|The 18th season of NBC’s “Law & Order” opens tonight with the actor Sam Waterston in a new role, that of Manhattan district attorney. Mr. Waterston’s character will be the fourth Manhattan district attorney in the history of the series, which started in 1990 (not counting a pilot episode shot in 1988). But during that time, there has been only one real Manhattan district attorney: Robert M. Morgenthau, elected in 1974.|
Fans of the “Law & Order,” which is now the longest-running prime-time drama on television, know that Mr. Waterston’s character, Jack McCoy, has been the executive assistant district attorney — a role in which he has frequently had to balance his prosecutorial obligations with the political calculations of his boss. Now Mr. McCoy is the boss himself, a twist that could change the dynamics of the characters on the series.
In the first decade of the series, Steven Hill played District Attorney Adam Schiff, a moderate Democrat who was fairly tough on crime and who was well-connected in New York political circles. From 2000 to 2002, Dianne Wiest played District Attorney Nora Lewin, who replaced Schiff after he resigned to run a Holocaust memorial foundation. Lewin was in turn replaced (defeated for re-election, presumably, although the show never made that explicit) by District Attorney Arthur Branch, a conservative Republican played by Fred D. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator.
In May, Mr. Thompson asked NBC to release him from his “Law & Order” commitments as he prepared to explore a presidential run. The network announced that it would stop showing reruns of the episodes he appears in because of federal regulations requiring equal television time for presidential candidates. How Branch will be written off the show will, presumably, be disclosed in tonight’s episode.
Interestingly, Mr. Waterston, the actor, is not at all supporting his fellow star, Mr. Thompson, for the presidency. Mr. Waterston is a founder of Unity08, a group that hopes to advance a nonpartisan ticket and has floated the idea of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a prospective candidate.
The turnover in the fictional job — four district attorneys over 18 seasons — is not great by the standards of long-running television series. But this is a case where art is far more dramatic than real life.
The real Manhattan district attorney, Mr. Morgenthau, was elected in 1974. Now 88 years old, he easily fended off a re-election change from a Democratic opponent, Leslie Crocker Snyder, in 2005.
In fact, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has been a remarkably stable position. Frank S. Hogan served for more than 32 years as the district attorney, from 1941 until his death in 1974. Mr. Morgenthau defeated Mr. Hogan’s interim successor, Richard H. Kuh, in a special election in 1974.
Mr. Morgenthau was widely believed to be the basis for the character of Adam Schiff, the original district attorney on “Law & Order.”
Why “Law & Order” has had such enduring popularity — and why it spawned spinoffs, including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” — remains something of a mystery. Certainly its stars, especially Jerry Orbach, have played a big part. (Nearly three years after Mr. Orbach’s death in 2004 and after a long battle by his widow and community groups, a Midtown street corner was finally named in the actor’s honor in September.)
But the acting alone does not explain the addictive quality of the program. Appearing on the show is a rite of passage for many New York actors, because the roles are plentiful. Each features a rotating cast of defendants, lawyers, victims and witnesses.
In an April 2002 essay in The Times, Molly Haskell, explaining her addiction to the series, wrote that “its heart beats to a New York rhythm” and that “its in-jokes and phony addresses and familiar locations are for us and us alone.”
In a November 2002 essay in Slate, Michael Kinsley explained why the series is particularly popular among women. Mr. Kinsley wrote of his wife: “Other than reruns of ‘Law & Order,’ she has almost no interest in television at all.” (That description pretty much applies to — doink-doink — the author of this article as well.)