On September 13, 1990, a show premiered that would change the face of television. Law & Order would come to define the police and legal procedural and would spawn a multitude of spinoffs, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which, currently in its twenty-third season, is the longest-running primetime U.S. live-action series in the history of television. It is undeniable that the multitude of police and lawyer dramas—not just in the Law & Order universe– that have existed in the past twenty years and continue to exist now owe their existence and success to some degree to L&O creator Dick Wolf’s original vision.
Although many would try to fill the void left when the original series went off the air in 2010 after twenty seasons (and six Emmys), no show could truly recapture the special something Law & Order had. Whether it was the formula, the format, the characters, or the stories, there was something unique in that original show that no other show could truly match. This is probably why, after a twelve-year hiatus, Wolf is bringing back the original series with all-new episodes this February.
N.B.C. will premiere the twenty-first season of Law & Order on February 24, following their Winter Olympics coverage. While everyone is pretty tight-lipped about details of the series, we do know that it will be a continuation, not a reboot, and it will have the same format as the beloved original series, focusing the spotlight equally on “the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” Sam Waterston will be returning as Law & Order legend, D.A. Jack McCoy, and Anthony Anderson will reprise his role as Detective Kevin Bernard.
But before we jump into this new old world again, we thought it might be worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on the brilliance of the original twenty seasons. Yes, we’ve culled through all 456 episodes to narrow it down to the absolute ten best, the ten episodes that best capture the essence of Law & Order and are the most memorable, the most re-watchable. Whether you have never seen a single episode or you are a die-hard fan, these ten hours will kindle or re-kindle your love of the show that launched an empire, and remind the world of the days when network television was still king.
Season 9, Episodes 23 and 24
Original airdate: May 26, 1999
Season nine went out with a bang as this two-parter that had it all: the Russian mob, a grisly murder, a child witness, a bomb scare, money laundering, and a murdered deputy district attorney. Naturally, all the moving parts and players are what make this one so good, but it’s the emotional hook that puts this one up there with the best, as not only are you drawn in by this kid and all he’s gone through, but the domino effect his bravery has on everyone else.
What makes it great: The revelation that Abby Carmichael (Angie Harmon) actually has emotions.
M.V.P.: D.A. Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), who feels every bit the weight of his office.
Season 17; Episode 9
Original airdate: November 17, 2006
Deep into its seventeenth season, Law & Order was still delivering thought-provoking and exciting episodes, like this one that was a true bounty of all there is to love about the show. After a convicted killer escapes from police custody, a city-wide manhunt ensues, and Green and Cassady find they are always just a step behind him. When they do track him down, he runs into a school, and, with Green close behind him, he takes a class of girls hostage and ends up killing several of them. While he is distracted, the police can get him into custody, and Green is VERY tempted to save the taxpayers the cost of a trial right then and there, but he resists, handing him over to McCoy to make sure he never breathes fresh air again. The episode then becomes a political and philosophical debate about the death penalty, as McCoy uses every legal avenue at his disposal to try to get this man executed. But before the process can play out, the father of one of the murdered girls kills him on the sidewalk as he’s being transferred to a police van, which then forces McCoy to put the grieving father on trial for murder. From the exciting chase and excellent police work to stimulating legal maneuverings and philosophical debates, Law & Order feasts on every morsel of its bread and butter in this utterly engaging episode.
What makes it great: It’s got so much packed in, it’s hard to believe it’s all done in one hour.
M.V.P.: McCoy (Sam Waterston), whose righteous dedication to the law never wavers as he delivers lines like “New York doesn’t have a do-it-yourself death penalty” and “Moral ambiguity does not equal insanity.”
8. “White Rabbit”
Season 5, Episode 5
Original airdate: October 19, 1994
McCoy is a passionate pursuer of justice, no matter the case or defendant, so it’s always fun to see those moments when his personal biases cause him to lighten his foot on the pedal. In this case, it’s McCoy’s generational compassion for those who protested during the ‘60s. More than once in the series, Jack notes to his younger colleagues how they just don’t understand how it was back then, so whenever a case arises that references those radical years, McCoy shows a softer, more understanding side. In this episode, Logan and Briscoe chase a twenty-three-year-old case of a policeman who was killed during a misguided protest, leading them to a fugitive living a double life for thirty years. When she is brought to trial, McCoy is forced to face his inner conflicts.
What makes it great: A brilliant convergence of the personal, the political, and the procedural.
M.V.P.: Real ‘60s radical lawyer William Kunstler, playing himself.
7. “Prince of Darkness”
Season 3; Episode 8
Original airdate: November 18, 1992
After a rocky couple of seasons, the show finally hit its stride in its third, with its formula firmly in place. This episode is a classic, featuring some great action and lots of twists and turns, nervous witnesses, and tons of legal maneuvering. But what makes it most memorable is Logan’s bad luck, losing another partner to a shooting, not even two full seasons after his first partner is murdered. At least Cerreta can walk away.
What makes it great: Cerreta’s departure opens the door for yet another partner of Logan’s to be introduced, and it happens to be one Lennie Briscoe, which officially marks the beginning of the great days of the series.
M.V.P.: Mark Margolis, the legendary character actor, another Dick Wolf favorite (3 L&O episodes, including “Legacy,” another all-time classic), plays the twitchy gun dealer-turned witness who shoots Cerreta. Margolis, like Denis O’Hare, lifts every episode he’s in, and this one is by far his most memorable appearance.
6. “Criminal Law”
Season 16; Episode 9
Original airdate: November 23, 2005
Three people with the same name are killed the same day, Terminator-style. When the cops track down the killer, they don’t find him, but they find his truck, and inside is his kill list—with McCoy’s name on it. It turns out an imprisoned killer, whose conviction was overturned, has hired a hitman to kill all of the witnesses and prosecutor from his original trial before his retrial can begin. Borgia is terrified just being around McCoy, and Jack himself admits to being scared, but he soldiers on, as he always does. Things get even more complicated when the killer, who studied law while in prison, represents himself and uses the position to threaten the only witness left. McCoy realizes the whole thing rests on Fontana and Green being able to flip a new witness in time, or a convicted serial killer will walk free.
What makes it great: The tension.
M.V.P.: Jack McCoy, steadfast as always.
Season 14; Episode 24
Original airdate: May 19, 2004
Season fourteen ends memorably, as Briscoe and Green investigate a seemingly random murder of a delivery man. Through some great detective work, they discover two women have agreed to kill each other’s husbands. Once Briscoe and Green hand the case off to McCoy, he is forced to try the cases separately and does some impressive legal maneuvering of his own to bring both women to justice. This episode is imminently re-watchable, as the plot decoys and twists and turns are sublime, and the writing is top-notch. But, mostly, it’s on this list for being Jerry Orbach’s last episode as Detective Lennie Briscoe, the loveable, irascible, and flawed cop with the iconic one-liners. The show may have still made great episodes, but its heart was gone once Lennie left.
What makes it great: A great episode that ends with everyone’s favorite cast member leaving on his own terms.
M.V.P.: Jerry Orbach, our beloved Lennie, says goodbye to the franchise with his usual deadpan modesty.
Season 7, Episode 10
Original airdate: January 15, 1997
Some of the best Law & Order episodes are the ones that start out as one case and end up another. “Legacy” is the best of them, as the victim of the initial attempted murder ends up being the murder suspect that McCoy goes after in the second part of the episode. The audience is also left to guess until the very end as to how involved the wife of the victim/suspect really is. This episode is mainly great for the performances, especially Frances Sternhagen, who plays a grieving mother who hires a hitman to kill the man she thinks killed her son years earlier. When she only agrees to plead guilty if McCoy actually launches an investigation into her son’s death, all kinds of reveals happen, and the ride to the finish is fast, twisting, and tons of fun. It also features another great small but effective role from the great Mark Margolis, making any episode worthwhile.
What makes it great: A fun ride with an unpredictable finish.
M.V.P.: Sternhagen, always memorable, always great.
3. “Rubber Room”
Season 20, Episode 23
Original airdate: May 24, 2010
What other show can say their last episode was one of its best? Although we now know the goodbye wasn’t forever, Dick Wolf knew that, after twenty seasons, the last episode of the original run of Law & Order needed to give the audience something wonderful. This one episode not only gave us a fantastic case to solve, with an exciting chase and face-off with a disgruntled teacher threatening to blow up a school, but it gives everyone a great scene as a going-away present. Bonus points for bringing back J.K. Simmons as Dr. Skoda one last time.
What makes it great is that the final party scene perfectly wraps up Anita’s cancer storyline and serves as a fitting farewell to all the characters we’ve come to love.
M.V.P.: Fittingly, a tie between Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) and McCoy, the two solid rocks built on the entire series.
Season 8, Episode 8
Original airdate: November 26, 1997
After a bail-bondsman is killed, Jack and Jamie discover a conspiracy between lawyers and a deputy DA who happens to be an old friend of Jamie’s. McCoy concocts a shadow prosecution to flush him out and gets everybody to play along, including opposing lawyers and a judge. Jamie is rattled by the fact that her old friend is corrupt, but, being who she is, she goes at him hard, pointing out that he could have come to her if he needed money that badly. All the moving pieces are deftly handled, as the writers create a complicated and riveting story against the backdrop of making it personal for Jamie. A truly memorable episode with twists and turns and great performances by all.
What makes it great: Legal maneuverings and personal connections.
M.V.P.: Jamie (Carey Lowell), vulnerable and tough, in the best episode of her two-year run on the show.
Season 6, Episode 23
Original airdate: May 22, 1996
Funnily enough, the episode most acknowledge to be the best of the 456 episodes dedicated to criminals and prosecutions is one that has no crime to solve and no trial to conduct. Instead, this episode is all about the four main characters and their internal conflicts with their chosen professions.
After Lennie, Rey, Claire, and Jack watch an execution of a murderer, they all had a hand in convicting, each finds a different way to deal with their mixed emotions about the experience. Rey escapes by flirting with a younger Jennifer Garner, Claire tries to rediscover her love of the law, and why she decided to pursue it in the first place, Jack escapes to a bar and looks for answers in the bottom of a bottle and the blue-collar pals he spills his guts to and Lennie attempts to repair his broken relationship with his daughter. Throw in some subtle romantic drama between Claire and Jack, and you’ve got the perfect episode. The writers do an incredible job of fleshing out these characters into vulnerable, human, and flawed individuals who all contribute a great service to society but are sometimes crushed by the toll it can take. Of course, it’s the ending of the episode that remains the most memorable moment of the series, as season six ends with Lennie falling off the wagon, Claire offering to drive him home, and a tragically heartbroken Lennie staggering out of the wreckage of Claire’s car after she’s broadsided by a drunk driver, which kills her instantly—the most gut-wrenching moment in Law & Order history.
What makes it great: Deep diving into each character’s psyche.
M.V.P.: Lennie, whose pain is by far the most magnified throughout the episode, in Jerry Orbach’s best performance of the series, and that’s saying something.