So, how does one become a Law & Order obsessive?
There are a few different scenarios: (a) watching the first-run episodes on Wednesday nights post–The West Wing on NBC; (b) sitting through the daytime marathons on TNT circa 2005, years before bingeing became an acceptable hobby; (c) taking in the nightly A&E 11 p.m. and midnight reruns in the late 1990s; or, (d) stumbling across the show on WE TV or BBC America, which thankfully still air it around the clock in 2022.
“I watched from the very beginning” probably isn’t a popular answer to the question, though, because that’d mean being a loyal viewer since September 13, 1990, when the show unceremoniously premiered on NBC a week before the network kicked off its fall season. With a generic title and shoulder-shrug cast of George Dzundza, Chris Noth—eight years before he’d play Mr. Big on Sex and the City—Michael Moriarty, and Richard Brooks, the show’s only hook was its novel premise. In the first half of each episode, New York City detectives piece together clues of a crime and interview suspects; next, the attorneys prosecute the criminals in court. Close on a moment of bittersweet introspection. Creator Dick Wolf, a former ad man, reasoned the sturdy structure could appeal to viewers who didn’t want to be burdened with following weekly plot developments.
A few lean years passed. The show was in danger of being canceled in 1993, as then–network president Warren Littlefield mandated that the all-boys-club cast be broken up immediately (which led to the castings of S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren and Jill Hennessy as Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid). But Wolf’s creative instinct ultimately proved correct: After Law & Order entered syndication in 1994, the only sound he heard more than the show’s signature dun-dun was cha-ching.
You see, amid a world of chaos, there was beauty and comfort in tuning in to a crime procedural that featured a twisty-yet-trusty narrative arc seasoned with sardonic quips—most of which were delivered by the late, great Jerry Orbach, whose Detective Lennie Briscoe always seemed like he went straight from the precinct to the corner deli for a pastrami on rye and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. New York City–bred actors floated in and out with a “I can do Broadway and murder my TV spouse” wink. Cases ripped from the headlines were heightened and given satisfying conclusions. To this day, the two commanding piano chords that open the Mike Post–scored theme prompt a Pavlovian-like happy response. Welcome back. Have fun.
The Law & Order magic formula grew to be so successful that it hardly mattered that the cast turned over at a ridiculously high rate. (Moment of silence for the short-lived Dianne Wiest era.) Over the course of its 456 episodes, it spawned six spinoffs—including Special Victims Unit in 1999—and racked up 51 Emmy nominations and six wins, plus a 1997 Peabody Award. According to Nielsen estimates in 2003, more than 90 million Americans spent at least an hour a week watching a version of the franchise. Another significant number? Twenty, as in the number of seasons the show stayed on NBC. But executives canceled it in 2010, just a year before it was set to break Gunsmoke’s record for TV’s longest-running prime-time series. (SVU, at 23 seasons and counting, is now the champ.)
Come February 24, however, the mothership returns home. New stars Hugh Dancy, Jeffrey Donovan, Odelya Halevi, Camryn Manheim, and alum Anthony Anderson will strut down that familiar corridor in the opening credits, while Sam Waterston is set to offer guidance as venerable district attorney Jack McCoy. Of all the various TV revivals conceived over the past few years, this one seems like the biggest no-brainer—the show may have gone away, but its loyal viewers never stopped watching.
To celebrate the return, here’s an entirely subjective ranking of Law & Order’s 50 most watchable episodes. (Judge for yourself via those daily airings on WE and BBC America, while seasons 13 through 20 are also available to stream on Peacock Premium; as for the rest of the seasons, write in to your local district attorney until NBC puts them online.)
In the words of Detective Briscoe, always remember: Home alone is a movie, not an alibi.
50. “Empire” (Season 9, 1999)
A corporate mogul keels over at a restaurant and blah, blah, blah ... Look, the only reason this one makes the cut is because a certain A-list rom-com queen makes a rare small-screen appearance in the name of love. Yup, back when Julia Roberts was dating Benjamin Bratt—who played Briscoe’s straight-laced partner, Rey Curtis—she switched off her megawatt smile to play a professional fundraiser with close ties to the aforementioned mogul. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that the self-assured Roberts and Bratt share a genuine chemistry in the tense closing moments. The pair split two years after this episode aired.
49. “Denial” (Season 8, 1997)
My favorite Law & Order plotline trope is “Obnoxious and Entitled Teens That Don’t Understand Why They’re in Trouble.” Exhibit A: This entertaining installment in which two teens strangle their unexpected baby in a hotel room and then promptly go downstairs to slow-dance to “Endless Love” at their prom. If you think that’s gross, well, a respected adult member of the community also helps them cover it up.
48. “Performance” (Season 5, 1995)
Exhibit B: A popular clique of dudes—led by a smirking Peter Facinelli—form an appalling secret club called the “Mac Rangers” and give each other points for various sexual acts. No death here, but one victim is traumatized by a scary-violent assault that happens to be videotaped. After the footage is discovered months later and turned in to the police, Briscoe and Logan (Noth) get to march into the school and collar all the privileged lowlifes.
47. “Ill-Conceived” (Season 14, 2003)
That rare pun of a title says it all. After the owner of a clothing factory is beaten to death, security footage leads Briscoe and his partner Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin, always so smooth) to a man (Agustin Rodriguez) whose girlfriend (Zilah Mendoza) used to work for the victim and has recently given birth. Guess who was the baby daddy! In a cool gotcha moment, though, McCoy and Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) learn that this was hardly de rigueur blind rage.
46. “Blood Money” (Season 10, 1999)
Just your not-so-basic juicy Holocaust-related insurance scam. Briscoe and Green investigate the murder of a retired insurance salesman stabbed after cleaning out his safety deposit box. Turns out that he sold life policies to European families during World War II and then refused to pay out when their relatives were killed in the concentration camps, as there were no official records of their deaths. Cut to suspects galore.
45. “Matrimony” (Season 7, 1997)
Anna Nicole Smith’s wedding to 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall in 1994 provided a bounty’s worth of monologue jokes for Jay Leno—but also this one amusing installment of Law & Order. The victim is a super-rich philanthropist found killed in his mansion. Briscoe and Curtis immediately question his buxom young bride (Arija Bareikis), but her story checks out. Instead, it’s her tart-tongued Texas mama (Anna Kathryn Holbrook) who has crater-sized holes in her alibi. (P.S. If Holbrook looks familiar, it’s because she’s portrayed seven different characters in the L&O universe.)
44. “Atonement” (Season 6, 1996)
One of the great cheap thrills of vintage Law & Order is spotting actors and actresses before they hit it big. So young! So innocent! So guilty! Here we have Michael Imperioli as a drug dealer/chauffeur obsessed with an aspiring model. Squint hard and you can see traces of Christopher Moltisanti. Nine years later, Imperioli would sub in as a detective for four episodes while Martin was off filming the big-screen adaptation of Rent. He proudly noted that he was relieved to finally be on the right side of the law.
43. “Lost Boys” (Season 19, 2008)
Good times with polygamist cult cast-outs. Detectives Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Bernard venture to the cute little village of Palmyra, New York, to question a shady prophet (Colm Meaney) about a crime committed by tourist teens in an NYC park. In a less fun development, the district attorneys (Linus Roache and Alana De La Garza) get tangled up in state jurisdiction issues.
42. “Killerz” (Season 10, 1999)
The body of a little boy is discovered inside a drain pipe, and the only suspect is a 10-year-old girl who lives in his neighborhood. (The curly-haired actress, Hallee Hirsh, also did a hellion rebellion stint as Dr. Greene’s teen daughter Rachel on ER.) (I’m sure she’s lovely IRL.) Should she be treated as an adult? For a change, the showy performances come from the veteran dueling psychiatrists, Dr. Skoda (the fantastically crusty J.K. Simmons) and Dr. Olivet (Carolyn McCormick).
41. “Endurance” (Season 11, 2000)
Just ignore the now-unpleasant cameo from then–NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, who introduces the new district attorney, Nora Lewin (Wiest). At the heart of this season premiere is a classic Mother From Hell. On the surface, Megan (Megan Follows) is a devoted caretaker for her severely handicapped child. But she mysteriously escapes a raging house fire that leaves him dead and her bedroom suspiciously undamaged. Oh, and there’s evidence of fire-starting paint thinner on her nightgown.
40. “Possession” (Season 12, 2001)
A woman on the Upper West Side is killed because she’s the only tenant in her building who refuses to leave her rent-controlled digs, thus preventing her landlady from turning it into a luxury condominium. Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.
39. “All My Children” (Season 11, 2001)
Not even the writers of that ABC soap could cook up this dysfunctional family doozy. Future Emmy winner Julianne Nicholson believes that a powerful real-estate magnate is her biological father. She befriends his estranged son to get a DNA sample, and even though the test turns out negative, the two plot to extort $250,000 from the old man anyway. The plan backfires, and someone ends up in a body bag.
38. “Family Values” (Season 5, 1994)
My other favorite Law & Order plotline trope is “Obnoxious and Entitled Rich People That Foolishly Think Their Money Can Buy Them Out of Prison.” In this episode, Briscoe and Logan probe into the disappearance of a publishing magnate. They question her first husband. Then her second husband. McCoy and Kincaid soon realize that everyone in this dysfunctional family is hiding a secret—including the victim’s daughter (Sarah Paulson!), who claims she’s been having an affair with her new stepdad.
37. “Ego” (Season 11, 2001)
[Stefon voice] This episode has everything! A cocky VIP suspect in the form of an assistant attorney general (Nestor Serrano). An illicit affair turned deadly. A hasty burial at sea, seemingly to erase evidence. Shady cops in Albany. A sarcastic confession steeped in truth (“I killed Karen Hall because I was having an affair with her, then stonewalled the investigation? That’s absurd!”). A sympathy-free McCoy arguing for the harshest sentence possible. And a based-on-fact backstory courtesy of the 1996 murder case of the now-disbarred Delaware deputy attorney general Thomas Capano. Law & Order’s hottest episode is “Ego.”
36. “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (Season 12, 2001)
Spoiler: Not Baha Men. A jogger is mauled to death by a dog in a park, but Briscoe and Green can’t read a pitbull its Miranda Rights. Instead, they track the canine to an underground dogfighting ring secretly run by a prison inmate and his married lawyers (Melissa Leo and Bruce McCarty). They’re charged with manslaughter, and the case rests on whether they knew that their alpha dog was capable of brutal violence.
35. “Hot Pursuit” (Season 6, 1995)
It took six seasons for writers to base an episode on Patty Hearst. And it did not disappoint, if only because Patty—she’s called “Leslie” in the episode, but who are we kidding—is portrayed by a young Amanda Peet. After being kidnapped and taken hostage by an ex-con, Leslie insists that she was forced to take part in a series of deadly robberies. The ever-ruthless McCoy concludes that Leslie could have walked out the door at any point (“every criminal has a sob story”); his partner Kincaid feels otherwise.
34. “Fixed” (Season 15, 2004)
Here’s a rare instance in which a bad guy returns to cause more drama (and headaches for your local civil servants). Dr. Jacob Lowenstein (David Groh)—last seen in Season 1 abusing his family—drops a girl off at school and then is promptly hit by a car. On purpose? Duh. The doctor was recently released on parole, though from the hospital he swears to detectives Joe Fontana (Dennis Farina) and Green that he’s a changed man complete with a shiny new fiancée, stepdaughter-to-be, and law degree. Southerlyn gets to the bottom of the mystery. The original police captain, Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), who left the show in 1993 and moved over to SVU in 1999, is on the scene again too, which is nice.
33. “Disciple” (Season 9, 1999)
Never once in ER’s 331 episodes did a hospital staffer come across a patient beaten to death as a result of an exorcism. (Wimps.) In fairness, it does take a minute for Briscoe and Curtis to connect the dead teen girl in the hospital to Sister Rosa Halacy (Frances Conroy). They learn that she did the deed because she believed St. Michael told her to drive the devil out of her soul.
32. “Identity” (Season 14, 2003)
There comes a point when every Law & Order fanatic must take a step back to muse, “Um, is it wrong that I adore a TV show that makes its bones by sifting through violent deadly crimes in an urban city? Maybe I should switch over to The Food Network and learn how to bake a cheese soufflé?” Then you remember episodes like this one, in which a jerk is justifiably killed because he swindled a kindly old man out of his money via internet identity fraud. You immediately feel vindicated.
31. “Kid Pro Quo” (Season 13, 2003)
Your victim is the admissions director of a fancy private prep school. Your first guess, obviously, is the angry, privileged parents who must have gone off the rails upon learning their kid got a rejection. But if that were truly the motive, this episode wouldn’t have rated so high on this list. Instead, let me pique your interest by noting the presence of a multimillionaire porn director!
30. “Shangri-La” (Season 13, 2002)
The body of a high school English teacher is discovered in a janitor’s closet. Cut to Briscoe and Green learning that both she and a 16-year-old student were sexually involved with a faculty member. Cut to the detectives finding the other two parties getting frisky in their underwear. Cut to them learning that the teen is a 20-something posing as a student to gain sympathy and love. Basically, this episode is the sordid version of Younger.
29. “Confession” (Season 2, 1991)
Pardon the cliché, but Season 2 started with a bang. After original sergeant Max Greevey (Dzundza) is murdered, detective Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) is transferred to the precinct to head up the investigation. But Greevey’s former partner, Logan, lets his personal anger and sorrow get the best of him and uses unethical practices to nab a confession from the alleged killer. The entire case is undermined as a result. This is the first time our by-the-book heroes are pushed to the emotional brink and flash a sliver of their human sides. It won’t be the last.
28. “Blue Bamboo” (Season 5, 1994)
Why, yes, that is Laura Linney as the main suspect. (If you’re doing the chronology math, this appearance falls in line a year after she played Kevin Kline’s mistress in Dave and two years before she played Richard Gere’s ex/attorney adversary in Primal Fear.) Here, she’s a performer who uses battered woman syndrome as an excuse for killing her abusive former employer.
27. “The Ring” (Season 13, 2002)
Because of the cast merry-go-round, New York City has been the one constant star of Law & Order. Nonetheless, the writers faced a difficult obstacle in how to address 9/11 and its devastating aftermath. Enter this fascinating case—first airing Nov. 6, 2002—which deftly recognized the historical day without exploiting it. The body of a woman believed to have perished in the World Trade Center is found a year later in a vacant lot still sporting a $40,000 diamond ring. The clues lead to her ex (the son of a senator) and the discovery that she actually broke up with the guy on the evening of September 10. The show moved on from there, but only in the narrative sense: SVU featured a voice-over tribute to 9/11 victims in the season following the attacks.
26. “Bogeyman” (Season 18, 2008)
No based-on-a-true-crime scandal in this one; just a searing take on the ever-controversial Church of Scientology. The drama starts when a novelist is found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Or was it??? Detectives Lupo and Bernard (Anderson in his second episode) start poking at the victim’s husband (Daniel London) and the pair’s devotion to a cult-like religion called Systemotics. Apparently, the pair were both paranoid that the controlling group and its leaders were out to destroy them. But the DA’s case is jeopardized by the defense attorney’s intimidating, juror-tampering tactics. Classic Systemotic behavior.
25. “Star Crossed” (Season 13, 2003)
Briscoe and Green think they’ve found the person who bludgeoned a salesman during a carjacking—all the physical and circumstantial evidence points to Robbie Delgado (Chandler Parker). But Dr. Olivet says that Robbie is too mentally impaired to commit such a crime, and it’s likely that his rich girlfriend, Tina (Vanessa Ferlito), coerced him into stealing the car. Makes sense, as she also turns on the charm for her boyfriend’s attorney, who helps grease some bureaucratic wheels on her behalf. By the time she’s finally charged with murder, Southerlyn dryly notes that they’ll have to be careful when selecting the male jurors.
24. “Working Mom” (Season 7, 1997)
It’s a prototypical whodunit on the surface, as a retired police officer is discovered shot to death in his car in a seedy neighborhood. The trail leads to a pair of suburban interior decorators who moonlight as high-class call girls. Briscoe and Curtis soon deduce that the deceased guy was blackmailing them. This is a standout because of the two tough-as-nails women at its center: Felicity Huffman is the sex worker (and wife and mom) Hillary Colson, while theater icon Elaine Stritch enjoys one of her guest turns as women’s rights attorney Lanie Stieglitz. No way Gloria Allred wasn’t watching this somewhere, taking notes.
23. “Indifference” (Season 1, 1990)
Jeez, this show got dark in a hurry. Its ninth-ever episode chronicled the story of a young boy who succumbed to injuries stemming from rampant abuse by his parents. While putting together the clues, the detectives discover a pattern of neglect that led to the child being harmed. This one showcased the grim consequences of crime—a long-running thematic undercurrent, of course—as well as the inevitable cynicism that comes with investigating it.
22. “Tabula Rasa” (Season 9, 1999)
A man pushes a philosophy professor under a train; that man happens to be the ex-husband of one of the victim’s friends. Turns out he changed his identity post-divorce and then disappeared with his daughters. All of this somehow comes out within the first 15 minutes of the episode. Just wait until McCoy charges him with first-degree kidnapping.
21. “Stiff” (Season 10, 2000)
In a case inspired by Sunny and Claus von Bulow, the wealthy Mrs. Moore winds up in an insulin-induced coma because her medication was spiked with a drug that’s left her “frozen.” If the detectives watched Reversal of Fortune before leading the investigation, they would have known in an instant that her doctor husband—paging John Slattery!—was responsible for the dangerous dose.
20. “Rubber Room” (Season 20, 2010)
Late-stage Law & Order hasn’t merited many shout-outs on this list, for good reason. Fact is, the show stopped churning out must-see episodes in its waning days—but it did wrap up with an effective and surprisingly heartfelt finale. Lupo and Bernard uncover a website featuring graphic photos of underage girls, then spring into action when the blogger declares plans to blow up a school. And in a touching subplot, the two host a party to help their beloved boss Van Buren (the beloved Merkerson) pay medical bills for her cervical cancer treatment. During that party, she receives a call from her doctor with good news. Drinks all around!
19. “Second Opinion” (Season 5, 1994)
Old-school fans still maintain that the cast peaked in Season 5 thanks to the riveting mix of Briscoe, Noth, Waterston, and Hennessy. This riveting installment, which focused on a woman charged with providing questionable cancer treatments to vulnerable clients, marked the beginning of the still-chugging Waterston era. In fact, Waterston has become so synonymous with the mercy-is-for-the-weak McCoy that it was downright weird and wrong to see him cut loose in Grace & Frankie recently. The man wore floral shirts, for crying aloud! Floral. Shirts.
18. “Pride” (Season 5, 1995)
We need to talk about Mike Logan. For five seasons, Noth’s hot-headed, well-coiffed, American flag pin–wearing detective questioned the bad guys with an attitude that invited comeuppance. One day, he finally went too far. It all goes down while he’s investigating the murder of a gay councilman in a case based on the 1978 Harvey Milk assassination. Logan cold-cocks a homophobic politician who had been tried for the case, prompting his partner Briscoe to predict, “He’ll be walking a beat in Staten Island for the next two-and-a-half to five.” And per the Logan-focused 1998 TV movie Exiled, he was right.
17. “Old Friends” (Season 4, 1994)
Confirmed: Another executive assistant district attorney once presented evidence in court and exchanged pithy comments with DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). Behold Moriarty’s soft-spoken Ben Stone, who made his presence known in several outstanding outings over the course of his four seasons. I’d argue that his finest hour was his last, as he confronts the Russian mafia and pushes a star witness (Allison Janney) to implicate its members in the death of a baby food company accountant. Things go south in a hurry, prompting Stone to have an existential crisis and turn in his resignation papers.
16. “Prince of Darkness” (Season 3, 1992)
Street crime, shmeet crime. Just a few seasons in, the show decided to tackle the Colombian drug cartel. While the prosecution attempts to make its case against an assassin who killed a couple in cold blood, Cerreta (Sorvino) goes undercover to broker a deal with a gun dealer (Mark Margolis). However, during the course of the transaction, the dealer panics and shoots him in the stomach. A few fun footnotes: The top-billed Sorvino quit the show after only a few dozen episodes to focus on his opera career; Margolis, meanwhile, got promoted in the fictional cartel world by playing the notorious bell-ringing enforcer Hector Salamanca in Breaking Bad. The actor, by the way, was born and raised in Philadelphia.
15. “3 Dawg Night” (Season 12, 2001)
What, like I’m going to leave out the one in which an early, early Idris Elba and Kerry Washington play participants in an incident based on the notorious 2000 P. Diddy–J.Lo nightclub disaster?! Behold: A shooting inside a hot club sends partygoers running for the exits. None of the 500-or-so witnesses are willing to divulge details, while the floor manager (Elba) insists that the place doesn’t engage in backroom drug deals. Briscoe and Green connect the dots to a rapper (Cyrus Farmer) and his girlfriend (Washington), but their fame causes headaches for the attorneys. We really didn’t appreciate the early aughts when we had them.
14. “Under the Influence” (Season 8, 1998)
Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) was never the most dynamic of the ADAs, but she did get in a few choice words with McCoy in a classic face-off. The tension comes to a head after a drunk driver (Daniel McDonald) who kills three people is tracked down and charged with first-degree murder. McCoy, still stewing over his love Claire being killed by a drunk driver two years earlier (we’ll get to that in a sec), clashes with his new partner about how to proceed. The situation grows more complicated as an ambitious judge (Cliff Gorman) is anxious to make an example of the defendant to boost his election chances against the grizzled Adam Schiff.
13. “Homesick” (Season 6, 1996)
A baby dies after being fed poisonous plums, and suspect no. 1 is the young and unhappy and frazzled and persnickety British au pair, Lila Crenshaw (Annika Peterson). Though based on the case of the Swiss nanny charged with the death of an infant under her watch, this episode features a last-minute reveal that even the most ardent viewers don’t see coming. Plus, the legendary Patti LuPone plays the high-profile, hard-charging defense attorney Ruthie Miller.
12. “Sweeps” (Season 4, 1993)
Watch what happens: A child molester gets a bullet to the chest during a controversial talk show. There’s zero mystery as to who did it, as multiple cameras captured the victim’s father pulling the trigger. The X factor is that Stone—working with Kincaid for the first time—decides that the show’s sleazeball host (Robert Klein) should be held responsible as well due to his long history of sinister gotcha tactics. (Briscoe, of course, compares all the salaciousness to the plot of an Oliver Stone movie.) By the way, this episode aired a couple of years after the premiere of The Jerry Springer Show and a full two years before the real-life tragic Jenny Jones talk-show murder.
11. “Pro Se” (Season 6, 1996)
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a stunner. Houseless schizophrenic James Smith (Denis O’Hare) refuses to take his medications and is accused of killing three people at a vintage clothing store. He elects to represent himself and proves himself to be a formidable opponent. He also shares a past with Kincaid: She once agreed to a plea deal with him, and now she’s racked with guilt for letting him off so easily.
10. “Merger” (Season 10, 1999)
In a crackling episode written by a Mamet (that would be Lynn, David’s sister), two wealthy families—and future in-laws—duke it out after one pair’s sons (Eddie Kaye Thomas, Stephen Barker Turner) are implicated in the murder the other pair’s teen daughter. Everyone winds up stonewalling the district attorneys, and unsurprisingly, all that green buys them a Get Out of Jail Free card.
9. “D-Girl” and “Turnaround” and “Showtime” (Season 7, 1997)
You never know what you’re going to get when a NYC-based series heads west. The Sex and the City ladies did it and immediately lost their edge; on The Sopranos, Christopher went to Hollywood and ended up mugging Lauren Bacall for her SWAG bag on The Sopranos. As for Law & Order, the show took its talents to L.A. for a sublime, three-part extravaganza. First, a headless female corpse is fished out of the Hudson River. Briscoe and Curtis get on a plane to obtain a blood sample, and the drops lead to the victim’s ex-husband, Eddie Newman (Scott Cohen)—a Hollywood bigwig and certified creep who’s not named O.J. Simpson but might as well be. A dream team of attorneys assemble for the high-profile trial, but they can’t prevent their client from going on an unrehearsed, murder-justifying rant in the courtroom about his deep-seated rage and jealousy toward his ex. It’s a great moment, while also being a reminder that this series is not a documentary.
8. “Absentia” (Season 13, 2003)
His name is Glenn Fordyce. He killed his girlfriend. Prepare to die? Mandy Patinkin guest-stars as the chief witness of a case involving the owner of a jewelry store shot during an armed robbery. He vanishes before the trial, and the detectives learn that he used to be known as Levi March—a fugitive already convicted of murder. When he’s caught and arrested again, his slimy counsel (Andrew McCarthy, yessss) argues his conviction was unconstitutional. It’s up to McCoy to do it right the second time around in a new trial.
7. “Teenage Wasteland” (Season 11, 2001)
And now, an homage to the most tenacious fake Manhattan assistant district attorney to ever serve her city. Kincaid had heart; Ross, OG Paul Robinette (Brooks), and Southerlyn had brains; Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse) and Connie Rubirosa (Alana de la Garza) had a pulse. But Angie Harmon’s Abbie Carmichael had the gumption to speak her mind and push some buttons in her Texas drawl. (And to think: Harmon arrived straight from a gig on Baywatch Nights.) In this offering, she pushes for an 18-year-old accused murderer (Alex Feldman) to be tried as an adult in a capital crime that would lead to a death penalty if convicted. The killing was especially brutal: He and his thrill-seeking idiot pals viciously crushed the skull of a Chinese restaurant owner while the man was fulfilling a delivery order.
6. “Smoke” (Season 13, 2003)
Surely you recall that in 2002, Michael Jackson dangled his baby, nicknamed “Blanket,” off a Berlin hotel balcony. The writers went to work, turning MJ into an eccentric comedian named Monty Bender (Adam Ferrara) and offing his kid via a fall from a ledge. It’s later discovered that the megastar is also a sexual predator—another blatant allusion to Jackson, and the many accounts of his abuse over the years—and he’s arrested in front of a phalynx of paparazzi. As comic Larry Miller (playing himself) points out, “America’s a wonderful place, isn’t it? We love the underdog ... then as soon as he gets to the top, we enjoy nothing more than kicking the son of a bitch and stomping him to the ground.”
5. “Caviar Emptor” (Season 14, 2004)
This gem still shines bright. After a Persian caviar importer is murdered the day after his wedding to a much-younger bride, the police suspect good ol’ greed as a motive. Naturally, the large pool of suspects include the bride (Marjan Neshat), his daughter (Sakina Jaffrey) and her husband (Maz Jobrani), as well as his chief competitor (Thom Christopher). But an unexpected eleventh-hour confession turns McCoy’s case on its head. Though not as jaw-dropping or starry as some of the others on this list, watching the process of finding and discarding potential murderers is as compelling as it gets.
4. “Mayhem” (Season 4, 1994)
There was a juicy payoff each time the show strayed from its usual narrative formula. Take this breakneck-paced outing, which follows Briscoe and Logan on a nightmare shift. Logan just wants to go to the Knicks game, but over the course of a single chaotic day (note the 24-style ticking clock) the pair must take on three unconnected homicides and a domestic squabble inspired by the Lorena Bobbitt case, oy. With multiple plots and punch lines—a burrito is considered a deadly weapon—this one is a keeper. As a bonus, some of the loose ends from this episode were picked up years later by SVU.
3. “Aftershock” (Season 6, 1996)
When you’re a no-nonsense procedural, you don’t have to resort to cliff-hanger May sweeps season-enders. But this was a rare exception, and it still packs a wallop. After Briscoe, Curtis, McCoy, and Kincaid witness the execution of a criminal they brought to justice, their individual reactions culminate in a series of personal crises and one true tragedy. Even the very married Curtis succumbs to the flirtations of a comely college student (Jennifer Garner in one of her first roles) and sleeps with her—to the melancholic strains of Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane,” no less. Then comes the jaw-dropper, as Kincaid is killed in a car wreck while driving home an off-the-wagon, inebriated Briscoe. In 2018, Sarah Silverman tweeted that this episode was “perfect.” Agreed.
2. “Fools for Love” (Season 10, 2000)
If you don’t recognize this ultra-gripping and soul-haunting installment by the title alone, I’ll jog your memory via five emotionally triggering words: That Freaky Ellen Pompeo Episode. Before she knew how to save a life on Grey’s Anatomy, she portrayed a dead-eyed woman dating a guy accused of murdering her younger sister and a foreign-exchange student. Forensic evidence shows that she was present when the two died, making her a key witness. But in the immortal words of Britney Jean Spears, she’s not that innocent. Given the depraved subject material, Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) from the special victims unit show up in a hurry to assist. They’re appalled, too.
1. “Damaged” (Season 8, 1998)
The case alone is a top-shelf chiller: A mentally challenged girl (Lauren Ambrose) is raped by three of her classmates, eventually leading to the slaying of a teacher. The guys’ attorney claims his clients weren’t aware of her condition and McCoy must argue with the judge, who sets aside the jury’s verdict because the victim says on the stand that she enjoyed herself. But what puts this episode on top of the list is the abrupt and authentic way it crushes the heart of our hero alongside all of the jurisprudence. For years, we watched as Briscoe tried to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter, Cathy. When he learns that she’s paid the ultimate price for testifying against a drug dealer, his reaction is devastating. And in the ensuing years, the world-weary detective became all the wearier.
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.