Law & Order has dominated network TV for more than 30 years, spawning the Dick Wolf Universe. Of the nearly 20 spinoff series, eight carry the Law & Order name. Police procedurals have been around for even longer. These “dedicated detectives” are part of a storied lineage that includes Sherlock Holmes and Columbo. Drawing on a centuries-long fascination with true crime, Law & Order pulls plots from headlines across the country.
The original Law & Order created a winning formula: a murder occurs, the police investigate, and the DA prosecutes. The “law” takes the first half and “order” takes the second. Every series more-or-less follows this same formula. Some of these modifications are more popular and effective than others, resulting in one-season and 20-plus-season shows existing side-by-side.
So what makes some iterations of Law & Order impervious to the fickle nature of public opinion, and what makes others flame out before they’re even established?
8 Law & Order: Trial By Jury (2005-2006)
Coming in dead last, Law & Order: Trial By Jury is one of the shortest. The fourth spinoff was not able to achieve the longevity of its predecessors, and was canceled after one 13-episode season. The series deviated from the tried-and-true Law & Order formula by minimizing the role of cops.
The show follows ADA Tracey Kibre (Bebe Neuwirth), her deputy Kelly Gaffney (Amy Carlson), and District Attorney Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) of Manhattan Homicide as they follow leads, prepare witnesses, and take part in prosecutions. Trial By Jury featured crossover characters with other series, including Law & Order’s Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and the Captain herself, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay).
Trial by Jury is the lowest rated in the franchise. As a legal drama, it lacked the fervent draw being pulled by competitors like CBS’ Numbers. The lack of action from the removal of the police investigation turned off many viewers. Even those who enjoyed the show felt it was best appreciated as a supplement to the other existing series.
Law & Order: Trial By Jury is unavailable for streaming, but episodes are available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video at $1.99 each.
7 Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010-2011)
As a city, Los Angeles is less friendly to the police procedural than New York or Chicago. Every procedural has tried an LA setting, and many have fallen flat. Law & Order: LA ran for one full 22-episode season. The core gamble of the sixth series in the franchise was that a gritty New York police procedural is transferable to a city like Los Angeles; it was unsuccessful.
Law & Order: Los Angeles, or LOLA as it’s affectionately known, follows the Robbery Homicide Division of the LAPD. While still ripping plots from headlines, the intrigue of Hollywood is too much to resist, and LOLA focuses on crimes committed against the rich and famous, eschewing some of the grittiness of its New York predecessors.
LOLA boasts one of the most stacked regular casts of any in the franchise, making it surprising that it struggled so much to gain traction. Performances by such heavy hitters as Alfred Molina, Terrence Howard, Regina Hall, Skeet Ulrich, and Corey Stoll were compelling enough to earn the show five nominations and two awards, including Howard’s NAACP Image Award.
LOLA suffered from formula fatigue. Despite its glitzy setting and powerful performers, New York law and legal tactics don’t quite translate to the West Coast.
Law & Order: Los Angeles is available to stream on Amazon’s Freevee platform.
6 Law & Order: True Crime (2017)
Law & Order: True Crime, the seventh series, was conceived as an anthology series, and Dick Wolf has reportedly kept the door open for revisiting its miniseries-for-one-crime format in the future. Only one eight-episode season has been made so far, following the case of the Menendez Murders.
Law & Order: True Crime was a major deviation in structure from the traditional model, following one crime over the course of a season instead of a single hour-long episode. The story follows Lyle (Miles Villanueva) and Erik (Gus Halper) Menendez as they are tried for the murder of their parents. Their lawyer, Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), is a firebrand defense attorney with a very interesting perspective on parricide. This is the only Law & Order series to focus on the defense instead of the prosecution or police.
The show was nominated for three awards, including one Emmy. Falco’s performance is lauded as one of the best in Law & Order history, but it was not enough to dispel criticism that the show was too weak to fill eight full episodes.
Law & Order: True Crime is available to stream on Tubi.
5 Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011)
The first Law & Order series of the 21st century, Criminal Intent sought to get into the mind of criminals. Unlike Trial By Jury, Criminal Intent almost always focused on the police investigation instead of much courtroom action. Criminal Intent follows cases in the Major Case Squad of the NYPD.
Major Case detectives Robert Goran (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe), solve high-profile crimes like kidnapping, art theft, and threats against the powerful, while ADA Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance) prosecutes. The show ran for 10 seasons, leading to quite a lot of cast turnover. Other actors that would cycle through the cast include Eric Bogosian, Jeff Goldblum, and Chris Noth, reprising his role as Detective Mike Logan from the original. Critics thought the actors were too good for the roles written for them.
The show spent its first six seasons on NBC like most, but spent its remaining seasons on the USA network, NBC’s basic cable station of the day. Its ratings declined after its fourth season when it faced stiff competition from ABC’s Desperate Housewives. The show was nominated for 15 awards.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent is available to stream on Peacock.
4 Law & Order: Organized Crime (2021-Present)
Law & Order: Organized Crime is the newest addition and the first to be a spinoff of a spinoff (SVU). Following SVU’s lead, the show allows for more development of the main cast than earlier iterations and delves more deeply into the characters’ personal lives. The show uses multi-episode arcs with more formulaic episodes interspersed like its predecessor.
Organized Crime follows the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau and its lead detective, SVU veteran Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Alongside Sergeant Ayanna Bell (Danielle Mone Truitt), tech wiz Jet Slootmaekers (Ainsley Seiger), and detectives Jamie Whelan (Brent Antonello) and Bobby Reyes (Rick Gonzalez), Stabler investigates all kinds of organized crime, focusing on one enterprise per season. Characters from SVU make frequent appearances, perhaps none more so than Stabler’s former partner Olivia.
The show struggled a bit at first to find its footing and to avoid overdosing on nostalgia, but now Chris Meloni shines in his most-anticipated reprisal. The show isn’t afraid to allow Stabler to lean into his rebellious roots, pitting him against corrupt cops for an entire season.
Law & Order: Organized Crime is available to stream on Peacock. New episodes air Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC.
3 Law & Order: UK (2009-2014)
While adapting a New York centric show to fit the Los Angeles legal system proved the bigger challenge, the success of Law & Order’s British adaptation buoyed Wolf’s confidence. Lovingly referred to as “Law & Order with wigs,” the show is less spin-off than adaptation. The show selected episodes of the original series that could be most easily adapted to the British legal system.
On a macro scale, the show worked because, as Wolf said: “murder is murder,” but it falls apart under scrutiny. There is just too much distance between the American and British legal systems for a one-to-one adaptation to work perfectly. Fans didn’t seem to mind watching Bradley Walsh, Jamie Bamber, Harriet Walter, and Ben Daniels investigate crimes without firearms and debate in court in powdered wigs. The show ran for five seasons.
Law & Order: UK is available to stream on Amazon’s Freevee platform.
2 Law & Order (1990-2010 & 2022-Present)
The show that started it all, Law & Order is the second-longest running series in the franchise, thanks to an 11-year hiatus. Law & Order has never deviated from its original formula: first half cops, second half courts. The show follows a Manhattan Homicide squad.
In its initial run, the show had a revolving door cast, including George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Dann Florek, Jerry Orbach, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jill Hennessy, Benjamin Bratt, Vanessa Williams, J. K. Simmons, Dianne Wiest, Fred Thompson, Dennis Farina, Michael Imperioli, and Anthony Anderson. Despite being revived in 2022, Law & Order has done less to problematize the hero worship of police than the other series airing. The few social questions the show asks are often delivered through Detective Jalen Shaw (Mehcad Brooks) as rhetorical questions posed to his partner, played by Jeffrey Donovan. The current cast is rounded out by Lieutenant Kate Dixon (Camryn Manheim), ADA Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy), and Sam Waterston reprising his role of ADA Jack McCoy.
The show is beloved, and has been nominated for over 50 awards.
Law & Order is available to stream on Peacock. New episodes air Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC.
1 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-Present)
Coming in at number one is the longest running live-action scripted prime-time show in American television history: Law & Order: SVU. The original spinoff, SVU has followed the dedicated detectives investigating sexual crimes for over five hundred episodes across 24 seasons. When the show first aired, critics were skeptical of a spinoff having so much success, but SVU is the most beloved.
Other than Dick Wolf himself, there is no other name more synonymous with Law & Order than Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). Hargitay has held the role over the course of the entire show, her character rising in the ranks from junior detective to captain. The show began with Benson and Stabler alongside Detectives Munch (Richard Belzer) and Tutuola (Ice T) under the direction of Law & Order veteran Captain Cragen (Dann Florek). The cast has undergone many changes in the decades since. Of the original cast, only Hargitay and Ice-T remain.
The show has evolved over its hundreds of episodes. It began by adhering to the formula, but has morphed over time to include many more storylines centering the personal lives of the detectives and multi-episode arcs. Current seasons have even integrated cohesive storylines across the three series airing back-to-back-to-back on Thursday evenings. It has been nominated for nearly 100 awards.
The show has had success despite its dark content by providing representation, catharsis, and hope to the many victims of sexual violence and exploitation across the country. SVU and Hargitay have led the charge to end the rape kit backlog across the country to get real justice for victims. The show is also notable for its nuanced portrayal of police, especially as police brutality has dominated the headlines.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is available to stream on Peacock. New episodes air Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.