When I was a kid I loved cop shows. My parents used to watch the Sunday night NBC Mystery Movie which had detective shows like McCloud, McMillan and Wife and Quincy M.E. A lot of these shows were on in the 10PM slot with slight hooks to them like Police Woman, The Magician, The Rookies, Baretta and The Streets of San Francisco. You'd be hard pressed to find any of these shows even on TVLand or the Retro station now. This is because they are quite awful. They were formulaic and tame compared to what we now consider a police drama. Each mystery was wrapped up by the end of the hour (a short arc) by one dimensional good guys arresting stereo-typical bad guys. Why did we watch such crap? Mostly because there wasn't anything else on. We had a black and white television set much of the 1970's. Even after we bought a color television set, we still had only about five to eight channels, no remote control and fairly bad reception. You had to get up and adjust the antennae when you changed the channel. Might be one of the reasons why I become such a big reader.
Sometimes you don't know something is bad because you haven't experienced good yet. In 1981, NBC introduced a new show that changed everything about the cop show genre. After Hill Street Blues hit the air, it was really hard to watch any of these other shows. The characters had back stories and personal lives, the cops weren't all good people, some of them had bad habits and some of them were dirty. The criminals weren't all one dimensional and some weren't even guilty, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, the narrative was very different than your typical show. Sometimes you had plot lines that continued over several episodes (a long arc) sometimes with three or four different plot lines happening at once. So many things were better about this show everything from the dialogue to the camera work.
For the last 30 years, American cop shows have had a similar formula. You have the crime each episode that needs to be solved (the short arc) and you have the character's personals lives (the long arc) that develop over the course of the series. This works to varying degrees. A good example is The Closer where you have the homicide department resolving a murder each episode with the eccentric Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson. If she can get them alone in a room, she can resolve the crime purely with manipulation. The crimes are heavy, their personal lives are light giving the observer relief. I just watched an episode of The Body of Proof and I found it almost painful to watch. It had the bad dialogue of Grey's Anatomy, the one dimensional characters of Desperate Housewives and the bad science of CSI. It is particularly hard to watch something so badly done after seeing The Wire.
A few years ago, when I had HBO, I was flipping through the channels and discovered a show called The Wire that was captivating. It seemed too realistic to be a drama. The language was natural, the narrative compelling and less linear than most shows. I rented all of the back episodes and watched the entire five seasons. My wife wanted to see it so I recently watched all five seasons again. I am not prone to use the word "masterpiece" readily but this show comes as close to a masterpiece as a cop show may possibly come. The show concentrates on Baltimore, Maryland, on one long drug case for the entirety of the series (aka a very long arc). The first season delves into the life of the drugs dealers in an East Baltimore neighborhood and what the cops have to do get a "wire" up to listen to their dealings. But then season two takes a completely different turn, it concentrates on the docks where the drugs and other contraband come into the city. Season three, politics, season four, the schools, season five, the media ... what you have after five seasons is a portrait of an American city like no other. The Wire has set a new precedence for excellence for drama for me. I love it, but again, it has made it difficult to enjoy the rest of television drama after I have seen what can be done. I keep looking for my new Wire, but keep finding The Body of Truth.