"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." With this pithy but all-inclusive prologue, thus began each hour-long episode of Law & Order, American network television's longest-running police drama.
This was not the first such program to equally divide its time between the arrest and the trial; indeed, there had been a series precisely titled Arrest and Trial back in 1963. But Law & Order was easily the most popular and successful of the batch, and as the series eased gracefully past its 11th, 12th, and 13th season, it was very likely that its creator and executive producer Dick Wolf would fulfill his dream of matching and even surpassing the longevity of Gunsmoke, which lasted 20 years, setting a record as American network television's most durable dramatic series. Although Law & Order boasted a large and fluid ensemble cast, there were no real "stars" per se, save for the city of New York (a point made by scores of TV historians, notably Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh). Virtually every episode starts out with the discovery of a dead body or evidence of a violent crime. A pair of NYPD detectives arrive on the scene, begin gathering evidence and eyewitnesses at the behest of their superiors, and -- generally after a handful of frustrating dead ends and false leads -- manage to collar the principal suspect. The story then shifts to the offices of the DA, where a team of brilliant prosecuting attorneys do their best to build a case against the accused, dodging the obstructive tactics of defense lawyers all along the way. Even when the case gets to court, the story is far from over, with several twists and turns -- and usually a shocking and unexpected denouement -- awaiting both the prosecutors and the viewer.
The series made its NBC network debut Thursday, September 13, 1990, moving to its originally scheduled Tuesday-night slot October 23. The fact that Law & Order was frequently pre-empted by network specials indicated that NBC wasn't all that sure of the series' success. By the end of the first season, however, the ratings, if not spectacular, were good enough to warrant a renewal -- while backstage intrigues assured that the series would undergo the first of its many abrupt cast changes. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi