The TV streaming market is as packed and competitive for subscribers’ dollars as it’s ever been, and while HBO Max’s future is shaky given the drama surrounding the recent Warner Bros. Discovery merger, the platform is still home to some of the highest-quality serialized content.
The overall HBO brand has built a stellar reputation in the TV industry for top-tier original programming, but it’s particularly well known (aside from Game of Thrones) for its various crime dramas. It makes sense considering how seamlessly that genre meshes with limited or long-form storytelling. And for that, HBO Max has one of the most studded collections of shows ranging from exciting Max originals like this year’s Tokyo Vice to the premium cabler’s True Detective.
One of the most exciting original TV shows in general, regardless of genre or streaming service, is Tokyo Vice. The series is a dramatized version of journalist Jake Adelstein’s book of the same name, chronicling his exploration of Tokyo’s seedy criminal underworld as Japan’s first foreign-born reporter. Led by Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe, Tokyo Vice is an enticing noir crime drama featuring a web of characters each with unique motivations that entangle them in the wider Yakuza-focused conflict.
The Japanese side of the cast, with particular plaudits to Watanabe and Shô Kasamatsu’s characters, is the series’ biggest highlight as they add an impressive level of depth and emotional investment to the story. Season 2 of Tokyo Vice is currently in development, and it’s already demonstrated great potential for the long haul.
The anthology crime-drama series True Detective remains one of HBO’s most engrossing original series, even if season 2 saw a dip in quality. It’s currently bookended with two strong outings, however, with the Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson dynamic of season 1 remaining still standing as the standard to meet.
True Detective gets darkly psychological, immersing audiences in thoroughly gripping detective tales that do well to tug on the mind. Season 3’s duo of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff was a solid endeavor in its own right, as their story becomes an intriguing parallel of a haunting past and revelatory present, complemented by commentary on real-world themes. Season 4 of True Detective is currently in development, subtitled Night Country, starring Jodie Foster and Kali Reis.
One of the earlier showcases of HBO’s acclaimed originals, The Wire was a deeply investing police procedural that was relentless in its real-world portrayals. The series has received retrospective acclaim after going somewhat under the radar during its original run, with major praise going to its realistic depiction of the corruption and bureaucratic red tape in police work and city politics, as well as the brutal struggle of city life in neglected neighborhoods.
The Wire follows a cast of officers navigating this delicate and grim side of the world, with each of its five seasons tackling a different aspect of the city; illegal drug trade, porting system, city government, school system, and print news media. With how impressively it handled representation and sociopolitical issues, it was perhaps a show ahead of its time and as a result, it’s just as relevant and absorbing as ever.
Last year’s Emmy-winning Mare of Easttown was an excellent limited series filled with soulful and gut-wrenching performances. Kate Winslet is the obvious standout even in such a well-rounded show, as she plays a convincingly troubled detective in an otherwise quiet town.
Mare of Easttown follows the titular police detective as she sees her life gradually fall apart between struggling with a year-long missing person case, an ongoing murder investigation, and family turmoil. Using such a small-scale setting where everyone seems to know everybody further sells the intimate nature of its 7-episode-long story, and it makes its emotional moments and poignant social commentary feel that much more impactful.
An HBO classic, The Sopranos is a top-tier crime-drama series for anyone that’s into Martin Scorsese-style mobster movies. Starring the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, the series follows the exploits of the mob family in their grisly corner of the organized crime world in New Jersey.
The Sopranos is cleverly framed, with the narrative being told generally through Tony’s psychiatric sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi as he discovers the concept of mental health. Just as creative as its framing device is the premise of the show itself, as it essentially functions as a deconstruction of the glamorously bloody look into mobster life that the likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola give. Rather, it just shows the depressing — and bloody — side of it.
In a more unconventional, but no less engaging case, Barry is a great demonstration of how flexible crime dramas can be as well as Bill Hader’s acting chops. Hader plays the titular and depressed entry-level hitman who finds a passion and drive for social interaction after joining an acting class.
Barry is a tasteful balance of character-driven crime drama with dark humor, which is what helps get the absolute best out of the former Saturday Night Live cast member. It’s a refreshing dose of originality for crime shows and TV in general, supplemented by sincere writing. The show earned consistently high praise throughout its three seasons so far, even as its most recent endeavor veered farther into the drama. Season 4 is currently in development with eight more episodes devoted to chronicling Barry’s journey.
The network has had more than one superb crime drama limited series within the last year or so, this time with We Own This City as it tells a bleak police procedural story based on reporter Justin Fenton’s book of the same name. We Own This City specifically chronicles the corruption, rise, and fall of the Gun Trace Task Force of the Baltimore Police Department.
It mainly centers on Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, played by Jon Bernthal (aka the MCU’s Punisher), who was one of the eight police officers convicted of multiple corruption charges in 2018 and 2019. Bernthal’s performance was especially acclaimed, with the show overall being well-received for tastefully taking cues from The Wire in its critical depiction of the corruption surrounding law enforcement.
Period pieces are another element that fits well with crime dramas, whether it’s through the lens of the Italian mafia like Scorsese’s Goodfellas or the aforementioned likes of We Own This City. In this case, Boardwalk Empire uses the period piece drama angle to blend history with fiction by setting itself against the backdrop of the 1920s-1930s era of Prohibition.
It features an impressive ensemble cast headlined by Steve Buscemi, who plays the fictional corrupt Atlantic County treasurer Nucky Thompson. As expected, the plot revolves around the bootleg liquor trade in Atlantic City during Prohibition’s height and waning days. On top of Buscemi’s commanding lead performance, Boardwalk Empire was critically acclaimed for its stylish visual flair and cocktail of fictional and historical aspects.
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