I am focusing my critical eye on a smaller screen. When people ask me why I decided to become a lawyer, if I’m feeling succinct I tell them “Law & Order.” I fell in love with the venerable series in its early heyday of Ben Stone and Mike Logan. And while I never fulfilled my ambition to become a blue-suited, tough-talking ADA, “Law & Order” has entertained me ever since.
Nonetheless, as any true aficionado will tell you, not all seasons of “Law & Order” are created equal. And so, to aid anyone considering some winter Sunday binge-viewing, I offer Tale of the Tape IV: Watching Like the Wolf.
For rating purposes, I have divided the series into three eras: BLB (Before Lenny Briscoe), DLB (During Lennie Briscoe) and ALB (After Lenny Briscoe). And if you have to ask who Lenny Briscoe is, this is not the column for you. Stop reading right now and skip to Norm Pattis’ latest diatribe.
I’ve judged each era using four different criteria. The winning era in each category gets one point, which is reflected in a cumulative score. The final score is at the end of the column.
BLB: Dann Florek, George Dzundza, Paul Sorvino, Chris Noth
DLB: Jerry Orbach (of course), Florek (for half a season), S. Epatha Merkerson, Chris Noth (for 2.5 seasons), Benjamin Bratt, Jesse L. Martin
ALB: Martin, Merkerson, Dennis Farina, Michael Imperioli, Milena Govich (mercifully, only for one season), Anthony Anderson, Jeremy Sisto
I take a backseat to no man in my admiration for Paul Sorvino—the man should’ve won an Oscar just for the way he sliced garlic in “Goodfellas”—but the 27th Precinct never shined so brightly as when Det. Lenny Briscoe manned a desk in its bullpen. It speaks to Orbach’s brilliance as an actor that he managed an easy, bantering chemistry with three different actors as his partners: He was the cynical cool counterpoint to Noth’s fiery Mike Logan; the wise-cracking father figure to Bratt’s straitlaced Rey Curtis; and the occasionally ornery elder statesman to Martin’s intense, corner-cutting Ed Green.
In each iteration, Orbach glided through the squad room and the streets of New York with the grace of a (sarcastic) Baryshnikov. (It was no accident that Dick Wolf chose Dennis Farina, an actor with a similar urban pedigree and mannerisms, to replace Orbach.)
Merkerson too deserves a plaudit here (although her tenure on the show spans two eras). She somehow managed to be convincing as a mother figure and as a commanding figure—sharing a plate of dumplings and offering comforting advice to Jill Hennessey one minute and breaking a suspect with the steel-under-velvet in her voice the next.
BLB: Steven Hill, Michael Moriarty, Benjamin Brooks
DLB: Hill, Dianne Wiest, Fred Thompson, Moriarty (for 1.5 seasons), Brooks (for only half a season, sadly), Sam Waterston, Jill Hennessy, Carey Lowell, Angie Harmon, Elizabeth Rohm
ALB: Thompson, Waterston, Linus Roache, Rohm, Annie Parisse, Alana De La Garza
A tie between the pre-Lenny and Lenny eras. Although most of the BLB courtroom scenes lacked the verisimilitude that marked the show’s later years, Moriarty’s blisteringly sincere self-righteousness and Brooks’ reserved cool made the those seasons crackle. And my occasional distaste for Waterston’s holier-than-thou harrumphing aside, the barbed repartee between him and his bevy of beautiful ADA’s made for delightful television. (A favorite exchange, between Waterston and Hennessy: “I’m sorry, but I don’t put in 15 hours a day just so I can flex my muscles.” “Well, you’d better start, Claire, or you’ll wind up talking to yourself in elevators.”)
But the defining character of the two eras—indeed, along with Orbach, of the whole show—was Hill’s crusty and wise D.A. Adam Schiff. Series creator Dick Wolf supposedly based Schiff on long-serving Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, but Hill imbued him with a wit, power and wisdom that made him one of TV’s all-time great characters. Whether telling Waterston that it’s not worth it “to drag the law through a sewer to catch a rat,” or standing up to New York’s rich and powerful elite in the name of justice, Hill was the show’s conscience, its power and its heart.
BLB: Sensational and ripped-from-the-headlines (but occasionally offbeat).
DLB: Diverse and fascinating, but occasionally formulaic.
ALB: Well done at first, but descending back into ripped-from-the-headlines schlockers.
No contest here. The heart of the Lenny Briscoe years—Seasons 4 through 10—includes some of the best television of all time. It’s easy to forget now, given the show’s place in the TV pantheon, how unusual and daring Wolf’s just-the-crimes, half-cops and half-courtroom formula was when “Law & Order” debuted.
Wolf rarely strayed from his formula, and it produced hours of brilliance, like the episode “Old Friends,” in which Moriarty forces a baby-food maker (the amazing Allison Janney) to testify against the Russian mob at the cost of her life; “House Counsel,” guest-starring the pitch-perfect Ron Liebman as a $600 an hour mob lawyer who happens to be an old friend of Waterston; and “Pro Se,” in which a schizophrenic law school graduate (the sublime Denis O’Hare) decays slowly in front of our eyes while trying to defend himself at a murder trial.
BLB: “I’m a Catholic—I can feel guilty about anything.” (Moriarty)
DLB: “I want to go to law school so I can learn to turn gold into lead.” (Orbach)
ALB: “Now I know why Adam Schiff was so grumpy.” (Waterston, after being elected D.A.)
The Lenny Era, hands-down. Among the subjects on which Orbach pulled a Henny Youngman at one point or another: marriage, Mets’ fans, lawyers, car ownership and deli food. And in DLB we also got some of Hill’s best lines, including my all-time favorite, when he hears that the ACLU has joined in a defendant’s motion: “A-C-L … oh boy!”
That’s the final tally folks. The numbers never lie.•