Ever since Dick Wolf brought us Law & Order, the show has been an obsession for fans. Excluding the original that aired for 20 seasons, there have been six other incarnations in the franchise. Some have been more successful than others, but clearly, they're popular.
Double-digit seasons for a TV show is hard enough to accomplish, but the Law & Order franchise brought the original to 20 seasons, and Law & Order: SVU Season 20 begins this fall. How is that possible?
We're not all simply voyeurs, delighting in the crimes committed against others. That may be part of the draw, but luckily for the franchise, it's not the only one. If it were, we'd have ditched the series long ago.
With Law & Order, we don't just have the law part of the crime; we have the order, too. The shows take us from the offense, which only takes up a small part of the show, through the entire judicial process.
That's not something people usually get to see. Even the public servants involved in the judicial process itself don't get to see the perp's walk from soup to nuts. It's nice to get that closure, even if the end doesn't always work out in favor of the good guys.
The basic structure of each show is the same. A crime is committed, the police solve the crime and make an arrest, and the ADA prosecutes. The end. Every show has a beginning and a conclusion, but that's not all. If it were, it would get repetitive quick.
We also have the police and their families, and we have the ADA and their relationship with the police. All of them have backstories revealed slowly over time. They're complex characters with arcs, and we care about them.
We root for Olivia Benson to overcome her demons left by her mother and the fact that she is the product of a rape. We wonder why Elliot Stabler is so angry all the time, and whether he can keep his family together. We look up to Jack McCoy, and we get to know him so well that we know what he'll say before he even says it.
We invest ourselves in these characters. We relate to them. We're with them in the scene when they're in the line of fire, and when they're making tough decisions.
Both Law & Order, and Law & Order SVU have survived and thrived past many casting changes. How?
Sometimes a show is strong enough to handle character changes because the stories themselves are strong, and the characters left are beloved.
One of the reasons for this is the stories are "ripped from the headlines." In real life when we read about a story in the paper or hear about it on TV, we might find out where it ends up in its resolution, but more often than not, we don't.
Sometimes we're left hanging, and even if we aren't, we don't know how the conclusion came to be.
On Law & Order, we get to see the problems, and obstacles to convicting a criminal. We get to watch the investigative process performed by the cops and see how hard and sophisticated it is.
The stories are all interesting in their own right, and we get to see those stories affecting the characters we've grown to love. We also get to look at the families of the victims and sometimes the criminals, and the effects on them.
The show reveals all of the cogs in the wheel, and we get a peek behind the curtain.
Not only does it somewhat satisfy our curiosity, but it also gives us a new appreciation for the police and the prosecutors. We see the challenges in the lab, and how much the forensic examiners are part of the entire process.
The Law & Order franchise might not delve as deeply into the criminal mind as Criminal Minds, but the audience does get to see and hear what the perp is thinking. Why did they commit the crime? We want to know!
For everyday citizens who follow the law, some crimes are incomprehensible. It's natural for people to ask why, when they hear of something terrible someone has done. The shows help us with the why and by giving us that glimpse gives us an answer.
We don't always understand the why, and at times we don't even get a reason, but more often, we do. Feeding our curiosity and trying to understand is a big reason for the success of the multi-series franchise giant.
The why also helps keep the shows fresh. We have murders and rapes over and over on the show, but we keep watching. It's because the why is seldom the same. There are as many reasons for committing a crime, and prosecuting that crime, as people who commit the crimes themselves.
It's personal, and that makes every story unique.
Add the variety of the stories to the deeply developed characters, while fulfilling a basic human need for understanding, and a bit of mystery and people cannot look away.
That's Law & Order.
What about you, Law & Order fanatics? Why do you continue to watch Law & Order season after season? Are you looking forward to the newest in the franchise, Hate Crimes?
Watch Law & Order: SVU online for a taste of the franchise, and hit the comments to share your thoughts!
Kim Russell was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She retired in January 2019.