Since television was born, TV shows have been set in New York City. From “The Honeymooners” all the way to “30 Rock,” generations of New Yorkers have grown up seeing their hometown used as a backdrop, or even a central character, in everything from sitcoms and cartoons to edgy dramas.
Some shows depict a New York that simply doesn’t exist (try and find two struggling Manhattan twentysomethings with a “Friends”-sized apartment). Others offer a window into a single corner of New York life: Fashion-obsessed women really do sip cocktails in trendy bars, just like on “Sex and the City.”
But most TV fare offers up a mere sliver of New York City. For two decades, until it was canceled Friday, NBC’s “Law & Order” did something different. It showed the world not just one New York but hundreds.
We saw wealthy criminals who could afford to get away with their felonies. We saw immigrant communities, middle-class families and people of all stripes struggling, sometimes stumbling through their day. We saw Manhattan and the far boroughs. We saw New Yorkers who didn’t care enough to report crimes and people who risked their lives to save strangers.
Made in New York by people who lived there, “Law & Order” never trafficked in Gotham cliches.
“A New York City institution,” mayor Michael Bloomberg called the show Friday. He praised producer Dick Wolf for “helping showcase the city’s depth and versatility.”
Many New Yorkers would agree. They made room for “Law & Order” in their lives. And the show’s unique structure, partnering gritty police drama with high-stakes legal scheming, made room for the entire city in return â€” and employed a whole lot of its people.
If your neighbor or cousin or favorite bartender was an actor, chances are at some point they turned up on “Law & Order.” The show hired actors for as many as 700 speaking roles each season; that’s 14,000 roles over its tenure.
Lorraine Rodriguez, a theater actress and native New Yorker, grew up watching the show. She earned her Screen Actors Guild card appearing on “The Sopranos,” but “Law & Order” was always her goal. She auditioned four times for “day player” roles on the show but had yet to land one when she heard it had been canceled.
“The first thing my dad said when I started acting was, `When are you gonna be on Law & Order?'” Rodriguez says. “It’s a big deal when they call you in.”
“Other shows aren’t like that,” she says. “They brought in the `The Good Wife’ to shoot here, but that’s set in Chicago. … You audition and they say Do you have a Chicago accent?’ But with Law & Order, you felt like you can be you if you’re from New York.”
Wolf’s long-running procedural, of course, wasn’t the first show to feature the NYPD and the lawyers who help them put bad guys behind bars.
Across genres, and with varying degrees of authenticity, the territory was staked out by “Naked City,” “Car 54, Where Are You?,” “Kojak,” “Barney Miller,” “Cagney & Lacey” and “Life on Mars.” And along with “NYPD Blue,” “New York Undercover,” “Third Watch,” “CSI:NY” and spinoffs “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” there will be plenty more to come.
But this one belonged to New York like no other.
When New Yorkers stumble across a film shoot in progress, it often brings more inconvenience than excitement. Sure, you may see a famous face or two. But odds are the sidewalks will be cordoned off, the film crew will have taken all the parking spaces and harried production assistants will bark at you to keep your distance.
Not so “Law & Order.” For two decades, an epoch in television time, the show quietly and seamlessly shot scene after scene on the streets of the city. A mutual respect developed: They didn’t close your block, and you didn’t stare at the camera or the actors as you walked through a shot on your way home.
With so many scenes shot outdoors, details of New Yorkers’ lives, from the breakfast bagel cart to the subway station, were forever popping up on the show. That’s part of what gave it street cred for actors â€” and for agents and casting people, who saw it as a crucial stepping stone.
“It’s always been a barometer to find out if you were going to have some sort of credibility as an actor in New York,” says Henry Ravelo, an acting teacher and theatrical manager. “At a certain point, casting directors and agents and managers look at your resume and see if you have a `Law & Order’ on your resume. If an actor doesn’t, then they’ve got to ask themselves, `What am I doing in New York?”
In production for much of the year, the show also employed a steady flow of extras and stand-ins for every episode. For fledgling SAG members, that meant a few hundred dollars toward the rent and a chance to get familiar with life the set of a major network series.
With “Law & Order” closing up shop, its new spinoff being shot in Los Angeles and soap operas folding or leaving town, young New York City actors are wondering where the breaks will come.
“All My Children,” produced in New York for nearly 40 years, moved to LA in December, shortly after “Guiding Light” bit the dust. Even Woody Allen has left town, preferring London as a backdrop over his native New York in recent years. That gives the departure of “Law & Order” all the more sting.
“A show like this was a gift,” says Marc Isaacmann, who founded a service called “One on One” that introduces actors to the city’s casting directors. “`Law & Order’ launched so many careers. … We were spoiled.”
Murray Pomerance, writing in the preface to “City that Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination,” says typical New Yorkers stick to their block and their neighborhood. “For the tourist, each moment in New York is, at least potentially, a sparkling treasure, an immensity of experience; for the New Yorker, there is a comforting mundanity to everyday life, a predictability and a delicious smallness.”
It was that “delicious smallness,” in the context of epic stories of good and evil, that “Law & Order” did so well.