There was never any doubt that, someday, “Law & Order” would come to an end.
But the death sentence handed down by NBC on Friday caught many observers by surprise. Viewers weren’t prepared to say farewell to this beloved TV warhorse. Not this way, with this sort of abruptness. And not with it on the brink of entering the history book as TV’s longest-running drama.
What had been intended as the 20th-season finale, a solid but unexceptional episode, will air May 24 as the series conclusion. This would seem an injustice to the show’s proud legacy. And an unceremonious end for its fans.
Maybe there weren’t enough fans (this season, viewership has averaged 7.3 million viewers, the show’s lowest ever and less than half the number at its height a decade ago). Maybe the show was too expensive to produce. Maybe NBC just thought it was too old.
Even so, “Law & Order” had been considered a TV fixture and a good shot for renewal next season. Then it would be poised to surpass “Gunsmoke,” a CBS western that ran 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975.
That record-breaking feat has been an enduring dream of the series’ creator, Dick Wolf, who not only furnished NBC with this so-called “mother ship” but expanded it into two successful “Law & Order” spinoffs. He also will shepherd the just-announced “LOLA” (short for “Law & Order: Los Angeles”) premiering this fall.
Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television, praised Wolf on Friday and said the legacy of “Law & Order” will “continue to make an impact like no other series before.”
Wolf declined comment, other than to say in a statement, “Never complain, never explain.”
In its latest incarnation, the show’s ensemble cast consisted of Jeremy Sisto, Anthony Anderson, Linus Roache, Alana De La Garza, Sam Waterston (who joined in 1994) and S. Epatha Merkerson, who, unrelated to the show’s termination, had already announced she was moving on after 16 seasons.
“Oh, it’ll be renewed, it’ll definitely be renewed,” Merkerson said earlier this week, sounding confident the show would continue even after she was gone.
These actors have followed in the footsteps of no fewer than 19 other stars who have filled the show’s half-dozen slots for cops and prosecutors since “Law & Order” began.
The series premiered on Sept. 13, 1990. It was thought to be unusually raw and authentic in how each episode followed the twists and turns of a case, which often dealt with pressing social issues seldom addressed by TV drama.
It had an unusual structure, too. For the first half-hour, detectives tracked down the bad guy. In the second half, prosecutors hauled the accused into court.
The stories were said to be ripped from the headlines, with New York City the show’s true star. Largely shot on the streets of New York, it had a striking look at a time when only one other scripted series, “The Cosby Show,” originated from New York.
“Over the last 20 years, ‘Law & Order’ became a New York City institution,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement on Friday. Noting that “it began filming in the city at a time when few series did,” he thanked Wolf for “helping showcase the city’s depth and versatility as a setting.”
The show has also been a job bank, one especially welcome among actors, whether famed or unknown. Over the years, they included such stars or about-to-be-stars as Julia Roberts, Adam Arkin, Claire Danes, Edie Falco, Jennifer Garner, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson. “Law & Order” hired more than three dozen speaking roles per episode, some 700 in a season. Some 450 episodes in all.
Starting out, the show’s half-dozen starring roles were filled by men, but that was changed in its fourth season with the addition of Merkerson and Jill Hennessy to the cast.
The female presence helped boost the ratings of the show, which initially had struggled for an audience.
“`Law & Order’ can hardly be thought of as a commercial hit,” Wolf acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press in 1994. “It’s a critical success that people know about and think fondly of, but I’m still looking for a show that’s a commercial hit.”
Within a decade, “Law & Order” had not only won Peabody and Emmy awards, but also grown into a commercial hit, even a Top 10 series.
Meanwhile, in a move virtually unprecedented on the broadcast networks, “Law & Order” was spun off into two more New York-based procedurals that, now, will survive it. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” premiered in 1999, with “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” following in 2001. (Yet another, “Law & Order: Trial By Jury” was a flop and was canceled just weeks after its premiere in 2005.)
The “Law & Order” franchise became a linchpin of NBC’s prime-time schedule when its other shows were failing. During a notable week in the 2004-05 season, one or another of the “Law & Order” trio aired during 12 of NBC’s 22 prime-time hours.
But in recent seasons, the original “Law & Order” series began to lose ratings steam. In May 2007, NBC concluded it had room for only two of Wolf’s series on the 2007-08 schedule. “Law & Order: SVU” had the highest ratings of the three, so it stayed put, but “Law & Order” was sagging and was vulnerable.
That time, it cheated death. “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” was uprooted to USA, a sister cable network of NBC, and continues in Season 9.
In announcing that deal, Dick Wolf was clearly pleased that he had saved all three shows. Then, not for the first time, he said keeping “Law & Order” on the air long enough to eclipse the 20-season “Gunsmoke” record was his “ultimate dream.”
Friday, the verdict was in. NBC ruled against him.
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