Is The Formula That Made The Original Law & Order a Success Outdated Now?


Law & Order has been one of NBC’s flagship programs for 23 years despite a ten-year hiatus, but is the formula that made it famous outdated now?

The original series pioneered the idea of “ripped from the headlines” stories and a format dedicating half of each episode to the police investigation and the other half to the arrestee’s trial. This proved to be so popular that it spawned a ton of sequels and spinoffs.

Law & Order: SVU is the most successful, having just been renewed for a 26th season. However, SVU doesn’t follow the format of its parent show most of the time, often dedicating 90% or more of the hour to the police investigation — should its parent series follow suit?

Law & Order’s heyday in the 1990s involved it becoming synonymous with the late, great Jerry Orbach. Orbach’s character, Lennie Briscoe, became famous for cracking one-liners at the crime scene and interviewing suspects in a Dragnet-like fashion.

Sadly, Orbach is no longer with us, and when the cops on the case now try to crack the same one-liners, it doesn’t work nearly as well.

Strangulation Case - Law & Order Season 23 Episode 3

That’s a risk that reboots take. They try to repeat what made the original series popular years ago, and often, it falls flat.

Law & Order would be better off not trying to recreate  Lenny Briscoe’s personality and instead allow the cops to have their own unique personalities at crime scenes throughout the hour.

Law & Order’s Character Development Is The Biggest Problem

Shaw is an interesting character in his own right, but Riley hits too many tired TV tropes about hotheaded cops. Frank Cosgrove (Jeffrey Donovan), who came before him, was also on the trope-y side.

Shaw Is Positive - Law & Order Season 23 Episode 3

Although Law & Order has always been more plot-driven than its sister shows — personal stories about the cops began on SVU — it’s the strength of the characters that keeps audiences tuning in week after week.

The cop cracking a one-liner isn’t essential to Law & Order’s format, and there are also better ways to tackle social justice issues than by pairing a Black cop with a well-intentioned but stereotypical conservative white cop.

Law & Order’s Cold Opens Are Too Long

The original formula for the series often involved a stranger finding a body while walking their dog, jogging in the park, or otherwise going about their everyday business. This part of the formula should not have been changed.

In the current episodes, we’re introduced to the victim moments before their death, often getting embroiled in a conflict that then segues into the cops zipping their corpse into a body bag.

Dixon Takes the Stand - Law & Order Season 23 Episode 3

This gives off too much of a Columbo vibe. No, we don’t experience the murder itself in the first few minutes as we do on Elsbeth, but the audience still knows more than the cops do about who this person was and a possible motive for their murder.

It’s a slight deviation from the original formula but significant.

Instead of waiting for the investigation to unfold so that we can understand what the case is all about, we’re waiting for the moment when the cops figure out something we already know.

In addition, long cold opens make it harder to maintain interest in the story. Sometimes, both the original Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU are guilty of stretching things out so long that they feel like a pilot for a new series about the victim’s life.

Maroun Disapproves - Law & Order Season 23 Episode 3

That could be eliminated by returning to the idea of jumping into the story with the discovery of the body. There will be plenty of time to humanize the victim once the death is discovered and the cops begin their investigation.

The Law Side Isn’t Presented Effectively

The original formula offered a peek into what happens after the cops arrest someone, making Law & Order different from the police procedurals that have overtaken primetime.

However, it originally had a deeper purpose than being different than other shows. It often depicted the nature of criminal trials and asked questions about whether justice was served by this system, leaving it up to the viewers to decide for themselves what they thought.

Price's Risky Move - Law & Order Season 23 Episode 3

The current episodes don’t do nearly as good a job with that. Mostly, they’ve been about EADA Nolan Price pulling a win out of thin air, even when he’s done such a poor job presenting his case that he deserves a loss.

It’s rare for Price to lose, turning the once-winning formula into a different one where viewers are expected to tune in to find out how Price will get his conviction this time.

That’s improved somewhat on Law & Order Season 23. As sad as it was for Sam Waterson to go, Tony Goldwyn’s Nicholas Baxter has injected new life into the court side of the series, often making controversial decisions that Price disagrees with.

Price even lost a recent case in part because of Baxter’s decisions. This is a step in the right direction!

Baxter vs. Nolan - Law & Order

Audiences Are More Polarized Today

The “ripped from the headlines” aspect of Law & Order is a risky move today because audiences are so polarized. When viewers recognize a news story that they have a strong opinion on, they will either love or hate the episode, depending on whether it disagrees with their opinion.

This makes the show stronger, not weaker, as long as Law & Order is willing to take a stand while treating the issue fairly.

One of the best examples of this was Law & Order Season 22 Episode 19, which involved a conservative politician whose husband was giving transgender teens hormone blockers.

Sasha Alexander Guest Stars - Law & Order Season 22 Episode 19

This episode didn’t demonize the conservative character but made a point about the choices she felt she had to make to get elected. Some viewers decried this as a “woke agenda,” but the episode itself wasn’t heavy-handed, even if not everyone liked it.

Law & Order hasn’t changed much over the years, but audiences have changed.

Still, the biggest problem with the series isn’t its tried-and-true formula but the way it’s being executed.

If Law & Order can fix the way it has written the cops lately and eliminate the “miracle win” aspect of the courtroom scenes, it will become the powerhouse it was in the past.

Untangling The Truth - Law & Order Season 22 Episode 19

What do you think, Law & Order fanatics? Is it the formula or how it is executed that’s outdated?

Hit the big, blue SHOW COMMENTS button and let us know.

Law & Order airs on NBC on Thursdays at 8/7c. New episodes drop on Peacock the day after they air.

Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. His debut young adult novel, Reinventing Hannah, is available on Amazon. Follow him on X.

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