15 Best Procedural TV Shows, Ranked

Summary

  • Procedural television shows, particularly those focused on law enforcement, continue to captivate audiences with their gripping cases and resilient characters.
  • The episodic structure and minimal overarching storylines of procedural shows make them accessible and addictive, ensuring their status as rerun classics.
  • Long-running series like Law & Order: SVU and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have become enduring TV favorites, offering a comforting and gratifying viewing experience with their focus on technical aspects of policing and crime-solving.

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Procedural television shows are a cornerstone of American television that have had an uncanny ability to captivate audiences for decades, but some are far superior than the rest. These shows, often grounded in the realm of law enforcement, continue to reign supreme, offering a reliable blend of gripping cases and resilient characters. Be it gathering inspiration from real-life incidents or crafting intricate criminal narratives, they possess an undeniable allure. It’s easy to be drawn to the thrill of solving murders and unraveling crimes, forming deep emotional connections with the hardworking and sometimes ruthless detectives. The procedural formula, marked by an episodic structure and minimal overarching storylines, ensures these series’ status as rerun classics, making them accessible and addictive.

With the procedural genre remaining relevant in television to this day, it’s no surprise that some of the longest-running series fall into this category. From Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, these shows, characterized by their focus on technical aspects of policing, firefighting, or medical services, give off a comforting quality. They invite viewers to join in at any moment, knowing that the timeless procedural formula guarantees a gratifying entry, making it an enduring TV favorite. With a plethora of procedurals to choose from, spanning the spectrum of intensity and humor, the top offerings promise a diverse viewing experience.

15 Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)

CharliesAngels show

Spawning numerous reboots and films, Charlie’s Angels is naturally one of the best in the procedural genre. The series had five seasons, totaling 115 episodes. Originally, Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith starred in the leading roles as the original Angels. The series initially received mixed reviews from critics but was very popular with audiences. It became a top 10 hit in the Nielsen listings for its first two seasons. Even after it was canceled in 1981, the series continued to be a fan-favorite, and continues to thrive through its lasting impact on popular culture.
Related: Charlie’s Angels: Every Angel, Ranked

14 Monk (2002-2009)

Monk Show

Monk is an Emmy-winning series that focuses on Adrian Monk, portrayed by Tony Shalhoub. A former detective, Monk battles obsessive-compulsive disorder and germophobia after his wife’s tragic passing. His unique neuroses, rather than hindrances, become assets in solving cases. The show’s formula of combining investigative intrigue with humor and deep character development gave this classic procedural structure an innovative twist. Monk transcends the conventional crime procedural, allowing his idiosyncrasies to pursue justice. With Monk returning to solve his last case, its enduring appeal lies in its skillful blend of crime-solving and character-driven storytelling, making it a memorable favorite.

13 Matlock (1986-1995)

Matlock's Andy Griffith

The long-running courtroom drama Matlock introduces Andy Griffith’s character, Ben Matlock, a cunning and resourceful criminal defense attorney. Matlock possesses a unique talent: not only does he uncover the true culprits behind the crimes his clients are unjustly accused of, but he also skillfully coerces them to confess or implicate themselves in front of the jury. Employing a simple “crime of the week” structure, Matlock offers the flexibility to start a full series binge or enjoy a random episode from its nine-season run. With its engaging narrative and Griffith’s memorable performance, Matlock remains a timeless and appealing legal drama of the genre.

12 Miami Vice (1984-1989)

Miami Vice

Miami Vice is a unique procedural that offers more than just action and the satisfaction of watching criminals meet their downfall. It infuses a distinct sense of style and a captivating soundtrack that elevates the viewing experience. Embracing the vibrant culture of Miami, the show has everything from stylish costumes and opulence to supercars and yachts. This rich cultural backdrop enhances the show’s appeal and creates some of the aesthetically pleasing visuals. Notably, Miami Vice benefits from the expertise of its creator, Michael Mann, who saved the Miami Vice franchise with a cinematic reboot, is known for producing some of the most iconic crime movies in cinematic history, adding a touch more allure to this classic series.
Related: Why Miami Vice Was Canceled (& Will It Return?)

11 The Practice (1997-2004)

The Practice

The Practice was a standout in the legal procedural genre, offering a fresh perspective with its focus on the defense side of the law, where justice isn’t always straightforward. Starring Dylan McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle, it centered around lawyers at a distinguished defense firm, their personal lives, and complex cases. The show’s winning formula combined diverse characters, compelling cases, and the occasional light-hearted humor, creating an engaging narrative. During its eight-season run, The Practice earned numerous awards, setting itself apart with its exploration of individuals navigating the moral dilemmas of the legal world.

10 Psych (2006-2014)

Psych

This USA network’s take on the procedural features Shawn Spencer, an exceptionally observant man who is able to recall a large amount of information with incredible detail. But instead of using these skills to work for law enforcement, Shawn uses his talent to help solve cases for the Santa Barbara Police Department as a psychic detective. The series, which has a great sense of humor different from the typically serious procedurals, also features a memorable bromance between Shawn and his best friend and reluctant partner, Gus. Psych turns the genre upside down by infusing a bit of fun, along with the classic formula known and loved.
Related: Psych: Every Nickname Shawn Has For Gus

9 Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars, a fun blend of early 2000s teen drama and mystery, stands as a classic procedural featuring the titular character portrayed by Kristen Bell in the role of a resourceful private investigator. Beyond its intriguing mysteries, the show focuses on complex issues like classism and sexism, offering a contemporary perspective that resonates with a younger audience, while honoring the tradition of its older procedural counterparts. As she tackled cases, navigated the challenges of high school, and unraveled the town’s secrets, Veronica Mars created a unique narrative that hooked all ages.

8 Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)

Murder she wrote

For guaranteed months of bingeworthy content, Murder, She Wrote is a good option. Angela Lansbury plays the iconic Jessica Fletcher, a retired English teacher and mystery novelist who takes on the role of solving crimes in her quaint Maine town. While Fletcher occasionally crosses paths with the police, her pursuit of the truth and sharp attention to detail often leave them exasperated and annoyed. She epitomizes the private-eye trope, cleverly utilizing her status as an older woman frequently underestimated by men to bring justice to those the police fail to help. With Lansbury’s captivating performance, Murder, She Wrote is a timeless gem in the realm of procedural dramas.
Related: 10 Best TV Shows Like Murder She Wrote

7 Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap is a departure from the typical police procedural, offering a unique take on episodic storytelling by blending magic and sci-fi elements. The original NBC series, which deviates from the usual police-centric approach, features a physicist time-traveling to solve cases from the past. What sets it apart is its ability to creatively weave romance, humor, and social commentary into its episodes, delivering a fun, yet informative viewing experience. Although a Quantum Leap reboot happened in 2022, the original Quantum Leap remains special due to its groundbreaking approach to storytelling and its charismatic lead character, Dr. Sam Beckett, as he leaps through time to right historical wrongs.

6 NYPD Blue (1993-2005)

nypd blue cast

One of the longest-running police procedurals, let alone tv shows, NYPD Blue is one of the most groundbreaking dramas from the ‘90s. The ensemble cast follows multiple storylines in one episode showing what life is like in the 15th Precinct Detective Squad in Manhattan. The show has garnered praise for its realism and grit, not only for the daily life of police work, but also the amount of dedication it requires. It also set the tone for police procedurals to come and won numerous awards during its tenure, leaving behind a legacy that is nearly impossible to beat.

5 New York Undercover (1994-1999)

New York Undercover

New York Undercover was a groundbreaking series that paved the way for realistic police procedurals with a gritty aesthetic. With a diverse cast and relatable storylines, it left a lasting impression on the genre, influencing other shows like The Shield and The Wire. Unapologetically addressing tough social issues such as gender identity, HIV/AIDS, and drug addiction, the series provided a unique window into these critical topics, encouraging empathy. What set New York Undercover apart was its focus on the human side of law enforcement. It delved into the personal lives and struggles of its characters, portraying them as sympathetic figures and redefining the portrayal of cops on television.

4 House (2004-2012)

Hugh Laurie in House

Regarded as one of the best medical dramas that has been on television, House has raised the bar for procedural series, a domain typically reserved for crime shows. Its straightforward concept, similar to a medical Sherlock Holmes that solves mysterious cases each week, injects a healthy dose of drama and intrigue into the genre. Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of the brilliant, yet drug-addicted Dr. Gregory House elevates the series to its revered status, truly deserving its place among the best. Laurie’s performance adds a layer of complexity to the character, making the show a unique blend of classic medical drama and the curious world of a flawed genius.

3 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015)

CSI

The original series that gave way to a franchise, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a crime drama that follows a team of criminologists and detectives in Las Vegas who use their talent to solve crime. What sets them apart from other investigative shows is that viewers get to see crimes solved using scientific analysis, which is an interesting deviation from other police shows. The use of science in the crime lab to help catch criminals became a very successful concept, inspiring many other shows. The series ran for 15 seasons and established several spin-offs in different cities.

2 Law & Order (1990 – Present)

Law & Order cast

Premiering in 1990, Law & Order strategically merged the police procedural with the captivating legal drama, transforming it into a winning combination. Each episode follows a predictable, yet entertaining structure, balancing two facets of the justice system: the investigative work of the police and the courtroom proceedings. With its iconic introduction and the unmistakable “dun-dun” sound that starts each episode, Law & Order, which has been recently renewed, has made its way into the fabric of pop culture over the decades. Its influence has birthed numerous spin-offs, featured a number of guest stars, and served as a launchpad for many famous actors at the start of their careers, solidifying its status as a television legend.

1 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999 – Present)

Law & Order SVU Benson and Stabler-2

Law & Order has produced multiple spin-offs, but one that may be better than the original it’s modeled after is Law & Order: SVU. The show centers around NYPD’s Special Victims’ Unit, which focuses on sexual crimes. This classic procedural offers the same formula as the original, but punches it up a notch when it comes to the drama. Having been on the air since 1999, its longevity is a testament to its enduring quality. It has consistently tackled difficult and sensitive subjects, often ripped from the headlines, and featured numerous actors in multiple roles, which has kept this procedural TV show relevant and engaging for its audience.

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