some pretty big discrepancies. I’ve only seen the first season — the second one comes out next year — and I’m loathe to rate it much higher until I see where they’re going with everything.
Basic premise: Insane criminals foiled by slightly less insane detective.
Why it’s here: Vincent d’Onofrio. He is absolutely phenomenal and his character makes the entire show work. When they introduce Jeff Goldblum in a later season, there’s almost too much awesome for one TV screen. Props to Olivia d’Abo, who plays his mortal nemesis, Nicole Wallace.
Why it isn’t higher: It’s already in the top 10, what more do you want? In all seriousness, if d’Onofrio and Goldblum were great, the supporting cast fell just the tiniest bit short. I also don’t like the whole “maybe d’Onofrio is so crazy because he’s secretly the criminal” line that they push in just one too many episodes.
Basic premise: Buddy cop movie, turned into a TV series.
Why it’s here: It is absolutely hysterically funny. If you’ve only seen the West Wing, you’ve never seen Bradley Whitford. His work is sublime here, with the perfect blend of over-the-top insanity and pathos to keep you coming back. Colin Hanks proves an excellent straight man, although he too is occasionally hilarious. It’s only a single season, but man, what a season. If it weren’t bordering on blasphemy, I’d call it the Firefly of crime procedurals.
Why it isn’t higher: The actual “crime solving” part of it is a little light. The premise — boring, everyday crime turns into gang war/murder/drug bust — had probably about run its course. The support cast, at times, was a little light.
Basic premise: Science + Crimes + NY = television.
Why it’s here: Gary Sinise, who was mentioned when I talked about the Stand. Another example of Gary Sinise playing Gary Sinise. The concept actually works a little better here, because they don’t push the science angle as hard as they do for Las Vegas in CSI. It also makes sense that the NYPD would have this insanely expensive equipment a normal CSI lab would use, like, three times in ten years.
Why it isn’t higher: The characterization is a touch weaker here than in CSI. To avoid that show’s occasionally over-the-top antics, they err on the side of downplaying stuff. Not every crime procedural needs a comedy element, but this one is a little too serious.