'Law & Order': Why it was important, and why you weren't watching it

Now that the cancellation of Law & Order has been announced, I can say what I’ve been wanting to write for the past 24 hours: Everyone who’s now talking about how much the show will be missed… where were ya when it counted?

Law & Order has been having a very good season. The frequent fireworks between Sam Waterston and his ADAs played by Linus Roache and Alana de la Garza were colorful sparklers. The series’ rare private-life subplot — the cancer diagnosis received by S. Epatha Merkeson’s Lt. Van Buren — has been handled with both muted emotion and an unsentimental realism rare for TV.

But the fact that I even have to remind you of who’s doing what on the current show points to Law & Order‘s relative irrelevance to many people, and to the media. I don’t see Roache or de la Garza popping up on many of those “TV’s hottest hotties!” lists, and magazines and newspapers have missed out on good excuses to do lengthy career profiles of Waterston or Merkerson because… well, because by today’s media standards, they’re not Twitter-trending topics of interest.

It’s almost hard to believe now, in this time of twisting narratives in everything from Lost to Damages, that when it premiered in 1990, Law & Order‘s premise was considered novel — even a bit radical. Dividing an hour-long drama into two halves, one for the police procedural, and the last 30 minutes for the courtroom drama? How schizophrenic, some said. Skeptics jeered that NBC might lose viewers for one half or the other, if their favorite characters didn’t remain onscreen for the full 60 minutes.

But the public really liked the format, which was a new take combining the cop and lawyer genres. The show maintained a broad audience for a long time, in part because it had an age- and ethnic-diverse cast. People loved the stern-uncle approach of Steven Hill’s D.A. Adam Schiff, and producer Dick Wolf maintained a revolving door of attractive young women of varying degrees of charm, including Jill Hennessey, Carrie Lowell, Angie Harmon, and Elisabeth Rohm. The men were also uneven wild-cards: Michael Moriarty was an entertainingly mannered eccentric years before Vincent D’Onofrio took over that territory on Criminal Intent, and some folks never did cotton to the folksy mumbling of Fred Thompson when he replaced Steven Hill and Diane Wiest as D.A.

L&O prided itself on ripped-from-the-headlines plots, trading on the controversies of the day. But at the same time, it was also comfort-television: You knew most cases would be wrapped up within the hour, you knew that even if the prosecution lost, there’d be a few words of bittersweet wisdom to be gleaned from Hill or Waterston just before the fade-out.

The show’s New York location-shooting gave it a distinctive look: hazy gray, low-budget, old Manhattan architecture. The series also provided work for countless New York-based actors whose true vocation was the stage, and who used their L&O day-player paychecks to continue pursuing their Broadway dreams. (Ben Shenkman, Jack Gilpin, Kate Burton, Elaine Stritch, Frances Sternhagen, and Mary Beth Hurt were among the many to sit on the witness stand, or wear judge’s robes, or sit behind the battered metal desk in the interrogation room.)

In the history of TV, Law & Order served as a bridge between the first generations of cop and law shows (Dragnet; The Defenders) and the new breed of such shows (NYPD Blue; Homicide: Life on the Streets; The Practice). It was a sturdy bridge, even when its workers left and were replaced. Behind the scenes, Wolf was a pioneer in the idea that it was the concept, not the stars, that people tuned in to see. As soon as a featured actor made noise about money or a bigger role, he or she could find themselves disappeared quicker than a General Pinochet protester.

Law & Order was never “cool.” It was as soothing as the lousy puns and hangdog sincerity of the late Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe. (Although Chris Noth and Jesse L. Martin both lent their cool-cat moodinesses to the show for a time.) In recent years, the more hyperbolic Special Victims Unit got the bigger ratings and more attention. But Law & Order made a case for the decency — and flaws — of the justice system as well as any work of popular culture, and gave us a lot of fine acting in the bargain.

You don’t know what you were missing. The continued quality of the show is more important than the who-really-cares feat of beating Gunsmoke‘s 20-year record. Then again, after the final new episodes air on May 24, it’ll never be too late to start watching the reruns, to find a home for your burst of nostalgia.

Follow: @kentucker

For more: It’s official: NBC cancels ‘Law & Order’

Comments (214 total) Add your comment
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  • nnboyko

    I’ve watched it faithfully for 20 years. Followed it all over the schedule and this season watched it Friday’s at eight and Mondays at ten. I am so angry with NBC at this point. They’ve used Law and Order to plug up the holes in their schedules and moved it around relentlessly. Great show, and it will always be on reruns, but will be missed in prime time with new shows that are ripped from the constantly occuring headlines. Feel like I lost a friend. Boy, NBC has really had a ‘great’ year. First Leno and Conan and now Law & Order. What’s next?

    • kellybelly

      NBC – Network Butchering Consistently

      • Stan

        NBC Nothing But Crap

      • Jackie Venice

        Kelly, I love that.

      • Dan

        Why isn’t NBC advertising next weeks Law and Order for what it really is? SEASON FINALE would mean its coming back in the fall, correct? As far as I know from reading things here on EW, this is a SERIES FINALE next Monday… no new episodes after this. Does NBC think most of the viewers don’t KNOW they’ve canceled this beloved favorite? I HATE false advertising :(

    • mike

      The show had an extremely long run. Don’t get mad at NBC for plugging their gaps. What else could they do? It ain’t easy finding a great show nowadays. If it was, we wouldn’t be bombarded with these trashy reality shows.

      • Michael H.

        What else could they do? They could have kept L&O instead of greenlighting L&O:Los Angeles.

    • Sam

      I have been a fan and watched since day one and i’m to put out that NBC is doing away with L&O but going to do a show L&OLA what the heck is wrong with them. Haven’t they heard of ” If it’s not broke don’t try to fix it!”. It’s hard to find a program on TV that has such a strong talented cast of actors that know what they are doing and can keep you in a story line until the very end. I just can’t imagine passion like that coming out of LA maybe i’ll be proven wrong.

      NBC could have kept this show it they wanted to.

      As for the comment:
      Now that the cancellation of Law & Order has been announced, I can say what I’ve been wanting to write for the past 24 hours: Everyone who’s now talking about how much the show will be missed… where were ya when it counted?

      They were tracking it down since NBC kept moving the time slot. Thank goodness for the DVR.

    • Adrianna

      Well said. I keep waiting to hear that the network has changed it mind or that USA will pick it up. I have been a loyal viewer, and still record the episodes even when I remember the storylines and character actors. Lenny, Schiff, McCoy — they were/are welcome characters on a constant travel schedules. The city/hotel would change, but I could always find episodes. Losing Goren and Eames on USA was bad enough, this cancellation was painful. With so much garbage reality tv, L&O and L&O criminal intent were something to set the dvr to enjoy. thanks to the whole cast for such a long run — appreciated far more than they will ever know.

  • Lori

    L&O will be missed. It was exciting to watch again for the past two years. I think the current crop of actors reenergized the show. Maybe USA will pick it up?

    • Brandi

      I hope USA picks it up too. Law and Order is a great show and I hope the spin offs do not get canx’d as well!

    • Meredith44

      I had watched since the first episodes, but didn’t watch as faithfully when Serena was ADA, and stopped when Jerry Orbach died. I “rediscovered” it two years ago and agree that it became exciting to watch again. I really liked the current combination of characters and am sad that it will be no more. Sigh…

  • Lesa

    I concur Ken. This season was as good as ever, and L&O has always been one of my favorite TV shows.

    • LOL

      Never knowing when it was on (tanks fer nuttin’ NBC) had something to do with it.

      • Kim

        Exactly! I love the show, but after a while it became easier to find the myriad reruns and I often didn’t even know whether I was watching a new one or not.

      • Pat Hughes

        I have been watching it – when and where I could find it. Although I love all the Law and Order shows, this one is my favorite. I even had it set up to automatically tape all new episodes on DVR, but somehow even my cable company seemed to have a hard time finding them at times.

      • mike

        Ever heard of a TV Guide? If you really loved the show, you would find it in the listings. Don’t act like this is the first time a network switched the schedule on your favorite show.

      • Steve

        Thanks can go to Jay Leno… for years I could find L&O Wednesdays at 10pm. Haven’t watched it since it moved off that time.

    • LAJackie

      I really enjoy L&O and I’m upset that it has been cancelled. I was worried when Sam Waterston became the DA because I thought he wouldn’t be seen so much and he was my favourite character but they continued to integrate him into the stories. I’m severely disappointed in NBC (so what else is new?) that they have decided to cancel the show.

      • nick

        Sam was at his best when he was arguing a case. He might as well have left the show.

    • ipfletch

      This really HAS been a terrific season- Sisto & Anderson were great adds, but Linus Roache is the MVP. What a waste- one more season would’ve killed NBC?

  • Anne

    I actually think the reruns had a HUGE impact on the popularity of first-run episodes. If you want your L&O Original fix, you can get it at nearly any point of any day. It’s ALL OVER the place. So, when faced with the issue of whether to watch a first-run ep or an ep of a competing show, it was easy to decide against L&O. Market saturation kills a product.

    • wolverine

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I LOVE this show, but I only ever watch the reruns. So sad it’s over. Quality writing, great characters, excellent acting. I would say this show has been as important to TV as the Simpsons…so sad to see a long-lasting show go. This is the end of an era.

  • JMB

    I will really miss this show, especially since its latest renaissance has been so good.

  • MyMy

    I have watched the show continuously, and will miss it greatly.

  • bud aamold

    nobody asked us if we were watching

    • MiaS

      Yeah, I am with Bud! I want a Nielsen box!

      • Sue1

        Me too! Then maybe I won’t have to keep saying goodbye to shows I like.

  • Alex

    I rarely agree with you Ken but this was a very touching tribute you wrote here – though I did like Arthur Branch. This 20 something year old was inspired to go to law school b/c of this show. I think it is beyond sad it won’t be picked up. As for watching it, I rarely watch NBC so I didn’t even know half way through the season L&O was on Mondays.

    • California

      I started watching this show as a kid and I start my first year of law school this fall. And Ken, I watch, and record, L&O every Monday night (and I did it on Friday night too!)

    • Kiki

      I went to law school because of Jack McCoy. I graduate tomorrow! L&O will be missed!

      • strawberry lumps

        good to know i’m not alone… i’m a law major and going to go to law school because of Jack too

      • Deb

        L&O will be greatly missed. And congrats to you, Kiki. Had to smile when I saw your name…my daughter shares it with you.

    • Shana

      I started watching as a kid too, probably the best tv show I have ever watched. The show is the same age as I am and I am going to miss it very much. :(

  • jth

    It’s time to go. It was a great show when they actually focused on the law. It became tired when they changed the focus to a left-wing political agenda and to the personal dramas of the characters.

  • Mavis

    Another thing that killed this show was how it hoped around the NBC lineup over the last couple of years. It had been a staple at Wednesday at 10pm (I think) for years and then it started to move around and it was hard to find. I also agree with Anne that the over-saturation killed the show too. And if you did miss an episode it would be found on TNT at some point in the near future. I recently re-discovered the current season and it is very good. And a note to Ken: Funny how you mentioned attractive ADAs with varying degrees of charm and mention Elizabeth Rohm, who in fact, had no charm. . .

  • nmrabbit

    Why you ask, we have quit watching a program that had excellant acting and story lines? One WORD!!NBC had the writers go to far with their liberal views. Instead of the criminal being at fault –It was always somebody else’s fault;that the bad guys became bad guys. Crap on NBC!

    • Kim

      I am one of those who stopped watching. A 20 year vet, I have been pleased at how the show has survived as the cast changed. I was real impressed with the latest cast set as they entered in the last few years. I was looking forward to another several years of a revitalized L&O with solid actors and a broader story line.

      The political issues of the day were often in the background but not so heay handed as to affect the story line or mar the story flow. But in the last two years and this year especially, the politics was no longer in the background… And I was being preached at …. again… And I quit watching.

      NBC would have been smart to get some viewer input as their ratings fell over the last fews as to why people were dropping away.

      L&O could have made it another 10 years as a crime story… It was not a great platform to share ones political agenda…

      • CAReader

        My thoughts as well, Kim. While the show always touched on political and current event headlines, and handled it well, for the last several years I felt like it was particularly heavy-handed and preachy, often implying that only one political perspective was the correct one. After being a faithful fan for years, I deleted it from my season pass manager as well.

      • Blackbird

        I agree Kim, Death by Political Correctness!

      • June

        Totally agree, Kim. Long time viewer of all L/O’s until a couple years ago when the writers chose to offend my political beliefs. They stepped into a different arena when they became a voice for the seriously leaning left.

    • erin

      It’s “too,” not “to”. And no, I’m not the grammar police. I wouldn’t have said anything if you didn’t sound like a right-wing wacko with your “liberal views” and all that nonsense.

      • Blackbird

        Is there really any difference between being a right wing wacko or a liberal wacko? You, of course, sound like there’s only one side to EVERYTHING!

    • Ben Hurt

      Silly, silly, immature comment from someone who thinks every problem is the world is dues to some “liberal.” Grow up. We have enormous problems because of this type of bias, trying to categorize just as previous generations did about blacks, Mexicans, etc. And guess what: as one who taught school for almost 40 years, my best students would probably be what you would call liberal. The kids from the most conversative homes and attitudes were SLOW. Maybe that’s your problem?

      • Blackbird

        and did you teach your kids your bad English? Liberal kook.

  • ADA

    As a real life prosecutor, I completely agree with your assessment of the show. This was the ONLY show on television that accurately portrayed the roles of police officers and prosecutors and what we do on a daily basis. Yes, they added in a few outrageous things here and there because it is supposed to be entertaining television but at the end of the day, I could relate to the characters and the cases and I truly enjoyed watching this show. I have always been a fan of L&O and I will continue to be a fan. I tell anyone who wants to know what my job is really like to watch this show and I continue to tell juries that my job is nothing like the shows on TV, except for L&O and every episode starts off with the accurate explaination of “it’s the police who investigate the crime and the district attorneys who prosecute these offenders”. L&O you will be missed…

  • Reena

    I agree with Ken I am an avid watcher and really enjoyed the chemistry between Anthony Anderson & Jeremy Sisto I thought that this has been a really good season between Waterson & Richoe as the DA and ADA. Too bad not more people watched it because they were too busy with The “Real” Housewives of whatever!

    • Terry

      Well, and it’s funny that Tucker would talk about magazine covers with sexiest man or whatever. How often did EW give a cover to L&O? I don’t ever remember one. We’ve probably had close to a dozen on Twilight the past couple of years. And I think L&O won exactly one Best Drama emmy. Heck, I think The Practice won 3 and while I like it, it was very uneven. But unfortunately it wasn’t considered hip enough. You gotta have confusing storylines and over the top histrionics to win emmys. That’s also why it seems that the best comedy is never the funniest. You gotta have a great dramatic scene to put on the emmy reel to show how good an actor or show is. Funny? Who cares about that? This is the BEST comedy show(which explains why Ally McBeal won best comedy a couple of times). Law And Order was just a sober, well acted, written , directed, and produced show. As Matt Damon(as Matthew McConnaghy) might say, “I bet I could get you some ratings if you’d let me come on and take my shirt off.” But L&O just wasn’t sexy enough. And sadly, when movies are making few courtroom dramas and thrillers, at least we had this show to see an intelligently plotted crime show.

      • Robyn

        Well said.

      • Shana

        good point. Maybe it’s time EW for a cover? I see Alana in skincare commercials… put her, Lupo, and Cutter on the cover…

      • chattypatra

        Thanks for calling the magazine out on not giving this show its due. I think many people stopped watching after “Lenny” was gone, but Ken is right in pointing out that the current cast has had a fantastic season. So many terrific actors have been on this show … it’s sad that the network moved it from its original slot. Would it have killed them to keep it on the air? Now they expect us to watch “LOLA”? Maybe they’ll get together with the NCIS:LA crew!

      • Steve Ungrey

        Uhh, Ken… have you SEEN Alana lately? She qualifies as a gorgeous woman in my book. On a more serious note, here’s to a show that defied the odds and lasted 20 years. That’s an eternity, especially in television.

  • Bomfy

    It’s a sad thing, great show.

    It will also be sad when I have to save up for ages to get the massive complete series box set.

  • DavidJ

    I was never a huge L&O fan, but from the occassional episodes I did watch, it was definitely a quality show. And I liked the current team of actors.

    Unfortunately I think the problem is it’s just hard to work up too much enthusiasm for a crime procedural these days. The whole concept feels COMPLETELY played out by now. If people gravitate more to SVU, it’s probably just because it’s more salacious nature makes it stand out a bit more.

    • Johnification

      It’s true. The procedurals that are successful now are more character focused (NCIS, Bones, Castle, SVU/CI). Just look at CSI: the ratings tanked when William Petersen left because viewers cared more about the character than the format. L&O was one of the only shows on TV that really was about the format, as Ken said.

      Also, is anybody else not surprised that L&O dies the year it gets moved to Friday nights because of the Leno debacle? The Chin claims his latest victim.

    • Laura

      I don’t watch SVU for the reasons that you stated. Who wants to sit for an hour and hear about horrific rape or molestation crimes? I am a die-hard L&O fan – also loved Criminal Intent until they changed characters – and this show will truly be missed from my weekly line-up. I agree that by changing the night that the show was on they didn’t do it any favors, however, thanks to DVRs I have never missed an episode since I was able to record all new episodes without worrying about it. Are they not counting DVR-recorded viewers? I read of so many people that only watch these shows when they’ve been recorded. Maybe that’s where the viewership “went”?
      Re: NBC – I am quickly learning not to invest my heart in any new programming as the initials NoBody Cares are more true than ever before. So many shows have been canceled (Lipstick Jungle!) or have been threatened to be canceled (Chuck and Heroes!) – I just can’t afford to become invested in these characters that NBC loves to kill off! Thanks to CBS we still get Medium, otherwise I’d be adding that to my list of grievances!

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