Law & Order Is the Greatest Television Series of All Time and All Dissenting Opinions Are Wrong
It’s a question regularly asked by articles and thinkpieces everywhere. “What’s the greatest television series of all time?”
“Lost!” someone replies, causing the comments section to devolve into a fight over whether or not the finale was bad, which then leads to whether or not the Dexter finale was bad, which then leads to a discussion of the worst finales of all time, which leads someone to (correctly) mention the original Roseanne finale, which leads to a discussion of the Roseanne revival and Roseanne Barr, which, like all discussions on the Internet, leads to a political argument.
“I Love Lucy,” someone else replies. Everyone agrees that they don’t make them like they used to, all the while blissfully ignoring how wildly unhealthy Lucy and Ricky’s marriage was.
“Firefly still remains the most underrated show of all time,” lies someone who considers themselves very unique and quirky.
“What about Friends?” replies some poor, lost soul who has been led astray by a distant acquaintance’s Facebook link.
Of course, any true television aficionado knows that all of these answers are incorrect. Sure, they all have aspects of greatness, and they may appear on a list of, perhaps, The 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. I will also admit to having never watched a single second of Lost, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t need to. I know what the greatest television series of all time is: Law & Order. You can feel free to leave your dissenting opinions in the comments, but I will warn you ahead of time that they are completely wrong.
Law & Order (1990–2010) was a crime procedural that ran on NBC. It was notable for its format, which generally (though not always) divided episodes in half, with the first thirty minutes being dedicated to the police (Law) and the second thirty being dedicated to the prosecutors (Order). You might want to argue that the police should be Order and that the prosecutors should be Law, and I would not disagree with you, but this is Dick Wolf’s world and we are all just living in it. Ultimately, the show became a massive success and fairly dependable in terms of ratings, which meant that NBC was willing to just keep renewing it for twenty years (though I will note again that we all, even NBC, live under Dick Wolf’s watch). Its bigger impact, however, was a cultural one — it was the first crime procedural of its kind and completely redefined the television genre. Without Law & Order, there would be no CSI (blech), no NCIS, and no Criminal Minds, just to name a few. Ironically, CBS passed on the original pilot for Law & Order in 1988.
Over the years, Law & Order became a cultural touchstone. Any actor who came out of New York City or happened to be in New York City for a layover was on it at least once (but usually somewhere between three and twenty-seven times). Prior to the rise of streaming services, to be home sick and watch anything besides a Law & Order marathon on TNT (TNT plays nothing else during the day) was a federal crime. Everyone knows Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe, and anyone who has watched more than five minutes of any given episode (everyone in the United States) also knows Anita Van Buren, Mike Logan, Ed Green, and Serena Southerlyn (who was not fired for being a lesbian). It also spawned two successful spinoffs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit¹ and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.² It even has an international adaptation, Law & Order: UK, which is fabulous and woefully underwatched.³
To all of this, you might be thinking, “Sure, Law & Order is influential and entertaining. It has aspects of greatness and it may appear on a list of, perhaps, The 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. But the greatest?” To which I say: Have you not been paying attention? Law & Order is the greatest television series of all time, and all dissenting opinions are wrong.
In the first episode of Law & Order, “Prescription for Death,”⁴ Sergeant Max Greevey and Detective Mike Logan⁵ interview a hospital’s Chief of Medicine, who states that being a diagnostician is like being a detective, going on to note that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes partly off of Dr. Joseph Bell. A few minutes later, as Greevey and Logan are flipping through paperwork, Logan hands Greevey a file and quips, “Proceed, Sherlock.” These quick references to Sherlock Holmes are a nod to the audience — these characters may be detectives, and this may be a mystery, but they are not Sherlock Holmes. They are normal, everyday people who happen to be cops. They’re bright, they’re good at what they do, and you may even come to love them⁶, but these stories are not about them. That’s why Law & Order was able to continually change up its cast. That’s why it’s the perfect show to watch mindlessly (or, in my case, very mindfully indeed) on a sick day. Like a mystery series twenty novels long, it helps to read every single novel, in order, but you certainly don’t have to. There might be minor character arcs going on in the background, and there might be a fun throwback if you stick around, but you can also just pop in any time you want. From the beginning, our lord and master Dick Wolf wanted the show to be suffused with realism, which meant that superdetectives need not apply.⁷
But of course, the true joy of Law & Order comes from watching it as it was meant to be watched: as a comedy. Consider the completely nonsensical scene where Arthur Branch explains to Serena Southerlyn in great detail why he is firing her, only to have her, completely and utterly out of nowhere, respond, “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” It is an iconic moment in television for all of the wrong reasons, but it is very enjoyable if you’re watching Law & Order as a comedy. Jack McCoy getting drunk in a bar after witnessing an execution, then exclaiming happily, “I know that guy!” when he sees Adam Schiff⁸ on TV? Comedy gold. Mike Cutter lying about having a bachelor’s degree for twenty years? Funny because, gosh, that’s so Mike, but also funny because it helps you realize just how inept both Hudson University⁹ (Mike’s law school alma mater) and the District Attorney’s office are at fact checking anything. How do all those people manage to get guns into the courthouse, anyway? Wacky hijinks, that’s how.
There are also the great romances of Law & Order. The main characters of Law & Order were very rarely shown having sex, and certainly never with each other, but trust me, it happened. The most famous romance is, of course, the affair between Jack McCoy and Claire Kincaid. On screen, they simply flirted and sat much closer together than was really necessary. The affair wasn’t confirmed until years after Claire’s death. Then there’s Mike Cutter and Connie Rubirosa, who I suppose, technically, canonically, never actually hooked up, but they definitely wanted to and in my head they definitely did.¹⁰ It was also confirmed, years and years after they spent any screen time together, that Mike Logan and Elizabeth Olivet had an affair, and in interviews Carolyn McCormick claimed that she played Olivet as having a bit of a crush on Ben Stone. Ben Stone, meanwhile, had a friendly and sexual tension-filled (this is not up for debate) rivalry with Shambala Green. In fact, Michael Moriarty and Lorraine Toussaint approached the showrunners about the two characters having an explicit romance, but the showrunners said no because, at the time (this was still very early days), the show was very strictly “no personal lives.” They also said no, I suspect, because their hearts were filled with hatred.
The reasons why Law & Order is the greatest television show ever made are endless and, of course, completely obvious. It would be foolish of me to go on any longer, as everyone knows that this is the truth and that there is no reason to fight it. Whether you’re in it for the wacky hijinks (Mike Cutter forging a coroner’s report? Jack McCoy suspending habeas corpus? Hilarity.), the barely there and rarely fulfilling romantic arcs, the iconic theme song that is perfect to strip tease to when you and your significant other are playing cops and robbers, the even more iconic “CHUNG CHUNG” sound¹¹, or simply a familiar and comforting show to watch while lying feverish on the couch, Law & Order is the perfect show. It is always entertaining, always compelling, and always relevant.
Yes, Law & Order has many aspects of greatness, and it would certainly have a spot on a list of, perhaps, The 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. That spot would be number one.¹²
¹ SVU is objectively the worst Law & Order that survived more than one season. This is not up for discussion.
² CI is my subjective favorite, but, as Law & Order is objectively the best show of all time, it is also objectively the best Law & Order.
³ It should be noted that SVU and CI also have their own international adaptations. Both have Russian adaptations, while CI also has a French adaptation.
⁴ This is not the same episode as the original pilot that CBS rejected in 1988. That episode, “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman,” aired as the sixth episode of season one. This all seems well and good, except for the fact that they have some rando as District Attorney instead of Adam Schiff. Fortunately, this is Law & Order, and we are not concerned about these things.
⁵ The love of my life.
⁶ Not you, Rey Curtis.
⁷ This got thrown out the window when René Balcer developed Criminal Intent and its star, Detective Robert Goren. Like Arthur Conan Doyle before him, Balcer based Goren on a fictional detective (in this case, Sherlock Holmes, along with some others) and a doctor, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz. Goren was a larger than life detective who, along with his partner Detective Alex Eames, therefore became the focus of the show. Hence why the show struggled whenever casting changes were made.
⁹ I should say the celebrated Hudson University. I definitely would have gone there for college (and been murdered) if it actually existed.
¹⁰ And had Law & Order returned for season twenty-one like it was supposed to, Alana de la Garza’s pregnancy would have been written into the show (confirmed) and it definitely would have been Mike Cutter’s baby (unconfirmed).
¹¹ It is not “DOINK DOINK.” That is not even a real sound that can be made. I refuse to discuss this.
¹² The second greatest television series of all time is Frasier. This will be discussed at a later date.