The institution of Law & Order has been around for 20 years, but I only began watching the various series within this brand a few years back when my wife got me hooked into Special Victims Unit. At this point, I pretty much watch Law & Order (I’m referring to all three series when I use this name) whenever it’s on TV. So in other words, I watch Law & Order all the time, but I only learned recently that the original Law & Order had been cancelled.

Well…shucks. You will be missed, Jack McCoy. And you, too, A.D.A. Michael Cutter.

I guess the ratings were in the shitter, but the original series was still one of the better hour-long dramas on TV, and still distinctive amongst cop shows in its strictly procedural nature and focus upon the sometimes peculiar intricacies of the justice system. Since I’ve begun watching Law & Order, I can’t even really watch other cop shows anymore, because they seem so silly to me. I mean, I know that the Dick Wolf universe employs a lot of dramatic license (especially in the spin-offs), but at least these shows make some attempt to adhere to reality, I think.

Anyway, just for the hell of it, here’s what I think of the various Law & Order detectives who have appeared across the series over the past 20 years.

Lennie Briscoe (played by Jerry Orbach). One of my favorites. Briscoe was a machine for dispensing amusing quips–a consummate wiseguy. I have to imagine that real detectives who survive as long on the police force as Briscoe would almost have to develop a blasé sense of humor eventually. And it might seem as though they don’t care that much about the victims, even if they do. Orbach was so suited to this role that you almost can’t imagine anybody else performing it.

Mike Logan (played by Chris Noth). I’m more familiar with the character from his appearances on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I’ve since seen a few episodes of the original Law & Order from back in the day when Noth was still part of the cast. Overall, I like the character, and Chris Noth imbues him with a lot of conflicted gravitas (especially toward the end of his run on Criminal Intent) while also keeping him edgy and charismatic. I liked him particularly as a counterpoint on Criminal Intent to Det. Goren. Whereas Goren is the quirky intellectual who clears cases using psychology, Logan is the earthy street cop whose stock in trade is being an asshole–he seems sort of dim compared with Goren, but he’s much more direct and good with hunches.

Rey Curtis (played by Benjamin Bratt). I haven’t seen a tremendous number of Det. Curtis episodes. Bratt is charming, but I don’t think the show lost much when he moved on and made way for Det. Green. I guess the character was supposed to be straight-laced in order to be a straight man for Briscoe. He might be the handsomest detective to have been on the show. I’ll give him that much.
Ed Green (played by Jesse L. Martin). I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jesse L. Martin might be one of the best actors to play a detective on the original Law & Order. The detectives on Law & Order don’t always get a lot of screen time, but I’ve always liked the forcefulness of his performances as Det. Green. The episode in which he finally left the show was heartbreaking.
Joe Fontana (played by Dennis Farina). Fontana was the character they brought in when Jerry Orbach died. Fontana is a much angrier character. Farina can be a charming actor, but I wouldn’t say there’s anything overly charming about this character. Even his sense of humor is kind of mean. Not a bad character, though, and Farina is an actor I like.
Cyrus Lupo (played by Jeremy Sisto). I didn’t immediately warm up to Lupo. He didn’t have as strong a personality as most of the other detectives, and Jeremy Sisto isn’t a super-charismatic actor. But Lupo is okay. I think his chemistry with Anthony Anderson as Det. Bernard improved the character.
Nina Cassaday (played by Milena Govrich). Nothing much to say here. I haven’t seen enough episodes with this character, though I’m fairly certain she was the only female detective to appear on the original Law & Order, and I believe she only lasted a season. Maybe they didn’t want anybody competing with McCoy’s sexy A.D.A. of the month (Alana de la Garza). Only room for one brunette on this set.
Kevin Bernard (played by Anthony Anderson). Anthony Anderson actually guest starred in an episode of Special Victims Unit playing an entirely different character. That confused the heck out of me initially. His character on SVU was totally over-the-top and ridiculous. Bernard is a much more nuanced character, and more personable than Lupo. I always wished Anthony Anderson had been allowed to be funnier, though. I like Anthony Anderson, and was pleased when I found out he was on the show.
Elliot Stabler (played by Christopher Meloni). Stabler may be the most fully realized of any Law & Order detective. He’s much more than the consummate hothead he often appears to be, but he is difficult to like. I assume much of the credit for this probably goes to Christopher Meloni for being so damn good in the role. Naturally, when you have an actor like Meloni, you want to give him some juicy material to sink his teeth into, and because Special Victims Unit doesn’t follow the strict procedural nature of its predecessor, there’s more breathing room for characterization.
Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay). Like Stabler, Det. Benson benefits from 11 years of characterization. Over time, Benson has become a character with an increasing number of personal demons, and Hargitay has made the role distinctively her own by striking a good balance between soft and hard.
John Munch (played by Richard Belzer). Fun fact, John Munch has appeared on eight different television shows, including The X-Files and Arrested Development. I like Munch. Belzer isn’t a great actor or anything, but he gets a lot of good lines, and I always wish he could get more screen time on SVU.
Odafin “Fin” Tutuola (played by Ice-T). Like Belzer, T isn’t a powerhouse performer, but he’s consistently decent and believable as Det. Tutuola. In the few episodes of SVU that are dedicated to developing his character, Ice-T actually turns in some pretty nice performances, and in a way, he’s a really underrated asset of the show. I like his odd couple relationship with Munch and I like when he butts heads with Stabler.
Chester Lake (played by Adam Beach). Not a lot to say about this character. He seemed to have been written out pretty quickly. I liked Beach’s portrayal, but I prefer Munch. SVU already had enough characters that got too emotionally wrapped up in their cases. I understand why the fans rejected him, though I feel a little sorry for Beach, since he gave some good performances, and I hated to see Lake go out the way he did.

Robert Goren (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). Goren is probably my favorite detective on any of the Law & Order programs. Yes, it’s ludicrous how he seems to know everything (I was watching an episode earlier tonight in which he caught some guy in a lie about a Rolex by knowing that the model he was wearing wasn’t manufactured after the 70s–every episode has these “how did he know that?” moments), but I just love D’Onofrio’s performances. Law & Order: Criminal Intent was a departure from the original Law & Order formula, in that trials only very rarely factor into the episodes. Typically, episodes end with the Major Case detectives getting a confession, and it was always a blast watching Goren get inside the heads of suspects. I couldn’t believe it when I found out the character was being written off the show. There’s really no reason to watch Criminal Intent anymore. D’Onofrio carried that show with his unique assortment of idiosyncrasies.

Alexandra Eames (played by Kathryn Erbe). Second fiddle and straight woman to Det. Goren. The way the character is written, Eames is pretty much the only person who has the patience to partner with the quirky, unpredictable, and increasingly volatile Goren. There are many instances of more forceful personalities amongst female Law & Order detectives, but in a way, Eames might be one of my favorites, if only because she has to be so quick in order to stay in step with her partner. Kathryn Erbe has always very gracefully allowed D’Onofrio to be the star.
Carolyn Barek (played by Annabella Sciorra). Not much to say on this one. Sciorra was fine. The character didn’t stick around long enough to grow on me. Kind of a humorless character, so it’s little wonder she didn’t last.
Megan Wheeler (played by Julianne Nicholson). I could never quite get over the fact that Nicholson looks like a 12 year-old. Apart from that, the character just wasn’t as interesting as Logan, though I did like that Logan was consistently paired up with female detectives.  It gave Chris Noth a little more to play against, and brought out some of the character’s charm. Wheeler served that role adequately without ever clicking for me.
Nola Falacci (played by Alicia Witt). I liked Falacci, actually. The character seems to have been developed to make Logan look almost tame, by comparison. It was interesting to have Logan be the one to exercise the virtues of a level head, and the banter between the characters was, I think, what finally sold me Chris Noth’s addition to Criminal Intent. I wish we could have had more Logan/Falacci episodes.

Zach Nichols (played by Jeff Goldblum). As much as I like Jeff Goldblum, I couldn’t figure out what they were doing with this character. First of all, Nichols was too similar to Goren in his penchant for exploiting psychological tricks, except that where Goren was very much always in the face of the suspects, Nichols was almost disengaged. I’m not certain that Goldblum was truly a good fit for the series–he always seemed to be more amused by his cases than anything else. Also, the quality of the writing in the Nichols episodes just generally didn’t seem to be as good. I just read that he’s leaving the series. Not really surprising.

Serena Stevens (played by Saffron Burrows). Nothing much to say. She’s just there to be upstaged by Det. Nichols. Burrows is fine in the role, but her British accent peeks through a little too often. I’d have liked to have seen more sexual tension between Stevens and Nichols or something.

What do you think?