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Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Law & Order. The series started unassumingly enough, having shot its pilot two years before it landed a spot on the NBC schedule in 1990. But from that humble beginning came perhaps the most successful TV franchise in the medium’s history.
The five shows within Dick Wolf‘s L&O brand have racked up an astonishing 1,052 episodes to date, with more coming as SVU enters its 17th season. The original series ran for 20 years, as long as any primetime drama ever, airing 456 episodes.
Law & Order also became famous for its cast turnover: 25 different actors filled the six regular roles on the show, and no combination lasted longer than 2 1/2 seasons together.
Just about every fan of the show has a favorite set of detectives or ADA team, but what about the cast as a whole? Taking into account intra-unit and teamwide chemistry, here’s a ranking of every Law & Order cast, from worst to best.
17. Season 12
Detectives: Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, S. Epatha Merkerson. Prosecutors: Sam Waterston, Elisabeth Rohm, Dianne Wiest.
This season — which, incidentally, was the highest-rated in the show’s run — boasted a strong detective combination in Orbach, Martin and Merkerson but lands the bottom spot largely because of the DA’s side of the equation. Wiest never seemed fully comfortable in the L&O-verse, and Rohm’s introduction was a bit shaky.
16. Season 1
Detectives: George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Dann Florek. Prosecutors: Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, Steven Hill.
The “law” side was solid from the get-go, but Dzundza and Noth never quite seemed to mesh, and Dzundza — who commuted from Los Angeles to New York to film the show — became the first of what would be many departures in the show’s long life.
15. Seasons 15b-16
Detectives: Martin, Dennis Farina, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Annie Parisse, Fred Thompson.
Farina had a very tall order replacing the beloved Orbach, and fans never really warmed to his character, Joe Fontana. Rohm’s abrupt, “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” departure midway through season 15 made way for Parisse, who lasted a season and a half. Martin also missed the final four episodes of the season to film Rent; Sopranos star Michael Imperioli filled in for him.
14. Season 17
Detectives: Martin, Milena Govich, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Alana de la Garza, Thompson.
Govich was the first — and only, as it turned out — female detective featured on the show. Govich never developed much chemistry with Martin and was gone after one season. De la Garza’s introduction to the show worked better, and she ended up being the longest-serving second chair on the show.
13. Season 11
Detectives: Orbach, Martin, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Angie Harmon, Wiest.
Wiest’s first season as DA Nora Lewin ranks a little higher than her second thanks to the well-established rapport among the other five regulars.
12. Season 15a
Detectives: Martin, Farina, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Rohm, Thompson.
Similar to season 11, only with the rapport between Waterston, Rohm and Thompson carrying the show as Farina stepped into Orbach’s rather large shoes.
11. Season 18a
Detectives: Martin, Jeremy Sisto, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Linus Roache, de la Garza, Waterston.
Season 18 saw big changes to both halves of the show: Sisto replaced Govich, and Martin left midway through the year after almost nine seasons as Ed Green. Roache joined the cast as Executive ADA Michael Cutter, while Waterston’s Jack McCoy moved up to district attorney. The show took a while to regain its footing amid all the changes.
10. Seasons 2-3a
Detectives: Paul Sorvino, Noth, Florek. Prosecutors: Moriarty, Brooks, Hill.
Following Dzundza’s departure, Sorvino stepped in as Detective Phil Cerreta and helped cement the show’s template of pairing an older, more even-keeled detective with a younger, brasher one.
9. Seasons 18b-20
Detectives: Sisto, Anthony Anderson, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Roache, de la Garza, Waterston.
Law & Order‘s final cast turned out to be one of its better ones. Sisto and Anderson developed a strong working relationship, and the DA’s team was solid as well, with Waterston playing a somewhat larger role than past district attorneys had.
8. Seasons 7-8
Detectives: Orbach, Benjamin Bratt, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Carey Lowell, Hill.
Bratt and Orbach formed a strong team on the cop side, with Merkerson at her best as the sage Lt. Anita Van Buren. Lowell proved a solid addition to the courtroom. Season seven scored the show’s lone Emmy for outstanding drama.
7. Season 9
Detectives: Orbach, Bratt, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Harmon, Hill.
Harmon’s first season as ADA Abbie Carmichael provided a somewhat different flavor to the court cases, as Abbie was somewhat more outspoken than her predecessors. The occasionally adversarial relationship she had with McCoy suited the show well.
6. Seasons 13-14
Detectives: Orbach, Martin, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Rohm, Thompson.
Actor and former U.S. Sen. Thompson turned out to be an interesting addition to the cast. The show used his real-life political views in a canny way, allowing his character, DA Arthur Branch, to push back at the more liberal McCoy and Serena Southerlyn.
5. Season 4
Detectives: Orbach, Noth, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Moriarty, Jill Hennessy, Hill.
The previously all-male cast got its first female regulars in season four with the addition of Merkerson — who would become the longest-running castmember in the show’s history — and Hennessy, whose Claire Kincaid became one of the favorite ADAs among fans.
4. Season 10
Detectives: Orbach, Martin, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Harmon, Hill.
Hill’s final season as DA Adam Schiff was among the show’s highest-rated. The show was an institution by this point, but it was also firing on all cylinders.
3. Season 3b
Detectives: Orbach, Noth, Florek. Prosecutors: Moriarty, Brooks, Hill.
Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe joined Law & Order nine episodes into season three, with Sorvino — who asked to leave in part because of the bruising filming schedule of an hourlong drama — being written out after Cerreta was shot on duty. Orbach’s sardonic humor would become a signature of the show, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
2. Season 6
Detectives: Orbach, Bratt, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Hennessy, Hill.
Bratt had sizable shoes to fill after Noth’s departure at the end of season five, but he quickly meshed with Orbach, and Rey Curtis is one of the more fondly remembered characters in the show’s history.
1. Season 5
Detectives: Orbach, Noth, Merkerson. Prosecutors: Waterston, Hennessy, Hill.
Waterston’s first season on L&O brought a different energy to the DA’s office. McCoy could be as intense as Moriarty’s Ben Stone, but he also could operate with a twinkle in his eye. He and Hennessy clicked instantly, while Orbach and Noth were a great yin and yang in the 27th Precinct. This is peak Law & Order.
Hit the comments with your favorites.
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