|Law & Order marks its 300th episode tonight, sticking to the rules of the "ripped-from-the-headlines" formula that has made it the longest-running drama playing in prime time. |
In this episode, "Smoke," which also marks the finale of the 13th season of the procedural crime drama, Detectives Briscoe and Green investigate the death of a famed comedian's infant son, dropped from a high-rise window. This leads to Assistant District Attorneys McCoy and Southerlyn attempting to prosecute the celebrity for past sex crimes.
Since the hour-long series, created by mega-producer Dick Wolf premiered on NBC, September 13, 1990, there have been many cast changes among "the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders," as well as time-slot moves, but ratings have remained strong.
Now airing Wednesdays, the series is currently the third-ranked drama and ninth-ranked series overall, attracting an average of 17.7 million viewers. Coupled with its reruns, now on both A&E and TNT, it is estimated that 96 million viewers a week tune in to watch the proceedings, which often mirror real-life crimes and controversial issues. The "mothership," as star Jerry Orbach says the show is now dubbed, has also spawned two successful spinoffs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
When the show debuted, the cops were called Greevey and Logan, the D.A.s Stone and Robinette. George Dzundza, who played Greevey quickly gave way to Paul Sorvino, who played Detective Phil Cerreta from episodes 23-52. Then Orbach took over as Detective Lennie Briscoe to become the longest-lasting castmember.
He has had three sidekicks throughout the years. Chris Noth lasted as Mike Logan until the end of season five. He briefly showed up again as Logan in the show's franchise TV movie, Exiled, in 1998, before becoming best known as Mr. Big on Sex and the City. Taking over from him was Benjamin Bratt as Rey Curtis, who stayed until the end of season nine (by which time he was also known as Julia Roberts' boyfriend, though he is now married to Talisa Soto). When Bratt left to pursue big-screen opportunities, Jesse L. Martin signed on as Ed Green.
On the legal side, Michael Moriarty, as the intense executive D.A. Ben Stone, was around until his acrimonious departure at the end of season four. Sam Waterston then stepped in, inheriting A.D. Claire Kincaid, played by Jill Hennessy, who had taken over for Richard Brooks' Paul Robinette at the beginning of season four. Hennessy (now the star of her own crime-investigation drama Crossing Jordan) left at the end of the sixth season. Her replacement, Carey Lowell (now married to Richard Gere), remained on board until the end of season eight as Jamie Ross. Then came Angie Harmon (now married to football star Jason Sehorn) as Abbie Carmichael, who stayed until the end of season 11. Now the job is filled by Elisabeth Rohm as Serena Southerlyn.
For the first three seasons, the precinct head was Dann Florek as Captain Don Cragen, the character he is still playing on Law & Order: SVU. Since his departure, S. Epatha Merkerson has bossed the cops about as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren.
For 10 years, Steven Hill held sway as top D.A. Adam Schiff. When he retired, Dianne Wiest took over for two seasons as Nora Lewin. This season, Fred Thompson, out of politics for real, took over the political role as D.A. Arthur Branch.
As the official NBC press release marking the 300th episode explains, the reason all this shuffling of onscreen faces has not harmed the series is because "Wolf and his writers-producers made sure that it was story, not character-driven and only eyedropper doses of the protagonists' non-work lives would be doled out, no matter how hungry the viewers were for personal information. The result is there are no ongoing story arcs, so the series plays much better in syndication and viewers can come and go and not worry about serialized storylines."
Along the way, the show won six Emmys, including Best Drama Series in 1997. It also picked up a Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.
Those are the facts. The current cast, meantime, is doing the rounds of celebrating and receiving plaudits--such as a yummy-looking cake on today's Today show and, back in April, a proclamation of behalf of the Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York City, where the show is filmed.
The milestone episode is part of three back-to-back episodes of Law & Order. The network had hoped to kick off the evening with the original pilot episode, "Everybody's Favorite Bagman," which had first aired as the sixth episode of the premiere season but had failed to come to a legal agreement with Universal Network Television, a production partner with Wolf Films. So, at 8 p.m., Mike Post's familiar theme music will instead herald a rerun of April's episode 295, "Maritime," about a dead woman's body in a river and a seemingly guilty football star. At 9 p.m., there will be a new episode titled "Couples" about a string of murders, including one in which a wife runs over her cheating husband. Then, at 10 p.m., comes the 300th episode.
The series is currently picked up to run until a 15th season, but if ratings stay firm, Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, might have been serious when he released a statement saying, "We are honored to be the home of Law & Order and look forward to the next 300 episodes."