‘I specifically asked for him to be put on suicide watch. Apparently, here at Riker’s, that means that they watch you commit suicide.’ – Detective Lennie Briscoe
George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Richard Brooks, Jeremy Sisto, Paul Sorvino, Linus Roache, Alana de la Garza, Sam Waterson, Jerry Orbach, Diane Wiest, Dennis Farina
Identikit: Police procedural come legal drama split equally between the cops who do the arresting and the lawyers who prosecute.
A tight format, with its ‘law’ and ‘order’ segments, gave the series a winning formula for 20 years, taking in Emmy awards and leading to a several major franchise of spin-offs. Telling the criminal-pursuit story and then the trial story meant that plotting and characterisation was extremely pared down, but this didn’t prevent the show from giving us good protagonists and memorable stories about challenging dilemmas. The series, created by Dick Wolf, was similar to a 1963 series called Arrest and Trial and a UK series also called Law and Order, with Wolf injecting a good dose of realism into the dramas and lining up the prosecution instead of the defence to be the heroes. Jerry Orbach, twice turned down in favour of George Dzundza and Paul Sorvino, eventually became a memorable Lennie Briscoe, while Sam Waterston (as assistant DA Jack McCoy), Chris Noth (detective Mike Logan), Diane Wiest (DA Nora Lewin) and Dennis Farina (detective Joe Fontana) all stood out in a terrific, evolving cast. Storylines were often ‘ripped from the headlines’, inspired by real murder, bribery or rape cases, some with complex racial elements. Each 50-minute episode was slick, packed with plot and subplot, and filmed on handheld cameras and snappily edited. The series was cancelled by NBC in 2010, meaning it narrowly missed usurping Gunsmoke as primetime TV’s longest-running drama.
Spin-offs: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, LA, and overseas revamps set in Paris, Russia and London.
Classic episode: Savages (season 6) – The death penalty has just been reinstated in New York. When an unlikely suspect murders an undercover cop, prosecutors must decide whether to press for capital punishment. DA McCoy (Sam Waterston) wants it, while Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) argues powerfully against. An excellent episode with a politically charged storyline.
Watercooler fact: When Chris Noth was jettisoned from the show by head honcho Dick Wolf, fans and critics were stunned and disappointed. Wolf had felt there was not enough dramatic contrast between Noth’s Mike Logan and Jerry Orbach’s Briscoe. But years later, Noth convinced Wolf to make the TV movie Exiled to wrap up Logan’s story, and Noth followed that up by returning as Logan for two seasons in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.