Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been watching reruns of the TV series Law & Order as I’ve had time. Both the ION network and WETV carry the series reruns and between them have run the entire 20 seasons. (Law & Order – the original – is the longest running hour-long TV series in history. It’s 20 seasons tie with Gunsmoke for number of seasons, but Gunsmoke was a ½ hour show for its first six seasons.)
Law & Order had many cast changes over the years – no one on the original cast stayed past season 10 – and some of the principal characters have generated their own followings and controversies.
Each episode of the series was divided into two parts. In the first part, two police detectives and their supervisor investigated the crime presented at the beginning of the show. In the second part, the offenders were prosecuted by an Executive Assistant District Attorney with help from an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) and support from the District Attorney.
Some observations about the series, which ran from the fall of 1990 to the spring of 2010:
- The Assistant DAs, with one exception, were all female and most had very little to do with the actual prosecution. This did change 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 just 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.
- There was only one female detective portrayed during the series, 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, with weaker portrayals at the beginning and end. (Although in both cases, the characters at the end of the series were stronger than those at the beginning.)
So, here’s my list of the best – and worst – of the series. Feel free to add your thoughts.
Detectives: 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.
Detective Supervisor: This one is pretty easy, since the part was only played by two actors during the series run. Hands down, Lt. Anita Van Buren – played by S. Epatha Merkerson, was believable in the role and 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. He was far superior to the whiny Benjamin Stone – portrayed by Michael Moriarty — and much more rational in his decisions than the later EADA Michael Cutter – played by Linus Roache. 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. Generally, Elisabeth Röhm’s portrayal of ADA Samantha Southerlyn is regarded as the worst characterization of the entire series. I don’t agree. While Röhm is far from the best actor to ever portray a role, I don’t think she was as bad in this role as she is often portrayed.
District Attorney: This one, for me, 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 Portrayed: I’ve already mentioned Elisabeth Röhm’s portrayal of Samantha Southerlyn, but I also need to add 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.
The Most Miscast: 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. Although I am influenced by her later work in Rizzoli and Isles, I think the producers of Law & Order missed a great opportunity to cast Harmon as Orbach’s fellow detective.
Admittedly, 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 comments.