In the world of television, few shows are as beloved and iconic as Dick Wolf‘s Law & Order. Everyone has seen an episode, thanks to its constant syndication, and pretty much everyone knows the “Dun Dun” sound effect. How many other shows have had a scene transition sound effect enter the public consciousness?
The Law & Order franchise has seen 8 different entries, some lasting for decades, some lasting for only a single season, but regardless, the series has cemented itself as a staple of television that will always persist in pop culture.
Law & Order: Trial By Jury (2005 – 2006) – 6.4/10
The iconic opening to Law & Order begins, “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.” While the two groups are equal, there are many episodes of Law & Order, especially on SVU, that focus primarily, or even entirely, on the police investigation. Law & Order: Trial By Jury set out to even the scales a bit by shifting the entire focus to the criminal trial.
The show followed both the prosecution and the defense attorneys as they prepared for, and then tried, a different criminal trial each episode. The show starred two time Emmy-winner Bebe Neuwirth as Tracey Kibre, the Homicide Bureau Chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She leads a team of prosecutors including actors like Amy Carlson, Kirk Acevedo and Law & Order mainstay Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe. Unfortunately, even with cameos from the Law & Order and SVU detective teams, audiences weren’t as drawn to Trial By Jury, and the show was the first ever Law & Order show to be canceled.
Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010 – 2011) – 6.7/10
Law & Order: LA should have been an easy win for the franchise. You just take the format of the New York-set Law & Order and set it in the complex world of Los Angeles. In some ways, the show works. Like, if you just watched a random episode on USA Network, you may even enjoy it. But the problem with the show was inconsistency in its release.
When the show first aired in 2010, it starred Corey Stoll and Skeet Ulrich as the detective team and Alfred Molina and Terrance Howard as the lead prosecutors alongside Megan Boone and Regina Hall. It’s a pretty good cast of recognizable faces, something not necessarily common with a core Law & Order cast. After 14 episodes of production, the show suffered a cast shake-up and had to come up with a complex story writing off Boone, Hall and Ulrich’s characters and moving Molina’s character from prosecution to detective. Making it worse, when the show aired, they aired some episodes with the original cast, then the new cast episodes, and then more of the original cast episodes. That confusing distribution and shoddy writing unfortunately sank a Law & Order show with so much potential.
Law & Order: True Crime (2017 – 2017) – 7.3/10
The fact that Law & Order: True Crime didn’t take off like other true crime series is kind of baffling because it seems like such a sure thing. You take the popular Law & Order franchise, apply it to a notorious true crime story, throw in a big name actor to anchor the show, and you should have a hit. Unfortunately for this one-season anthology show, that’s not quite how things worked out.
The sole season of True Crime takes on the story of the Menendez brothers, a pair of affluent Beverly Hills siblings who murdered their parents in 1989. The real protagonist of the show is their lawyer, Leslie Abramson, played by the incomparable 4 time Emmy-winner Edie Falco, who was then nominated for her performance, a rarity for the Law & Order franchise. While the show may not have been a hit at the time, in today’s true crime obsessed world, this show is worth checking out.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001 – 2011) – 7.5/10
The second ever spin-off of the original recipe, Law & Order: Criminal Intent set itself apart by focusing more intensely on the motive of the criminal offender, hence the title. It provided a different flavor of the same Law & Order we all know and love, in a way that has earned it quite a formidable fan base who claim it as their favorite Law & Order.
The show featured several detectives over the course of its 10 season run, even including the legend Jeff Goldblum, but primarily focused on Detectives Goren and Eames, played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. D’Onofrio, much like he does in every role, brings a unique acting style that could only come from a performer of his caliber. His unique quality, combined with Erbe’s earnest performance made for a team as iconic as any other Law & Order detective team.
Law & Order: UK (2010 – 2014) – 7.6/10
Watching episodes of Law & Order: UK may feel like a parallel universe to US viewers. Everything is pretty much the same but slightly different. It may look a little different across the pond, but at its core, Law & Order: UK is still the police procedural we all know and love. In fact, the scripts of UK are actually adaptations of mother-ship Law & Order episodes.
The show features several British actors you’ve no doubt seen before, such as Bradley Walsh, Jamie Bamber, Ben Daniels, and Harriet Walter. Even though it’s the actual plots we’ve seen before in New York City, Law & Order: UK still feels authentic to the United Kingdom criminal justice system thanks to the production, and alterations made to the scripts in order to fit into the UK system. Running for several series before ending in 2014, Law & Order: UK is proof that the appeal of the Law & Order formula is truly universal.
Law & Order: Organized Crime(2021 -) – 7.6/10
The latest entry into the franchise, Law & Order: Organized Crime sees the return of SVU alum Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), this time taking on the New York mafia after suffering a personal tragedy. Stabler was always a detective whose personal life influenced how he handled cases, but on Organized Crime, it’s more personal than ever.
What really sets Organized Crime apart from the rest of the Law & Order franchise is that the format of the show isn’t an episodic procedural cop drama. Instead, it’s a serialized show where each episode builds on a larger story. Sure, Law & Order has always had the occasional multi-episode story arc, or recurring character, but typically, it has stuck to the same format, and so Organized Crime is breaking new ground for the franchise.
Law & Order (1990 -) – 7.8/10
The one that started it all. The original Law & Order changed the face of television when it debuted in 1990. Sure, before Law & Order there were plenty of cop shows and lawyer shows, but by putting them together into one, both genres merged into a show about the criminal justice system in America. The way that each episode of Law & Order was inspired by a real-life crime only made it more topical.
Law & Order is maybe the most iconic TV drama of all time. This is due in part to the incredible cast including Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Anderson, and Jeremy Sisto just to name a few. After going off the air in 2010, the mother-ship Law & Orderwent on hiatus, before retiring in 2021 for its 21st season. While we never had to go without some Law & Order on TV screens, it’s really nice to have the original back.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999 -) – 8.1/10
The very first spin-off of Law & Order has arguably overtaken the original as the most iconic TV show of all time. It’s even outlasted and surpassed the original’s record-breaking episode count. Everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about when you say you were watching SVU. This is especially interesting considering the subject matter of the show. SVU tackles that dark world of sexually based crimes.
The main reason that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is so incredibly popular is that the characters are the most compelling of the franchise. For years audiences loved watching Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) solving the darkest of New York’s crimes. Even after Stabler left, there was Detective Tutola (Ice-T), Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) and Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), a character originated on Homicide: Life On The Street and whose popularity has led to cameos across many shows, fleshing out the Law & Order universe. There are too many great characters to mention them all here, so it’s probably best to just go and watch some SVU.