On Sept. 13, 1990, Dick Wolf's legendary police procedural and legal drama Law & Order premiered on NBC. The inaugural episode detailed a drunk physician's negligence and a subsequent hospital cover-up. It was unremarkable in itself, but introduced the world to the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. For the next 25 years, these were their stories – and ours.
Fox and CBS were initially interested but ultimately passed on Wolf's concept, neither network anticipating how culturally dominant the brand would become. Even NBC expressed early reluctance, but the show went on to enjoy 20 seasons (456 episodes) and sparked an absurd number of spin-offs in the process: Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: LA, and the still alive and kicking Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (There's also the brand's healthy foreign-adaptation business, which includes Law & Order: U.K. and the Russian series Law & Order: Division of Field Investigation.)
The original Law & Order – "The Mothership" as it's referred to by insiders – became one of the longest running scripted shows in U.S. television history, second only to The Simpsons. It's been off the air since 2010, but there are now rumours of a 10-episode reboot that would reassemble the original cast. NBC has not confirmed plans, though you would think the show's 25th anniversary would be a good time to do so.
As cable TV expanded over the years, Law & Order became inescapable – at any given moment of the day, there's a good chance some embodiment of it is airing in syndication on American television. For people like me, that meant perfect Sunday afternoon binge watching, the format's addictive, predictable nature oddly soothing, despite its gruesome content.
Law & Order may not be the kind of show that's critically acclaimed (at best it's a guilty pleasure, at worst it's just trashy TV) but it's undeniable that it's been an important cultural touchstone for decades. The franchise has profoundly influenced the way we interpret the more nefarious parts of the world around us; when a high-profile crime hits the headlines, its reasonable to assume it will eventually pop up in an L&O writing room.
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, reality star Anna Nicole Smith, Montreal's École Polytechnique shooter Marc Lépine, actor Mel Gibson and International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn have all inspired episodes. Canadian serial rapist and murderer Paul Bernardo loosely became the subject of not one, but three, episodes in the franchise, while a contentious take on Chris Brown and Rihanna's relationship appeared on Law & Order: SVU in 2013. (Horrifyingly, Micha Charles, Rihanna's stand-in, gets murdered by her boyfriend at the end of that particular narrative.)
The franchise has tackled everything from abortion rights, to campus rape, to polygamy, to the AIDS crisis, to "serial impregnators" – and has often done so with clumsy, controversial and exploitive results. But Law & Order's politics have also progressed with the times – where once a rape victim would be blamed during idle cop chit-chat for putting herself in harm's way, the show and its SVU spawn gradually adopted "yes means yes" consent, speaking in the language of anti-rape culture ideology. The writing constantly took the mainstream temperature of its moment – stumbling and evolving right along with us. Also, its structure was so firm, so predictable, that it rarely mattered that it had a revolving cast door like no other in television history. Jerry Orbach, who played Lennie from 1992-2004, described it as a Catholic high mass – with everything happening at a preordained time.
While critics often talk about the CSI effect – the way flawed portrayals of forensic science on shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influence public perception – we rarely discuss the Law & Order effect. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. recently announced a combined $79-million (U.S.) devoted to combatting the accumulation of 70,000 untested sexual assault kits held by police agencies across the country, but we all know detective Olivia Benson would simply ask for a "rush on the DNA" and the rapist would be convicted by the end of the hour. In her world, cops and lawyers efficiently work together on one case at a time, and nothing ever gets in the way.
The Law & Order universe didn't take much time to detail anyone's backstory or personal life. No one talked much about their partners or families, and if they did it was because work was causing problems. They never went to the gym or had a nice meal out with friends on a Friday night. Instead they ate from Styrofoam containers at their desks, drank a quick coffee from the bodega, and when socializing happened it was to talk about a case from a bar stool while clutching a glass of whisky. (Recovering alcoholics Detective Briscoe and Captain Cragen excluded.)
Even with the sloppiness in which Law & Order handled sensitive issues, there was something comforting about that kind of commitment – this idea that justice was all these characters ever thought about, that they had no identity without its pursuit. We rarely saw the interiors of their homes, instead watching them nap on metal-frame beds at the precinct, or slaving away in the office of the district attorney long after the sun had gone down. I like to think 16-season veteran Jack McCoy's reputation for having affairs with his assistant district attorneys was a result of his devotion to serving the people. One of his ex-wives actually left him for working all those late nights.
Whenever the ever-changing cast of cops and lawyers bent the rules or flagrantly ignored a suspect's civil rights, it was always in the name of putting the right guy behind bars.
The show gave us an optimistic, albeit naive, depiction of how the system really works, distilling it into 40-some minutes of justice neatly served. With the reality of so much police corruption, so many botched cases and so much brutality, it's nice to have a place to go where legitimately good guys do anything to win on zero sleep.
The world of Law & Order makes us feel as if there is no red tape that can't be unravelled, no arduous paper work that can't be filed, no excruciating backlog that can't be conquered – instead there's the comforting hum of the wheels of justice rapidly turning. It's a fantasy of course, but it's one that has worked like a salve on the burn of how truly unjust the world can be.