But the true secret of the show's appeal is that it's not a crime show at all. It's a fable about the field called tort law—the branch of civil justice in which people hurt by others' sloppy or vicious conduct can wring some measure of payback from those who hurt them.
The idea may seem ridiculous. No figure in American popular culture is more roundly reviled than the ambulance-chasing, injury-faking, fast-talking shyster shakedown artist. Consider the plaintiffs' lawyer Jan Schlichtman as portrayed by John Travolta in the film of A Civil Action. In Jonathan Harr's book, Schlichtman is portrayed as a canny lawyer, to be sure, but one with ideals of justice for the poor; by the time writer-direct Steven Zaillian is done with him, the screen Schlichtman is a greedy, amoral shark, who runs about the city making "call me" gestures to the injured even before the ambulance arrives.
Or consider the 2000 Steven Soderbergh film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as a paralegal who helps a community find compensation from the soulless corporation that has poisoned its water. Early in the film, one of the victims asks Roberts whether she is a lawyer. "Oh, no," she says. "I hate lawyers, I just work for them." (The film has a happy ending—the injured get scads of money—but that victory is won by lawyers, and is not shown onscreen.)
We profoundly believe that the world does not need legal bottom-feeders. But when a powerful figure inflicts injury on the powerless, we need someone to make things right. The need for a tort system aches like a missing limb.
Enter Jack McCoy and a comely cast of assistants. They aren't driven by greed. They work in a dank public office and eat at the Sabrett's cart. And many of the cases they bring are ones that no sane prosecutor would ever file. The "murderers" are gun-company executives who market deadly weapons to the public; callous doctors who inflict shoddy devices or experimental treatments on their patients; sleazy TV producers who foment deadly quarrels among the cast of their tawdry reality show. McCoy & Co. punish them in our name, and make our world whole.
As criminal lawyers know, defendants are usually neither innocent victims nor criminal masterminds, but unlucky idiots. Conviction does nothing to restore lost innocence, and acquittal seldom vindicates the right. And yet we long for the sense that somewhere there is a Jack McCoy who will stand with us against the powerful, a heroic knight who is , like Raymond Chandler's detective, "neither tarnished nor afraid."
Later this month the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group will give its annual Champion of Justice Award to the cast and crew of Law & Order in gratitude for an episode called "Memo from the Dark Side," in which the murder of a troubled Iraq veteran leads, most improbably, to the indictment of a law professor who wrote government memos authorizing torture. In reality, of course, this case would not be brought by any prosecutor in the country; the actual lawsuit against torture memo author John Yoo was filed on behalf of Jose Padilla by a Yale student law clinic and private attorneys.
The "lawyers" of Law & Order restore our national innocence indeed; they make the law a well-meaning guardian, not a blind machine. In one episode from Law & Order's golden years, an outraged citizen belabors the long-suffering Det. Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) for not solving a crime faster. Briscoe patiently responds, "Even though you are a taxpayer, you know, we don't actually work for you personally."
But we all know they did.