"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." With this pithy but all-inclusive prologue, thus began each hour-long episode of Law & Order, American network television's longest-running police drama.
This was not the first such program to equally divide its time between the arrest and the trial; indeed, there had been a series precisely titled Arrest and Trial back in 1963. But Law & Order was easily the most popular and successful of the batch, and as the series eased gracefully past its 11th, 12th, and 13th season, it was very likely that its creator and executive producer Dick Wolf would fulfill his dream of matching and even surpassing the longevity of Gunsmoke, which lasted 20 years, setting a record as American network television's most durable dramatic series. Although Law & Order boasted a large and fluid ensemble cast, there were no real "stars" per se, save for the city of New York (a point made by scores of TV historians, notably Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh). Virtually every episode starts out with the discovery of a dead body or evidence of a violent crime. A pair of NYPD detectives arrive on the scene, begin gathering evidence and eyewitnesses at the behest of their superiors, and -- generally after a handful of frustrating dead ends and false leads -- manage to collar the principal suspect. The story then shifts to the offices of the DA, where a team of brilliant prosecuting attorneys do their best to build a case against the accused, dodging the obstructive tactics of defense lawyers all along the way. Even when the case gets to court, the story is far from over, with several twists and turns -- and usually a shocking and unexpected denouement -- awaiting both the prosecutors and the viewer.
The series made its NBC network debut Thursday, September 13, 1990, moving to its originally scheduled Tuesday-night slot October 23. The original cast included, on the side of "Law," chubby, hard-boiled veteran detective Sgt. Max Greevey (George Dzundza) and his younger, more athletic partner, Mike Logan (Chris Noth). Their supervisor was Captain Donald Cragen, played by Dann Florek. Once the detectives had completed their share of the work, the scene changed to the "Order" team of District Attorney Adam Schiff (played by Steven Hill), who appeared in all but the pilot episode, and a brace of intense, dedicated assistant DAs, the Caucasian Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and African-American Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks). The program's first season had several distinctions: In keeping with network's promise of delivering TV's top "action series," the scenes in which Greevey and Logan track down the perp are top-heavy with noise and violence (generally implied, but not always so), vertigo-inducing handheld camerawork and punchy background music. Also, individual scenes run a bit longer than the later short-and-sweet vignettes that would become the series' stylistic trademark. And unlike the relatively dispassionate detectives seen in later seasons, Greevey and Logan tend to become emotionally involved in their work; similarly, lawyers Stone and Robinette seem to take every legal setback personally, much more so than their successors in the series' subsequent years, although DA Schiff exhibits as much calm, stoic integrity in his first appearance as he would in his last, a decade later. Even in its earliest episodes, however, the emphasis is on the story rather than personalities: All we learn of the regulars' private lives is revealed in fragmentary fashion, and only when it bears some relevance.
Fans of the latter-day Law & Order will notice that the first season lacks the gender balance of the series' later years -- or, put more bluntly, the series was pretty much an "all boys' club." Although dozens of prominent actresses appeared in supporting roles, there were no regular female characters, a fact that tended to weaken the series' ratings in its formative seasons. Still, it would not be until the fourth season began in 1993 that any distaff characters would be added to the weekly lineup. One element of the series was established early on and would remain in place forever afterward: Most of the stories on Law & Order were "ripped from today's headlines," often with only the names changed to protect the innocent (?). In season one alone, the series offers fictionalizations of the Bernard Goetz subway shootings, the Menendez killings, the Central Park "Preppie Murder," the "Mayflower Madam," the Tawana Brawley imbroglio, and the Steinberg child-murder case. So close did the last-named episode come to the actual facts that the series' producers were compelled to include a disclaimer at the beginning of several episodes, assuring viewers that, although the story was inspired by real happenings, the script itself was otherwise purely a work of fiction. The fact that Law & Order was frequently pre-empted by network specials indicated that NBC wasn't all that sure of the series' success. By the end of the first season, however, the ratings, if not spectacular, were good enough to warrant a renewal -- while backstage intrigues assured that the series would undergo the first of its many abrupt cast changes.