Law and Order

One Part Arrest, One Part Trial

by Erik Arneson

September 13, 1990-present

  • Sam Waterston as ADA Jack McCoy
  • Carey Lowell as ADA Jamie Ross
  • Steven Hill as DA Adam Schiff
  • Benjamin Bratt as Det. Reynaldo Curtis
  • Jerry Orbach as Det. Lennie Brisco
  • S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren
  • Carolyn McCormick as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (recurring)

Despite its revolving-door cast (only Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff remains from the first season cast, and even he was a replacement for Roy Thinnes, who played DA Adam Wentworth in the original pilot filmed for CBS), Law & Order has secured a place among the elite of television dramas. The series, which recently started its eighth season on NBC, consistently delivers in terms of script and acting. It also performs respectably in the ratings.

Law and Order’s structure is similar to that of the 1950s series Arrest and Trial. Although some fluctuation occurs, the first half of each show generally documents the police investigation leading up to an arrest, and the second half showcases the legal skills of the New York City DA’s office. Each segment features two main characters (detectives and assistant DAs, respectively) and one supervisor (a police captain or lieutenant and DA Schiff). Using only hand-held cameras, the action is captured on location in the Big Apple.

Many awards and nominations attest to the quality entertainment Law and Order provides. Highlights include 1997’s Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series; TV Guide’s Best New Series, 1990-91; Viewers for Quality Television 2nd Place Award, 1991-92; and an Edgar Award as Outstanding Series, 1992-93. Although it has been a perennial Emmy nominee for Outstanding Drama Series, this year was its first win. Law and Order has only brought home one other Emmy — Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Editing for a Series, 1991-92. In all, Law and Order has received dozens of Emmy nominations in a variety of categories, including multiple nominations for both Michael Moriarty and Sam Waterston as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

Perhaps one reason Law and Order doesn’t fare well in the Emmys is that it focuses more on plot than character. Viewers must be patient to learn tidbits about their favorite cops and prosecutors. For example, all we really know about Assistant DA Jack McCoy after three seasons — other than he’s a great lawyer who doesn’t mind bending the rules from time to time — is that he disliked his deceased father, who was a cop, and he had affairs with three of his assistants (and married one). Personal, off-duty relationships are virtually off-limits for Law and Order, except when they advance the plot of a particular episode.

The seventh season of Law and Order saw that change somewhat, as viewers heard Det. Reynaldo (Rey) Curtis talking to his partner, Det. Lennie Brisco, about his marital woes over several episodes. ADA Jamie Ross’s relationship with her ex-husband surfaced during the three “Judgment in L.A.” episodes about a murdered Hollywood executive. However, even these two examples are a far cry from the amount of time devoted to personal issues on other contemporary crime shows, such as NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street. The success of all three is proof that either approach can work.

Despite the lack of time devoted to character development, the skill and experience of Law and Order’s actors and actresses should not be overlooked. Without much to work with, they have been able to give life to their roles. For instance, S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lt. Anita Van Buren gives the show a decidedly different edge than Dann Florek’s Capt. Donald Cragen did in the first three seasons. When the show’s creator, Dick Wolf, did not negotiate with Christopher Noth to extend his role as the popular Det. Mike Logan, many viewers were upset. Perhaps not coincidentally, Logan was one of the show’s most developed characters — we knew of his alcoholic mother, beat cop father, disillusionment with the Catholic church, love of the Yankees, his opposition to an abortion obtained by a former girlfriend, and more.

The plots of Law & Order episodes often will seem familiar to news junkies; many ideas are taken from today’s headlines. It’s not difficult to name the Menendez brothers as the inspiration for “The Serpent’s Tooth,” in which two brothers are suspected in the murder of their wealthy parents. Other “real-life” episodes include “Doubles,” in which a tennis player is attacked before a big tournament and a competitor is among the suspects, and “Sweeps,” in which a guest on a controversial talk show is murdered. However, Law and Order usually gives such familiar plots a distinctly unfamiliar twist, so that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

But Law and Order has never been content to play it safe by relying on
plots familiar to mainstream society. Among the many difficult
cases tackled by Law and Orders writers are:

  • The death of a young girl whose parents’ religious beliefs didn’t allow her to receive medical assistance.
  • Defenses based on “battered-woman syndrome” and “black rage.”
  • The prosecution of a gay man who assists AIDS patients in committing suicide.
  • The reinstatement of the death penalty in New York.
  • The death of a woman receiving unorthodox treatment for breast cancer.
  • The molestation of Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (a psychiatrist who regularly testifies for the DA’s office) by her gynecologist.

The current cast boasts a long list of previous credits.
Among the most notable:

  • Waterston played Nick Carraway in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.
  • Carey Lowell is a former Bond girl (License to Kill) and had roles in Sleepless in Seattle and the short-lived TV series A League of Their Own.
  • Jerry Orbach was the voice of Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
  • Benjamin Bratt played Captain Ramirez in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger.
  • Merkerson was featured in Terminator 2 and played Reba the Mail Lady on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in the 1980s.

Guest stars have included James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Burt Young (Rocky), Julianna Margulies (ER), Werner Klemperer (Hogan’s Heroes), Claire Danes (My So-Called Life) Robert Klein (comedian), Janeane Garofalo (comedienne), and Melissa Leo (Homicide).

Orbach and Merkerson each appeared on the series as guest stars before joining the cast full-time. Orbach played a defense attorney, while Merkerson took the role of a victim’s mother. Richard Brooks, who played ADA Paul Robinette for the first three seasons, resurfaced as a defense attorney (still Robinette) in season six.

The eighth season of Law & Order marks only the second time in its history that the series held the same cast for two straight years. The last time it happened — seasons two and three — the consistency paid off in the form of an Edgar Award. Whether or not that happens again, Law and Order continues to be one of the best crime dramas ever produced.

Previous Cast Members:

Michael Moriarty as ADA Benjamin Stone (seasons 1-4)
George Dzundza as Sgt. Max Greevey (season 1)
Paul Sorvino as Det. Phil Cerreta (seasons 2-3)
Christopher Noth as Det. Mike Logan (seasons 1-5)
Richard Brooks as ADA Paul Robinette (seasons 1-3)
Dann Florek as Capt. Donald Cragen (seasons 1-3)
Jill Hennesy as ADA Claire Kincaid (seasons 4-6)


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