NBC aired its final “Law and Order” episode last night, quietly ending the run of the show tied for the longest running drama in television history. It was a tepid episode, ripped from stale headlines and featuring an atypical subplot concerning the personal life of one of its characters, Lt. Anita Van Buren (not that she didn’t deserve it, being the longest-running cast member on the show).
“Law and Order” has bounced around on NBC schedule a lot these last few years, and hasn’t been the ratings powerhouse it once was for NBC before “L&O” copycats like “CSI” came along (not to mention the “L&O” spin-offs). Like anyone who likes quality television, I’ve been watching “L&O” off and on for two decades. The last few years, like its first year, were the weakest of the show’s run. I like to think that the show was at its strongest during Jerry Orbach’s run, from 1991 to 2004.
There’s been a huge turnover on the show, as one would expect from a drama that’s been on the air as long as “L&O” has. The reason why the show worked, and the reason why it could withstand all the turnover, was because it was never really about the characters. It was about the cases. In recent years, however, both the characters and the cast have been so weak that it’s not been easy to keep up with, although I’m sure I’ll eventually catch most of the later episodes in syndication. The show hasn’t really been the same since the departure of Orbach and, later, Jesse Martin, in addition to NBC’s insistence on casting chiseled super-models with poor acting skills in the female ADA role, ever since the disastrous Elizabeth Rohm (you’d think they’d have learned from her). Finding a partner to complement the reliable Jeremy Sisto hasn’t been easy, either. Anthony Anderson may have been an even bigger catastrophe than Rohm.
Still, I’d prefer to focus on the positive, namely the 14 or 15 excellent years of “L&O,” and how it’s been the legal drama closest to how the law is actually practiced. In fact, during my third year of law school, I took a Criminal Procedure class. I showed up on the first day and not again until the exam. I got an A- in that class and I owed most of it to “Law and Order,” which has given an unofficial clinic on the Fourth Amendment over the last two decades (and for future law students out there, criminal procedure is the only lecture class that much resembles what you see in legal dramas).
Anyway, to celebrate the departure of “Law and Order,” I’d like to take a look back at my 20 favorite cast members over the course of the series from 1990 - 2010.
Farewell, “L&O.” May you forever live in syndication.
20. Carolyn McCormick — Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (1991-2009)
19. Richard Brooks — A.D.A. Paul Robinette (1990-2006)
18. Dann Florek — Captain Donald Cragen (1990-2004)
17. Linus Roache — Executive A.D.A. Michael Cutter (2008-2010)
16. Paul Sorvino — Sergeant Phil Cerreta (1991-1992)
15. Jeremy Sisto — Detective Cyrus Lupo (2007-2010)
14. Fred Thompson — D.A. Arthur Branch (2002-2007)
13. Dianne Wiest — D.A. Nora Lewin (2000-2002)
12. J.K. Simmons — Dr. Emil Skoda (1994-2010)
11. Steven Hill — D.A. Adam Schiff (1990-2000)
10. Carey Lowell — A.D.A. Jamie Ross (1996-2001)
9. Michael Moriarty — Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone (1990-1994)
8. Angie Harmon — A.D.A. Abbie Carmichael (1998-2001)
7. Jesse L. Martin — Detective Ed Green (1999-2008)
6. S. Epatha Merkerson — Lt. Anita Van Buren (1991-2010)
5. Jill Hennessy — A.D.A. Claire Kincaid (1993-1996)
4. Benjamin Bratt — Detective Rey Curtis (1995-2009)
3. Chris Noth — Detective Mike Logan (1990-1995)
2. Sam Waterston — Executive A.D.A. Jack McCoy (1994-2010)
1. Jerry Orbach — Detective Lennie Briscoe (1991-2004)