It helps to take a look at the numbers. Law and Order has been on the air since 1990 with over 400 episodes now “in the can.” It has done well, averaging better than 10 million viewers an episode. A rough calculation tells us that the original series has been seen 4,000,000,000 times, and many people will watch an episode more than once (wittingly or not).
But saturation does not appear to have exhausted our appetite for the show. New episodes continue to pour from NBC. There are variations on the theme: Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. New shows and reruns play on TNT, USA Network, Bravo!, and Turner Broadcasting. On an ordinary day, there are 6 hours of Law and Order running on TV.
If we take all three series together, there are 740 extant episodes of Law and Order. This means that, if we wanted to, we could play a unique episode of Law and Order every hour of every day for a month. All Law and Order all the time for a month. Now that’s a marathon.
The answer to the popularity and staying power of this franchise must be known to its founder Dick Wolf. The rest of us will have to resort to speculation. My guess is that this show is a genre within a genre within a genre. It is constrained by formula, right down to the wisecrack that ends the first segment, and the "chung CHUNG" signature sound that opens each scene. There is something deeply comforting about a world as predictable as this. To borrow a line from an old milk campaign in Canada, the fast the world gets, the more sense Law and Order makes.
But this explanation surely is not robust enough to explain 740 episodes and 4 billion viewings. It’s not enough to explain the deep familiarity with the show possessed even by those who claim "I never watch it." Like the Antiques Road show I talked about last week, EVERYONE watches Law and Order. A lot.
It never fails to amaze me how often academics over sherry, after protesting the fact that they don’t have a TV, that they do have a TV but they don’t get cable, that they do get cable but they "never watch anything," eventually to demonstrate a Talmudic mastery of Law and Order trivia and compete with one another to demonstrate a superior grasp of the casting intricacies that characterized the early years of the show. (Everyone, apparently, likes to be the first to note how much more interesting Ben Stone was as a character than Jack McCoy.) It’s not long before the sherry has inspired a full account of every character and every actor. Cast your eyes right and you will see a wonderful chart from Wikipedia. Somehow it’s just not the same without the sherry, but here it is. Every character in every role.
Thoughts on the mysteries of Law and Order are most welcome.
Law and Order on wikipedia here.
Law and Order, the franchise on wikipedia here.
Dick Wolf according to wikipedia here.
Lee Goldberg on the improved state of the present season here.