barging into

Law & Order

Law & Order is an American police procedural and legal drama television series created by Dick Wolf. It has been broadcast on NBC since its debut on September 13, 1990. Set in New York City, the series mainly follows the professional lives of several police officers and prosecutors who represent the public interest in the criminal justice system. The characters frequently encounter dilemmas and frustrations as cases go through the stages of investigation, arrest, negotiation and trial. Matters are rarely resolved easily or satisfactorily for the people involved.

The success of the series has led to the creation of additional shows under the Law & Order franchise. It is the longest-running primetime drama currently on American television.


The pilot episode was produced to be sold to CBS in 1988, but was rejected by that network. When NBC picked up the series in 1990, the pilot aired as episode six. The show is produced by Universal Media Studios, formerly known as NBC Universal Television Studio, Universal Television, and Studios USA. It has been syndicated on other United States networks since 1994, as well as worldwide. According to news reports in 2005, the Law & Order franchise (including all the different series) generates around $1 billion in annual revenues for NBC Universal and its cable partners (a February 2005 NBC financial presentation states that NBC's share of this revenue, including syndication and advertising, is more than $550 million).

Law & Order has been shot on film in widescreen format since its inception, as evidenced by syndication on TNT-HD. This also presents the unique oddity that since reruns of older seasons began broadcasting in HD in 2005, they have provided more (previously cropped) material than when the episodes were first run broadcast in 4:3. Since 2002, first run episodes have also aired in HD. Since May 9, 2008, TNT has broadcast Law and Order episodes in widescreen.

The series is broadcast in Canada on CTV and Sister Station A-Channel. Reruns can be seen regularly each weeknight and weekday afternoons on TNT (U.S.) and weekdays at 1:00 p.m. and weeknights at 11 p.m. on Bravo! (Canada). It can be seen in the UK with new episodes first showing on the cable and satellite channel Sky1 and later on Sky2 with a terrestrial airing on Five and repeats of the early seasons are being shown on the Hallmark Channel. It was recently announced that the Law & Order franchise would be screened on Five US.

In late March 2006, a shift of time slot resulted in a significant drop in ratings, but a return to the original time slot on April 5, 2006, triggered an improvement of ratings, For the 2006-2007 season, both Law & Order and Criminal Intent were placed in new time slots. In this season's time slot — Fridays at 10pm — Law & Order averaged 9.3 million viewers, down again from 11.6 million in the previous season. By comparison, Criminal Intent averaged 9.7 million viewers on Tuesdays at 9pm and SVU averaged 12.9 million viewers during its time slot.

On May 14, 2007, the network announced plans for an eighteenth season with the series moving to Sundays at 8pm. Under NBC's agreement, Law & Order premiered its 18th season on NBC in January 2008 while new episodes of Criminal Intent now premiere on NBC Universal's USA network with reruns slated to appear on NBC. This is an unusual role reversal in NBC and USA's shared or second window syndication arrangement. When the future of the Law & Order staple was in doubt, TNT, which airs re-runs of the show, emerged as a contender to become the new home either of Law & Order or Law & Order Criminal Intent. The series was to return mid-season on Sundays at 8pm but on December 3, after the writers' strike had begun, NBC announced that it would begin airing the already-filmed eighteenth-season episodes starting on January 2, 2008, thus returning the series to Wednesday evenings.

Despite its recent ratings troubles, producer Dick Wolf expressed optimism about the show's future, also saying that his "ultimate dream" is for the series to continue long enough to surpass Gunsmoke (1955–1975) as the longest-running network drama series on American television. Recently, NBC released its 2008-09 lineup, and Law & Order is included in the January - May schedule, indicating the show will be back for a 19th season.


The program generally follows a two-part format, with the first portion of each episode devoted to the investigation of a crime and the second portion depicting its prosecution. The format is almost identical to a 1960s series titled Arrest and Trial, although the similarities are considered to be coincidental (though both shows are currently owned by NBC Universal). Law & Order creator Dick Wolf was reportedly unaware of them when he created his series. The series also bears similarities to the 1970s British television series Law and Order, written by dramatist G.F. Newman. In a 2008 interview, Newman explained that he lent his Law and Order tapes to friend Michael Mann, who was working on Miami Vice with Wolf at the time. Mann then lent the tapes to Wolf, who created the Law & Order franchise a few years later. Newman joked that Wolf owed him $300 million for the format rights. Most Law & Order episodes are self-contained, with only a few exceptions over the many years of production.

The following statement, narrated by Steven Zirnkilton, is spoken at the beginning of nearly every episode (but not those shown on Five in Britain)

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

The cold open, lead-in of the show usually is a slice of life in New York (walking a dog in Manhattan, jogging in Central Park, etc.) unrelated to the main story until the character(s) in the scene suddenly discover, witness, or become victims of a crime (mostly murder). The scene cuts to the police's preliminary crime scene examination wherein the featured detectives make their first observations and proffer theories followed by a witticism or two, before the title sequence begins.

The police are represented in the show by the police lieutenant of Manhattan's fictional 27th Precinct and two homicide detectives, a senior partner and a junior partner. The detectives investigate the crime, collect evidence and interview witnesses, then regularly report to the lieutenant. The evidence leads to the arrest of one or more suspects. The matter then is taken over by the prosecutors of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, comprising the district attorney, the executive assistant district attorney, and an assistant prosecutor. They discuss deals, prepare the witnesses and evidence, and conduct the people's case in the trial. Both the detectives and prosecutors work with the medical examiner's office, the crime laboratory, and psychiatrists from the police and district attorney offices.

Unlike most legal dramas (e.g. Perry Mason), the proceedings are from the prosecution's point of view and indicate that it can be as difficult to convict the guilty as it is to clear the innocent. The prosecution portion also is unusual in that it shows more legal proceedings than just the trial. The second half mostly opens with an arraignment and proceeds to trial preparation; however, the show does, on occasion, deviate from format and centers either on indictment proceedings before a grand jury, a motion hearing, jury selection, or an allocution upon entering a plea of guilty, usually as a part of a plea bargain. It is very uncommon for legal dramas to show grand jury proceedings; this usually is seen once or twice per season, with a trial being the norm. Grand jury episodes focus on the difficulty of obtaining an indictment for a particular accused person and often end with a guilty plea and allocution to quickly conclude the show.

Many times the crime first investigated is not the one the goes to court (a person related to the deceased kills the killer, someone else is found to be involved, evidence of another crime while the investigation is taking place is discovered, etc.). This other crime then becomes the focus of investigation.

Often the plot of an initial portion of an episode resembles a recognizable aspect of an actual case, such as the 1998 episode "Tabloid", wherein a woman is killed in a car crash after being chased by a gossip reporter, similarly to Princess Diana's death in August 1997. This "ripped from the headlines" theme is reflected in the opening credits sequence that evolves from newspaper halftones to high-resolution photos. The rest of the plot, however, usually diverges significantly from the actual events that may have inspired the episode. Promotional advertisements of episodes with close real-life case parallels often use the "ripped from the headlines" phrase, although a textual disclaimer, within the actual episode, emphasizes that the story and characters are fictional. This format lends itself to exploring different outcomes or motives that similar events could have had under other circumstances.

Because of the format's nature, the detectives rarely encounter a simple murder where the murderer does little to hide his or her guilt (actually very common). Instead, the detectives often have few or no good clues — they might not know the victim's identity — and must chase several dead ends before finding a likely suspect. Towards the middle of a show, the police begin working with the prosecutors to make the arrest, and an arraignment scene follows. The police may reappear to testify in court or to arrest another suspect, but most investigation in the second segment is done by the assistant DAs, who always consult with the district attorney for advice on the case.

Virtually all episodes employ motions to suppress evidence as a plot device, and most of these end with evidence or statements being suppressed, often on a technicality, that provide a dramatic obstacle to continued prosecution. This formulaic device begins with the service of the motion to the ADAs, often by the defense attorney, follows with argument and case citations of precedent before a judge in some setting, and concludes with visual reaction of the losing attorney, usually Jack McCoy.

Another dramatic staple occurs either during a confession to police, or at trial, or a rationalization of the defendant's actions at trial, guilt notwithstanding. Whether it is given as an account of the crime, by a witness, or a trial confession, by the defendant, it emphasizes the raw humanity of the event, sometimes eliciting sympathy for the defendant. Another dramatic tradition is when the prosecutors order a particular suspect arrested and the scene immediately cuts to the detectives barging into whatever activity the suspect is engaged to make the arrest.

Stylistic touches

Local color

The series has a number of distinctive stylistic touches. The show is shot on location in New York City and is known for its extensive use of local color. In recent seasons, New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, attorney William Kunstler and Bronx Congressman Jose E. Serrano all have appeared on the show as themselves, adding a realistic dimension to the program.

While most of the locations are real, there are two notable exceptions. The fictional Stuyvesant College (which resembles New York University), Gramercy College, and Hudson University (which resembles Columbia University) are often used for college settings and The New York Ledger is typically the tabloid newspaper mentioned and is heavily based on the real-life New York Post. In one episode The Sentinel was used as a competing paper similar to the The New York Times. All are amalgams of actual New York institutions. Princeton University is frequently tied to suspects but is rarely, if ever shown.

The real-life New York Daily News has also appeared in the series.

Local personalities also have had recurring cameos as fictional characters, such as Donna Hanover and Fran Lebowitz as judges.

On September 14 2004, in New York City, a road leading to Pier 62 at Chelsea Piers (where the series is mostly shot) was renamed "Law & Order Way" in tribute to the series.

Legitimate theater talent

Because both the interior and exterior filming all occur in New York City, the series has access to a wide variety of regular and guest actors who perform in the legitimate theater. Many times these actors are available for shooting during the day while performing on Broadway in the evening or between engagements. Jerry Orbach (Detective Lennie Briscoe) had a long career on the Broadway stage, as has his series partner Jesse L. Martin (Detective Ed Green). Other stage talent with recurring roles include Tovah Feldshuh and Philip Bosco. Linus Roache also joined the cast in the show's 18th season and has done considerable work with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The card, and the sound

Most scene changes are preceded with a black screen with white text at the bottom. This title card indicates the location and date and time of the events to be portrayed. Occasionally the card shows the time advancing by seconds, most often used when the episode's plot makes time a concern (such as a kidnapping).

This is accompanied by a tone, which has been described as a "chung chung" sound. It was originally developed to sound like a barred door in a jail cell slamming shut. In promos for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit reruns on the USA Network, actor Dann Florek refers to the sound as the "doink doink," while Richard Belzer refers to it as the sound of a judge's gavel. According to, it "was created by combining close to a dozen sounds, including that of a group of monks stamping on a floor."

Portrayal of characters

The show's cast of police and lawyers are portrayed as basically honest professionals who rarely stray from the boundaries of accepted procedure and usually solve crimes by the book, although occasional cases hit home and the detectives and/or ADAs become somewhat personally invested in the case. With the exception of the Season 6 finale and several episodes at the end of Season 8, the show does not employ subplots, and the private lives of the characters are only mentioned in passing. Law & Order is thus known as a plot-driven, as opposed to character-driven, police procedural.

Cast and characters

Law & Order is noted for its revolving cast; in fact, none of the original six cast members are currently on the program, although Chris Noth, who played Detective Mike Logan, appeared on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Dann Florek, who played Capt. Don Cragen, currently appears on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, both reprising their characters from the original cast. Though many cast members stay for only a few seasons, the continual replacement of actors has not appeared to harm the program's popularity. Until its seventeenth season, when ratings dropped sharply, it could be suggested that the transforming cast has contributed to the longevity of the series because the regular appearance of new faces has constantly changed the show's dynamic, allowing it to repeatedly reinvent itself.

Five long-serving exceptions are Steven Hill as D.A. Adam Schiff (1990-2000), Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe (1992-2004), S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren (1993-present), Sam Waterston as A.D.A./D.A. Jack McCoy (1994-present), and Jesse L. Martin as Detective Ed Green (1999-2008). Michael Imperioli played junior detective Nick Falco in the last four episodes of the 15th season, while Jesse L. Martin took time off to film the movie Rent. Steven Hill was the last member of the first season cast to leave the show, though even he did not appear in the series' pilot episode. It is widely believed that Hill's character, Adam Schiff, was based on real life New York County District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau who still serves in the post, aged 88.

Notable guest stars over the years include Julia Roberts, James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Chevy Chase, Tom Berenger, Laura Linney, Eric Bogosian, Alan King, Gary Busey, Nancy Marchand, Claire Danes, Harry Hamlin, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy, Jennifer Beals, Ludacris, Werner Klemperer, Candice Bergen, Ellen Pompeo, Edie Falco, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cynthia Nixon, Mandy Patinkin, Patrick Stump, Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Rooker, Kevin Smith, Bruce Vilanch, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore and most recently, Tom Everett Scott.

Some of the actors in the series have appeared in other crime series, either before or after playing their roles on Law & Order. Such cases include Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache in Kidnapped, Angie Harmon in Women's Murder Club, Anthony Anderson in K-Ville and The Shield, and Jill Hennessy in Crossing Jordan.

Season Senior Detective Junior Detective Police Commanding Officer Executive Assistant District Attorney Assistant District Attorney District Attorney Also Starring
1 Max Greevey (George Dzundza) Mike Logan (Chris Noth) Don Cragen (Dann Florek) Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks) Adam Schiff (Steven Hill)
2 Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino)
3 Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick)
Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach)
4 Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy)
5 Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston)
6 Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt)
7 Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell)
9 Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon)
10 Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin)
11 Nora Lewin (Dianne Wiest)
12 Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Röhm)
13 Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson)
15 Joe Fontana (Dennis Farina)
Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse)
Nick Falco (Michael Imperioli)
16 Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin)
17 Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) Nina Cassady (Milena Govich) Connie Rubirosa (Alana de la Garza)
18 Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston)
Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson)


Seasonal rankings (based on average total viewers per episode) of Law & Order on NBC.

Note: Each U.S. network television season starts in late September and ends in late May, which coincides with the completion of May sweeps. Season 18 started in January and was held back as a mid-season replacement when NBC announced their 2007-08 schedule in May 2007.

Season Premiere Finale No. episodes Timeslot Ratings rank Viewership (millions)
Season 1 September 13, 1990 June 9, 1991 22 Tuesday 10:00 p.m.
Season 2 September 17, 1991 May 14, 1992 22
Season 3 September 23, 1992 May 19, 1993 22 Wednesday 10:00 p.m.
Season 4 September 15, 1993 May 25, 1994 22
Season 5 September 21, 1994 May 24, 1995 23 #27 11.6
Season 6 September 20, 1995 May 22, 1996 23 #24 10.9
Season 7 September 18, 1996 May 21, 1997 23 #27 10.4
Season 8 September 24, 1997 May 20, 1998 24 #20 9.9
Season 9 September 23, 1998 May 26, 1999 24 #13 10.0
Season 10 September 22, 1999 May 24, 2000 24 #15 16.2
Season 11 October 18, 2000 May 23, 2001 24 #11 17.7
Season 12 September 26, 2001 May 22, 2002 24 #7 18.7
Season 13 October 2, 2002 May 21, 2003 24 #10 17.3
Season 14 September 24, 2003 May 19, 2004 24 #14 15.9
Season 15 September 22, 2004 May 18, 2005 24 #25 13.0
Season 16 September 21, 2005 May 17, 2006 22 #37 11.0
Season 17 September 22, 2006 May 18, 2007 22 Friday 10:00 p.m. #73 8.9
Season 18 January 22008 May 212008 18 Wednesday 10:00 p.m. #38 10.7
Season 19 January 2009 May 2009 22


Awards won

Emmy Awards:

  • Outstanding Drama Series (1997)

Screen Actors Guild:

Edgar Awards:

Writers Guild Award

  • Best Teleplay, Rene Balcer and Richard Sweren for "Entrapment" (1998)

Silver Gavel Award (American Bar Association)

  • Best Television Episode, "DWB", written by Rene Balcer (1998)
  • Best Television Episode, "Hate", written by Rene Balcer (1999)

Peabody Award, 1997

Norman Felton Award (Producers Guild of America), Producer of the Year, (1996)

Awards nominated

Emmy Awards:

  • Outstanding Drama Series (1992–1996, 1998–2002)
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Sam Waterston (1997, 1999–2000)
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Jerry Orbach (2000)
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Michael Moriarty (1991–1994)
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Steven Hill (1998–1999)
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Benjamin Bratt (1998)

Golden Globe Awards:

  • Best TV Series-Drama (1992, 1994–1995, 1998–1999)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama Series-Drama Sam Waterston (1995)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama Series-Drama Michael Moriarty (1994)

Screen Actors Guild:

  • Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (1995–2002, 2004)
  • Outstanding Male Actor in a Drama Series Sam Waterston (1998)

Related media

DVD releases

Title Release dates
Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
The Complete 1st Season October 152002 June 162003 April 142003
The Complete 2nd Season May 42004 February 282005 January 192005
The Complete 3rd Season May 242005 November 212005 March 82006
The Complete 4th Season December 62005 July 172006 September 192006
The Complete 5th Season April 32007 July 232007 July 302007
The Complete 6th Season December 22008 January 122009 N/A
The Complete 14th Season September 14 2004 N/A N/A


The show's popularity has resulted in a Law & Order franchise with the creation of three other television dramas under the same brand: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999), and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001). These two shows focus more on the police side of a case. A short-lived spinoff, Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005), which lasted only 13 episodes, focused almost entirely on courtroom drama, but was pulled off due to low ratings, becoming the first series of the franchise to be canceled. Every spinoff uses the same theme music as the original series, albeit with differing arrangements (harder guitars for the original Criminal Intent theme, for instance). Law & Order shown on Five in the UK uses Rob Dougan's "I'm Not Driving Any More [Instrumental]" as the theme music; Law & Order: Criminal Intent uses Rob Dougan's "There's Only Me [Instrumental]" as the theme music.

The latest and now canceled spinoff, Conviction, was only loosely related to the original. While Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) from SVU was one of the lead characters, and a cameo by Fred Thompson tied it into the same continuity, it did not bear the "Law & Order" title, nor did it use the Law & Order theme music and scene transitions. In addition, Conviction had no coverage of the police investigations and followed the prosecutors' entire lives, rather than just the cases they argue in court.

UK version

UK broadcaster ITV has secured the rights to a 13-episode series entitled Law & Order: London, to be based on the scripts for this series. The series is to be produced by Kudos in association with Wolf Films and NBC.


Law & Order crossed over six times with other NBC shows:

While not considered a cross over episode, Chris Noth appears in the before-the-credits sequence of the Homicide episode "Law and Disorder" (H:LotS ep 3–15). Taking place entirely in a Baltimore train station, Logan hands off a prisoner (John Waters) to Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher). The two detectives engage in some friendly banter about which city is better: New York City or Baltimore. They argue over topics such as Babe Ruth and Dorothy Parker.

TV movie

There was also a TV movie called Exiled: A Law & Order Movie (1998), which featured the fate of Mike Logan (played by Chris Noth), one of the popular characters who departed the series. Noth has since returned to the role of Detective Mike Logan starting in the 2005–2008 season of Criminal Intent.

Reality series

The producers crafted a reality television series, Crime & Punishment (also sometimes called Law & Order: Crime & Punishment) (2002), which focused on actual trials.

Computer games

In addition, there are three computer games of Law & Order in which the player investigates crimes and then prosecutes the resulting cases: There is also a computer game based on the "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" franchise.


Law and Order: Dead Line When a woman's body is found at the bottom of a hotel air shaft in Times Square, it looks like a routine suicide. Enter Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green. Something about the woman seems out of place in the tourist trap. Her clothing suggests wealth. No socialite would be caught dead in a place like this. The trail leads to an about-to-be published tell-all novel destined to be a best-seller. Now Briscoe and Green have to find out what's in it that's worth murder.

Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion (published 11/99 by) The Unofficial Companion was written with the cooperation of the show's creator and executive producer, Dick Wolf, and features interviews with the stars, producers, and writers. It is the first-ever guide to this popular, Emmy award-winning police drama. You'll get the inside scoop on: the past and current stars of the show-including Paul Sorvino, Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Chris Noth, S. Epatha Merkerson, Sam Waterston, Carey Lowell, Angie Harmon, and Michael Moriarty; and find out who was fired, who left willingly, and who remains; the show's continued problems with censorship issues and advertiser fallout; the behind-the-scenes anecdotes about cast regulars, including the fights, both verbal and physical, that have peppered the production; how Wolf was forced to increase the estrogen and decrease the testosterone on the show; the detailed history behind the creation and development of the show; and season-by-season critiques of each episode through the entire 1999 season.

Law & Order: Crime Scenes (published 12/03 by Sterling) written by Dick Wolf describing the setup, and the thoughts that goes into producing the crime scenes.

True Stories of Law & Order (published 11/06 by Berkley/Penguin) chronicles 25 real cases that inspired some of the most popular "ripped from the headlines" episodes of the show. Authors Kevin Dwyer and Juré Fiorillo discuss famous cases including the Bernie Goetz subway shootings, the murder of Jennifer Levin in Central Park, and the San Francisco dog mauling of Diane Whipple, as well as lesser-known crimes such as the death by exorcism of Torrance Cantrell and the tragic murder of Anthony Riggs, a soldier who returned from the Gulf War only to be ambushed by a hitman hired by his wife. The book also includes facts about police and legal procedure.

See also


External links

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