If there’s one genre of TV drama we love to make – and watch – more than any other, it’s cop shows. Sam Brooks attempts to round up all of them.
It’s hard to go past a cop show for entertainment. The genre pretty much guarantees all the main things you want from a TV drama – namely some drama, enough intrigue to keep you wondering what’s going on for at least some amount of time (unless you’re one of those people like my mother who could predict the ending to every script within the first five minutes) and some kind of satisfying resolution at the end. Also, all the main characters seem to shame the same unfortunate first name: “Detective”.
New Zealand television makers have been taking this formula to the bank for decades now. We must produce more cop dramas per capita than any other country in the world. Every year we get some variation of the same poster – two impeccably made-up actors wearing suits and showcasing their best glower, the bottom halves of their body showing off the landscape of wherever their show is set, the title illuminated somewhere around them.
That’s to say nothing of the individual quality of these shows – many of which have won a lot of awards, and are remembered fondly – but we do make a lot of them, don’t we? Here’s as many of them as I could find, and you may see a common theme emerging.
(My definition of “cop show” here is that it had to have a police officer or detective at the centre of the story, and could not be a docu-series – so no Police 10-7 or Motorway Patrol.)
Top of the Lake
The first series of this critically acclaimed show was set in the South Island, and starred Elisabeth Moss as a detective investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl.
Ngaio Marsh Theatre
Screening way back in 1978, Ngaio Marsh Theatre was based on four murder mysteries by the titular dame herself – Vintage Murder, Died in the Wool, Colour Scheme and Opening Night. It followed inspector Roderick Alleyn (George Baker) as a pleasant Englishman solving crimes in a green and picturesque New Zealand. An early predecessor to Brokenwood Mysteries.
The first in a trilogy of telemovies starring Kevin Smith as cop-turned-private investigator John Lawless, caught between his divided loyalties and the law. These films aren’t just named after the main character, but also his morals!
Lawless: Dead Evidence
The second Lawless movie finds John Lawless working as a bouncer in a bar when former partner Jodie Keane (who is presumably as “keane” as Lawless is “lawless”) enlists him to investigate a case of an incarcerated American who might’ve been framed.
Lawless: Beyond Justice
The third and final Lawless movie finds Lawless and Keane teaming up to seek the truth behind an apparent suicide. Frankie Stevens plays a “shady nightclub/porn operator”, which is a sentence you don’t get to type very often.
My Life is Murder
Not just Lawless, but Lucy. The series, the second season which was produced here, sees the actress playing Alexa Crowe, who solves the most baffling crimes while trying to live her life, which is presumably, murder.
Detective sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) returns to work in the small town of Copham. Airing back in 1980, this was called our “first” police drama.
An interrogation of the high stakes drama of the police interrogation room, led by detective sergeant Angela Darley (Luanne Gordon) and detective constable Terry Skinner (Scott Wills).
Tony ‘Horse’ Radiscich (Sean Duffy) and Stephanie Wilson (Laurie Foel) investigate a murder in Wellington’s northern suburbs. They encounter false leads, personal demons, and pressure from the top brass. Patterns are beginning to emerge here.
Plainclothes was revolutionary at the time for the fact that detective sergeant ‘George’ Samuels was a woman, played by Rhondda Findleton! While getting on with the job she faces leadership threats, sexism, and I presume actual cop stuff.
Ihaka: Blunt Instrument
Tito Ihaka (Temuera Morrison) teams up with PR-savvy police media officer Kristy Finn (Rebecca Gibney) to solve the murder of a supermodel. But, you guessed it, they come up against the barriers of procedure and personality clashes!
The Bad Seed
Detective Marie Da Silva (Madeleine Sami) investigates a group of rich people who loosely resemble the characters depicted in Charlotte Grimshaw’s novels, The Night Book and Soon.
This 1972 series focussed on a probation service office, and the low-level criminals they had to engage with. There’s probably a reason why we haven’t had many shows based around probation officers since?
The Brokenwood Mysteries
Detective senior sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) and detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland) investigate the murders that take place in the idyllic town of Brokenwood, which has to have an extremely high murders-per-capita ratio, eight seasons in. Millions of French people love this show.
Inspired by the real life case of Wayne Haussman, young undercover cop Tony (William Brandt) gets in too deep while infiltrating a heroin ring in the underbelly of Wellington’s music and pub scene.
Percy The Policeman
Bruno Lawrence and Bill Stalker star in this series of short comedies for children. It actually never aired on TV, due to fears it cast the police in a bad light, unlike the rest of these shows which portrays the force as being full to the brim with functional individuals well-suited to their career path.
Following his wife’s suicide, troubled Auckland cop Harry (Oscar Kightley) is thrown into a murder investigation and the criminal underworld.
In the rural community of Awatahi, a 17-year-old girl has been murdered, and the six subjects share their whereabouts on the night of their death. Tandi Wright plays Detective Robin Carter, assigned to find out who did it.
Shark in the Park
Inspector Brian ‘Sharkie’ Finn heads up a unit policing inner city Wellington in the late 80s. There are no actual sharks and surprisingly few parks.
This What We Do In The Shadows spinoff follows officers Minogue and O’Leary as they hunt down strange creatures in Wellington.
Detective inspector Duggan (John Bach) attempts to solve murders amid the tranquillity of the Marlborough Sounds. It’s presumably easier than solving murders amid the tranquillity of inner city Wellington, given the other entries on this list.
The sibling rivalry between Frank (cop!) and Ben (“big smoke lawyer”) comes to a simmer when Ben inherits the local pub from their father.
Four police and customs officer, detective sergeant Danny Wilder (Ncholas Coghlan), senior customs officer Jane Durant (Zoe Naylor), detective constable Zach Wiki (Mark Ruka) and Noel Bullerton (Nick Kemplan) deal with the specific crimes that police and customs officers have to deal with.
Secret Agent Men
Fifteen-year-old secret agent Jack West (Nicko Vella) and his friends must battle the forces of evil to save the world, while finishing their homework and dealing with being teenagers at the same time. Does secret agent = cop? Was Jack West under the jurisdiction of the NZ Police? We’ll never know, as this show has been off the air for almost two decades.
The Hothouse explores “good times, bad decisions, and the line between right and wrong”. The… thin blue line, perhaps? Yep, the cast of five includes three cops, a lawyer and a cocky drug dealer.
Troubled investigator DSS Jess Savage (Kate Elliott) solves cases on Waiheke Island while also trying to piece together the death of her husband in a suspect car crash.
This telemovie is based on the real-life case of Dr. Colin Bouwer (Mark Mitchinson) who poisoned his wife Annette over the course of three months. His colleague, Andrew Bowers (Craig Hall) stumbled upon the murder. No cop so far, right?
Enter Detective Brett Roberts (Wll Hall) heads up the case in dogged pursuit (is there any other way) of the truth.
This one is also based on a true story – of Napier man Jan Molenaar (Mark Mitchinson, again) shooting at police executing a search warrant, and the 50-hour siege that ensued.
Technically a Springbok tour telemovie, but also very much one with a focus on a cop (Maria Walker), an undercover cop who infiltrated the anti-tour movement and who – shock – is dating a protestor (Ryan O’Kane).
Beyond Reasonable Doubt
Another true story! This one, from way back in the 80s, tells the story of Arthur Allan Thomas, jailed for six years for a murder he didn’t commit. Inspector Bruce Hutton (David Hemmings) is on the case, which lasted for several years.
One Lane Bridge
New Zealand’s first drama based on a rural infrastructure project. Kidding! It’s about Ariki Davis (Dominic Ona-Ariki) and Stephen Tremaine (Joel Tobeck) investigating a mysterious chain of deaths which have occured on the titular bridge near Queenstown.
In the most recent cop drama to debut on our screens, a young Irish couple vanishes from a small town, and Irish detective Theo Richter (Richard Flood) teams up with local detective Diana Huia (Acushla Tara-Kupe) to find them.
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