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The dogged endurance of ‘Law & Order’

NBC’s stalwart crime-and-courts procedural returned recently, but there’s no real evidence that it ever left us

Sam Waterston as D.A. Jack McCoy in the recent return of the original “Law & Order” series. It was off for 12 years (while spinoffs continued) but was brought back by NBC in February, with more than 5 million viewers tuning in. (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
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“Law & Order’s” unmistakable sound returned in late February with the premiere of Season 21 of the original (and venerable) NBC legal drama — 12 years after it last aired new episodes. Some former cast members are back (Sam Waterston, Anthony Anderson), and the stories are satisfyingly the same offering of alluringly topical whodunits: A Bill Cosby-esque figure, convicted of serial rape but maintaining his innocence, is murdered; in the next episode an executive for a tech start-up turns up dead, and the process begins again. The network has touted the revival as a return to classic form, not that any of “L&O’s” many spinoffs had ever strayed particularly far from the basic blueprint.

But why is it here? How can something that never really left boast a comeback? It’s almost like questioning the presence of a mountain: “Law & Order” just is, a vital ingredient in a culture now thoroughly fixated on true (or true-ish) crime stories. The show appeases an audience that yearns for repeat acts of closure, or comforting examples of approximate justice.

The new episodes have been fairly well-received, even if they’re not particularly surprising. “The formula remains unchanged, just with new pieces plugged into the machinery,” wrote CNN’s Brian Lowry. “Why mess with success?” And, indeed, ol’ reliable pulled in 5.5 million viewers with the Feb. 24 premiere and another 4.3 million on March 3 — noteworthy numbers for broadcast TV in the streaming age — proving that time has done little to diminish the appetite for both law and order.

In some ways, it’s astonishing that a show as workmanlike as “L&O” has not only survived but flourished during an era of high-minded (and high-budget) prestige television. A straightforward procedural continuing to excite television viewers feels antithetical to the philosophy driving the creation of most of today’s lauded shows.

The show debuted in 1990, the fruit of a simple idea: an hour-long drama, centered on a crime and split into two 30-minute segments focusing on different aspects of the criminal justice system. The first would be about police, and the second about prosecution. Each half was originally intended to be individually syndicated.

That never happened, but it never needed to. The franchise flourished into a world unto itself, sprouting spinoff after spinoff from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to “Law & Order: Organized Crime.” There was “Criminal Intent,” “Trial By Jury” “True Crime,” “L.A.” … the list goes on. It spawned a series of video games and a number of TV crossover events.

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Some 32 years later, series creator Dick Wolf attributes its longevity to the fact that its “stories reflect current events but the show is basically the same. A murder mystery in the first half with a moral mystery in the back half.”

The key, he said in an email, is strong writing. Wolf holds this truth to be so self-evident that a few years ago he gave the NBC network presidents a Christmas gift. “It was a plaque that said ‘It’s the writing, stupid,’” he said. “First and foremost, the show’s longevity and success starts with consistently engaging and well written stories.”

Many of those stories mirror real events, which adds a layer of urgency to the proceedings. “We shot the pilot in 1988. CBS and Fox passed, and in 1990, [then-President of NBC] Brandon Tartikoff asked me, “What’s the bible for the show?’” Wolf said. “I said the front page of the New York Post.” These ripped-from-the-headlines episodes have tackled everything in both the original series and its spinoffs, from the trial of Casey Anthony, who in 2011 was found not guilty of murdering her daughter Caylee, but found guilty of providing false information to law enforcement officials, to reality-TV star Josh Duggar’s molestation scandal. (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” arrived in 1999 with matching TV DNA but with an emphasis on sexual crimes and crimes against children.)

“Sometimes, when you didn’t get justice in real life, you can get it from” the show, said true-crime writer Kevin Flynn, who co-hosts “… These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast.” “They cornered the market by planting the flag and saying out loud, ‘We are copying storylines from the newspaper.’ ... So, sometimes when you see stuff in the news, you turn to your friend and say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see that on SVU.’”

Wolf, who began his career as an advertising copywriter, knew the importance of keeping consistency and applied that as the show branched out. Each new series feels both familiar and slightly new. “Coming from advertising, I understood brand loyalty,” he said. “So when I created SVU to expand the brand, and saw how quickly it succeeded, I knew the Law & Order name had unlimited potential.”

Wolf and his team have produced more than 1,200 episodes of “L&O” and its various spinoffs, an astounding number in a television landscape that tends to favor limited-run shows — think the eight-episode “Mare of Eastown” on HBO or even the 62-episode run of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

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Partially because of its longevity, the show’s fans can often become die-hards. Megan Ganz, a TV writer who co-created Apple TV’s “Mythic Quest” and works on FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (where she’s also an executive producer), is among them.

“I watch episodes over and over again, even though I know who did it,” Ganz said. “When I was in college, I used to schedule all my classes around a TNT block of ‘Law & Order’ that happened in the middle of the day. I got to the point where I could remember how the episode ended before they found the body. Just from the conversation that two people were having as they’re strolling through the park.”

Ganz compares her love for the show to how soap opera fans feel for their “stories.” Her relationship with “L&O” is a lifelong one, and old episodes can have “sort of a nostalgic feeling to me, which is strange for a show that’s kind of about murder a lot of the time.”

She credits the show’s natural rhythms and its familiar structure for its success. “The human brain loves patterns,” she said. “There’s something about the procedural structure that feels, for lack of a better word, orderly. It’s nice to return to that pattern over and over, to hear those familiar dun duns, and in such a crazy and chaotic world, to feel like there is justice and order and the good guys win in the end.” (It’s even inspired her unique love of jury duty: “It’s engendered in me a real fondness not for what our justice system always is but what it aspires to be.”)

Ganz’s passion led to her writing an “L&O” parody episode of “Community” in 2012 titled “Basic Lupine Urology,” a play on Dick Wolf’s name. The episode — which revolved around the “murder” of a yam a community college study group was growing for biology class — felt like more homage than mockery. Leslie Hendrix, who plays medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers on several L&O incarnations, made an appearance. Perhaps most important, they were able to license the DUN DUN, which Ganz said, “makes the entire episode. ... Why is that noise so great? Why is it so perfectly synced up with the feeling of justice being served?”

That sound almost didn’t happen. Mike Post, the musician responsible for the score and theme of every L&O property except “Organized Crime,” had already written the first episode’s score. That was no easy task, as Wolf asked for something “stark, and it’s got to sound like a signature for New York.” By snapping the strings of a new guitar with his thumb and forefinger and adding a clarinet part, Post nailed the score. Then Wolf called with another request: He needed a sound to play during the date-stamped scene changes.

“I said, ‘Great. I’m your composer. Call sound effects,'” Post remembered. Wolf persisted, however, and Post finally agreed. He began combining a variety of sounds, including drums, the sound of a jail door slamming, a guy hitting an anvil with a hammer and a bunch of men stomping on a gymnasium floor at the same time. He spent a day and a half mixing all of that into the two-beat stinger we know today.

Post remains surprised — pleasantly so — how much the show and the DUN DUN remains culturally relevant. He once received a letter from a high school principal in Cleveland thanking him for the sound, which the principal used over the intercom when calling students to his office. “It just strikes fear into the hearts of all my students,” he wrote.

For most, though, the DUN DUN signals comfort rather than fear. Thirty-two years later, it’s the clarion call we never stopped answering. These are our stories.