September 13, 1990
Sam Waterson as Jack McCoy
S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren
Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe
Steven Hill as D.A. Adam Schiff
Jesse L. Martin as Detective Ed Green
"Law & Order" is a blended police procedural and courtroom drama created by Dick Wolf. The series ran for 20 seasons on NBC, from 1990 to 2010, with 456 episodes, spawning four American spinoffs and a movie. It is tied with "Gunsmoke" as the second-longest-running primetime American TV series, behind "The Simpsons." The structure for the one-hour show is a two-part approach: The first half focuses on NYPD homicide detectives investigating a crime - often derived from a real-life headline - and apprehending a suspect. The second half takes place in the courtroom, with the district attorney prosecuting the defendant.
"Law & Order" is known for its revolving cast. The series managed to keep a unifying identity even as its familiar faces were replaced with new ones over the years. Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson, "The Closer," "Deception") had the longest run, at 17 seasons. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterson, "The Newsroom," "Grace and Frankie") was right behind her at 16. D.A. Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, "Mission: Impossible," "The Firm") was a main character for the first 10 seasons, making him the longest-running character from the original cast. Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach, "House of Mouse," "Law & Order: Trial by Jury") had a 12-season arc, and Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin, "Smash," "The Flash") was on the show for nine seasons.
The show is set in New York City and was shot on location. Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg as well as other prominent New York figures appeared on the show. The "ripped from the headlines" approach to the plot evolved over time. In earlier seasons, storylines on the show tend to stick closely to actual cases, while in later seasons the writers take more liberty, using the bones of a case as a starting point but changing and adding things (such as murder) to suit the drama. For example, the Season 14 episode "Floater" was based on the trial of New York Supreme Court Justice Gerald Garson, who was convicted of taking bribes to alter the verdicts of divorce cases. In the "Law & Order" version, he tampers with murder cases. In Episode 9 of Season 1, titled "Indifference," the narrator reads a disclaimer informing the viewer that the case is based on real life (the Lisa Steinberg murder case) and explaining the outcome of the real case. This is the only time in the show's history that such a disclaimer was read.
"Law & Order" creates tension and suspense through the complex interaction of its many characters, from the criminals to the defense attorneys, any of which can have shadowy intentions hidden up their sleeves. In addition to the tension and twists, the chemistry among the cast mainstays kept viewers emotionally engaged over two decades. Some of the most popular episodes include Season 6's "Aftershock," in which Detectives Briscoe and Curtis (Benjamin Bratt, "Private Practice") travel to Attica to witness the execution of a man whom they arrested and convicted; Season 13's "Couples," in which Briscoe and Green solve four murders and a kidnapping in one day; and Season 20's "Rubber Room," which sees Detectives Lupo (Jeremy Sisto, "Suburgatory") and Bernard (Anthony Anderson, "Black-ish") navigate a string of misleading clues as they investigate a threat to blow up a school.
The series collected many awards and nominations over its long run, including an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1997. The show's cast and crew have also taken home hardware from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, ALMA Awards, GLAAD Media Awards and Peabody Awards, among others. Much like "Hill Street Blues" is credited with paving the way for cop dramas, "Law & Order" helped clear a space for the many crime- and investigation-based shows that are now household names, such as "NYPD Blue," "NCIS" and "CSI."
"Law & Order" is also more than a show; it is often referred to as "The Mother Ship" of what is now a franchise. "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has been on the air since 1999. "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" ran for 10 seasons, from 2001 to 2011. "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" ran for one season in 2005-2006, and "Law & Order: LA" ran for one season in 2010-2011. "Exiled: A Law & Order Movie" came out in 1998 and starred Chris Noth ("The Good Wife"), who starred on the first five seasons of "Law & Order" as Detective Mike Logan. And the original series has been adapted for British television - "Law & Order: UK" has been running since 2009. There have been other international adaptions of the franchise as well as several video games.
Countless stars and guest stars have appeared on "Law & Order." The list includes Dann Florek ("Law & Order: SVU"), Michael Moriarty ("Courage Under Fire"), Richard Brooks ("Being Mary Jane"), Alana de la Garza ("Forever"), Linus Roache ("Vikings"), George Grizzard ("Flags of Our Fathers"), Tovah Feldshuh ("Flesh and Bone"), Bob Dishy ("Don Juan DeMarco"), James Earl Jones ("The Lion King"), Samuel L. Jackson ("Django Unchained"), Burt Young ("Rocky"), Werner Klemperer ("Hogan's Heroes"), Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife"), Claire Danes ("Homeland"), Robert Klein ("Two Weeks Notice"), Melissa Leo ("Homicide"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"), Jennifer Garner ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Ty Burrell ("Modern Family"), Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), Kate Mara ("House of Cards"), John Krasinski ("The Office"), Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty"), Peter Facinelli ("Nurse Jackie"), Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air"), Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), Clark Gregg ("The Avengers"), Amanda Peet ("Togetherness"), Peter Sarsgaard ("The Slap"), Allison Janney ("Mom"), Michael Pitt ("Boardwalk Empire"), Sarah Paulson ("American Horror Story"), Chris Messina ("The Mindy Project"), William H. Macy ("Shameless") and Maura Tierney ("The Affair").