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