Twenty-five years ago this week, NBC launched Law & Order. For me, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Law & Order — the original, not the kink-fest and others that came afterward — became, among other things, my hotel show. You know what I mean. You get into a room in some strange town. You toss the bags in a corner and fall onto the bed. What you’re looking for on TV is something familiar. What I was looking for was the battered squad room of the 27th precinct, or the mahogany-drenched offices of the District Attorney for New York County, or Lennie Briscoe, leaning over a freshly dead corpse and searching for exactly the most bon of mots. The badonk-donk meant everything was all right for the next hour.
It was such an oddball show at the beginning. It rarely ventured into the private lives of its main characters, except obliquely. (Later, it did it more and more, and not to the best effect, either.) But it developed a world around those characters anyway, and it did so by bringing the phrase “ripped from the headlines” into the argot, and by drawing on the cream of New York’s theater actors, who all seemed to be tripping over themselves to get into an episode. It was on L&O that I first saw both William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, the young Claire Danes and the young Sarah Paulson. Early on, Philip Seymour Hoffman turned up. One of the lawyers was Samuel L. Jackson. It was a show for all of New York City, and not just the preposterously Caucasian precincts of Friends or Seinfeld.
So, in celebration of 25 years of perps and cops, of motions and objections and weird departures of regular cast members, here are what I believe are the strongest pieces of evidence of the show’s fundamental greatness. If you have any complaints, take it up with the appeals court.
Best District Attorney
- Adam Schiff (Steven Hill): The greatest grumpy old dude in history. “When did we hand this office over to the Marx brothers?”
- Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston): The key move that saved the show’s final two seasons was shifting McCoy into the big office.
- Alfred Wentworth (Roy Thinnes): Had the good sense to give up the job. As to the others, they sucked varying amounts of pondwater. Fred Thompson? Dianne Wiest? When did they hand the casting office over to the Marx brothers?
Best Executive Assistant DA
- Jack McCoy (Waterston): The haunted Irish soul of the DA’s office.
- Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty): I’d forgotten how compelling Moriarty’s blue-eyed monastic fanaticism was. Dick Wolf loves vengeful Catholics more than the Borgia popes ever did.
- Mike Cutter (Linus Roache): McCoy’s McCoy. Another great move in the show’s final years.
Best Assistant DA
- Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy): McCoy’s great lost muse. Her death remains television’s greatest tragedy.
- Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks): Vaults into second place because he comes back (twice) as a badass defense attorney.
- Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell): Pulled the same move as Robinette, returning to defend a young school shooter — and also a murderous burglar — a client from her days before she was an ADA, which gets her crossways with the bar association.
Best Defense Attorney
- Shambala Green (Lorraine Toussaint): Stone’s great antagonist from the public defender’s office. There is something else going on between them, too.
- Danielle Melnick (Tovah Feldshuh): McCoy’s most stubborn adversary. She nearly gets blown away by a white supremacist but survives to constitutionalize another day.
- Neil Gorton (Keith Szarabajka): Ranked this low because he only appears in the Kabuki OJ three-parter in which a Hollywood director hacks up his ex-wife, a studio head who ruined his career.
Best Arraignment Judge
- Janice Goldberg (Fran Lebowitz): Holy hell, that’s Fran Lebowitz!
- Morris Torledsky (David Lipman): The bald guy. You know him.
- Alan Berman (David Rosenbaum): The anti-Cohen. A man of great hair.
Best Trial Judge
- Lisa Pongracic (Charlotte Colavin): Extremely eccentric. Drove Stone crazy.
- Margaret Barry (Doris Belack): Made a ruling that forced Stone to blackjack Allison Janney into testifying against the Russian mobsters that had infiltrated her baby-food company. Janney gets clipped. Stone quits in remorse, and we get not only McCoy, but C.J. Cregg out of the deal. Winning!
- Michael Callahan (Bernie McInerney): Looks like Stone’s stern Jesuit uncle.
Best Commanding Officer, 27th Precinct
- Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson): The rock of the NYPD. In “Slave,” she gets off a perfect groin shot to subdue a dangerous perp. She’s also great in the interrogation room.
- Don Cragen (Dann Florek): Lost points for moving over to SVU to chase pervs and yell at Ice-T — and for that extra “n.” Is he Danish or something?
- Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach): The one indelible character produced by any of the shows in the franchise. The most perfect New York cop since Barney Miller.
- Mike Logan (Chris Noth): Another angry, vengeful Papist. Product of a violent home. Possible opposites-attract love interest of Elizabeth Olivet. I love subtext.
- Ed Green (Jesse Martin): Leaves the show in what is L&O’s finest existential crisis. Can’t decide if he’s a gambling man or a policeman. Turns out he’s going to be Marvin Gaye.
Best Guest Defendant
- Denis O’Hare: A great New York stage actor, he gets put on trial three times: once as a neighborhood watch guy who cripples a local crack addict, then as a schizophrenic who kills people with a bayonet and defends himself in court, and finally as the leader of a suburban militia group that shoots up an OTB parlor. The only guy who gets convicted is the schizophrenic. He also played a vigilante-coddling priest.
- Anne Twomey: The quintessential evil mommy. First, she kills her daughter’s daughter so a society wedding can proceed. (She is never prosecuted.) Then, she plays the mother to Amanda Peet’s Patty Hearstian kidnap victim, who, it seems, drove Peet to become a willing participant in a mass shooting. (In addition, Twomey is married to John Bedford Lloyd, who also played a two-time defendant on the show.)
- Ellen Pompeo: The quintessential evil daughter. In one episode, she hires her ne’er-do-well boyfriend to kill her mother. In another, she feeds her sister and an exchange student to her boyfriend, a serial rapist-murderer. SVU must have been closed that week.
Best Regular Extra
There’s only one choice here — Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers (Leslie Hendrix), smart-assed medical examiner. Long before there were CSIs and NCISs everywhere, there was Rodgers, cracking wise over the stiff du jour. To wit, from “Sundown”:
Rodgers: Right now, I’ve got to get a javelin out of somebody’s chest.
Briscoe: What made you go into this line of work?
Rodgers: Free javelins.
Best Single Episode
- “Prince of Darkness”: An insanely complicated case involving Colombian drug cartels and imported hitmen. Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) gets shot doing an undercover weapons sting. Almost everyone involved in the case ends up dead.
- “Old Friends”: Russian mob episodes always brought out the best in everyone. This is Stone’s last appearance. Watching him twist Janney to get her to testify makes you long for the wrath of Toby Ziegler.
- “Savior”: This is the one where Pompeo arranges for her mother’s murder. McCoy doesn’t tumble to it until the very end. Pompeo’s face seems to melt into a steaming pool of guilt.
Best Multi-Episode Story Arc
- “Refuge”: Another great Russian mob story. It begins with the murder of a jeweler. Along the way, an assistant DA and the mother of a 10-year-old eyewitness get slaughtered by Colombian hitmen, the Russians nearly blow up the ol’ Two-Seven, and it ends with a society banker giving up the people for whom he is laundering money. Also, Briscoe invents “stuff the blini” as a euphemism for sex.
- “Torrents of Greed”: This one begins with a Russian victim who gets stomped for not going along with a mob-connected untaxed cigarette scam. Stone gets played for a fool in court. Eventually, the don has his own brother-in-law murdered, and his sister — the great Christine Baranski — responds by having him clipped. Logan’s reaction? “I love that woman!”
- The OJ Trilogy: Only for Gorton’s slimeball defense attorney and the scenes of Lennie in Hollywood, trying to find a way to get to the track.
- “Blood”: There is a suspect who is black but passing for white. He refuses to talk. Van Buren comes into the interrogation room and sits down. “Hello, my brother,” she says, gently. Game over, but he didn’t do it anyway. His crazy bigot ex-wife did.
- “Prince of Darkness”: The case of the Colombian drug murders is closed. The phone rings. Schiff picks it up. He learns that all the witnesses who testified are dead, killed in prison in various ways. Stone asks about the little girl whose father was the original victim. “She was picked up at school by her uncle,” Schiff says. “She doesn’t have an uncle,” Stone replies.
- “Slave”: On a stakeout, Van Buren and Briscoe are playing gin. Briscoe quotes from Langston Hughes’s “Motto” (“I play it cool / I dig all jive / That’s the reason / I stay alive”). She finishes it for him. There’s something going on there, too.