‘Law & Order’: How the Series Ended Up Being So Popular

by Lauren Boisvert

It may come as a shock to some, but “Law & Order” wasn’t actually all that popular when it started out. Sure, the critics loved it, but it wasn’t an instant hit in the ratings department. It was too much of a “boy’s club,” and NBC exec Warren Littlefield told Dick Wolf the show would be canceled if it didn’t appeal to a wider audience.

Enter Anita Van Buren, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, and Claire Kinkade, played by Jill Hennessy. The new characters brought viewers back to “Law & Order” and invigorated the show. But it wasn’t just new characters that made the show popular. A lot of it had to do with its accuracy and dedication to portraying real stories and real law practices.

Fans loved the fact that the majority of “Law & Order” originated from real headline news. Stories like abusive celebrity parents, high-speed chases, high profile disappearances. These are things that are happening every day in reality, and it’s nice to see the good guys win most of the time. “Law & Order” was an escape from that reality in the form of changing the outcome. In the world of “SVU,” for example, rape victims get to see their attackers put away, where in reality a good number of rapes aren’t even reported, let alone put to trial.

A lot of the stories were inspired by law books the writers had on hand or news in the New York Post. Michael Chernuchin, an attorney-turned-writer for “Law & Order,” told ABA Journal in August, “We would take something from the New York Post so the audience would recognize it, but then go off in our own direction.”

“Law & Order” also tried to stay as accurate as possible when writing their stories. They even employed real people in the criminal justice system, such as lawyers or police officers. These people consulted on the show or were producers or writers.

William Fordes, an assistant district attorney who was a producer, writer, and consultant on “Law & Order,” told ABA Journal that the show worked towards ambiguity and balance. Fordes told the journal, “Every case we ever cited on the show was accurate and every explanation was precise.”

The show focused on the reality of prosecution; while for the most part, the bad guys got put away, sometimes that wasn’t always so. The prosecution often had to jump hurdles and face insurmountable obstacles from the defense. The defense attorneys were made to look devious and sinister, so viewers sympathized with prosecutors and detectives. What made “Law & Order” popular was in part due to this structure; it highlighted the good guys and gave fans someone to root against.