Imagine it’s the fall of 1990 and you’re hearing this sound coming out of your television for the first time. What are you thinking? Does it wash over you as some sort of innovative television program or does it not register anything at all? Was it just on in the background or were you watching your TV closely? Can anyone even remember what life was like before Law & Order, the famous NBC television show that ran for 20 years and over 450 episodes, a series that would spawn an ever-expanding television franchise, consisting of at least 8 spin-offs and an additional 740 odd episodes of television? Each one of these 1200-plus episodes are constantly being rerun in syndication somewhere on your cable box. Law & Order pretty much defines what television IS to viewers of a certain age. With the recent, and unexpected, news of NBC renewing the series for a 21st season, bringing it back from cancellation, I thought it’d be worth looking back to where it all began, with the first season of Law & Order.
THE PREMISE AND THE STYLE
As the iconic opening narration by Steven Zirnkilton says, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.” Series creator Dick Wolf came up with the brilliant idea of dividing an hour long drama into two half-hour installments following a crime, usually a homicide, as it is investigated by a pair of detectives in the first half, while the second half focuses on the courtroom dealings stemming from the investigation, a straightforward, easily repeatable formula that became the series’ backbone. An endless assortment of stories famously “ripped from the headlines” of tabloids like the New York Post became the series’ bread and butter, providing digestible hour long stories with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. This was all there from the start, with a few minor growing pains here and there.
What I really want to talk about is the style of Law & Order. From the Fitz Quadrata font taken straight from the actual New York City Police Department plaza, to the newspaper photo-esque opening sequence with the iconic Mike Post theme tune, Law & Order pretty much had a set style from Day 1. It has essentially remained unchanged since it first aired in 1990. It’s gotten to the point where people have seen it so much that it probably doesn’t even register how perfect it is when you watch an episode repeated on TNT today. But besides that, the cinematography is a place where Law & Order really shines. While it might not seem like much today, the eye-level documentary style of the show really set it apart from other series of the 1990s. I would even go as far as saying Law & Order, on a visual level, is the defining drama of that decade. The pilot episode shot on 16mm film is the show at its most gritty. When the series finally began production, they began shooting on slick Panavision cameras that made you feel like you were really on a Manhattan street corner, next to detectives, talking to some schmo trying to unload a van.
The first season introduces us to our first set of the infamously replaceable Law & Order characters. I’ll start with the police of the 27th Precinct. In season one, George Dzundza plays Sgt. Max Greevy, the portly senior detective that’s been around the block more than once. Greevy is a family man with kids and a wife who are often mentioned but never seen. (A series rule: the personal lives add dimension to the dialogue rather than as story opportunities in and of themselves.) Dzundza plays Greevy as a man stuck in the bubble of parenthood for most of the 1980s and frequently shocked at the state of then-present day New York. As a result, he tends to lean more conservative on social issues than his partner, Logan.
Junior detective Mike Logan, played by Chris Noth, is the more animated of the pair. He’s a young hotshot detective, very observant, and always has a little brillo pad out when talking to suspects and witnesses. We learn little about Logan’s personal life, save that he is something of a free-wheeling ladies’ man. Noth is obviously here for some much needed sex appeal, but he naturally fits into the show. Logan makes mention of abusive treatment from his parents and he has some lingering disdain for his Catholic upbringing, but none of it adds up to much at this point in the show. He carves a more liberal streak than Greevy. Despite their difference in age, Greevy and Logan are mostly chummy with each other, getting into squabbles reminiscent of Moe and Larry from the Three Stooges. They’re fun to watch together, but it’s ultimately short lived. Dzundza would leave after this season — his character would be killed off and eventually replaced by the iconic Lennie Briscoe, played by the late great Jerry Orbach, in Season Three.
THE DISTRICT ATTORNEYS
Now we move to the offices of Manhattan’s District Attorneys. I’ll start with the Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette, played by Richard Brooks, as I don’t have much to say about him. Brooks plays him well. There’s a steadfastness that Brooks brings to the role. You can tell that the character worked hard to get to where he is. Notably, he’s the only male ADA in the show’s history, as well as the only one who was African-American. One or two episodes this season deal slightly with the idea of him “passing”in order to survive in the mostly white DA’s office. This is a topic that is sadly still relevant today. A lot of episodes end with Robinette asking Stone if what the jury ruled was right, and Stone giving a sardonic or pithy reply, encapsulating the young Assistant DA’s role as someone trying to learn from someone with a lot to teach.
Said teacher is Executive Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone, played by Michael Moriarty. By the time you get to the end of Season 1, Stone becomes the heart and soul of the show and the real reason to watch. With even less of a personal life than the detectives, he mentions having a kid (no gender specified) on a couple of occasions. Stone fancies himself a living vessel for the law of New York City. It is his job to interpret the law and use it to its fullest extent. He is responsible for keeping bad people off the streets and out of decent society, thereby preventing more bloodshed. Stone has strong morals that he reveals in close quarters with Robinette but does not let them interfere with his job in the courtroom, if it conflicts. Moriarty’s Stone would certainly be iconic were it not for Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy stealing the show in Season 5.
The pairs of police detectives and DAs are each accompanied by a boss. For the police, we have Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), your classic crusty police captain who wants the case solved quickly and cheaply, and always pushes on the detectives to do more. Cragen isn’t afraid to give them a good raking over the coals. He’s a frequent source of advice and a good sounding board to help the detectives find their next steps in solving a case. For the DAs side, we actually have the District Attorney himself, Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), a Democrat with a faintly liberal stripe, who serves both as a voice of reason and political considerations to his Assistant DAs. It’s interesting to someone who grew up watching the conservative Arthur Branch, played by Fred D. Thompson, as DA, that Law & Order actually possessed a liberal streak in its early years. I feel like this unfortunately gave critics at the time a lot of ammo that Law & Order was a conservative show, when it was always sort of moderate, if not liberal. The writers were simply reflecting the reality of New York at the time, of course, but it’s interesting to view this season in the context of when it first aired, in the midst of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, when conservatism was still in vogue. Schiff is iconic as the flustered elderly DA contemplating the vagaries of law, while Cragen is a bit too cliche for his own good and was replaced by S. Epatha Merkerson’s Anita Van Buren in Season 4.
FIVE EPISODES TO WATCH
- #5: “The Violence of the Summer” (original airdate: February 5, 1991): An episode that flips the format on its head by starting with the DAs and then moving onto the detectives for the second half.
- #4: “The Serpent’s Tooth” (original airdate: March 19, 1991): Two twins appear as the likely suspects in their parents double homicide in a crackling episode.
- #3: “The Torrents of Greed” (original airdate: February 1991): A rare two-parter that feels like a Law & Order movie, as the characters try to make big arrests within the New York City Mafia crew.
- #2: “Indifference” (original airdate: November 27, 1990): An episode that deals with child abuse in a very raw and uncompromising way. The first truly great episode to air, in my opinion.
- #1: “Life Choice” (original airdate: January 8, 1991): The definitive Law & Order episode, according to Dick Wolf himself. An anti-abortion protestor is killed in a botched bombing at an abortion clinic, and the detectives attempt to find her co-conspirators. TV Guide ranked this #62 on their list of 100 Greatest TV Episodes. By the time you get to the final scenes, you’ll agree.
Law & Order has left its mark on television history, for better or worse. It’s been parodied and criticized a lot in the last 30 plus years. If the show had ended after this first season in 1991, would it still be considered one of the greats? Probably not. Outside of the standout “Life Choice” episode listed above, a lot of Law & Order’s first season is simply the show at its most pure. I think what is clear is that Dick Wolf had a vision for this show. It was all expertly laid out in a big paragraph on the first page of the pilot script. As a result of Wolf’s big picture thinking, he had to fight to get the show on the air because a lot of the NBC executives couldn’t see the appeal from only one pilot episode.
I don’t think it’d be controversial to say Law & Order is greater on the whole than the sum of its individual parts. My hat is off to Mr. Wolf. He deserves all the success he has achieved. Dick Wolf’s vision shines through in every episode the franchise has aired since. There would be greater heights to come, like the Best Drama Emmy in Season 7, and lower lows, like Seasons 15-17, as well. A Law & Order episode stands as a document or time capsule of what was happening in New York City, and by extension, America, at the time. It can show how far we’ve come and how little at the same time. Here’s hoping the upcoming Season 21 can recapture some of the freshness and raw vision that Season 1 had to offer.