UPDATE (May 14): NBC has now confirmed the cancellation.
The phrase “end of an era” gets thrown around far too often, but this time it’s surely apt: Though NBC has yet to officially announce it, the internet is abuzz with reports that the network has decided to cancel Law & Order after 20 seasons on the air (creator Dick Wolf's office apparently says the news is, indeed, true). We can still call it the longest-running television drama, but without another year, it has to share honors with Gunsmoke. Oh, well. There’s no shame in a tie.
Even though the series hit its critical peak years ago, we diehard L&O fans aren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Like many others, I grew up on the show: honestly, it was warping my mind at the tender age of four. (I just consider myself lucky that the far more disturbing Law & Order: SVU wasn’t on back then.) While the cast has gone through countless changes, the procedural format has been mostly consistent for the past two decades—some may roll their eyes, but I always found that comforting. And there are long-standing characters we’ve grown to love, like attorney-turned-D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston, a regular for 16 years) and Lieutenant Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson, stationed at her desk since 1993).
Of course I don't want Law & Order to continue for the wrong reasons. As Time TV critic James Poniewozik pointed out on Twitter, it’s misguided to keep a show on the air just to set a record. While NBC would surely like to tout themselves as the home to TV’s longest-running drama—take that, Gunsmoke!—the ratings just aren’t there. And perhaps we’re better off without a 21st season that exists "just because."
Why am I so devastated, then? Like I said, Law & Order has almost always been a part of my life in some way. I have fond memories of watching the show throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood—scoffing at McCoy’s ability to get a witness stand confession, mourning the tragic loss of Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy), watching Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) question the homophobia of D.A. Arthur Branch (future presidential candidate Fred Thompson). But nostalgia aside, the series still has the ability to deliver quality episodes. The current cast, though admittedly not Law & Order’s finest, is solid. I’m particularly fond of Jeremy Sisto as Cyrus Lupo (Lupes, if you’re nasty) and Linus Roache’s Michael Cutter, arguably the finest A.D.A. since McCoy himself.
But hey, it’s not like Law & Order is going anywhere. The franchise is seemingly immortal: SVU and Criminal Intent are still going strong, and the new Los Angeles-based spin-off is likely to be a hit. (I’m looking forward to it—judge away.) And reruns are literally almost always on. People joke that you can’t turn on the TV without seeing Law & Order, but that’s pretty accurate. Seriously, try it right now. I’m saddened by the news, if only because I’ll never see any ripped-from-2011’s headlines episodes, but I still have 20 seasons to look back on. And God knows how many gavel bangs.
Follow TV.com writer Louis Peitzman on Twitter: @LouisAtTVDotCom