You have seen an episode of Law & Order.
Since September 13, 1990, there have been 1,118 episodes of the Law & Order franchise (for comparison's sake, the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, which premiered in 1968, has just 274 more episodes). Though there are technically five American series within the Law & Order franchise family—Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and the brief Law & Order: Trial By Jury and Law & Order: Los Angeles—the flagship was the longest-running hour-long prime-time TV series in American history. So yes, you have most likely seen an episode of Law & Order.
Perhaps you were home sick from school. Working from your apartment. Or very, very hungover. Or perhaps, like me, you unabashedly and unreservedly love it, own DVD sets of it, used to take naps to it between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. every day in college.
Some people enjoy cooking shows. Others enjoy watching old episodes of Friends. I enjoy the calm, slow pace of watching three Law & Order episodes in a row. It is not quite mindless television. Each episode has its own complexities. But in a world of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, shows that changed the programming landscape, Law & Order is wonderfully, delightfully unchallenging.
Police procedurals have had a place on television since Dragnet premiered in 1951. But Law & Order was different, not only in its staying power but in its format. As the title describes quite adequately, the show depicts both the “law”—discovering the body, the initial investigation, the arrest of a suspect—and the “order”—the prosecution of the defendant.
According to a 1990 review from The New York Times, one reason this was done was so that hypothetically, the show could be split into two pieces in syndication. This gives the show something its original contemporaries (In the Heat of the Night, Hill Street Blues) and current challengers (NCIS, for example) didn't even know they lacked: warm, comforting consistency.
Each episode begins the same way: a body is found, or a crime is discovered to have been committed in New York City. (Real L&O fans will recall that in seasons 1 and 2, the body was usually discovered by patrol officers or cops walking the beat. Only in Season 3 did the whole of New York City become a veritable morgue.) The detectives investigate and interview witnesses with the best damn facial recall you've ever seen in your life. The witnesses help the detectives locate a suspect. The suspect is interrogated. There are two options: the suspect definitely committed the crime, or the suspect knows who did and will eventually give up the actual perpetrator. The perpetrator is arrested. Then, we head to court, where the perpetrator is arraigned. Then, the perpetrator's attorney heads to the Manhattan district attorney's office to meet with the assistant district attorney. And then there's a trial. Roll credits.
But Law & Order isn't necessarily fair. "I can't tell you the number of times, when I'm in the room and Law & Order is playing I have yelled at the TV," Tina Luongo told me. The reason? "The minute they mention 'public defender,' it's said with either a tone of disparagement or someone's playing a client that's disgruntled or, if there's actually someone playing a public defender, that role is written as if that person is inexperienced or not committed or just a joke. It's offensive."
Luongo is the attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society's Criminal Practice. Based in New York, Legal Aid represents low-income individuals and families in more than 300,000 cases and matters every year. The Criminal Practice alone has a staff of more than 550 attorneys, representing clients in nearly 230,000 cases a year as part of the country's largest public defender program.
Luongo is not alone in her concerns about how Law & Order portrays not only public defenders, but defense attorneys and the criminal justice system in general. A paper published in Law & Psychology Review in 2013 entitled "Ripped From the Headlines: Juror Perceptions in the Law & Order Era," found that because of Law & Order's ubiquity and long shelf life, it is likely to have influenced the thinking of everyday Americans and changed how they view the legal system—and how they might serve as jurors, even at a time when our criminal justice apparatus is under more scrutiny than ever. As the paper puts it, "The show suggests that if a suspect is not guilty, he or she is not brought to trial. Law enforcement ends up with the right person. This narrative may lead viewers, and thus potential jurors, to believe this is the way the system actually works."
Daniel R. Alonso, formerly the chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan, told me that the show is, to him, a "parallel universe." On the one hand, he says, "It gets a lot of the details right. It gets the courtroom numbers right, for example. Someone will be in Courtroom Part 47, and there really is a Courtroom Part 47. They'll often cite the correct case or the correct statute number. Things like that are kind of neat to see." On the other hand, Luongo says, the substance is askew, from small pieces like having a senior district attorney try every single major case, to larger problems, like clarifying why certain cases are tried at all.
Of course, the show's context has changed dramatically. It premiered six months before the Rodney King beating, and suspects are routinely harassed into confessing or giving up witness statements by cops who "just want answers." The context police officers live in has changed as well. In an episode ("Manhood") during Law & Order's third season, a gay cop is left to die by his fellow officers, and their defense attorney relies on a "gay panic" defense—which leads to an acquittal. (In 2017, D.C. police has a unit dedicated just to serving LGBTQ people, and many of those officers themselves are LGBTQ.) The country's relationship with the criminal justice system has changed dramatically since 1990. But Law & Order, to a large extent, hasn't.
Episodes of Law & Order tend to blend into one another. You're not supposed to get to know the eminently replaceable detectives and police captains and assistant district attorneys of Law & Order too well. They're of such relative unimportance that Courtney B. Vance can play a Wall Street broker convicted of murder in Season 5 and then become Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver when Criminal Intent premieres in 2001. (And don't forget that in Season 2, Detective Lennie Briscoe is a defense attorney.) The totality of the show's small details—Briscoe's multiple marriages and alcoholism, Detective Mike Logan's issues with the Catholic church, Detective Rey Curtis's wife's struggle with multiple sclerosis, Assistant District Attorney Jamie Ross's contentious divorce—can only be gleaned from having watched literally hundreds of episodes of Law & Order.
What does matter is the stories. They're "ripped from the headlines," stories of murder and mayhem that are close enough to real life to require, in at least one instance, a disclaimer. But while the original headlines may have been complex, the stories, when translated to Law & Order, are less so. Guilt is assumed. The episode ends with justice being done and another criminal (most likely) behind bars, their fate never to be mentioned again.
Defense attorneys just get in the way, most of the time, hectoring our heroic prosecutors with subpoenas and efforts to suppress valuable evidence obtained by police officers we know and trust. There are markedly few episodes in which a verdict is questioned or a conviction is overturned—in fact, in 2004's "Vendetta," a man released after being exonerated for a crime he didn't commit goes on to, of course, commit a murder. Law & Order sees remarkably few shades of gray in the law.
Then again, so do we. Law & Order fits beliefs that many of us share about how justice should work. Like that no one is arrested who isn't guilty of something, or that district attorneys and prosecutors will go the ends of the earth (even Los Angeles!) to find the answers. The inherent conservatism of the Law & Order universe is reflective, not of creator–executive producer Dick Wolf's politics, but of our own.
The consistency and ease by which an episode of Law & Order moves from the discovery of a corpse in an abandoned office building (or a park, or a car, or a bathroom) to the conviction of a most-certainly-guilty suspect is contrary to the actual machinations of our criminal justice system. Most criminal cases end in a plea bargain. Confessions aren't always helpful. And eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Of the more than 270 people exonerated by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that helps the wrongfully convicted, roughly 75 percent were sent to prison, in part, by mistaken eyewitnesses.
This week, the five existing American series will be joined by Law & Order True Crime, an anthology series that will focus on real crime cases. The first season, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, will dramatize the story of Erik and Lyle Menendez, who murdered their parents, Jose and Kitty, in August 1989, either because of Jose and Kitty's abusive parenting (their defense attorney's theory) or because they wanted access to their parents’ money and power (the prosecution's initial theory). The case was notoriously complex, so much so that it took three juries to convict the brothers. Unlike its Law & Order siblings, the series will largely be centered on the Menendez brothers' attorney, Leslie Abramson.
Law & Order, in all its simplicity, works almost in spite of itself. It's safe and reliable, rarely too bloody, never too complicated. The police are good. The criminals are bad. And the prosecution is doing its best. It's not great prestige television, but it's not supposed to be. It's the television equivalent of pretty good soup, or a grilled cheese sandwich—comforting and unchallenging. But as the flaws of the systems that adjudicate crimes and put people in prison in this country become more apparent, perhaps a grilled cheese sandwich won't do. Law & Order True Crime will try to find a way to create nuance and complexity. But after nearly 30 years of Law & Order, that would be a first.