Law & Order – the original series – is the longest-running hour-long primetime TV drama series in history. Its 20 seasons tie with Gunsmoke for the number of seasons. But Gunsmoke was a ½ hour show for its first six seasons.
It is currently in reruns on the Starz network, so I am taking the opportunity to offer my comments on the series.
Each episode of the Law & Order series is divided into two parts. In the first part, two police detectives and their supervisor investigate the crime presented at the beginning of the show.
In the second part, the offenders are prosecuted by an Executive Assistant District Attorney (EADA) with help from an Assistant District Attorney (ADA). There is minimal involvement from the District Attorney (DA).
Law & Order’s Main Characters
Law & Order had many cast changes over the years – no one on the original cast stayed past season 10. Some of the principal characters have generated their own followings and controversies.
Some of my observations about the series, which ran from the fall of 1990 to the spring of 2010:
- With one exception, the Assistant DAs were all female, and most had very little to do with the actual prosecution. This changed somewhat as the series progressed, with a few individual episodes highlighting the ADA. But for the most part, the ADA was a shadow role. (In one notable episode, the part of Claire Kincaid was played not by Jill Hennessey but by her twin sister, Jacqueline. Because the scene only called for ‘Claire’ to merely sit at the table while Jack McCoy prosecuted the case, most viewers didn’t notice.)
- Of the four District Attorneys portrayed, three were men. Only one of the four, in my opinion, credibly represented the office of the DA.
- Only one female detective was portrayed during the series (Detective Nina Cassady, portrayed by Milena Govich in season 16), and it was seriously miscast. Conversely, the detective supervisor was portrayed longest and best by a woman.
- The detective roles, as well as that of the Executive Assistant DA, had their strongest characters in the middle of the series. The portrayals were weaker at the beginning and end. However, I feel in both cases that the characters at the end of the series were stronger than those at the beginning.
My ‘Best and Worst’ List
So, here’s my list of the best – and worst – of the series. Feel free to add your thoughts.
By far, the best was Lennie Briscoe, portrayed by Jerry Orbach. He brought a weariness of experience to the role but also showed an understanding of those who had less culpability of their own making.
As for the ‘secondary’ detective, I actually pick three: Mike Logan – played by Chris Noth, Rey Curtis – played by Benjamin Bratt, and Ed Green – played by Jesse L. Martin. I felt that each of these characters were credible in their own ways.
This one is pretty easy since only two actors played the part during the series run. Hands down, Lt. Anita Van Buren, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, was believable in the role. She seemed to have a handle on what it is actually like to supervise competent investigators.
Executive Assistant DA
Another easy pick. Jack McCoy – played by Sam Waterston, was a tough but – in most cases – steady influence on the choices a prosecutor must make and how they go about their job.
Contrarily, I didn’t think Waterston’s portrayal of the District Attorney, after he was ‘elevated’ to the position, was very credible.
Assistant District Attorney
Again, this was really more of a ‘gofer’ position with no real part in the prosecutorial process, except in rare instances. That said, I think Claire Kincaid – played by Jill Hennessey — did as much to bring realism to the part as anyone who had the role.
For me, this one was a case of the first was the best, Steven Hill as Adam Schiff. None of the successors – Nora Lewin (Dianne Wiest), Arthur Branch (Fred Dalton Thompson), or Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) – came close to the authenticity of Hill’s character.
Not as Bad as Often Stated
Generally, Elisabeth Röhm’s portrayal of ADA Samantha Southerlyn is regarded as the worst characterization of the entire series. I disagree. While Röhm is far from the best actor ever to portray a role, I don’t think she was as bad in this role as she is often portrayed.
I should also mention the character of Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse). Parisse is also usually panned in the critiques of the series. But I felt she played a reasonably strong character, especially given the constraints of the role.
I think the biggest mistake in casting was Angie Harmon in the role of ADA Abby Carmichael. The weakness of the part didn’t help. But to me, Harmon was over the top as a tough, take no prisoners ADA.
Admittedly, I am influenced by her later work in Rizzoli and Isles. But I think the producers of Law & Order missed a great opportunity to cast Harmon as Orbach’s fellow detective.
Law & Order suffered from the same constraints as any TV ‘cop show’. But I think it did better than most as portraying the investigative/legal process.
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below.