Has any show’s demise ever mirrored its own format as well as that of “Law & Order”? Last week began like any other sweeps week in the television industry, just like every episode began with a normal-seeming slice of life in New York City: a brisk jog around Central Park, a protracted wait for the subway, a late-night haul up the stairs to one’s apartment. Then, the whispers began that “Law & Order” might not be renewed for its record-breaking 21st season. Cut to the slow pan, the jump cut, the horrified reaction to something just off frame, and then — wham!— a body is discovered behind the tree, pushed in front of an oncoming train, bleeding out on the landing. “Law & Order” was canceled.
“Law & Order” premiered Sept. 13, 1990. That same year, 2,245 people were murdered in New York and the city was known as the murder capital of the nation. The nation itself was still reeling from the soaring crime rates of the past decade. Over the next two decades of the show’s run, crime rates fell dramatically in the United States and plummeted so dramatically in New York City that in 2009 one was almost as likely to play a murder victim on “Law and Order” (or it’s two spin-offs: “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent”) as to actually be murdered in Manhattan.
One is also infinitely more likely to be able to watch an episode of “Law & Order” than just about any other show on television. Thanks to syndication deals with TNT and USA network, “Law & Order” can be seen several times a day in any market in the United States. And it’s perhaps through these syndication deals that one gets the sense of just how many luminaries have guest starred on this now-iconic crime drama. Flip on the television and see a young Cynthia Nixon playing a gun-toting ballerina bent on revenge, a then-unknown Ellen Pompeo murdering her mother or an already famous Julia Roberts as a professional gold-digger. In fact, “Law & Order” became a right of passage for New York-based actors, providing on average 700 speaking roles per season and employing approximately 14,000 actors over its run.
As crime rates continued to fall and Manhattan became a place filled with more glitter than grit, “Law & Order” relied increasingly on “ripped-from-the-headlines” plots: an unfaithful talk-show host who falls victim to a blackmailing scheme, a New York governor with unseemly ties to an underground prostitution ring, an intoxicated mother who drives down a street in the wrong direction with disastrous results. These episodes, just like all the others, did what “Law & Order” did best: showing the myriad New Yorks that exist side by side, on top of and parallel to each other. From the penthouses of Park Avenue and the mayor’s office to the abandoned subway tracks below the city and the row houses in outer Queens, “Law & Order” highlighted both the mundane and fantastic entanglements of the lives of all kinds of New Yorkers.
And now the franchise heads west, “Law & Order: L.A.” or “LOLA” will premiere on NBC this fall. There has been some speculation that Benjamin Bratt may reprise his role as Detective Ray Curtis for the show for “LOLA.” (During an early episode of “Law & Order” this season, Bratt appeared as Curtis and alluded to living in California.) In the meantime, New York won’t be completely without “Law & Order.” Both “SVU” and “Criminal Intent” are slated to return for another season.