Law & Order: After 34 years, this TV series is still urgent and relevant

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Law & Order season 23 is streaming now.
Law & Order season 23 is streaming now. Credit: NBCUniversal/Dick Wolf Productio

A rainy weekend is a great excuse to cancel your plans and stay in, but if I’m honest, I had other things I was supposed to do — taxes, holiday planning and watching screeners for the week ahead.

Instead, I binged 26 episodes of the new seasons of Law & Order. I stayed up until 2am three nights in a row, pressing next and next and next, my head ringing with the series’ iconic “dun-dun”. I think last night I dreamt of Jack McCoy and his principled but pragmatic fight for justice.

No one sets out to watch 18 and a half hours of Law & Order but the rabbit hole was too hard to escape. I needed to know who killed the comedian on the subway, if the jury was going to convict the sadistic serial killer actor or why that private school principal was shot in a classroom.

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For 20 years, Law & Order was a mainstay of American TV, a police procedural whose formula was so predictable and familiar that Dan Harmon’s absurdist comedy Community did a parody episode in 2012 (that chapter was called “Basic Lupine Urology” and it’s so, so good).

Even a casual viewer could recite it “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.”

Law & Order season 23 is streaming now.
Reid Scott and Camryn Manheim in season 23 of Law & Order. Credit: NBCUniversal/Dick Wolf Productio

And what stories they were. It spun off seven other series in its narrative universe (at 25 seasons and counting, Law & Order: SVU is the longest-running live-action series on American TV) and a raft of international versions (the UK one is pretty decent).

The original series was cancelled by its American network in 2010, a decision that fellow NBC show 30 Rock jibed in an episode at the time (Tracy: “What?! It was a tentpole! A tentpole!). But with massive shifts in viewing behaviour, declining broadcast ratings and a renewed emphasis on IP and franchises, NBC brought it back in 2022.

If you didn’t notice its return, who can blame you? It’s not zeitgeisty compared to The Bear and it’s now on Foxtel and Binge, which doesn’t seem to have spent much or any money marketing or promoting it.

I came across it by chance on Friday night. The tile had popped up on the streaming platform and the first thing I noticed was Reid Scott had joined the cast. You may not know Scott’s name, he’s one of those “Oh, yeah, that guy” guys but he’s been prolific on US TV including prominent roles on Veep (he’s Dan Egan), Why Women Kill season one, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and most recently as Anne Hathaway’ ex in The Idea of You.

But it wasn’t just Scott. A second take revealed a cast that also included Camryn Manheim (The Practice!), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal! And Claire Danes’ husband) and Mehcad Brooks (True Blood! Supergirl!). Plus, global treasure Sam Waterston was back. Who doesn’t love and respect Sam Waterston?

What was this line-up? It seemed insane. Waterston actually retired after episode five of season 23 (February 2024), having appeared in 400 episodes of Law & Order, and was replaced by Tony Goldwyn, a man no one believes is 63 years old.

Law & Order season 23 is streaming now.
How can old mate be 63? Credit: NBCUniversal/Dick Wolf Productio

And when the show first came back in 2022, the detectives were played by a returning Anthony Anderson (he had been on the show from 2008 to 2010) and Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice).

Impressive actors aside, the thing about Law & Order is that its approach to storytelling has always reflected its time. It’s a show that is in conversation with the political and social movements of its era, and if you’re someone who pays attention to the news, it’s super engaging and provocative.

Part of that is the “ripped from the headlines” inspirations — the three revival seasons have so far featured stories inspired by Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scam, Britney Spears’ conservatorship battle, Bill Cosby, con artist Anna Delvey, Oxycontin addiction and the Sackler family.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2020 and calls have been made to defund the police, how TV and films have depicted the actions of American police have continued to be under scrutiny. Cops were briefly cancelled (but then brought back) and shows including Brooklyn Nine-Nine in good faith joined the conversation on the thorniness of policing in America.

Law & Order has always been conscious of good and bad cops, of those who cross the line, and policing by consent. What struck me in these new episodes is how much it is willing to tackle it, and other loaded topics, head on.

Jeffrey Donovan and Anthony Anderson in season 21.
Jeffrey Donovan and Anthony Anderson in season 21. Credit: NBC

The season 21 finale deals directly with the wider context of systemic racism when a black woman shoots a white cop in the street. It’s a hotbed of different perspectives on what is the appropriate punishment and how much consideration you give to the very real threat she felt. Including between the two lead cops played by Anderson and Donovan.

Anderson’s character, a black cop, provides his more conservative partner with a sobering wake-up. It’s a surprisingly nuanced conversation for a 42-minute episode of American broadcast TV made for the masses.

There’s an episode about a white supremacist who shoots dead seven Asian Americans on the subway, in the wake of increased racism against the community as a result of Covid conspiracies. Another episode deals directly with the consequences of the overturn of abortion rights in other states, forcing women to travel across borders to seek reproductive choice.

There are stories about full-time employed people in homelessness, AI muddying up reality, that black women are three times more likely from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, and free speech on university campuses against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

After 34 years, Law & Order still feels relevant because it wants to be part of the conversation, to tell stories that are urgent and to provoke questions. No wonder I lost my weekend to it.


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