And The Shocking Twist Ending to Its Shocking Ending
I don’t think there’s a viewer in the past two generations of television that can remember a period where Dick Wolf’s Law & Order was not on the air. It’s not just that it ran for 20 seasons. Or that it spawned, at last count, seven spinoffs. (Two barely lasted a season, and one of them was cancelled in the womb.) It’s that because of syndication, it has always been on the air. There are some channels that seem to run nothing but Law & Order reruns. Everything about the series — the opening narration, the ripped from the headlines feel, almost every major star that the series made or the actor who found their role of a lifetime in it, and of course, that sound which has actually entered the consciousness even though we just can’t tell what instruments are making.
Law and Order has just been there, even a decade after its cancellation. There’s an excellent possibility that, even though the series aired nearly five hundred episodes that by this point in time there are viewers — and I count myself among them — who have seen every single episode so many times that may now be able to identify them just by the opening two minutes: certainly by the time whichever two detectives working the beat are called on to the scene. Hell, I’m willing to bet there are some of us who could tune in mid-episode and still know which one it was within thirty seconds. That’s how much it’s permeated the landscape.
And everybody has their favorite characters. There are those who never got over Chris Noth’s Mike Logan being exiled to Staten Island, though it worked out great for Noth in the end. There are those who are so familiar with Jerry Orbach witticisms that it might come as a shock to remember he wasn’t the first — or even the second — elder statesman detective on the series. And we all have our favorite young female ADA assisting Sam Waterston. (For my father it will always be Jill Hennessy’s Claire Kincaid.)
So perhaps, given the way that the every network in the world has rebooted some franchise series and considering how key Dick Wolf has been to NBC for going on thirty years, it was perhaps inevitable that NBC announced a revival of the original Law and Order earlier this year. And I have no doubt that there were the usual sighs and groans about why on earth NBC keeps rebooting or continuing old series rather than bringing back fresher ones. (Of course when you consider the dozens of cast changes by my calculations the writers ‘rebooted’ the show at least three times.) But in a weird there’s a bizarre kind of logic in bringing back Law and Order, considering Wolf and company never got a chance to properly end it.
I suspect you can hear the strings going up like they did at a major plot twist when you wrote that last sentence. “Wait a minute!” you’re saying to yourself. “But the series ran for twenty years. Surely it ended because the writers were done with it!” That’s the thing. They didn’t. I realize it can be hard to tell when you see the final episode ‘Rubber Room’. The episode ends at a going away party for Lt. Van Buren (S. Epatha Merekson, the actress who lasted the longest in the series original run — seventeen years) as the cast gathers around to celebrate her retirement. The case has been solved and there’s a celebratory air that seems to be setting the stage for a goodbye.
The thing is it only seemed like a final episode. The very nature of the procedural emphasizing plot over character had a way of making all season finales seem like just another story. Occasionally the series would direct reference the departure of a major character — see the fourth season finale where Michael Moriarty’s Ben Stone exited or the ninth season finale where Benjamin Bratt’s Rey Curtis left — but a lot of the time you wouldn’t know a character had left the series until the next season premiered and new characters just showed up. This happened more times than I can count, so I won’t be specific. The finale of Season 20 only would seem like a last episode to someone who had never watched the series before.
And indeed, it caught a lot of people by surprise when the series was not on NBC’s fall lineup for the 2010–2011 season. (30 Rock actually had Alec Baldwin’s character make a joke about how little sense this made when he heard about it — and his character was an executive at NBC.) Admittedly Wolf had mentioned that he wanted Law and Order to make it to twenty seasons so it could officially tie Gunsmoke for the prime-time series with the longest run on the air, but he’d never given any indication that he’d necessarily wanted to end the show after it reached that mark. (The fact that SVU has gone into season 23 shows that he was never wed to that spinoff lasting longer then the original either.) The ratings had dropped quite a bit over the last few years of its run, but the reviews had improved and the ratings were still solid — certainly by the standards of a network that was at the time, tottering on fourth place.
So if Law and Order wasn’t going to end, why was it cancelled? There was a lot of terrible decision made by the executives running NBC at this time much of which was leading to the networks near collapse. (Just two years NBC would cancel Harry’s Law, a Kathy Bates led courtroom drama that had solid reviews and very good ratings for reasons that are inexplicable even to this day.) Wolf, who has always been a good soldier for NBC, never public complained about it to the network and has remained to this day a willing partner with so many of his programs. (Hell, two nights of prime time are basically his territory for the network.) But maybe in the age of the revival — and given that NBC’s numbers are starting to teeter yet again — one or the other agreed to bring the flagship show back.
Now the more pressing question: should there be more Law and Order? It’s not exactly like millions of viewers have been wondering what these characters have been doing for the last decade: I’m willing to be all but the most devoted fan can even remember who played the cast in the final season of Law and Order. (And aren’t Anthony Anderson and Sam Waterston busy right now?) It’s not like we need more Law and Order episodes; I’m willing to be even after the past decades, there are just as many viewers who still haven’t gotten through the original series. Considering every other series on network television is a procedural — and given the immense amount of scrutiny the procedural has undergone the last few years — it’s not like there’s a need for the return of another one. Right now, the only people might really need a Law and Order reboot are the hundreds of professional New York actors who haven’t had much work since Broadway was locked down at the height of the pandemic.
Besides, considering the series ripped from the headlines feel, what kind of storylines would we get? Police involved shooting by racist cops. The series covered that multiple times. Governor is guilty of sexual misconduct? A major storyline of Seasons 18 and 19. And those are just the least controversial ones? Does anyone really want to see murder’s being done during quarantine, BLM demonstrations and God forbid an investigation into a former president’s misconduct? (Believe it or not, we actually got a variation of that in Season 16.)
So yes, NBC is going to revive Law and Order and it may end up being a success. I really can’t bring myself to care one way or another. Besides, it really doesn’t matter whether I end up watching it live or not — one way or another, it’ll end up in syndication and we’ll all end up seeing what happens. That is the story.