(1990 - 2010)
There are many police procedurals. But none are better than Law and Order.
Originally conceived by creator Dick Wolf, each episode's two-part structure was designed as a marketing tool. He thought he would have a better chance to sell an hour-long show into syndication if each episode could be broken up into half hour chunks.
But this money-making scheme turned out to be a wonderful narrative device. Law and Order had all of the gritty investigation of a detective show and all of the legal labyrinths of a court room drama.
One of the other key decisions was to make the show plot-centric. While you got to know the characters, for the most part they are incidental to the story. New viewers could jump on at any time and feel completely at ease watching the show. In fact, often on syndication they will show the most of the 456 episodes in random order.
That isn't to say that performances weren't great. Chris Noth, Michael Moriarty, Jerry Orbach, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jill Hennessy, Benjamin Bratt, Carey Lowell, Angie Harmon, Jesse L. Martin, and Denise Farina all deliver top notch performances. But the most memorable is of course the perpetually outraged Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy. Waterston played him pitch perfect where I loved him and hated him sometimes at the same time.
Another bold decision that made the show so riveting was the uncertainty of the outcome. Yes, other shows had broken the Perry Mason model of winning every case (even though there was a case Perry lost, but that is neither here nor there). But Law and Order did it with such intensity that it had you riveted until the final jury decision, and sometimes even after. Who could forget that horrible line from Ben Stone after the drug kingpin trial: "She doesn't have an uncle."
The show's biggest drawback is when it tried to be too contemporary. I know that this show was supposed to be "ripped from the headlines." But often it would be used as a commentary on a current social phenomenon. This would often make the show's material too dated too quickly. The show also would start to lose a lot of its cache when it used the episode to promote or attack a particular political point of view. Not only does this alienate an audience, it also makes for bad storytelling.
This was the first episode that really sold me on the complexity of the world of Law and Order. A young black man was shot. He was an honors college student working his way out of a bad neighborhood. It was believed that the white cop who shot him planted a gun on him. But as the story unfolds, it turns out that the young man also sold drugs. But this revelation is devastating to the community, so the leaders want the police to cover it up. This episode did not take any easy path to its resolution, nor was the answer the mystery obvious. I also found it engaging as it brought up fundamental ideas like the value of truth for its own sake.
JUMP THE SHARK
This is not a particularly bad episode. It just marks the departure of Denis Farina from the cast. With the loss of the amazing Jerry Orbach as Lenny Briscoe, I found Farina to be a suitable and competent replacement. But with him gone, something was lost in the show and was never the same. The dynamic between the characters never crackled like it did before.
I know that everyone is supposed to say that the worst episode of the series is "Aftershock" (6x23). This episode is almost universally panned by all Law and Order fans because it is the only episode that does not follow the Law and Order structure at all but instead follows the personal lives of the four leads. While I agree the episode is jarring, I actually don't mind it. What I do mind is "Progeny." The show would often deal with issues of abortion, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. But never had the show been so one-sided as showing the pro-abortioners as rational and fair-minded and the pro-lifers as insane wackos. Horrible. As a Catholic I sometimes had a strained relationship with this show as it was sometimes respectful and sometimes very much not.
"D-Girl," "Turnaround," and "Showtime"
This was Law and Order firing on all cylinders in a multi-episode arc with several twists and turns. It also guess stars the amazing Lauren Graham that features a sub-plot with her and Benjamin Bratt's Ray Curtis. The show freshens itself up with a new location and really takes its time to let the story unfold. Combined, these three episodes feel like feature film, and it is better than most court-room drama movies produced. Excellent.
There were times Law and Order grated. But with over 400 episodes over 20 years, that is bound to happen. Regardless, Law and Order remained a pillar of television for 2 decades and has earned its place on this list.