Most viewers don’t realize “Law & Order” returned to television this year. Sam Waterston thinks he knows why.
“We stopped making the shows,” the actor says. “But the audience never stopped watching them. The audience’s persistent appetite for ‘Law & Order’ is a major reason why we’re back.”
Then, too, there have been spin-offs, cable reruns and a constant thirst for the kind of “ripped from the headlines” content it boasted.
Now, because events have changed the way people view both law and order, it’s a unique moment in time, says Rick Eid, the show’s executive producer. “The way people police is a lot different now than it was 10 years ago, even two years ago.”
When creator Dick Wolf pitched the reboot, his first concern was getting original star Sam Waterston back.
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“He was talking about it five years ago,” Waterston says. “I don’t think he’s ever stopped talking about it. One of the reasons that we’re back is because of his persistence and determination and his complete conviction that it was a terrible mistake to stop in the first place.”
Debuting in 1990, the “mothership” of the franchise ran 20 seasons and won the only Drama Series Emmy of the “Law & Order” shows. It spawned “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” “Law & Order: True Crime” and “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”
Because it was shot in New York, “Law & Order” was often a stopping place for actors working on Broadway. Often, they’d joke everyone in the theater had the series on their credits.
“From the beginning, I wanted the Tonys to give Dick Wolf a Tony for what he had done for stage actors in New York City,” Waterston says.
Camryn Manheim, who stars in the reboot, got her first job on the original in 1991. “I came back as three different characters through the years,” she says. “It was a badge of honor to be able to be in an off-Broadway play or a Broadway play and say that you’d been on ‘Law & Order.’”
Like Waterston, Anthony Anderson – another original – was eager to come back after the end of his comedy series, “black-ish.” “Returning to the streets of New York, returning to our soundstages and donning that badge – Badge No. 1901 – was like sitting in a well-worn saddle,” he says. “It gripped you just right and was comfortable.”
For Hugh Dancy, one of the newcomers, it offered a new learning curve. “Just figuring out the culture of the show and how this engine works. It’s been amazing,” he says.
Anderson says the secret to its success is "you never really know or get into these characters’ personal lives, which allows you to pick up this show at any given moment, no matter where you are, and still be invested. It’s not about us. It’s about the crime. It’s about solving it. It’s about moving it along and bringing law and order to the world.”
Unlike other “Law & Order” editions, the story comes first here. “You’ll see hints of personal backstories and how they inform decisions,” Eid says.
By drawing on stories in the headlines, “Law & Order” can foster a debate about issues important in the country.
“Every single episode takes the stories out of the headlines and uses that as an entryway into the arguments that are being had across the country right now,” says Dancy.
Adds Waterston, “That’s why you never get tired of doing this show.”
"Law & Order" has been renewed for another season.