SF’s Top 10 Television Crime Episodes of All-Time

Christmas and Hanukah are quickly approaching.  Like beauty, good gifts are in the eye of the beholder.  One of the best ways to throw a seasonal adjustment disorder a curve is watching a classic crime drama on a new flat screen.

For readers in their mid-twenties, episodes of television police dramas abound that put NCIS, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order to shame. 

In an effort to break through the winter doldrums—for red-blooded American man the down-time between the Super Bowl and college basketball’s March madness—the Spingola Files (SF) has put together a list of television’s top ten crime drama episodes.

So break out those Amazon.com gifts cards, fire-up Hulu, or sign-up for Netflix to view an episode on this not-so-exclusive list.

SF’s Top Ten Television Crime Drama Episodes

1.       Homicide: Life on the Street (Season Six: Finnegan’s Wake): An old-school homicide detective, Tommy Finnegan, returns to assist his contemporary counter parts clear the 1932 murder of 11-year-old Clara Slone.  While the attitudes of society and law enforcement have changed dramatically, this episode illustrates that the mind-set of big-city homicide detectives remain relatively constant.  Great dialog, which, unlike many of today’s television dramas, accurately portrays police work. 

2.       Barney Miller (Season Five: The Harris Incident):  In 1978, years before the mainstream media’s examination of racial profiling or DWB, this cutting-edge episode brought issues of race and justice to the forefront.  A well-dressed detective, Harris, who is African-American, is shot by a white officer while attempting to apprehend a white suspect.  Harris is irate that the white officer believed that Harris—because of his skin color—was the suspect.  

3.       Hill Street Blues (Season Four: Grace Under Pressure):  Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, whose line, ”Just remember, let’s be careful out there,” punctuated the start of each episode, goes out like a man;  Officer Lucy Bates gets a promotion to sergeant (remember, this was the early 1980s);  Captain Frillo’s ex-wife, Fay, gets arrested for prostitution.  More drama here than an entire year at the old District Five. 

4.       Homicide: Life on the Street (Season One: Night of the Dead Living): This episode takes place entirely in the homicide “squad room” on a summer evening in Baltimore where, amazingly, no one is actually murdered.  To many none law enforcement-types, the dialog amongst the show’ peers might seem too slow; however, as a former homicide detective, I see this as one of the best written crime (less) drama episodes ever produced.  

5.       NYPD Blue (Season One: Emission Accomplished): Detective Kelly tries to prevent a younger colleague from making the mistake of becoming an Internal Affairs pariah, while Martinez investigates an over-the-hill officer for an unsolved murder. The episode concludes with an IAD outcast playing the bagpipes in a cemetery at dusk.  Well written and well directed.  

6.       The Chicago Code: (Season One: O’Leary’s Cow):  This drama was cancelled by Fox after a year and, quite frankly, the detectives’ access to the police superintendent defied the chain-of-command. This particular episode, however, did highlight the minefield that is police undercover work.  One of the detectives manages to infiltrate the Irish mob.  In a UC capacity, he is party to the crime of arson. Later, investigators learn that a person was killed in the fire. Watch the politics on display.

7.        Barney Miller (Season Three: The Werewolf):  A man taken into custody during a full moon believes he is a werewolf and begins acting the part. Here the dialog between Captain Miller, Detectives Harris, Wojciehowicz, and Detective Sergeant Nick Yemana are hilarious. The following link provides a brief glimpse of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMYWRWWpd-A 

8.        Dragnet (Season One: The Big L.S.D.): Okay, it was 1967, but this show highlighted the emerging mind-altering drug that was scaring parents of America’s aspiring counterculture.  Kind of corny by today’s standards yet still poignant , as the death of Art Linkletter’s daughter, Diane, would prove just two years later (see the following link): http://www.snopes.com/horrors/drugs/linkletter.asp 

9.           Hill Street Blues: (Season Four: The Long Arm of the Law): IAD investigators, concerned about the upcoming mayoral election, begin scrutinizing the officers and detectives of the Hill Street precinct. A classic scene occurs inside the office of Capt. Frank Frillo, who, in a round-about-way, tells-off an IAD commander: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No0H2TpuGT4 

10.          X-Files (Season Three: Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose): A man who can see the various ways people die helps Mulder and Scully locate a killer that is targeting psychics.  Very well written and directed. Like the majority of the series, full of suspense.

Since SF’s picks are obviously generational and jaundiced, feel free to chime-in and give our readers your take on the best television crime drama episodes.


Steve Spingola is an author and retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective. His latest book, Best of the Spingola Files, Vol. II: Here’s Looking at You, available at Amazon.com.


If your group is in need of a fascinating guest speaker, consider the Spingola Files’ Psychology of Homicide presentation.  For more information, please visit:


© Steven Spingola, Wales, WI, 2012

2 Responses

  1. Mike Massa

    What about the 1953 Dragnet episode Bernie used to show everyone on Graduation Day? “You are a bad cop. Every cops kid is going to have to fight his way across the schoolyard because of you!!!”

    December 16, 2012 at 6:08 am

  2. Rudy

    Another good episode of Homicide Life on the Street is “Three men and Adena.” It is from season one. The best episode of any crime series anytime anywhere.

    December 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm

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