“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.
That was the monologue that opened every single episode of Law & Order. That was the premise; straight forward and uncomplicated. For 20 years, Law & Order served as the template for how to do a crime procedural on ‘90’s TV. It wasn’t just a police procedural, but a legal drama as well. The first half of the program concerned the police investigation of a crime (usually murders.) In early seasons, viewers would follow the cops as they investigated the occasional rape, kidnapping or political corruption case. The second half of the story concerned the prosecution of the bad guys. Created by veteran TV producer Dick Wolf of Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice fame, Law & Order was the perfect animal for ‘90’s network crime comfort food.
I first encountered Law & Order in 1995 at around 2AM. I was in my dorm room at UNL, wide awake as I suffered the ravages of Non-24 Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder. I was eating cold Domino’s Pizza and channel surfing when I came across the show on A&E right at the beginning. The opening monologue hooked me.
The plot of the episode concerned an apartment building superintendent who was murdered during an apparent break-in. As the show unfolds, it becomes evident that the guy’s son killed him. The son claims that the father was abusive and he killed him in self-defense, but the cops uncover the fact that the kid is actually guilty of parental abuse.
Parental abuse!? Who the hell ever heard of that? I’m sure my mom felt as if she was being subjected to parental abuse every time my brother fired up Guns N’ Roses on his big basement speakers, but that’s a far cry from being beaten to death with a hammer, which is what the son did to the father in the story.
So the cops finally arrest the kid, but then the D.A. has to convince a jury that he was actually the abuser, not his dear dead dad.
I loved the idea that one group of characters would appear in the first half of the show, then another group would carry the ball home for the finish. So, I got hooked. Every night at 10PM, I had a date with Law & Order. It didn’t matter if I was hanging with the guys on the dorm floor, or having Lil’ Ryno tended to by a frisky cafeteria worker. Whatever the case, Law & Order was on.
L&O was quintessential network fare, which was why it was right for syndication. There was no ongoing story to follow with climactic cliffhangers to keep the viewer coming back week after week. It didn’t matter if you jumped in at season one, or season 14, or mixed the episodes up in a blender. With a few exceptions, the narrative of each episode stood alone. It was also the textbook example of a plot-driven show. The stories almost never followed the personal lives of the characters. Viewers would have to rely on random bits of dialogue or conversations to gain insights into the minds and hearts of the protagonists.
One might wonder how a show can last for 20 years and maintain its freshness. Actually, it can’t. L&O ran a creatively uneven spread. But a lack of source material wasn’t the reason. Part of the gimmick of the show was its self-proclaimed, ‘ripped from the headlines’ angle. Each case the cops and lawyers dealt with involved situations based on real events. “Extended Family,” was based on the Michael Jackson abuse charges. “Nullification,” was based on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “Apocrypha,” was a fusion of the first World Trade Center bombing and the Branch Davidian cult. There was a major three-part series in the seventh season based on the most famous news event of the ‘90’s, O. J. Simpson. And those were just the high-profile cases.
Despite what pundits on both sides of the aisle claimed, L&O had no political axe to grind. The cops and prosecutors chose targets of all political stripes and ideologies; from gun manufacturers to environmental terrorists, from pro-life murderers to anti-death penalty activists, from radical fundamentalist Muslims to radical fundamentalist Christians. The only constant political message L&O sent over its 20-year run was that extremists are bad.
More interesting than the show’s formula were the revolving door of cast changes that occurred over the 20-year life span of the series. In the debut season, stars included Michael Moriarty as crusading ADA Ben Stone, George Dzundza as Sgt. Max Greevy, Steven Hill as DA Adam Schiff and, long before he was Mr. Big on Sex and the City, and long, long before he was Julianna Margulies’s wayward politician husband on The Good Wife, a relatively young Chris Noth as Det. Mike Logan.
Dzundza left the show after the first season because he was unhappy working in NYC while his family lived in Hollywood. Actor and opera singer Paul Sorvino (of Goodfellas fame) took over as Sgt. Phil Cerreta. Sorvino wasn’t any happier and left during the show’s third season.
That’s when the legendary Jerry Orbach entered the scene as Det. Lenny Briscoe. Yup… The dad from Dirty Dancing classed up the L&O set. I’m disgusted with myself that I know this tidbit. I’d rather get caught wearing panties with my friend Ross’s face engraved on the bum than admit that I know anything about Dirty Dancing.
World-weary, wise-cracking, recovering alcoholic cop Briscoe was a calming influence on the younger, volatile Logan. According to all reports, Orbach was just as much of a soothing presence to his fellow actors on the turbulent set. Even in interviews, you can tell that he’s one hell of a nice guy.
Beginning with the fourth season, the network powers that were delivered an edict that estrogen be infused into the traditionally all-male cast. S. Epatha Merkerson took over the reins from Dann Florek’s grizzled Captain Cragen as Lt. Anita Van Buren. Long before she starred on Crossing Jordan, Jill Hennessy took up the role of Clair Kincaid, becoming the first of many women to fill the second chair in the courtroom on the ADA team. It wasn’t a coincidence that Hennessy was easy on the eyes, as were her many successors.
Florek was lucky. Six years after he was unceremoniously let go from the Mother Ship in favor of identity politics, he was hired to play the same character of Don Cragen on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Richard Brooks, who played Paul Robinett, the original series’ first and only African-American ADA, was not so fortunate. He was let go at the same time as Florek, but only reappeared later on the Mother Ship in occasional guest spots. Neither of the characters were given a proper on-screen send-off.
On the other side of the aisle, Michael Moriarty reportedly was no picnic to work with. He left the series at the conclusion of the show’s fourth season after a very public dispute with real life Attorney General Janet Reno and First Lady Tipper Gore over censorship of violence on TV. The character of Ben Stone resigned in a fit of guilt after one of his witnesses in a criminal trial was killed by the Russian mob.
Sidebar: Moriarty may be a nut, but he was right about Reno. Law & Order had very little on-screen violence. The subject matter could often be heavy with its hot button socio-political themes, but even by ‘90’s network standards, the show was not bloody or gratuitous by any stretch.
In season five, The Mother Ship delivered another major upgrade in the person of Sam Waterston as ADA Jack McCoy. Ben Stone had been rooted in righteousness and a puritan’s love of the law, but Jack McCoy was a different animal who played the game primarily to win. His methods were often more extralegal and ruthless than those of his predecessor. He also had a very Clintonesque habit of bedding down his female assistants; a fact that came back to bite him later more than once.
Many long-time fans of the series would agree that the show’s fifth season represented the best cast mix of the entire 20-year run; Briscoe, Logan, Van Buren, McCoy, Kincaid and Schiff. But, as the L&O gods would often decree every season or two, chemistry did not insure endurance.
At the end of season five, Chris Noth demanded a salary bump during his contract renewal negotiation. Wolf refused, so Logan was history. In the most colorful exit from the series, Logan punched a homophobic politician in the face during a clash with an angry mob.
Sidebar: Thanks largely to the burgeoning internet, the popularity of Mike Logan’s character endured through reruns and fan fiction. To that end, Logan received a TV movie three years after his departure. Its title was, Exiled: A Law & Order Movie. Six years after that, he began a semi-regular stint on Law & Order: Criminal Intent after Vincent D’Onofrio kept having nervous breakdowns over Bush, the Iraq War, Dick Cheney, etc. Logan lasted for two seasons before he quit the force in disgust; a very Loganesque thing to do.
After his first series partner was ejected from the Mother Ship, Briscoe received a downgrade in the personage of Benjamin Bratt as Renaldo ‘Rey’ Curtis. The character was too straight-laced and vanilla to be interesting. Meanwhile, Hennessy left the role as Jack McCoy’s partner and romantic interest in the sixth season climax when Clair was killed by a drunk driver in a car accident.
Sidebar: Clair’s fate was eventually addressed in the eighth season episode, “Under the Influence,” when McCoy goes overboard in the prosecution of a drunk driver.
And so it continued. They eye candy portion of the entertainment was filled over the next 14 seasons by the likes of Carey Lowell, Angie Harmon )pre-Rizzoli and Isles), Elizabeth Rohm, Annie Parisse and Alana de la Garza. Bratt left the series after the ninth season and enjoyed a fling with Julia Roberts and a moderately successful movie career. Briscoe got an upgrade in the form of Jesse L. Martin as Det. Ed Green. Green wasn’t quite as cool as Logan, but a latent gambling addiction and better street smarts made him more entertaining than Curtis.
Steven Hill, the show’s most veteran actor, lasted 10 seasons before he called it quits. He was replaced by Dianne Wiest as D.A. Nora Lewin. She lasted two seasons. Then, producers made their biggest casting blunder. They took the series title too seriously and pandered to the right. In the wake of the election of George W. Bush, as well as 9/11, they decided that the show needed an injection of good ol’ southern conservatism. It came in the form of Fred Dalton Thompson as D.A. Arthur Branch. You remember the late Fred Thompson? He ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008. That’s actually why the actor left the show after the 17th season. Branch premiered in the 13th season and Thompson stuck out like a Viagra trip gone wrong. Branch’s folksy-drenched dialogue seemed as if it had been penned by Colonel Potter or Matlock! He was not at all believable as a New York City district attorney. Angie Harmon’s character of Abbey ‘hang ’em high’ Carmichael was a believable conservative character. Branch was merely a walking cliché.
In another major loss for the show, Briscoe retired at the end of the 14th season. Jerry Orbach announced that he had been battling cancer for years shortly after he exited the show. In December of 2014, Jerry Orbach passed away, and the entire L&O universe took a moment of silence and shed a tear. He was replaced in season 15 by Dennis Farina (of Crime Story fame) as Joe Fontana, but it was another downgrade. No one could fill Briscoe’s shoes.
No series can last 20 years and maintain its peak. When Law & Order: SVU came along in 1999, it seemed that the Mother Ship took a hit in quality. The reasons were obvious. The best writers and producers from the Mother Ship were transferred to what would prove to be the first of five spin-offs in a budding franchise. For those of us who remained loyal to Big Mama, the results were telling. Briscoe’s wisecracks got lamer. The dialogue lost much of its East Coast zing. The plots, which had always stripped true crime for parts, became more transparent in the theft of their source material.
I quit watching regularly in favor of more complex fare such as 24, The Sopranos, The Shield and Deadwood. Yet, I would often have dinner at Audra’s apartment. She would make beef stroganoff or parmesan chicken and we would marathon a few L&O reruns on TNT. Audra always got annoyed with me for eating all of her Oreos. Thank God she didn’t prosecute me for theft.
This tradition lasted until 2007, when I left Nebraska for Denver. But every May, I would wait to hear that the original series had been canceled. Every May, it survived.
In the show’s 18th season, the Mother Ship was rejuvenated. Jack McCoy was promoted to interim D.A. in the wake of Branch’s departure. Linus Roache came on board as ADA Michael Cutter, with de la Garza continuing as Connie Rubirosa. The dynamic between McCoy, Cutter and Rubirosa was a nice reset for the series, with McCoy flip-flopping and assuming the role as the curmudgeonly mentor/authority figure and Cutter as the sometimes rebellious assistant. Bowing to pressure from serialized competitors, writers infused the 19th season with political intrigue as McCoy ran for a full term as D.A. and also ran afoul of the governor.
On the cop side, Jeremy Sisto became Ed Green’s ex-military partner, Cyrus Lupo. Their bond lasted for 14 episodes, until Green became the suspect in a murder and eventually quit the force after clearing himself. Anthony Anderson played an Internal Affairs investigator who dogged Green at first, but ultimately, transferred to the precinct in the wake of Green’s departure and fell in as Lupo’s partner.
Sidebar: Jesse Martin left the show amicably in order to revive his theater career. Did you guys know that theater is a big thing in New York City? I mean… Besides Hamilton.
And that’s how the series stood for its final two seasons. The cast was fresh, had good chemistry and brought back some of the old spark from the glory days of season five.
Reportedly, NBC gave the Mother Ship the axe in favor of Law & Order: L.A. Three spin-offs weren’t enough, and a sacrifice had to be made. After all, the CSI franchise was giving NBC quite the competition. Wolf tried to convince TNT to take the series, but they refused. So, Law & Order tied Gunsmoke as the longest running scripted dramatic series to that date. There was no grand finale. But for a subplot involving Van Buren’s cancer diagnosis, no loose ends were tied up neatly or left dangling. The show went out the way it came in, with McCoy and company battling the NYC teachers’ union to catch a murderer. Some villains never change.
Sidebar: When it was all said and done, the Mother Ship spawned five spin-offs. They were, in order of appearance:
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – 1999-Present
Law & Order: Criminal Intent – 2001-2011
Law & Order: Trial by Jury – 2005
Law & Order: L.A. – 2010-2011
Law & Order: True Crime – 2017
Law & Order: Organized Crime
Law & Order: Hate Crimes
I’m not making that up.
Sometime before Thanksgiving, I ran out of books to read and needed something to watch with dinner, so I just randomly played, “Conspiracy,” (season 3) in the name of all the ‘election fraud’ jugheads out there. I’ve been binging ever since. The beauty of it is that I could binge from now until June when the pandemic will be over and I’ll never watch the same episode twice.
Despite its formulaic nature, I really enjoy this series. Some of the plots are standard cookie-cutter procedural fare. The better stories are those with some legal, political or philosophical quandary at the center. Many of them hold up very well today, despite the fact that the final episode is 10 years old.
Out of the 456 episodes, I have compiled my top 10 favorite stories.
You will notice two things:
One is that none of the episodes that make my list come from past the seventh season.
The other is that, despite the minimal amount of character arcs in this series, the episodes that tend to attract hard-core fans like myself always centered around some personal aspect of one of the characters.
So, here we go.
10. “Aftershock”: (Season 6)
This was the only experimental episode of the entire series that broke format. It proved to be as controversial as the Fly episode of Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano’s infamous black screen.
A man is executed by lethal injection for raping a woman and beating her to death with a tire iron. Briscoe, Curtis, McCoy and Kincaid make the mistake of watching it. The execution has a profound impact on all four of our heroes. Briscoe has lunch with his estranged daughter, then falls off the wagon after years in recovery. Curtis picks up Jennifer Garner in the park and has an affair. McCoy goes to a bar, gets drunk and reminisces about his abusive father. Kincaid agonizes over the morality of the death penalty with her father.
The episode’s shocking climax occurs when Clair goes to the bar to pick up a drunken McCoy, who has already left. She gives Briscoe a ride home instead and is killed in a car accident.
9. “Coma”: (Season 5)
Larry Miller is great at playing bad guys. Maybe you remember him from Patch Adams. In this one, he plays a husband who may or may not have shot his wife and made it look like a carjacking. While the wife hovers between life and death in a coma, McCoy must decide whether or not to order a risky operation that will either kill her or save her life.
8. “Indifference”: (Season 1)
Even for jaded viewers of crime shows, nothing makes your skin crawl like child abuse and murder. This one features an upper class family with a monstrous father who sexually and physically abuses his family. When dad gets done with the kids, mom starts in. It hits the fan when the little girl doesn’t wake up from Kindergarten nap time.
Note: Based on the Lisa Steinberg case.
7. “House Council”: (Season 5)
It starts as an investigation into the murder of a juror who may have been bribed while deliberating over the case of a mafia don. Things get personal for McCoy when his old college buddy turns out to be a mob lawyer. This story helps explain McCoy’s win-at-all-cost mindset.
6. “Bad Faith”: (Season 5)
The first of two episodes in this list to center around Mike Logan. When a cop buddy of Logan’s commits suicide, the trail leads to the dark side of Logan’s childhood when he must confront a pedophile priest.
5. “Corruption”: (Season 7)
Curtis gets suspicious after a questionable shooting by a shady cop, who also happens to be a friend of Briscoe’s. When McCoy goes after the crooked cop, he accuses Briscoe of being dirty in order to save himself from a head-hunting anti-corruption task force.
4. “Mad Dog”: (Season 7)
It’s the classic L&O scenario of individual civil rights versus the protection of society. McCoy pushes the envelope when he pursues a post-Rocky Burt Young as a serial rapist and murderer who is released on parole after the body of a young girl is found in her basement.
3. “Helpless”: (Season 3)
This is one of those episodes that was shocking on the Mother Ship, but is just run-of-the-mill on SVU. Carolyn McCormick had a recurring role throughout the series as police psychologist Elizabeth Olivet. In this one, she goes from consultant to victim when she is raped by her gynecologist. It’s particularly disturbing, because Olivet captures the rape on tape.
Note: The actor who plays the sadistic OBGYN is Paul Hect. Many of us blind folks know him as the narrator of audio books. Many old-time radio fans will remember him from the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Carolyn McCormick is best known to us blind folks as the lady who narrated the audio book versions of The Hunger Games trilogy.
2. “Confession”: (Season 2)
The second Logan-centric episode. Mike’s first partner Greevy is due to testify in a racketeering case when he is shot down in the driveway of his home in front of his family. Does Logan eventually catch the shooter? Of course. He even extracts a confession from the killer. Problem is, he does it at gunpoint, which makes the confession inadmissible at trial, much to Stone’s fury.
Note: There’s a reason that Logan is the favorite junior partner of the series. The scene when Logan hears the screams of Greevy’s wife over the phone as she witnesses Max’s murder, punctuated by Logan screaming, “MARIE!!! MARIE!!!” have never been matched for dramatic value.
1. “Sanctuary”: (Season 4)
If you had to pick one episode that encapsulates all the good things about this series, this one is it.
It starts with a young black boy being killed in a hit-and-run. The driver is a wealthy Jewish man who is subsequently given a slap on the wrist and sent home. Race riots then consume the city, resulting in an innocent white man being dragged from his car and beaten to death. The ensuing trial is fraught with racial tensions as the defense lawyer offers a justification based on mob psychology.
Note: This was one of Ben Stone’s final episodes and features another clash with his best nemesis, Public Defender Shambala Green (Lorraine Toussaint.) It was based on the Rodney King riots and the killing of a truck driver by Reginald Denny.
And, that does it. This entry was about as long as the series. HEY! I forgot about Milena Govich! Does that speak more to my bad memory, or her forgettable character?
What? You guys want me to talk about Elizabeth Rohm’s exit line, “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” No way! I’d rather break out the webcam and model the Ross panties.