The Sweeney and NYPD Blue:The Best Old Cop Shows

John Thaw and Dennis Waterman in The Sweeney
John Thaw and Dennis Waterman of The Sweeney
Television serves up memorable police stories both sides of the Atlantic. The old ones are the best. Good plots, great characters and tales that were not too sentimental. The ingredients really worked. Many missed the mark, of course. There was a U.S. horror, the name escapes me, that was a musical. The detectives would burst into song, Broadway style, at crime scenes. Dancing was the order of the day, too. Talk about contaminating the crime scene! It bombed, deservedly, possibly because they couldn’t find an audience stupid enough to embrace it. I think I blocked the name out in service to good taste. 

John Thaw as Regan and Dennis Waterman as Carter of The Sweeney
The Sweeney’s Regan and Carter: And you thought American cops were violent.
But when crime shows are good, they are very, very good. I have all-time favorites from both the U.K. and the U.S.

The Sweeney first aired in 1975. Sweeney Todd aka flying squad is cockney rhyming slang, best served up with an East London accent. The Flying Squad was a branch of the Metropolitan police which targeted violent crime and armed robbery.

(An ATM machine was recently installed in the City of London that speaks in Cockney. If it had been around earlier it could have given John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, the Sweeney’s two principals, a heads-up if the villains were having a laugh as they headed down to Heathrow, to catch a getaway flight.)

I never missed an episode of the hard-drinking, swift-punching, bottle-thrusting, crazy-driving masterpiece. The villains held their own too. There was no police protocol, to speak of, the coppers just punched the villains before making the arrest, or ran them over in their souped-up sedans, before retiring to the local hostelry for a swift whisky next to a tart with a heart, always played by a classically-trained actress, fresh from the National Theatre, who seemed to revel in the opportunity to be proper dirty, as they say in London town. That was the charm that led to real police saying it was completely believable! The real Commander of the Flying Squad got 8 years on July 7 1977, on five counts of corruption.

I think it even added to the mix for me when I met John Thaw, who played the outrageous Jack Regan, to find out he was painfully shy. He couldn’t have been further fromRegan if he had tried, but then The Sweeney itself was totally out there. I don’t think even The Wire, for its day, ever takes the kind of risks The Sweeney did.

NYPD Blue starring Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz
NYPD Blue: Hardened criminals, harder cops
My other all-time favorite, from this side of the Atlantic, is NYPD Blue. It still has, for me, the best scene I have ever seen in a TV show. A woman reacting to the terrible news that her son has been found up an alley with a knife in his back, looks blankly at the bearer of the bad news. Then, she summons him over to the window and points quietly at the family car and says, “Who will wash that now? That was his job.” It was real class. I have lost count of the number of actors and actresses throwing themselves around the room, streaming tears, beating their chests, attacking the cat, stomping the dog, and so on. Real people do not tend to react to heart-stopping news like that. Actors and actresses, trying to show their “chops” do.

Imagine my pleasure when I landed my first gig on a British police television show. It was The Bill, and I was a plainclothes detective. I was in heaven. I still remember the first words I spoke on the show “He’s not here, guv!” The show had no music, and was filmed in real-time, and only from the perspective of the police or the victims, not the villains. They changed it after years of a winning formula, and it aired for the final time in August, 2010. Like a corpse in the Thames, or the East River, some things are best left untouched.

And, I admit, I do remember the name of that musical show now. It was called Cop Rock. Spawned by Steven Bochco, who was also responsible for NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, on what was obviously an off-day. We all have them. It is just that most of ours are not usually so public. Too harsh? I still can’t erase the image of Hispanic suspects singing, en masse, “We’re the local color with the coppertone skin.” That alone should have rocketed it from No. 8 to a more deserved No. 1 in TV Guide’s Top 50 worst TV shows of all time. Bochco should have watched more episodes of The Sweeney.

Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.


  1. Mack

    I just checked Netflix and for those of us in the US, series one of The Bill and series 1 & 2 of The Sweeney are available on DVD. And will be added to my queue immediately.

    Regarding US shows, Hill Street Blues holds up very well if you don’t mind leisure suits. Terrific ensemble cast. And David Franz, NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz, played two different characters, one good, one bad. David Caruso, Andy’s partner for a while, had a role as the leader of an Irish street gang (The Shamrocks?).

  2. Dirk Robertson

    There are some really good old shows out there. I didn’t even get started on Bodie and Doyle in “The Professionals.” On a topical note when Libya and Britiain fell out, big time, in the 70’s I will never forget hearing a senior Libyan diplomat saying “I hope the U.K. doesn’t send in The Professionals.” He wasn’t joking. I couldn’t blame him, it was realistic stuff!

  3. Albert Tucher

    I liked Cop Rock, and I think that’s what really doomed it. Everything I enjoy gets the axe. It probably should have been a ninety-minute standalone instead of a series.

  4. Dirk Robertson

    Maybe even as a musical on Broadway.

  5. Janet Reid

    “Cop Rock” was done by Steven Bochco, the same guy who did “Hill Street Blues.” I on ly saw one episode but I do remember thinking it was weird seeing a drug addict burst into song. I’ve never seen it offered on Netflix et al as so many old shows are now.

  6. Dirk Robertson

    Maybe it was the setting which was wrong. There are operas which are very popular about modern figures where all the cast burst into song at every opportunity. I still find it hard to believe that it was the same person responsible for such gems and, for me, such a dreadful piece of visual storytelling.

  7. Doug Davis

    As a retired cop, I think Hill Street Blues did a great job of showing the internal relationships and different personalities in a real PD. I never saw “Cop Rock”, but then again, I critiqued every cop show I watched so badly that my wife refused to watch the shows with me in the room. I’ll have to check it out on Netflix. I’m getting better!

  8. Heather Waters (redline_)

    My parents are/were cops, and they loved NYPD Blue. Had a conversation with them recently about the most realistic one on today, and it seemed to be Southland, which I recently caught up on myself-great show.

  9. Dirk Robertson

    I think when people who actually do the job, rate a show highly, it means a lot.

  10. Dirk Robertson

    Just watched an old episode of “The Sweeney” The detectives believe that “villains and computers, just don’t mix.” Those were the days…..!

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