Good Cop, Bad Cop and Everything in Between

As Warren Brown plays a police officer at an ethical crossroads in a new BBC1 drama, we profile TV policemen who play by the rules, bend them or simply ignore them altogether


It used to be the case that TV policemen were on the side of the angels. Men like Dixon of Dock Green and Fabian of the Yard always knew the difference between right and wrong and kept us safe in our beds at night. How things have changed. Tonight sees the start of Good Cop, a new four-part drama in which Warren Brown plays Jean Paul Rocksavage, a young officer who finds himself increasingly desirous for a different kind of justice following a vicious attack on a colleague. But he’s not the only small-screen crime-solver to allow corruption to enter their souls. We take you on a journey from Dixon to Dexter



George Dixon (Dixon of Dock Green)

PC George Dixon remained a reassuring and paternalistic presence on the BBC for 21 years, his “evening all” greeting and homilies about the dangers criminal activity evoking a cosy image of the local bobby as community protector. Eventually, this romanticised view of law enforcement was dented by the grittiness of Z-Cars and swept away entirely by The Sweeney’s hard men but, at the peak of its popularity, Dixon of Dock Green attracted a regular audience of 14 million.


Joe Friday (Dragnet)

No liberties would be taken while Sgt Joe Friday was on the case. Here was a cop solely interested in the procedure of crime investigation, although trivia fans should note that the show’s “just the facts, ma’am” catchphrase was never actually uttered on-screen. But if you wanted by-the-book policing, then Friday was your guy – Dragnet’s remit was to capture the drudgery of real-life police work as well as its heroism.


Tom Barnaby (Midsomer Murders)

A figure of calm stolidity in a county filled with homicidal lunatics, DCI Tom Barnaby kept a cool head over 81 murder mysteries. The only liberty Barnaby ever took was to eat too many slices of cake – an indulgence that once got him stoned out of his mind after consuming a bun laced with hash. But usually, this was a man who wouldn’t break a sweat, never mind break a rule: a philosophy shared by his successor and cousin John Barnaby. 



Jack Frost (A Touch of Frost)

It’s fair to say that Frost was keener on catching murderers than he was on police procedure. Slovenly, sarcastic and with an office that was a fire hazard of unfiled paperwork, Denton’s DI often exasperated his bureaucratically minded boss Supt Mullett by not sticking to regulations. But you couldn’t argue with Frost’s clear-up rate or the George Cross for bravery that he kept in his desk drawer.


Jack Regan (The Sweeney)

The Flying Squad’s chief thief-taker saw red tape as something to be snipped in order to get a result. Evidence would be fabricated and private properties illegally entered, although Regan drew the line at cheating purely for personal advancement. The Sweeney’s arrival in 1975 also ushered in a wave of tough nuts who hit first and asked questions later (Target, The Professionals) before becoming the subject of nostalgic parody three decades later in Life on Mars.


John Luther (Luther)

Obsessive, dangerous John Luther long ago threw the rulebook across the room (along with his telephone, desk and other assorted inanimate objects) in his pursuit of psychopaths. When we first meet him, he’s on suspension and arguably that’s where he should have stayed. He may have the intellect of Columbo and Sherlock Holmes, but where Luther goes, tragedy inevitably follows. It doesn’t help that his pally with nutjob murderess Alice Morgan either.


Tony Gates (Line of Duty)

Anti-hero Gates was the most morally complex screen cop for many a year – less an irredeemably crooked officer, more an arrogant and flawed soul led astray by temptation that eventually consumed him. The twist in the tale was that Gates wasn’t the most rotten apple in his squad, but his downfall became inevitable after a catalogue of misjudgements were brought to light by tenacious anti-corruption officer Arnott.



Peter Boyd (Waking the Dead)

With bully boy Boyd, it was hard to know who to feel most sorry for: the Cold Case colleagues he routinely yelled at or the suspects he physically assaulted during interrogation. Anger-management classes were frequently referenced but they didn’t seem to do much good, as Boyd was infamous for forcing confessions through dubious means – on one occasion he kept his foot on a villain’s throat, on another he held a plastic bag over a woman’s head. 


Vic Mackey (The Shield)

If Dragnet’s Joe Friday was ‘good cop’, then The Shield’s Vic Mackey was definitely ‘bad cop’ – a sworn upholder of the law who regularly broke it for professional and personal gain. Over seven seasons, he extorted money from drug dealers, laid into suspects and even committed murder. But Mackey wasn’t allowed to evade exposure forever: by the time the final episode aired, his crimes had been revealed, leading to his being ostracized by co-workers.


Dexter Morgan (Dexter)


Miami Metro Police Department’s blood spatter pattern analyst is the ultimate example of blurred morality: a law enforcer who moonlights as a serial killer. But Dexter’s code of honour dictates that he can only kill those who are guilty of murder. It’s a philosophy that’s provided him with six seasons’ worth of bad guys to dispatch, although the most recent cliffhanger found sister Deb catching him in the act. We await to see whether the homicidal forensics expert can get away with his crimes.