Disorder in the Court: The Fall of ‘Law & Order’

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.

These iconic words signal the start of one of the longest-running television dramas of all time. Dick Wolf’s Law & Order began airing on NBC in 1990, and has resulted in three sister shows, multiple spinoffs, and 17 seasons of justice being served. There had been crime dramas before Law & Order, there had been legal dramas before Law & Order, and yet there was something about the show that connected with viewers in a new way. For me personally, the show represents an opportunity to get entirely engrossed in each week’s case. You see it from beginning to end: you’re there when the body is discovered, you’re there as the police search for clues, and you’re there when the legal team takes over.

It was this format that brought the show a great deal of success, including an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1997. It became a show that NBC could count on for critical praise, ratings success, and even some media buzz when it came time for its many cast changes (which never seemed to hurt the series) or its stories which were ‘ripped from the headlines.’ And, thanks to the joys of syndication, you can basically watch five episodes a day without changing the channel if you switch over to TNT. The result of all of this was a certain level of prestige around ‘the mothership’ of the Law & Order franchise. Even with the rise of Special Victims Unit to ratings supremacy and awards attention, there was still something powerful in Sam Waterston laying down the law. There was still life within Law & Order.

And yet, now, there are stories like this one. And this one. Law & Order, the mothership, is sinking. What led to the fall from grace for this once venerable drama? The answer is a whole lot of things, and its ability to recover from them will entirely depend on Dick Wolf’s ability to kiss up to NBC Executives.

Five Reasons For the Fall of

Law & Order

1. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
It began airing ten years after Law & Order came onto the air, and yet seven years later pulls in over three times as many viewers. Law & Order, up until CSI came onto the scene, was the only real procedural in town. While there were other successful shows, no doubt, CSI was the first criminal show of this nature to emerge as a bonafide hit at the level of Law & Order. It provided a distinctly modern tilt, the forensic analysis portion of each individual crime, and was able to do it with an assortment of relatable characters. It had the procedural qualities of Law & Order, but it was also flashy, hip, and 21st century cool. Law & Order, meanwhile, was sticking to its traditional guns. In a time when television became flashier, Law & Order simply sat back.

The problem is that as it sat back a trend formed. CSI’s success would lead to everyone and their mother developing procedural dramas. This trend has suddenly placed Law & Order, once head and shoulders above the rest, as just another drama which takes on a single crime per week. There is a reason that Law & Order hasn’t received an Emmy nomination for outstanding Drama series since 2002; it’s because CSI became the cool kid in town, and after that point there were so many procedurals that the academy became numb to the entire genre. With the arrival of CSI, Law & Order’s “gimmick” died. While the show itself didn’t change, the level of potential cultural impact it once had disappeared, and the prestige and image of the show was forever tarnished. Now, CBS’ Numbers (A Procedural crime drama about a math geek and his FBI Brother) is defeating Law & Order on a weekly basis.

Law & Order’s move to Friday nights, where ratings potential is far lower, has been another factor…but it actually relates directly to the rise of CSI. Law & Order switched timeslots this year in order to avoid CSI: New York, as the rise of CBS’ procedurals basically forced them to the sidelines. The reality is that CSI changed everything, and Law & Order has been the greatest victim of its rise.

2. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order: Trial By Jury

Dick Wolf got greedy. In developing these three shows he was certainly branching out into new territory, and all shows have their moments, but the reality is that the inevitable result of developing these sisters shows would be the loss of the mothership’s reputation.

Special Victims Unit arrived in 1999, while Law & Order was still the only game in town. Now, NBC had two hours of procedural crime to build new shows, and Dick Wolf was raking in twice the cash (And even more when it came time for syndication, which nets him millions. Special Victims Unit followed the same basic formula as the Mothership, and yet over time it has developed into something entirely different. While Wolf is unwilling to really mess with the original structure on Law & Order, he has instead branched out into more dramatic, more emotional and less structured territory on SVU. The show has moved further and further away from the law portion of its stories, and further into the investigation of each individual case and the detectives who handle them. This makes it stand out, and in many ways it becomes a more substantial show because of it. It makes Law & Order look bad because it doesn’t have that much depth, and its characters don’t get to have nearly as much involvement in the cases they deal with.

And yet, on the other side of the spectrum, Criminal Intent is just an abomination. It’s focus on the criminals themselves has led to some fine guest spots for actors, and there has been some interesting cases, but on the whole it’s just a waste of time. It doesn’t bring anything truly new to the table, and its cast of characters is neurotic and weird as opposed to interesting and relatable. It’s effect on the Law & Order name was dividing it too thin, and reflecting badly upon it. The show was developed in 2001, and I seriously doubt it was a coincidence; with the rise of CSI, NBC wanted to make sure that the procedural bandwagon was well jumped upon.

At the time, it led to three successful shows, but NBC has never been one for long-term planning. Instead of three successful shows they’re now left with the success of Special Victims Unit, the plummeting ratings of Criminal Intent, and the struggles of Law & Order to tackle even the weakest of competitions. Plus, let’s not forget the third cousin: Law & Order: Trial By Jury lasted only a season on NBC and failed to ignite any ratings fire. Its failure was the final nail in the coffin that the Law & Order brand had been weakened so much that it was no longer able to guarantee a hit for NBC.

3. The Revolving Door

There was a time when the space between characters exiting or entering Law & Order was at least a few years. While there has been staff changes in every single role over the years, the most substantial one has been that of Jack McCoy’s Assistant District Attorney. The role has been through quite a few famous names: Jill Hennessy before Crossing Jordan, Angie Harmon before…marrying a football player and starring in Agent Cody Banks, and recently Elisabeth Rohm who has done nothing of interest since her departure. While Carey Lowell was in between them there, the reality is that each of these ADAs lasted (at the very least) a few seasons before exiting the show for greener pastures.

Image Link: New York Times – Law & Order Cast History (2006)

And then were was ADA Borgia, introduced at the beginning of one season and then unceremoniously killed off, her replacement (Alana de la Garza) taking over immediately. Suddenly, the show had three different ADAs in three different years. This might have been fine if it didn’t also coincide with the passing of the beloved Jerry Orbach, whose Lennie Briscoe had been the show’s staple for over a decade. He was replaced by Dennis Farina, but then he left the show before the 2006-2007 season and was replaced by Milena Govich (The first female beat cop in the show’s history, pictured below). While this would have actually meant something perhaps a season earlier, instead now it was one of a half dozen cast changes the show had experienced in just two years.

What was once a door you opened every couple of years was now a revolving one. Even long-standing cast member, like Jesse L. Martin, had to disappear for a few episodes, resulting in what was then a ¾ new team. Law & Order had survived so many cast changes in the past because you immediately became familiar with these characters within the formula, and usually only one switched out at a time. With so many changes, it was easy to get disconnected from the show in comparison to others (like CSI) that have the same cast year over year.

4. “Ripped from the Headlines” in the Information Age

Law & Order was one of the first shows to blatantly dramatize recent events (scandals, court cases, etc.) in order to attach themselves onto the bandwagon of media surrounding those events. And, for quite some time, this had a great deal of effect. When Law & Order covered an event, you knew that it was something truly big. It was a signifier of the cultural relevance of the series, and showcased its ability to impact the lives of its viewers.

Now, in the early 1990s Law & Order’s lead time on those episodes made them a little late, maybe, but chances are that the debate had not rested on an issue. However, since that point, 24-hour cable news has become our standard. The Internet has opened up new methods of communication that have news saturated within a week instead of within a month. In this new information age in which we live, “ripped from the headlines” just doesn’t have the same effect it used to.

Now, when Law & Order deals with a situation, it’s just a reaction of “Oh, that? I got done with that ages ago, but you go ahead there, Dick Wolf, and see what you can do with it.” We no longer need Law & Order to dramatize current events because the media does it for us within minutes of it making air. The death of Anna Nicole Smith would, fifteen years ago, have made a much different impact than it made today, and perhaps an episode of Law & Order may have been newsworthy. Now, all it would be is beating a dead horse that the media already slaughtered within days of the event taking place. One of Law & Order prime sources for media attention and prestige has basically become obsolete in its 17th season, and the show is weakening because of it.

5. A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

The pun in the title of this particular phenomena wasn’t intentional, but we’re going to keep it there. For, you see, Law & Order hasn’t just sat back and taken this type of punishment. They have made attempts to engage in more modern discourses, and have gone out of their way to engage grittier storylines. However, the problem is that any time this occurs it feels wrong. It feels like it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing, its own mode of operation still the most substantial aspect of its existence.

This can be seen most clearly in the departure of Elisabeth Rohm’s ADA Southerlyn in 2005 with a parting line which resulted in a great deal of commotion amongst long-term fans. The character, like many ADAs before her, had been woefully underwritten, and we knew nothing about her outside of her cold demeanor. And yet, when she was fired from her position, she left with a parting blow: “This is because I’m a lesbian, isn’t it?” It came out of nowhere: it has no back story, no basis, and no time for discussion. It was a shock-jock move that was designed in order to gain attention for being edgy…but that wasn’t edgy, it was desperate. While other shows were actually dealing with real characters with real issues including their sexuality, Law & Order was years behind the curve.

Where does Law & Order go from here?

And really, in direct relation to the last point, it has nowhere to go. Law & Order is defined by its formula, and no matter how hard it tries it will never be able to avoid it. While Special Victims Unit can branch out due to its lack of a 17-year history, the mothership just doesn’t have that ability. It is a show so defined by its tradition that it has no easy option in terms of creatively reinvigorating itself. It’s tried to bring in new cast members, and yet its spiral has continued because the show is spread so thin. It needs to cover two sides of a crime, which keeps them from having a break-out dramatic performance like Mariska Hargitay on SVU. If this is the case, what options does the show really have?

Dumping Sam Waterston? Theoretically an option, sure, but I think that his performance is integral to the show’s structure. He is pretty well iconic with the show at this point, and in order to keep around loyal fans I think you need to keep around a few familiar faces. Waterston is the only familiar face they’ve really got left, especially after the passing of Jerry Orbach, and while Jesse L. Martin offers some image power it’s not enough. If the show is going to succeed, Sam Waterston needs to be there.

Changing the Structure? This would be great if there was an easy option, but there isn’t. This would be fine if there wasn’t a good dozen similar shows that have already covered basically every different perspective. Justice, FOX’s recently failed drama, focused on the defence side of things. Their own Trial by Jury focused on, well, Juries. Dick Wolf developed Conviction to attempt to make a Grey’s Anatomy for lawyers, but David E. Kelly had already provided Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal to cover that area. On the crime side of things you’ve got Criminal Minds and The Closer for profiling, SVU for sex offenders, NCIS for Naval Crime (Which is just ridiculous, but anyways), and multiple CSIs for all sorts of regionally based offenses. Law & Order comes from a time where you didn’t need a gimmick; now, as it fails, it finds that the gimmick bin has been picked over, and there’s nothing left for Dick Wolf to work with.

Improving the Show’s Quality? This is a great idea in theory, but it has a problem: NBC will not be willing to give them more money. If they want to shoot more locations, bring in bigger guest stars, or branch out into larger-scale crimes, there simply won’t be the money for them to do so. While Special Victims Unit has some movement in terms of its budget, considering its high ratings in key advertising demographics, Law & Order no longer holds the prestige to be able to demand such issues.

So, then, considering all of this, what is NBC supposed to do? With ratings sinking, Dick Wolf knows that the writing could be on the wall. What was once a key part of NBC’s lineup is now just another Friday night crime show, and while the network found some success this year’s they’re still trying to regain their lost luster. Does Law & Order have a real role in the new NBC, one built on bringing in younger viewers with shows like Heroes and The Office? Would canceling the show, and Criminal Intent, give Special Victims Unit a chance of continuing its success into the future without the same fate as the mothership?

Dick Wolf is currently trying to negotiate budget cuts and some retooling in order to keep Law & Order on the air to see its 400th episode early next season. He’s trying to hold onto whatever power he has left, with multiple failed shows, two struggling ones and a single beacon of hope. Syndication will continue to make him millions, so Dick Wolf is fighting for mostly his pride here, and the pride of the show that made millions of people more aware than ever about what goes on in our police and justice systems.

I think that’s a pride worth fighting for, and I think that Law & Order has enough history to deserve to see a milestone met. I think that NBC has a lot of shows that have peaked (Crossing Jordan, The Apprentice) that will likely be leaving, and they lack any true breakout dramas outside of Heroes. If they’re going to keep one of these shows around, I think that there is still value in Law & Order. Personally, if I were in charge, I’d probably give it a final season.

But, we won’t find out for a few more weeks. After 17 years on the air, Law & Order’s fate will come down to the mid-may Upfronts. One decision, one day, will decide the fate of Jack McCoy and company. If you really want the series to continue, my suggestion is simple: watch it. This is a show that needs viewers to stay alive, and a lot of luck. Will the show be back in the fall? My guess is no. And that, ladies and gentlemen, would be the end of an era. The fall of the mothership. The final banging of the gavel.


Filed under Law & Order, NBC, Television

3 responses to “Disorder in the Court: The Fall of ‘Law & Order’

  1. John Gillette

    Another thing that is killing it is the tendency in the last few years to become a liberal talking point. It’s George Bush’s fault. It’s the Pentagons’s fault. Oh, the NRA is at the root of all evil in the country. According to the show, you can drive from New York into Connecticut and buy a gun and drive back. It doesn’t work that way. Everyone in the military above the rank of Corporal is a venal dishonest, member of a gigantic conspiracy. What you have is a show which has deteriorated into political showcase for the Manhattan Hamptons crowd. People all over the rest of the country see it, and say, blllltth, are they that stupid? Don’t they know any better? Haven’t they tried to research anything about it?

    And what happens, they turn it off.

  2. Pingback: Cultural News Bytes: Law & Order to TNT, 'Idol' Blake's Obscure Bee Gees selection « Cultural Learnings

  3. Richard Miller

    It must be remembered that, ideology aside, prime-time TV is a part of pop culture. Pop culture is by definition governed by an adolescent mentality. The reason L&O is getting buried by CSI is that the characters over there are hipper, less “book ’em Danno”. Sam Waterston is no match for the suave, urbane David Caruso. Elizabeth Rohm, as well as her many predecessors and successors, may be sexy, but they’re no match for Emily Procter. Plus, the pop audience has always had a law in place more binding than any of those enforced by characters in either series–if something has been around just about forever, it is by definition (this next word is sung, not spoken) “boorrrrr-innngggg”. One strange fact that I point out to acquaintances that most haven’t noticed is that the original L&O is so story-driven that not one character in the 2006-07 season was around when the show started these many years ago. Maybe that’s it–pop entertainment is supposed to be star-driven, and L&O broke that mold.

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