When Law & Order debuted in 1990, only CEOs had cell phones and Sam Waterston was just the guy from The Killing Fields. For the next two decades, through several rotating casts of cops and lawyers, the show proceeded to build a whole universe of shadowy intentions and cross examinations. If you’re like me, you were never a regular viewer, but you still somehow managed to watch literally hundreds of hours of Law & Order. And so, you’re probably feeling just a little twinge of sadness at the news that NBC has canceled the venerable cop show.
Law & Order is practically an American monument. One of the cast members, Fred Thompson, ran for President. Two other cast members—the late Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston—have become national treasures. It’s a rite of passage for actors in New York to appear on the show or its spinoffs. To me, real-world scandals only felt really real when they appeared as a plotline on Law & Order.
It’s hard to point to any one particularly great episode, but that’s not because they were all the same. With a clockwork finesse that never felt cheap or cliché, Law & Order created a recognizably real world of tangled human emotion. When you consider that literally thousands of suspects have appeared on the show, you begin to feel like the deadpan cops and the crusading lawyers are almost like attack-therapists for our entire demented society.
I hope that you’ve been watching this season, because trust me: it’s going out on a high note. Detectives Lupo and Bernard, played by Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson, have more partner chemistry than any other L&O cop-couple since the Orbach days. The “Order” half has been transformed into a brilliant student-teacher narrative, thanks to the promotion of Waterston’s Jack McCoy and the arrival of Linus Roache’s Michael Cutter. (Special props also to the underrated Alana de la Garza, who’s literally the robo-perfect combination of Jill Hennessy’s intensity, Carey Lowell’s wry humor, and Angie Harmon’s Angie Harmon-ness.)
But the best thing about this season is also, curiously, the part that feels very Un-Law & Order. Dick Wolf set out to make a show that would never delve into the cops’ personal lives, and he mostly stuck to that for nineteen seasons. But this year, the show introduced a cancer subplot for S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lieutenant Van Buren. Besides giving Merkerson the sharpest dialogue in her 17 (!) seasons on L&O, that plotline has turned her scenes into a weekly master class in acting. Her last episode will be the series finale, on May 24. Not watching that episode will be considered a crime against humanity.