In 1990, the year Law & Order premiered, 87 people burned to death inside New York City’s Happy Land Social Club when the coat check girl’s ex-boyfriend doused the stairs with a dollar’s worth of gasoline and lit a match. The coat check girl lived. A 22-year-old tourist from Provo, Utah, was stabbed to death by muggers on the downtown E platform at 53rd Street. The body of a kidnapped 12-year-old, whose severed index finger had earlier been sent to his family, was found stuffed in garbage bags off the Hutchinson River Parkway in the Bronx. In 1990 in New York, 2,245 people were murdered, including 75 children under the age of 16, 35 cab drivers, and one gay man who was stabbed to death on Staten Island in the borough’s first designated bias crime. The city announced a $1.8 billion “plan to fight fear” by hiring 8,000 new police officers. That year the NYPD shot 106 people, 41 fatally. In 1990 in New York, David Dinkins became mayor, the Yankees came in last in their division, John Gotti was arrested, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority began a pilot program that introduced straphangers to what the agency called “a plastic, electronically controlled fare card, good for multiple trips.”
As a new police procedural that took as its subject the crime-riddled city and its institutions, Law & Order had plenty of material. In its first seasons, the series gave viewers a neatly fictionalized take on a variety of the city’s recent tragedies — the Tawana Brawley case, the Bernie Goetz shooting, and the disappearance of Etan Patz among them. One of the earliest episodes was a retelling of the Happy Land arson; the writers called the club Heaven. The arsonist — played by Luis Guzmán — was convicted, and the episode won the series its first of six Emmys.
I was a teenager living on the other side of the world from Manhattan when I first started tuning in to Law & Order. But I have nonetheless always found watching it deeply soothing. If I turn on a hotel room TV and find an episode playing, I can’t help but watch it to the end, and then the next, and the next. And there is always an episode playing. Counting spin-offs such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, American television channels rerun over 90 hours of Law & Order every week. This spring, its creator Dick Wolf is hosting a series of four-hour marathons of Law & Order: SVU on USA.
Netflix has made binge-watching routine. But the rate at which Law & Order is syndicated across cable networks suggests I am not alone in my appetite for the crime procedural. From its narrative structure to its moral compass, Law & Order is as digestible and blandly palatable as a processed carbohydrate. It’s comfort television. Over the years, I’ve seen all 456 episodes of the original series, and I will always pause, remote in hand, to rewatch a favorite — the one where they build a case against the U.S. general who collaborated with a South American junta that murdered an American college student in the '70s, for example, or the one about the fender bender insurance scam targeting African immigrants, or the one about the tabloid reporter shot dead in broad daylight. (That episode, from 1998, is co-written by Alec Baldwin, who even then had strong feelings about the press.) But I never thought there was anything particularly unusual about my obsession with the show until it reached a climax in 2012, the same year my formerly orderly life started breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.
In 1965, Alfred Hitchcock observed that the then-burgeoning medium of television had “brought back murder into the home—where it belongs.” He called this development “therapeutic.” The grisly police procedural is as old as television itself; the first televised dramatic series was a procedural — called Telecrime, it ran from 1938-39 on the BBC. And the crimes that television brings into our homes reflect the specific anxieties of our times. As concerns about urban blight were reaching their peak in the middle of the 20th century, the police procedural first achieved domination on the American airwaves. The primary audience for these shows wasn’t the city-dwellers who were directly affected by the real violence, but a more distant public — the new suburbanites of the 1950s and ’60s who were upgrading their radios to TV sets.
Arriving a generation later, Law & Order gained traction at the moment peaking New York City crime stats lent credence to a set of fears specifically rooted in (or projected onto) the nation’s largest city — the crack epidemic, racial violence, and sexual deviance. The old ’50s cop show Dragnet’s treatment of its pre-urban-renewal downtown Los Angeles setting is, in some ways, not so different from Law & Order’s relationship to ’90s New York. The show’s audience was never specifically New Yorkers — the local touches are a mix of shibboleths that seem calculated not to distract outsiders, like Fran Lebowitz’s recurring role as a sarcastic judge, and broad humor about hot dog vendors.
Law & Order sought to reach the vast, worried nation that ate up headlines about teenagers killing for sneakers — and prey on its naïveté. In early episodes, tourists are murdered while doing innocent things like shopping and college-age victims come fresh from the continental interior — their grieving parents just know that nothing like this would have ever happened had only little Angela never left St. Cloud. But Law & Order is never that simple: It turns out the tourist’s husband hired a hit man, and Angela was dealing drugs.
More than a decade after Law & Order first caught my eye, I was living in Harlem — and in the coldest, bleakest stretch of a winter I was taking unusually hard — when I decided to rewatch the whole series, beginning with the first episode, with my fiancé. It started as kind of a lark, and a way to indulge my curiosity about show’s first seasons, which weren’t in heavy syndication when I became a teenage fan. The early seasons were on Netflix at the time, and I loved watching the show’s original cop partners, Chris Noth and George Dzundza, walk around a vanished New York City of police call boxes and ill-fitting ’90s suits. It was familiar but uncanny, like looking a photograph of someone you know from when they were young.
Law & Order operates squarely, even proudly, within the traditions of its genre, taking elements from predecessors like The Naked City (1958-63) and Hill Street Blues (1981-87) like a detective collects clues to crack a case. The acting is unpretentious, the police jargon flows freely, and the “system” itself is a character in the drama — sometimes a hostile one. The series seemingly emerged fully formed from the mind of Dick Wolf. Even in the first episodes, the DNA of the show is fully present: the title cards that break the story into sections, the opening narration, and the electric clarinet theme. The sound. Scenes are short and establishing shots are rare; the camera often seems to slide in a little late, so interviews with suspects and conversations with superiors start in medias res and viewers are trusted to keep up.
When I began my marathon, I was living with my fiancé, but things between us had grown strained. Watching Law & Order gave us something to do that didn’t require either of us to venture into unsafe emotional territory, like conversation. Rather than confronting the fact that we were making less and less room in our lives for each other, we could focus on a shared cultural experience. Instead of talking about our problems, we could talk about the show. Law & Order offered a kind of intimacy by proxy.
Each episode of Law & Order follows a classical five-act dramatic structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. And it follows this structure so precisely that you could practically set your watch by the show’s climaxes. An hour invested in Law & Order is an hour invested in exactly 21 minutes of police investigation and 21 minutes of legal wrangling, followed by a resolution. Law & Order has a kind of perfect blandness that makes it ideal as entertainment. It doesn’t ask too much of the viewer, and yet its formal consistency elevates the show above the usual primetime television.
I don’t call Law & Order formulaic lightly. Formulaic is not the same thing as simple. Sonnets are formulaic, but nobody would say they’re all the same. On Law & Order, there are wins that feel like losses and losses that feel like wins; some seasons, the People’s success rate hovers just north of 50%. The criminal justice system’s capacity to harm, as well as help, victims is made plain.
We were six seasons in when my fiancé, a fellow reporter, went to do a story in Moscow. The next day, Hurricane Sandy made landfall. In New York City, 48 people died, a power substation in the East Village exploded in a fireball, and Manhattan lost power, water, and heat below 36th Street. Entire blocks of Alphabet City, Red Hook, Chelsea, and Lower Manhattan flooded, along with the FDR and the subway tubes. I saw men with generators sitting under extinguished streetlights at Houston and Allen. Uptown, most services were intact, so I hosted as many downtown friends as could fit on the floor, made pots of tea and chicken soup, and loaded episode after episode after episode on my laptop. After the storm, my fiancé never called to ask if I was all right. Days passed and he never even emailed. We were supposed to watch together, he and I, but by the time the A train started running again uptown, I was already on Season 9, and I had no intention of waiting for him to catch up.
Instead, I became a kind of cocktail party expert in Law & Order trivia. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first television role was on Law & Order; he plays an accused rapist, and Samuel L. Jackson is his lawyer. Blink and you might miss John Malkovich as a murdered photographer. In the show’s version of the P. Diddy nightclub shooting, a young Kerry Washington plays the J.Lo character. The club owner is Idris Elba, and the P. Diddy character is named G-Train, which leads to a lot of awkward cop dialogue like, “Have you ever heard of G-Train?” “The G-Train?” I developed a theory that Law & Order is actually a western, a story of the lonely, flawed lawman pacifying the lawless town — with the detectives as the white hats and prosecutor Jack McCoy riding around Foley Square on his motorcycle in place of a horse. (I noted that his nickname is “Hang ’Em High McCoy.”) I developed a theory that Law & Order is actually one of the best five TV shows ever made, but that theory had a two-drink minimum.
I would watch five or six episodes every night — a couple while waiting for my fiancé to come home, a couple more after he’d gone to bed. Most mornings that winter, I woke up with my laptop still open in a tangle of duvet and sheets, the credits frozen on-screen.
It didn’t matter if I’d fallen asleep in the middle of an episode. Law & Order is an episodic drama, as opposed to a serial. Serial shows (soap operas, Game of Thrones) have complicated multi-episode or multi-season story arcs that rewarding devoted viewing but are daunting to new audiences. Episodic shows (Law & Order, Curb Your Enthusiasm) are self-contained, offering conflict and resolution in every dose. “You don't have to worry about who’s sleeping with who,” Wolf explained in a 1999 interview. Plots resolve. Bad guys are caught. If you come across the show while channel-surfing, you can watch and enjoy no matter where the episode falls in the series (just try doing that with Boardwalk Empire) — and this explains why the show is so well-suited to syndication.
For the same reason, Law & Order can be unusually relaxing — emotionally speaking — in spite of its lurid plot lines. The main characters age and change from week to week about as much as the Simpsons, which is another way of saying they age and change from week to week about as much as people do in real life.
On the night of my fourth anniversary, my best friend texted me at 12:22 a.m.: “PLEASE tell me you're not watching Law & Order right now. PLEASE.” My fiancé was asleep beside me, and I was watching an episode based on the 2004 Chai Vang hunting massacre in northern Wisconsin. One of the ironies of late-season Law & Order is that the writers started importing criminal storylines from the Midwest to meet the demands of an apparently insatiable audience.
They had no choice. Law & Order’s popularity rose as New York City’s real crime rate fell. Unlike other long-running procedurals, which descend into ridiculousness via increasingly far-fetched plots (CSI and Law & Order: SVU are in this category), the unreality of Law & Order’s later seasons originates in the show’s interpretation of its setting.
When the show debuted in 1990, the city was experiencing what would prove to be its most violent year since records began. In 1991, the violent crime rate began a long, steep dive that continues today. It is a nationwide trend, the causes for which have been much debated, but in New York City, the line turned sooner and fell more sharply. When Law & Order ended its run, in 2010, New York City’s murder rate had plummeted to just 536 for the year, its lowest ever. (Gang violence, meanwhile, has retreated to the suburban enclaves of Law & Order’s original audience.)
For those watching Law & Order in its late period, it sometimes seemed as if there were more murders on the show than there were in the city. During Mayor Bloomberg’s long reign, things officially got better. Chris Noth became Mr. Big on Sex and the City, and Adderall edged out cocaine as the drug of choice among upwardly mobile young people. Bedbugs replaced squeegee men in the middle class symbology of urban blight. St. Vincent’s hospital was closed and turned into condominiums. “Crime has come down in this city,” announced our billionaire mayor — who, like Giuliani before him, had a Law & Order cameo. And with it, the moral certainty of the show somehow became less comforting and more, well, gross.
Law & Order’s focus on murder as the signal terror of city life grew to seem increasingly out of touch with the city’s actual crimes. This New York was shaken by the outrages of Goldman Sachs and AIG, the stark bigotry of stop-and-frisk, the acquittal of the rape cops Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, and the fact that our mayor was able to buy the precise amount of constitutional reform he needed to permit himself a third term in office, like a can of tomatoes on special at Gristedes. The cop who killed Ramarley Graham was never charged. The fictional murder of a socialite where it turned out the husband did it did not quite compel attention in the same way.
Law & Order might now primarily serve to bring the cops — not the murders — into the home. When he first conceived of Law & Order, Wolf set out to make a series with, he said later, a show with a “relatively positive outlook on American justice.” On Law & Order, the law enforcement agencies are mostly stocked with intelligent, compassionate people. Corrupt and violent cops are generally weeded out. Public defenders are typically competent individuals who fight tenaciously for their clients. Nobody in a district attorney’s office would ever withhold evidence or act out of malice.
At its most fundamental, Law & Order is a show about fairness. The real promise (and the suppressed premise) of Law & Order is that our institutions work, that they are functional moral arbiters. The show tells us that if we die by violence, someone will be there to find the body. A cop will care enough to ask the right questions and follow the evidence. A DA will prepare a sound case against the right suspect. And a judge will impose a just sentence.
It’s old-fashioned these days to think that art should have any kind of social purpose, but one of the things I find comforting about the show is its fundamentally hopeful disposition toward our world and our institutions. I can take a little of that medicine in my entertainment — I can even find the dose comforting — even as I recognize that many people in this country have experiences of law enforcement that are anything but fair and compassionate. This is what separates comfort food from junk food. Law & Order isn’t the cure, but it does make me feel better — and one could hardly argue watching it will make things worse.
Before I could finish the series, my fiancé moved out. Spring followed winter. I started seeing someone else. For a long time I was unhappy, and then I was happier than before. I never finished my Law & Order marathon. As I drew closer to the show’s 20th and final season, my rate of viewing slowly drooped — down to one or two episodes a night, then one or two a week — and finally stopped after that season’s sixth episode. The episode opens with Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, who has been undergoing treatment for cancer, putting on a wig for the first time. There were 17 more episodes in the season, but I just couldn’t bring myself to rewatch them. For me, Law & Order had ended. I didn’t need it anymore. “Well, here we go,” Van Buren says to the mirror when the moment comes. “First day of the new me.”