The Definitive Law & Order Cast Hierarchy

By Emily V. Gordon

Jun 26, 2012

It's summertime, and with way less new TV to consume, we're facing a bit of drought, which has us turning to old friends like Law & Order. Did you know that at any point in time, you can find some version of Law & Order on television?* It's a fact!

Anyway, since we had the time on our hands, and since we love Dick Wolf to pieces, a Law & Order cast hierarchy was just what the summer doldrums ordered.

Thus, as there have been five (American) Law & Order series in the history of modern American society, and of those five, endless permutations of detectives, DAs, lab workers, and bad guys, it's time to rank the various casts from worst to best.

* This may not be true.

Note #1: I am not counting permutations that lasted less than one season. For example, on Law & Order: SVU, Stabler and Benson were not originally partners, and there was no Ice-T with Richard Belzer. But those problems were fixed by Season 2.

Note #2: A lot of the DAs were particularly interchangeable to me, so unless they really stood out, I've mostly skipped over them. Most of them were just tough women with great hair who looked like they'd just taken off their glasses.

Now let's get to it, shall we?

13. Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010–2011)

At the bottom of the pile, lucky number thirteen, we have Law & Order: Los Angeles.

This shitstorm.

Okay, so the show started out with Skeet Ulrich, Regina Hall, Alfred Molina, Terrence Howard, and a bunch of other folk, but after it got trounced in the ratings, producers decided to let go of Ulrich (he's a poor man's Skeet Ulrich), bump up Howard's character, and bring back Alana de la Garza, who was an ADA on the original Law & Order.

None of this worked, and the show was canceled after one season... and I'll tell you why: First, Law & Order is a New York show. Second, Skeet Ulrich. You can't cast Skeet Ulrich in anything, ever.

12. A *TIE* between the Goldblum/Burrows/Mastrantonio Criminal Intent (2010) and the Martin/Govich Law & Order (2005–2007)

It's a tie, since these are the two least popular versions of Law & Order featuring lady detectives (or ladydicks), and they're both one-season versions of the show that I'm including for random reasons... which are as follows:

Goldblum/Burrows/Mastrantonio: See how lonely the Criminal Intent group looks, just the three of them? Despite being around for only one season, this cast makes the list for two reasons. 1) Jeff Goldblum is still Jeff Goldblum. 2) For the final season of Criminal Intent, the one immediately following this season, Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe returned to to reprise their roles.

Martin/Govich: In other one-season news, when Dennis Farina left the show, Jesse L. Martin was promoted to lead detective, and Milena Govich came on as the original Law & Order's first female detective, Nina Cassady. People hated her very, very much. In fact, I've seen her voted the least popular Law & Order character of all time in some polls. She was ultimately replaced by Jeremy Sisto. But you have to hand it to Martin for continuing to fight the good fight.

Both casts had their good points, but overall, they caused some dark days in the criminal justice system.

10. Law & Order with Dennis Farina and Jesse L. Martin (2004–2006)

Look, you're kind of a good actor, Dennis Farina, but you look ridiculous, and you are a poor Jerry Orbach replacement. Do something about that hair! Can't you just imagine Farina's Joe Fontana going to interrogate "urban youths" and cracking racist jokes to them? BTW, during the Farina years, Jesse L. Martin left for a bit to be in the movie version of Rent, and was temporarily replaced with Michael Imperioli. I KNOW!

9. Law & Order with Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson (2008–2010)

Sisto's Cyrus Lupo was actually a pretty tremendous, gravel-voiced detective, but I couldn't dig on Anthony Anderson. I think his schtick was that he liked food? See how bummed Sam Waterston looks? And S. Epatha Merkerson can't even stand appropriately close to the group. Girl is checked out. The show was canceled after this season (its twentieth), which I still thing was a massive mistake. I wish Dick Wolf & Co. would have just replaced everyone but Sisto and Anderson and let us all reboot.

8. Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005–2006)

Trial by Jury ranks eighth out of respect for Jerry Orbach. He was only able to film two episodes before succumbing to prostate cancer... although everyone in the cast looks like a ghost in this picture.

7. A *TIE* between all the Chris Noth years (1990–1995 on Law & Order, 2005–2008 on Criminal Intent))

Confession: I am not a huge Chris Noth fan, but he brought a certain brooding something to his role on the original Law & Order, and also to Criminal Intent. When Noth was on CI, he and Vincent D'Onofrio took turns playing the lead in any given episode, and whenever he was on-screen I just wondered what D'Onofrio was doing. I was not a fan of the redhead during these Criminal Intent years, though. The show seemed convinced she was the most beautiful woman in the world, whereas Kathryn Erbe only got to play an undercover hooker like, once, and she was gorgeous too!

5. Law & Order with Benjamin Bratt (1995–1999)

Benjamin Bratt's Det. Rey Curtis was brought in to replace Chris Noth's Michael Logan (who many viewers found to be "too similar" to Jerry Orbach's Lennie Briscoe), and to sex up the show. Plus he spoke Spanish to perps! Meow!

4. Criminal Intent with Jeff Goldblum (2009–2010)

It was almost criminal (heh) to have both Jeff Goldblum and Vincent D'Onofrio on the same show, not to mention alongside the wondrousness that is Eric Bogosian. (However, just imagine if D'Onofrio had been partnered with Jerry Orbach—how effing hilarious would that have been? Orbach would have been constantly telling D'Onfrio to calm down.)

3. The Original Criminal Intent (2001–2006)

Vincent D'Onofrio is the shit, but this version of Criminal Intent definitely made me question its setup, wherein Kathryn Erbe's only job seemed to be to ask one question and then stare at D'Onofrio so that his character, Detective Robert Goren, could mindf*ck the perp. And with that said, man do I love Courtney B. Vance. His voice is butter.

2. Law & Order with Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin (1999–2004)

Never has a young black (gay) man gotten along so well with an old white man! Plus Sam Waterston! And Dianne Wiest sometimes! (not pictured)

P.S. Did you know the first season of Law & Order had Chris Noth with some dude named George Dzundza, who was pissed that it was an ensemble show and left after the first season? (Smart move, dude.) In Season 2 Dzundza was replaced with Paul Sorvino (!!!), who also left after one go-round because the job was too taxing.

1. Law & Order: SVU: The Golden Years (2000–2011)

What, too obvious? There's just no getting around it: The best cast in the history of the Law & Order franchise is this one from SVU, after Ice-T and Richard Belzer joined and before Christopher Meloni left. Not only is this particular iteration of the show great because the crimes are always "of a sexual nature," and therefore salacious, but there was always a wonderful quiet sexual tension between Stabler (Meloni) and Benson (Mariska Hargitay). Stabler had the best thousand-yard stare this side of Henry Rollins. Benson has a bizarre backstory (she's the product of a rape!). Tutola (Ice-T) and Munch (Belzer) were—and still are—an amazing twosome. Plus you've got the no-nonsense Medical Examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) and the scene-stealing psychologist Dr. Huang (B.D. Wong) from the FBI. Magnifique!

Or course, this list is just one woman's opinion on the hierarchy of Law & Order casts, so now I want to hear from you! Do you agree? Disagree? I've gotten into near fistfights with people about Chris Noth's detective work, so I can take it. Let me know your thoughts!

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  • taberetta Apr 25, 2015

    You are a hilarious writer... and honestly I agreed with your great list, for the most part! I remember when I was growing up in the 90's and I would see Law and Order on TV and think 'Man, who watches this show it looks so boring!' and now as an adult it is my absolute favorite. Now I wish I could go back in time and talk some sense into that kid.
    The L&O; SVU 'Golden Years' was some of the best for sure, it pretty much got me hooked on L&O.; And L&O; CI with D'onofrio was my next favorite. Still, there is nothing better than the original show in my opinion. Briscoe and Curtis are one of the best pairs for sure, but since I have begun to go way back and watch the very beginning few seasons, to feed my addition, I have begun to notice that Chris Noth actually was pretty funny and entertaining in his own way. I completely agree about watching L&O; CI though when it was either D'onofrio or Noth- when the beginning credits would start I would hope so much to see D'onofrio's picture instead of Noth's and actually get mad about it, lol. I guess now as I get older I am beginning to see the talent in more and more people?
    For instance in season 1 of the original with Noth and George Dzundza, the few episodes I have seen were really pretty good. I don't know if they stand up to the Briscoe and Curtis episodes but there was a gritty feeling to the show that made it highly enjoyable to watch. To actually think at one time I might have seen a few seconds of the original airing of one of those first season episodes and just clicked right by it. Craziness, plain and simple. You also nailed the comment on Martin and Orbach, they were fun together and really only had one fight when they first got together. Lenny throws a folder at Green, that was a good episode!
    Another topic entirely that you should write about, if you have not already, would be the female assistant attorney pair ups with McCoy. My favorite would have to be Claire Kincaid ;) Again, thanks for making me laugh and talking about one of the best shows ever made. Oh, and when I see an episode of L&O; on TV and it is season 17 or above I just keep on going... Take care.

  • Izzi617 Dec 16, 2013

    Can't quite agree with this list completely. SVU's golden years are actually in it's first five. (Sometimes I consider season 5 part of those golden years.) Then 6-8 are silver.(9 is iffy) Seasons 10-12 are the worst. I managed to find episodes I liked out that 3 year disaster caused by Daniel Truly(seriously that whole astronaut episode and that awful episode Bombshell, seriously!), but the most part it was mediocre at best and I expect more. Seasons 13-15. Now those seasons redeemed the ridiculous Daniel Truly seasons. Especially 13. I felt a sense of realism return to the show and the drama didn't feel too soapy and if it was at least it was with people we're watching every week and not just the victim of the episode or the "villain" of the week (i.e. Special Guest).

    The SVU cast is just overrated. And it is something that CBS really tried hard to emulate in their "crime shows." Adding B.D Wong and Tamara Tunie to the cast as regulars wasn't necessary. Because then almost every week we got to expect the pathologist and the psychologist to who might also now have to play larger roles when they really do not need to be there every episode. Doesn't the FBI need Dr. Hueng for other cases in parts of the city if not the country? Why don't do the 27 Detectives or the MCS detectives ever call him down?

    After watching season 1 various times it does look like that Elliot and Olivia were meant to be paired from the beginning. They are named after two of Wolf's own children. Anyways, the Munch Tutuola pair was at it's best in the golden years especially in season 2. Finn was very conservative and Munch was very liberal as we know from Homicide. But maybe this was from Ice-T's choice not to portray the character as Wolf had planned or maybe maybe it was the fact that the writers didn't work like a traditional writing staff and instead one member of the staff at a time wrote an episode and thus character development was screwy. Whatever it was Finn changed from conservative to liberal(ish). Same with Benson and Stabler. One week Benson is tough and Stabler is chill, the next Stabler is the hardass and Benson is the voice of reason.

    The nineties had the best teams. In the first few years, having a pair of white cops was good for race influenced episodes so the investigation could be challenging like in Out of the Half Light. Or like season 3's Conspiracy Theory. There are not many episodes in SVU or Criminal Intent that is fueled by racial bias the way they are in Law & Order.

    This actually turned out longer than it should have been. And I think I went past the point I was trying to make XD

  • cgdc Jul 24, 2012

    I totally agree with this ranking. I can watch a gazillion marathons of SVU. My favorite line though is, "Look, you're kind of a good actor, Dennis Farina, but you look ridiculous." Lmao.

  • FAN-of-FANGS Jul 19, 2012

    I AGREE witn no1 - the original SVU team, but will not stop watcing it because Meloni left the shoe! Why?? Because Im hooked!

    I must admit that i simply adore Sam Waterstone as the ADA, not the DA - he was awesome, and his tricks, long court speeches... I miss him :(

    Another thing is Vincent DOnofrio - hes just brilliant!! lots of laughs watching that guy doing his job!! miss him a lot - he could nail every perp on the wall...

    Jerry Orbach was a legend, I think we can all agree on that! Also liked Chris Noth, Jeremy Sisto on Law&Order; - they were both great and very different.

    If I talk about female ADAs I think my first chice would be Jill Hennessy, she was very good in and out of the courtroom, especially her confrontations with Waterstone - they were the best ADA couple, dont you agree???

    Also liked Angie Harmon, my second top choice! And in Svu I really cant decide between

    Stephanie March and Diane Neal.. they were both actually pretty good! Not that im suprised, because the whole SVU team was just perfect!

    One ADA who i kinda resented for taking Waterstones place is Linus Roache, but I outgrew that and became more focused on his telents as an actor. Hes not Waterstone, but the second closest thing to him.


  • CathleenMiles Jul 18, 2012

    i definitely agree that SVU is #1, no questions asked. but i would contend that the original Criminal Intent is #2. i just love kathryn erbe. she's actually in this great new movie that just premiered in june, it's called "the love guide." parker posey also stars, and it's hilarious. it's currently on iTunes and OnDemand, all kathryn erbe fans should check it out asap! here's the trailer:

  • surome Jul 16, 2012

    SVU The Golden years #1!!! Defenitely!!! =)

    Just a perfect cast.

  • hotto1 Jul 08, 2012

    Any day is made better when I have time to watch an episode of L&O; CI. D'Onofrio, Erbe and any others are my favs. Noth and Nicholson or Witt were also good for variety.

    The music was great!

    There's a special feel to CI. Some of the best drama ever.

  • raviespecial Jul 04, 2012

    I did not know Jesse Martin's character in Law & Order was gay. Where did you get that, writer?

    You left out Michael Moriaty. He was one of the best DA's on Law & Order. Yes I loved and love everything about Chris Noth and could find no fault in him. I wish they had continued Law & Order with Anthony Anderson. I think he was a good detective. Glad you didn't trounce Elizabeth Rohm, as I liked her and found people's criticism unfairly harsh. What about that actress from Crossing Jordan who was in Law and Order. And the other one from Rizzoli and Isles? They were both great but you didn't mention them. They were awesome.

  • KrustyClown Jul 02, 2012

    I'm a long time L&O; fan and I don't think you can beat Criminal Intent with D'Onofrio and Eames in their prime years. I also like Noth more than you do and enjoyed him in both shows. Honestly I'm not a huge fan of SVU. I find Stabler and Benson both somewhat off-putting - though I enjoy every minute of the supporting cast - especially Munch and Tutola.

    Hard to beat Briscoe and any partner on the original. Kudos to McCoy as the moral center of the show for so long. And as far as the ADA's. I rank them as follows: Carmichael, Southerlyn, Rubirosa and then all the rest in a tie.

  • HughLont Jul 02, 2012

    I agree with your top 3 in that those are the three best casts. I might toss Orbach/Bratt into the top 3 mix also. If I look from a different perspective, and say the best chemistry among the two lead detectives, I'd have to go with Eames and Goran. Benson and Stabler are definitely more iconic, and their show was much better with better writing, but no two actors on any show, Law & Order or otherwise, in my opinion have had better chemistry than Erbe and D'onofrio.

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