|Now in its 12th season and doing better than ever in the ratings, Law & Order may yet fulfill executive producer Dick Wolf's goal of passing Gunsmoke's 20 seasons. (It's already renewed through season 15.) And the franchise has also spawned two successful series: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and the freshman show Law & Order: Criminal Intent (which has been picked up for a full-season order). Then you count in all the cable showings following the first-run network airings, and it's no wonder that Jay Leno recently quipped that the next installment will be Law & Order: Enough Already. |
The original Law & Order has been around for so long that it's as good a time as any to take a measure of its many cast changes through the years and wonder if, ratings notwithstanding, the dramatic quality is still there. You'll understand when I submit that I'm in a perfect position to make that judgment, having seen all 259 episodes (to date) for the series since it began in 1990 and having written all of the respective listings for TV Guide.
Wolf has said that the main reason for the show's success is because "every week you get a totally contained, complete story." And that's true, although the trend in recent seasons has been to add more red herrings to the plots. There are now so many twists and turns that one could tune in three-quarters of the way through and still see the main elements of the story. It may be an effort to avoid predictability, but it's unnecessary.
Still, change has always been a modus operandi here, and that's been especially true as it relates to the cast. Here's the scorecard to date: Jerry Orbach (Det. Lennie Briscoe), who started in November 1992, is the longest-running regular in the current lineup. As the show's No. 1 detective, he succeeded — and improved on — George Dzundza (Max Greevey) and Paul Sorvino (Phil Cerreta).
Orbach's original partner was Chris Noth (Mike Logan), who had been on board since the debut, but Noth's been replaced, respectively, by Benjamin Bratt (Rey Curtis) and Jesse L. Martin (Ed Green). While it's doubtful that any pairing will best Orbach and Noth, the Orbach-Martin team works well.
There have been two top prosecutors. Michael Moriarty was the stern Ben Stone for the first four seasons, but viewers have taken even more favorably to Sam Waterston's less-intense Jack McCoy, a part he's played since the start of the 1994-95 season.
It's the second assistant district attorney that has undergone the most changes. Richard Brooks II (Paul Robinette) served three seasons, but was dropped when the network wanted the show to attract more women viewers. Enter Jill Hennessy (Claire Kincaid), followed by Carey Lowell (Jamie Ross), then Angie Harmon (Abbie Carmichael), and now Elisabeth Rohm (Serena Southerlyn). The jury's still out on Rohm, who began this season and appears to have not yet found her niche. My favorite was Hennessy, and perhaps others agree, since her Crossing Jordan is one of this season's hits. (By the way, Hennessy and Noth will be reunited in a two-part Jordan episode that begins Monday, Nov. 19.)
The detectives have had two bosses — both top-notch. Dann Florek (John Cragen), in charge the first three seasons, was succeeded by S. Epatha Merkerson (Anita Van Buren). Florek's character has since returned as the boss of the SVU squad. Unfortunately, the superb Merkerson seldom gets enough to do — though she does figure prominently in next Wednesday's episode.
Many still recall Merkerson's guest appearance in a first-season episode, in which she portrayed a cleaning woman whose 11-month-old son was accidentally killed. A truly memorable performance, it might well have been instrumental in securing her present assignment.
There have been two DAs: Steven Hill (Adam Schiff) and Dianne Wiest (Nora Lewin). Everyone misses Hill, who lasted 10 seasons (1990-2000) before retiring. It's been an uphill climb for Wiest, following an actor who had a lock on the role, but the two-time Oscar winner finally seems to be settling down. Likewise, viewers are feeling more at ease with her.
The players may have changed, but one element that has not is the series often drawing its stories from the headlines. Tonight's episode, for example, has shades of the real-life case involving the murder of actor Robert Blake's wife. The episode is titled "Formerly Famous" and deals with a former singer named Tommy Vega (played by Gary Busey) who stumbles into a pub and tells the owner to call for an ambulance because his wife's been shot.
Arriving at the crime scene, Green inquires, "What's with all the press?" A police officer tells him the victim's name and that "her husband was some big-shot singer." "Tommy Vega?" questions Briscoe, adding, "He was gonna be the next Tom Jones." The young policeman asks, "Who's Tom Jones?" Not surprisingly, Busey's character comes under suspicion, but so do his manager (Joe Piscopo) and two adult sons from a first marriage. Bruce Altman is very good as the singer's shrewd lawyer, who enjoys the spotlight himself. In Busey's last scene with Waterston, he's particularly effective, speaking about fame and his "second chance." It's a solid episode with the usual twists, but, thankfully, fewer red herrings.
It's absorbing stuff, and that's what we've come to expect from L&O. Consistently superb writing and direction, as well as strong performances — both by regulars and guests — account for its continuing popularity. So, in its second decade, the verdict is this: Law & Order is basically as good as ever.