"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."
Law & Order is a long runningDramatic Hour Long Courtroom Drama created by Dick Wolf that ran from 1990 to 2010 (twenty seasons). Basic concept is a Mix And Match, with the first half, "Law," showing the police trying to solve a crime (Police Procedural) and the second half, "Order," showing the DA's office trying to prosecute (Law Procedural).The show is also notable for having replaced every single character at least once; no actor appeared in a regular role in all twenty seasons (although several notable cast members appeared in the majority of the series). Character departures have varied widely, from Dropped a Bridge on Him to Put on a Bus to Chuck Cunningham Syndrome to Stuffed into the Fridge to one case of Suddenly Sexuality. Very little is known about the characters' personal lives, with all the emphasis put on the formula of the story, which was part of the reason for the constant character changes; actors often complained that it was extremely repetitive. The focus on the formula makes the show very rerun friendly, however.It has an extremely memorable sound effect (CHUNG CHUNG, or, as actor Dann Florek called it, the "Doink-Doink") played throughout that, while not a Theme Tune, has much the same effect.Has produced a number of spinoffs, including several international remakes.The show's strict formula, distinctive iconography and influential Long Runner status has meant that it's been the subject of a lot of parody. The Simpsons parodied the show with Law and Order: Elevator Inspectors Unit ("Helter Shelter"). Saturday Night Live ran a fake ad for Law & Order: Parking Violations Unit around the time Criminal Intent started. [adult swim] also parodied this in a commercial announcing thirty or so Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law spinoffs, and Community based an entire episode around the main characters trying to find out who destroyed their yam-based science class project as if they were on an episode of this show.It has a character sheet and a recap page. Tropers are encouraged to contribute.
In the TV Tropes system, the users are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the users who research tropes, and the users who put them up on the website. These are their tropes:
Acceptable Breaks from Reality: 95% of pre or in-trial fact finding would be done by investigators (of the type Lenny Briscoe was on Trial By Jury), not the DAs themselves.
Actor Allusion: Characters sometimes had backgrounds that overlapped with that of their actors. Joe Fontana, for example, had Dennis Farina's childhood and Chicago police career.
Adorkable: CSU's Julian Beck. A skinny guy who geeks out whenever he gets to give the cops good evidence. He really seems to enjoy his job.
And Starring: The senior detective and the EADA are both introduced as "Starring..." despite the fact that the EADA is always fourth in the opening credits.
This is a relic of the original plan for the show. The idea was that the show would be more versatile in syndication if they could chop each episode into two parts and sell it in half hour blocks. If that had ever been the case, the "Law" episodes, with the cops, would have only had the three police officers shown in the credits, while the "Order" half, with the lawyers, would have only the attorneys.
"Also Starring Carolyn McCormick as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet" in the show's third and fourth seasons. This was because, at the time she got her Promotion to Opening Titles, she was the only female regular, and then NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield felt that the absence of female characters in the first two seasons was scaring away potential viewers. She was demoted soon after the arrivals of S. Epatha Merkerson and Jill Hennessey.
Animal Wrongs Group: In "Animal Instinct," a professor is murdered and animal rights graffiti is found at the crime scene. The victim had been the target of protests from animal rights groups, so they're suspected of killing her, but it was really a mentally unbalanced woman who was obsessed with the victim's husband and the scene was staged.
Batman Gambit: Stone, McCoy, Cutter and some of the assistant ADAs have used a defendant's own personality traits against them, either to bluff them into pleas or trash them on the stand.
One was attempted by a defendant in a season six episode. The defendant ran a small prostitution ring consisting mainly of fellow college students, which was paid for and worked as supplement to her father's shoe-manufacturing business (the father would use the service for his business clients to convince them to buy his products). The defendant killed one of her prostitutes when she expressed desire to quit. McCoy had her on the ropes at trial (the fact that she fled jurisdiction was, in itself, pretty damning evidence), so a result she attempted to use Plan B and accused her father of the murder. The father, asked by McCoy prior to his testimony, didn't even know what floor of the library the girl he supposedly killed was on. The daughter was acquitted of all charges, and presumably they anticipated that McCoy would have the father arrested and tried for the murder, only to be acquitted because he didn't do it. McCoy pre-empts this and instead has the father arrested for enterprise corruption, for which he is guilty and would probably be convicted for.
In the first season two-parter "The Torrents of Greed," an Affably Evil Mafia boss (a thinly-veiled version of John Gotti) runs a doozy of one on Stone, using two Heel Face Moles to feed him false information about a murder the boss ordered and getting Stone to indict him on the basis of their testimony. When the case goes to trial, the boss's attorney melodramatically reveals that all of the evidence against his client is based on perjury and the boss walks. Later, when Stone actually does get ironclad proof tying the boss to the murder, he can't do anything about it because of double jeopardy.
In the fourth season, Philip Swann (played by Zeljko Ivanek) manages to successfully pull one off. He kills an old man who had swindled him out of money that he himself had swindled from some of his wealthier friends. He fed his accomplice misinformation about how he killed the victim and where he buried the body (He moved the body after burying him in one place so the police wouldn't find it) so that, if they did find the body, he could challenge the testimony of his accomplice. Because he bragged about the crime to practically everyone, he was convicted, but he was able to appeal the conviction years later after the police discovered this body, and secured himself an acquittal in the process, because most of the people who testified had either moved away or were afraid to testify. It ended up backfiring because he got cocky and had his accomplice killed by an associate of his cell-mate's, for which Stone was able to flip the accomplices for, but not before Swann was able to stir up Stone's anger by bringing civil suit against him and dredging up his personal life to use as leverage.
Best Served Cold: Referenced in "The Torrents of Greed (Pt. 2)". After being humiliated in court by a mob boss, Stone goes to great lengths to put the boss away. When Robinette calls Stone for seemingly focusing more on payback than justice, this exchange results:
Stone: You know, the Russians say revenge is the sweetest passion.
Robinette: Yeah. And the Sicilians say it's a meal that's best served cold.
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Robinette, surprisingly. The episode "Custody" cast him as a hypocritical and downright dirty race-baiting attorney, but at the same time the episode demonstrated him to be a far more excellent and capable attorney than his time as a series regular permitted him to be.
Cardboard Box Home: Multiple episodes deal with the homeless, some of who live in the "traditional" cardboard box.
Cast the Expert: Attorney and politician Fred Thompson played the district attorney for several years, though he also had prior acting experience playing the roles of senior government officials and authority figures, so this would be a cross between Cast the Expert and Type Casting.
And Dennis Farina, the only actor on the show to have spent time in law enforcement, as Joe Fontana.
Chain of Deals: The actions behind the central crime in "Kid Pro Quo" (s13e20)
Choke Holds: A ex-military man upset at a Jerk Pacifist mocking his dead soldier son employs a sleeper hold blood choke. It leaves telltale bruises over the victim's carotid arteries.
Church of Happyology: At least twice — the first time it was disguised as a series of financial seminars (although it started out as a religion), the second it was a straight cult based on Scientology although it turned out they weren't behind the murder in that episode.
Corrupt Corporate Executive: Anyone running a business larger than a neighborhood deli may be portrayed as this, whether they're actually guilty or not. Particularly evident regarding anyone who works in the health care or health insurance fields.
Dead Man Writing: In at least one episode, where a murder victim left video evidence to clear his best friend of the crime.
Deadpan Snarker: Actually pretty common among the cops. Notable examples include Mike Logan, Lennie Briscoe & Ed Green.
They're not the only ones. The attorneys also get their fair share. See Schiff One-Liner.
McCoy: What can I say? Turns out, no one's made of steel, not even with a 160 IQ.
Serena: And neither are you.
There is also a balding arraignment judge who loves dealing out the wisecracks with his decisions.
Death Bed Confession: One of the few hearsay exemptions. Usually played for drama when it shows up. A notable example is "Ghosts": A mugger, shot by a cop, confesses to a murder Detective Fontana worked on 10 years earlier, and thought he had solved.
Deus Ex Scuse Me: The show does this a lot. Pick a series, pick an episode, someone answers their cell and walks out of the scene.
Except those episodes that predate cellphones being common...of which there are several seasons worth.
Dirty Cop: Occasionally a bad guy was a cop on the take. The show even dealt with the possibility that some main characters were dirty. Captain Cragen wore a wire to prove he wasn't. The show heavily implied that Fontana might have been dirty. His clothes were way too nice and he had way too much money. If he had been around longer, they might have explained that. Lennie Briscoe also let some people think he was dirty so they'd be more willing to talk. Also, he got the occasional free lunch out of it. That sort of thing only happened a few times, though.
The prosecutors weren't exempt from this trope either, as there were several episodes focused around hearings regarding McCoy's alleged wrongdoings in the District Attorney's office.
Disproportionate Retribution: Hoo, boy, Carla Perrazo in "Couples". She kills her husband by repeatedly running him over with her car not for "his cheating" or "his perversions," but because, in her words, "I don't go under the knife for anybody.". *points at her boobs with her thumbs* "THESE were good enough for him when we got married!"
Dramatic Irony: In "Bodies", the suspect's first attorney asks to be removed from the case because she feared her client. The judge said he would hand the case to Legal Aid, saying "They don't make enough to worry about ethics." His second attorney is arrested for refusing to tell the DA about the suspect's other victims, and is tried, defending himself by claiming he's standing by his ethics.
If there is a "happy" ending, you are still going to leave seriously thinking about some issue. If the ending isn't bittersweet, then the crime itself (or situations linked to it) was horrible. Season 10 was particularly bad about this, with about half the episodes ending with some less-than-satisfactory conclusion.
Paul Sorvino's second to last appearance, before being put on a bus. A Columbian cartel hit man kills a couple in front of their kid and in the process of trying to find the guy, Sorvino is shot by a gun runner who sold him the weapon used in the hit. Since the gun runner is the only guy who can identity the killer (who's claiming to be someone else as his defense), Sorvino is forced to allow his shooter to get immunity for trying to kill him in exchange for his testimony. The lawyers convict the guy, but the cartel sends another hitman to kill him and this one tricks everyone into thinking he's a father of one of the killer's victims. He pleads guilty and is given two days to arrange his private matters before he goes to jail, at which point he escapes and everyone who testified against the original gunman is killed. He is then revealed to be also a hitman, but by that point, all of the witnesses in the case are killed off, with the daughter of the person killed at the start of the episode taken from her school by her "uncle".
Memo From the Darkside, which has the Obama Administration saving a Bush administration lawyer who was being put on trial for murdering a former soldier who was threatening to out him for his role in making legal torture by deux ex machina declaring (before the verdict can be read in court) that the lawyer can't be put on trial for war crimes, effectively nullifying the jury verdict.
"Damaged." Judge William Wright overturns a jury's guilty verdict against three boys accused of raping a mentally disabled girl with the reasoning that McCoy hadn't been able to prove the state's case. Wright and all three of the boys pull a Karma Houdini of sorts, with the implication that the boys would continue having sex with girls at their school. Also, Lenny's daughter is murdered after testifying against drug dealers (Even worse, the case against the drug dealers ended in mistrial... although the next season would briefly revisit this issue, with a somewhat worse ending for the drug dealer).
"Aftershock," one of the rare episodes that focused more on the characters' personal lives. McCoy, Kincaid, Briscoe, and Curtis witness a state execution, and they all react in different ways. Curtis cheats on his wife, and Briscoe and McCoy go out drinking. McCoy calls Kincaid to pick him up, but leaves before she gets there, and Kincaid ends up giving Briscoe a ride home. On the way, they are struck by a drunk driver, killing Kincaid instantly.
Dramatic Gun Cock: Hammer-cocking sound happens with every time a cop's gun gets pulled, including Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolvers, which do have hammers, and even including Glocks, which have no hammer to cock in the first place!!
Dropped After the Pilot: Roy Thinnes (as D.A. Alfred Wentworth) appeared in the pilot, "Everybody's Favorite Bagman." When it came time for the series to go into production, Thinnes was unavailable, working on a different series. So the role was renamed ("Adam Schiff") and recast (Stephen Hill). There was no on-screen explanation for the change, which really confused viewers when NBC inexplicably aired the pilot as the sixth episode.
Everyone's Baby Sister: The series tends to do this with the Assistant District Attorneys. We've only really seen it played out with Claire Kincaid and Alexandra Borgia but it did play out with both of them.
Evil Former Friend: Nearly every time an old and trusted friend of one of the main characters is connected to a case, said friend will end up, at best, being marginally involved in the crime and, at worst, being the actual criminal. This trope has been used in the series as far back as the original pilot.
Evolving Music: The series all has the same CHUNG CHUNG sound and theme tune, but each show has its own spin on the tune. The original's theme was also cut down at the beginning of the fourth season.
Exact Words: Comes up here and there, but an interesting version is in the tenth season episode "Panic", where a novelist swears up and down that she was not having an affair with the husband of an FBI agent. because she was having an affair with the agent herself.
The most prominent example of the "good guys" using this trope is in "The Serpent's Tooth" (S1-E19): Ben Stone secures the testimony of a Russian gangster in exchange for full immunity. When he has the gangster arrested immediately after his testimony, Stone reminds him and his lawyer that he promised them immunity in "New York County" (Manhattan), not "New York City". The cops that arrested him were from Kings County (Brooklyn).
Stone: Next time, sir, get a better lawyer.
Executive Meddling: NBC forced Dick Wolf to add female characters to the cast, or else they'd cancel the show. As a result, since the show's construction only allowed for six characters (In much the same way that Criminal Intent only allowed for four and SVU allowed for eight or more), Wolf was forced to fire Dann Florek (Cragen) and Richard Brooks (Robinette). As a result Michael Moriarty eventually went on a diatribe about how the show was becoming more and more homogenised and quit (or was fired, depending on the account). Some fans mights argue these changes were for the better (see: Hello Attorney) and others might argue that Law and Order was at its best when it was all-male, or Olivet was the only woman.
Expository Hairstyle Change: The major one being Lt. Van Buren's hairloss due to cancer, which leads to a new wig/hairstyle, and then reveals her real hair for the first time in the series; around the same time Lupo & Bernard ditch the Perma Stubble.
Expy: Any characters based on real people will generally be compared to the real thing EG "she's nicer then Ann Coulter" or "he stole more than Bernie Madoff".
Extra Y Extra Violent: In "Born Bad", a lawyer argues that his client should not be found guilty since his extra Y chromosome predisposes him to be violent.
This goes horribly right when the client buys into his lawyer's defence so much, that he asks to be sent to prison for life, despite only being a teenager.
Fake Guest Star. Leslie Hendrix as Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers. She's been in the original series longer than any current cast member.
Fate Worse than Death: For the few defendants that get Not Guilty verdicts, they find they have to live with the consequences of the damage they've done.
Felony Misdemeanor: The shows occasional treatment of minor felonies - particularly upscale prostitution.
Fell Off the Back of a Truck: Either used and promptly mocked by the police, or the police use a line along the lines of "where did you get it, did it fall off the back of a truck?".
Flanderization: At least two of the times that Paul Robinette appeared on the show after his departure he is demonstrated to be a borderline black militant, conspiracy theorist defence attorney. Robinette was pro-Black when he was a regular, it was even a significant part of his character, but he never took this character trait to almost ridiculous extremes until AFTER he left.
Explained by Paul himself at the end of one episode after his departure as ADA: "Ben Stone once said I'd have to decide if I was a lawyer who was black or a black man who was a lawyer. All those years I thought I was the former. All those years I was wrong."
A Fool for a Client: Defendants represent themselves an average of once every other season. Interestingly, of the guilty ones, not one of them ever gets away with their crime. The ones who are guilty and acquitted invariably either die or go down for another crime before the credits roll.
Fun with Acronyms: The show's research on the various parts of the NYPD is pretty accurate, so we get accurate acronyms for them. The crime scene guys are CSU, Crime Scene Unit; the anti-mob branch is OCCB, Organized Crime and Corruption Bureau, and the local equivalent of SWAT is part of ESU, the Emergency Services Unit.
Game Changer: Two men riding the train together make a Devil's Pact: each would murder the other's antagonist, thinking the police would fail to connect them to their crimes. Their scheme almost worked until detectives discovered the suspects routinely rode the same train together. This game-changing fact moved the prosecutor's cases from iffy circumstances to roll-over confessions.
Happy Ending: In the series finale the school bomber is captured without loss of life and Lt. Van Buren's cancer is in remission; also skier Lindsey Vonn, who claims to have seen every single episode of the show, was the series' last guest star. Perhaps the only thing to regret is they never got around to a story on the Times Square Failbomber, but that's probably more of a Criminal Intent thing.
Heroic Bystander: Occasionally there is a bystander who witnesses a crime who has the presence of mind to do things like accurately write down vital information like a license number of a suspect's vehicle. To the featured cops, this stuff is usually manna from heaven.
One episode had Jack McCoy team up with a judge to get a drunk driver convicted of multiple counts of second degree murder as part of the judge's crusade. Jack went so far as to blackmail a witness into being out of the country during the trial and suppressed all evidence that the guy was drunk off his rocker when he committed the crime, with the judge Deus Ex Machinaing on Jack's behalf all the way. Fortunately, during the trial, Jack came to his senses, and started to show the evidence that the guy was drunk (and so was guilty of Manslaughter, but not murder). The only reason the judge didn't report Jack's abuses in the trial was because he was in as deep. In that one, at least, they acknowledged that what McCoy and the judge were doing was wrong, and it's brought up several times later on as an example of McCoy's willingness to engage in improper conduct if he thinks he can get away with it (nowadays lots of drunk drivers have started to face murder charges, so they could do this legally if the episode were written more recently).
In an older episode, a guy beats his girlfriend (with her consent) to cause a miscarriage and frame the rich lawyer they intended to sue, taking careful measure to ensure the fetus was under 24 weeks old so they could avoid going to prison. Ben and the others act like there is nothing they can do and have to use all sorts of legal loopholes, never mind the original couple conspired to commit blackmail, perjury, defamation, entrapment, and fraud.
Too many examples to list, but whenever a judge tosses out evidence against the defendant early on during a trial to make the case that much harder for the prosecution, though the defendant will always get their just deserts in one way or another. However, one prominent example comes to mind:
"Hubris": a warrant is issued to search the suspect's apartment but the courier hasn't brought it yet. Knowing the suspect will get there before the warrant, Det. Green sticks a toothpick in his lock to keep him from entering. The courier arrives a few seconds later and the police bust in and seize a videotape of the murders. The judge tosses the tape since the police secured the area before they had the warrant (even though they had reason to believe he'd destroy the evidence and were well aware the warrant had been issued). Then the judge allows the defendant to do two things he shouldn't have: call an alibi witness to perjure herself and take the stand to testify on his own behalf. Not only were the tapes admissible to cross-examine both of them but the defendant was clearly guilty of perjury considering he was representing himself and had personal knowledge he was suborning perjury. It is also totally legal to secure a scene if there's a concrete possibility that the evidence will be removed, destroyed, or otherwise endangered before the search warrant arrives. What the police can't do is start poking around, looking in drawers and such, before the warrant arrives. note As an example, if the police had strong reason to suspect that a criminal had evidence on his computer, they could secure the location and prevent the criminals from touching it. They couldn't actually fire it up and look at the contents until the warrant arrived, though.
In "Patient Zero," a man is charged with killing his mistress's child (dosing them with stolen SARS virus that she survived). His wife testifies that she was with him at the time, but breaks down on the stand and changes her story a couple of times. Outside the courtroom, she admits that she was deliberately playing the jury, and the jury returns a not guilty verdict because they can't be sure what the truth is. McCoy and Southerlyn watch the husband and wife walk out of court hand-in-hand, and are apparently so bewildered by their defeat that they completely forget they have an iron-clad case for perjury against the wife. Not to mention completely ignoring the handful of felonies the husband committed in getting the SARS virus to begin with.
In "Gunshow," the season ten premiere, a gunman opens fire on a crowd in a public park, killing over a dozen people. Once arrested, he confesses to the police. The judge in the case, however, excludes the confession on the grounds that the suspect's mother had told Lt. van Buren that she was calling a lawyer for her son, and that the police therefore had no right to continue the interview, since the suspect's right to counsel had been invoked. The problem is that the suspect was not a minor, and, as such, his mommy could not invoke his right to counsel for him. If he was properly Mirandized, and did not invoke his right to an attorney, nor his right to remain silent, then the police had every right to continue questioning him. The only reason for this was so that McCoy would end up prosecuting the gun manufacturer instead note never mind the fact they had been immunized from lawsuits by Congress at that point in one of the more Anvilicious (to say nothing of asinine) episodes in the show's run.
In one episode, Ray and Lennie lament the fact that they cannot arrest a man for killing his daughter's beloved horse for the insurance money, as he has technically committed no crime (he withdrew the insurance claim on the horse's life and, therefore, cannot be prosecuted for insurance fraud.) Um, I'm pretty sure cruelty to animals IS a crime...
Honor Before Reason: Stone, McCoy, Cutter and Adam Schiff have all had their moments, generally paired with an effort to gain Justice by Other Legal Means. An occasional variant is the refusal to hand off a case to a different jurisdiction (who would have a stronger case or stronger punishment) because "they have a responsibility to the people of New York" to try the case there.
Ill Girl: Victims and bystander aside, one character is undergoing chemotherapy which leads to a funny/heartwarming moment the day after her son gets her some medical marijuana to perk up her appetite. Her boss angrily rounds on her when people report smelling marijuana on her, then in private gives her a tin of strong mints and tips on hiding the smell, revealing he also went though the same thing. The next episode shows her celebrating the return of her appetite.
John Munch: First appeared on the series as part of a Homicide/Law & Order cross-over. Munch was the only character to be a prominent part of all three cross-over episodes, usually paired with Lennie Briscoe (who, it is revealed, slept with Munch's ex-wife). When Homicide ended, Richard Belzer proposed to Dick Wolf that Munch join Law and Order as Briscoe's new partner. The role being filled by Jesse L Martin as Ed Green led to Munch being written into SVU instead.
Juggalo: The episode "Steel-eyed Death" focuses - poorly - on this subculture.
Jury and Witness Tampering: Any time a witness changes his/her testimony while on the stand, or a jury returns an unexpected verdict when the opposite outcome should have been the obvious one, it's generally because of this. Two examples in particular stand out:
A noteworthy instance of witness tampering from Season 4 is in the episode "Old Friends," where a witness commits perjury while testifying against a member of the Russian mob, then later refuses to testify to the truth because she's been threatened. She eventually does tell the truth but shortly afterward is murdered. This causes prosecutor Ben Stone to quit the DA's office out of guilt.
One example of jury tampering is the episode "Hubris," where a defendant, acting as his own lawyer at his trial for killing a woman, kept zeroing in on one of the female jurors every time he stood up to give an argument. It's later revealed that he'd actually approached her outside the courtroom prior to the verdict, and he'd sweet-talked her and convinced her of his innocence. He really was guilty, and later dumped the juror after being acquitted...and she was later forced to kill him in self-defense.
L&O and its Spin Offs just as often defy this trope (by refusing to rely on lesser charges or lawsuits) or invert it (not mentioning other ways to nail the defendant, acting like the top count is the only charge they have) as play they play it straight.
Karma Houdini: Epic example in "Patient Zero" when the defendant who injected a woman with whom he had broken off one of many affairs with SARS, and the defendant's wife, who perjured herself to inexplicably get him off, despite numerous confirmed affairs.
Karmic Death: The fate of many defendants who are definitely guilty, but who manage to escape legal justice. Especially prevalent in cases where defendants tried the case pro se (meaning they served as their own attorney). Most pro se defendants in the show's history has either been convicted or killed by the end of the episode.
So many people have been shot on the court house steps it is a wonder anyone goes near them.
The Kindnapper: One episode involves a mentally-unbalanced woman who kidnaps a young girl from a neglectful mother and keeps her in a secret room in her basement. At the end of the episode the woman is acquitted of kidnapping and is planning on suing for custody of the girl.
Lampshade Hanging: The episode "Bottomless" had a member of a big bad corporation comment on how Jack McCoy often goes after "big bad corporations."
Limited Wardrobe: Jack prefers a bulky windbreaker to a more aesthetically pleasing overcoat, and occasionally wears jeans and a denim jacket. Justified in that he rides a motorcycle instead of driving a car: can't really wear overcoats with those.
Long-Runner Cast Turnover: The series ended with a completely different cast than when it started. The series lost its last original cast member at the end of its tenth season, when Steven Hill's Adam Schiff retired. So half of its run was done with no one from the first season cast. The Other Wiki has a section dedicated to the cast/character changes and overlaps.
The Main Characters Do Everything: The original series is a notable aversion of this trope. The writers made sure that the main characters stick to their own job and operate within their limits. This applies to both the policemen and the attorneys. If something outside their spheres needs to be done, it usually won't be shown on-screen, or more rarely will be shown done by a minor guest character or even a disposable extra. This allowed keeping realism while avoiding Loads and Loads of Characters.
Malcolm Xerox: If an episode showcases racial issues, you'll see several of those. Especially if a black lawyer is the defense attorney.
As noted in Flanderization above, this is especially true if Paul Robinette is the defense attorney.
Mama Bear: Any number of victims, perps, and their relatives. Jamie Ross is this to her daughter.
Mauve Shirt: The psychiatrist characters, Olivet and Skoda and Medical Examiner Elizabeth Rodgers. Also, Detective Profaci during the first seven seasons.
May-December Romance: A bit of a reversal, as the May is a 20-year-old guy and the December is a 60-year-old woman. The guy is shocked that his lover had gotten a "vagina-lift" (among other revitalizing procedures), since he liked her just the way she was.
Jack and Claire is a straight example.
The McCoy: Definitely not Jack McCoy. Usually the female A.D.A. Except when Angie Harmon played the role as a conservative Republican, which led the writers to bring in a new D.A. who was female and a former college professor, and made herThe McCoy.
Nobility Marries Money: One episode featured a case made more complicated by the fact that the murder involved neighboring families with engaged children with a very complex relationship. It turns out the engagement was a merger between impoverished patricians on the one hand and nouveau riche on the other.
No Ending: A couple of episodes. One notable one was the midpoint of the series, the season 10 finale. McCoy has convicted a Chilean national of a murder committed during a military coup, but it's being challenged on jurisdiction grounds. We see McCoy and the opposing attorney, Chiles, make arguments to the Supreme Court in DC, and then a clerk comes to deliver the verdict to the lawyers... and the show ends just before she gets to them.
No Party Given: Averted. Given the show's Manhattan setting, it's not surprising that most characters are explicitly Democrats; the only confirmed Republicans are DA Arthur Branch (explained in-series as a reaction to both 9/11 and the pushover nature of the previous DA, Nora Lewin), and ADA "Hang 'Em High" Abbie Carmichael.
These exceptions aren't coincidental: both Branch and Carmichael are played by well-known Republicans. Fred Dalton Thompson was actually a Republican Senator from Tennessee before he took the L&O gig—and left the show in 2008 to run for President (he lost, not making it past the first couple of primaries), while Angie Harmon is noted as a Republican activist.
Briscoe: I told you, the amnesty requires the form be filled out in triplicate!
Random Guy: But there's only two copies!
Briscoe: [snatching forms] We'll mail you the other one.
Green: [observing via hidden camera] He's enjoying this way too much.
Obstructive Vigilantism: Nick Falco shows up after his short run as a suspect and his determined efforts to clear his name repeatedly pooch the investigation.
Played with in "Myth of Fingerprints", where it is revealed that a fingerprint analyst has been falsifying records to ensure convictions. She was finally revealed when the brother of a man who was convicted on the analyst's falsified testimony is brought up on charges, proclaiming both his and his brother's innocence. When an FBI analyst went through a random selection of the police analyst's files, including the convicted brother's, it was revealed that over 30 percent of the supposedly confirmed cases were impossible to match. At one point, the DA's office refer to her as a 'cop in a labcoat'.
Pretty in Mink: A few episodes, if the guest character is wealthy (not always the perp, so it's not that other trope).
Promotion to Opening Titles: Carolyn McCormick as Dr. Elizabeth Olivet, The Shrink. The only such promotion in 20 years, as every other new cast member was introduced out of the blue in their premiere episode. Olivet was later Demoted to Extra before her actress left the show entirely; in its later seasons, she returned in the same limited capacity.
Put on a Bus: Almost every character that wasn't killed off.
Real Life Writes the Plot: The departure of DA Arthur Branch was entirely because Fred Thompson decided to run for the Republican nomination for President.
Detective Ed Green was shot so that actor Jesse L Martin could take the time necessary to reprise his role as Tom Collins in the film version of Rent.
Lennie Briscoe was transplanted to the ill-fated Trial By Jury because Jerry Orbach was suffering from prostate cancer. When Orbach died, Briscoe had to be killed off, although his death wasn't mentioned on-screen until years after.
Refuge in Audacity: Jack, frequently. Defense attorneys, just as frequently. The cake has to be taken by a legal aid attorney on his first murder trial using his own lack of experience as part of his strategy.
Judge Stein: Either you're a brilliant strategist, Mr. Fienman, or you are the biggest jackass ever to set foot in my courtroom.
Victor Vargas, a conman funneling money from bogus investments towards various political campaigns, chose to defend himself on a triple homicide case. His defense boiled down to flaunting that he was a conman and a crook, and that it would have been in his interest to pay the victim off, but all the politicians he was funding had plenty of reason to keep the victim quiet. What really qualifies him for this is how he justifies his decision to represent himself;
Vargas: I have been to law school.
Conny: We don't have any record of that.
Vargas: It was under another name, and I was disbarred for stealing funds from clients. But I think I remember enough.
Ripped from the Headlines: Trope Namer via NBC's promos in the early 2000s. Almost all the stories are loosely based on real incidents, with things like the characters and outcomes changed.
On some occasions, they've even had to doubly stress that the story that's just been on is fictional, even if they do acknowledge that viewers may find similarities to a real life case.
Some stations have been known to air a disclaimer of their own when the case the episode was ripped from was local, warning viewers that the story may be based on an incident that traumatized the area.
One episode, which demonized the Brooklyn DA's office, explicitly stated that the episode in no way reflected on the actual Brooklyn police department or DA's office.
A few episodes pull a RFTH trifecta: The 5/2/10 episode featured guy who (along with his sister) crashed a party at an executive mansion and jumped the security line at an airport. The third part implies that a senator is having an affair with the sister and his assistant takes the blame but it's actually his wife who's having the affair with the aforementioned party-crasher/gate-jumper guy.
Sometimes it gets out of hand. They've covered the Jon Benet-Ramsey case on three separate occasions, each with a different outcome.
The Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka murders have been covered at least 3 times between the main series and the spinoffs.
And then there's the "Melting Pot" episode in season 17, based on the murder of actress/director Adrienne Shelly. Adrienne Shelly guest starred in the Season 10 episode "High & Low".
Series Continuity Error: To be expected in a long series, but one in particular was in Season 17 episode "Murder Book", a Ripped from the Headlines situation based on the OJ Simpson trial, where McCoy talks about being unable to get past double jeopardy despite a bribed juror. However, a previous episode, "Jeopardy" dealt with exactly the same situation, and McCoy was noted for beating double jeopardy, wherein the judge was bribed.
Shaggy Dog Story: Frequently, the prosecutors and detectives go to great lengths to convict the defendant, only for the jury to be deadlocked (resulting in a mistrial), or for the obviously (to the viewer) guilty party to get off scot-free.
One particularly memorable instance was in "Gunshow" (s10e1), involving a defendant who was most certainly guiltynote A gun manufacturer charged with Depraved Indiference Homicide for allowing their products to be modified into illegal automatic weapons because fixing the issue would cut into profits. A case that was based on the real life Intratec TEC-9, and the jury agreed. Immediately after declaring him guilty, while everyone is celebrating as per usual, the defense attorney asks the judge to set aside the verdict, and the judge does so, admonishing the jury and ADA McCoy that they allowed their feelings to get in the way of interpreting the facts correctly. So McCoy won a very difficult court battle, and the defendant still got to go free. Though Jack's strongest piece of evidence (a memo proving the defendants knew about the issue at hand) was thrown out because it was privileged communication.
Something Completely Different: One of the most famous episodes, "Aftershock", is a look at the personal lives of the four principals the day they witness an execution - the first in New York state history since the moratorium was lifted (something that never actually happened in Real Life). There's no investigation, no trial, no homicide until the closing moments, when ADA Claire Kincaid is t-boned and killed.
There is also the episode "Couples", which focused almost entirely on Briscoe and Green and had them investigating several unrelated cases on the same crazy day, one of which even ends happily.
Strictly Formula: With certain notable exceptions, every episode would begin with the commission / discovery of a crime (often, but not always, a murder) and would follow the police investigation through the viewpoint of the two main detectives assigned to the case. At about the halfway point, they would make an arrest, and the point of view would switch to the prosecutors as they prepared and conducted the prosecution in court or tried to make a deal with the suspect. Certain other scenes also tended to be codified as part of the formula:
Subtext: As mentioned, the show focuses on the cases, very nearly to the exclusion of the character's personal lives. All these things inform the characters actions and choices, but sometimes this was done well (Jack and the drunk driver), sometimes not. See Suddenly Sexuality.
Suddenly Sexuality: "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" To be fair, it had been very subtly foreshadowed, especially with how eagerly supportive Serena became at the slightest whiff of a gay cause, but this is one of those time when the general lack of focus on the characters' personal lives wound up biting them. That and Serena's increasing Straw Liberal tendencies masked any foreshadowing.
Dick Wolf admitted he wrote the scene haphazardly, to shock the viewers, so any and all foreshadowing is probably unintentional and case of Hilarious in Hindsight at best.
Take That: A thirteenth season episode opens with the cops repeatedly telling the CSI guys to leave the detectoring to them. They got everything but the basic facts of the crime wrong, and left some of the victim's property in her pockets instead of bagging it. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had been on the air for a few seasons by that point, and CSI: NY had recently premiered.
Briscoe: Those crime scene guys are all highly overrated; problem is, they all think they're cops.
The season 4 episode 'Pursuit of Happiness' did this as well, with the tech guys offering a series of theories that Briscoe shot down as inane. This is more a retroactive example, however, as the CSI franchise hadn't debuted at this point.
Taking the Heat: Played mostly straight and occasionally for a Downer Ending when someone actually goes to jail to protect the real guilty party (or shield co-defendants).
Thanatos Gambit: In one episode, the victim had set up his suicide to look like murder for hire, implicating his wife and her lover. This is only revealed at the very end of the episode, through a video will.
Ungrateful Bastard: The killer in the episode “Take-Out” the father goes to jail for the rest of his life to protect her mother and not only doesn’t she show the least bit of gratitude, she treats him with utter contempt
Useless Security Camera: Frequent. One episode has a Double Subversion: a store camera is both active and shows the killer dragging his victims to where he kills them. The only reason it doesn't get used is because the killer had the video and the trick police used to stall him so he couldn't destroy the evidence before a search warrant arrived was more than the judge was willing to let slide. - See the entry in Hollywood Law for more information.
In 'Strike!', from season 18, the detectives learn that their victim deliberately turned away a security camera so he could get in a fight without being seen. They gripe that the victim screwed up his own murder investigation.
What Happened to the Mouse?: When Paul Robinette was first written out of the series, no reason was given. It would not be until Season four was released on DVD, a deleted scene was included explaining his vanishing as him leaving to join a wall street law firm.
Briscoe's death wasn't even mentioned until long after it happened.
Detective Profaci, a regular Law and Order background character vanished around season seven of the series. His fate was revealed in the TV movie "Exiled", which revealed that he was arrested and sent to jail after helping a mob boss arrange a murder, in exchange for money that was used to pay for fertility treatments so that his wife could become pregnant.
Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: The angry, suicidal blogger who's planning on shooting then blowing up a school in the series finale is actually a teacher, driven to homicide by a molestation charge (he was trying to stop a rebellious student from peeing on his desk), losing his girlfriend because of said accusations, and being forced to spend months with other teachers who were also metaphorically put on a bus for being unprepared for classroom problems and a hyper-sensitive system geared to protecting students at all costs, even if it's the students who caused the disruption in the first place. Oddly, it's implied that he didn't have any sympathy for the other teachers, he just didn't want to be with them.
A particularly weird case: While Lennie Briscoe became the face of the franchise for the better part of the series, actor Jerry Orbach first appeared in the second season as defense attorney Frank Lehrmann. Every bit as much of a Deadpan Snarker as his later detective character, Orbach's attorney character is remembered for the line "It's called plea bargaining, not plea scalping!"
Equally strange examples include S. Epatha Merkerson playing the bereaved mother of a murder victim years before she was cast as Lieutenant Van Buren, and Annie Parisse playing the stripper girlfriend of a defendant shortly before being cast as ADA Borgia. Parisse allegedly wanted to play the same character and claim that she had been working as a stripper to pay for law school, but Dick Wolf wasn't keen on the idea.
Not without reason; in story, initially Jack wasn't keen on Abby becoming his assistant due to her inexperience- she'd been an ADA for five years at that point. Given the short timespan between Annie Parisse's appearance as a stripper and her debut as Borgia, it would stretch credibility that she went from paying her way through law school to climbing the ranks of the DA's office in such a short amount of time.
Additionally, a clean-shaven Jeremy Sisto appears as defense attorney Clint Glover in the season finale of the 17th season. In the very next episode, he returns as a scruffy Detective Cyrus Lupo and continues this role for the rest of the series.
Several character actors appeared numerous times in the series, each time in a different role. As an example: comedian Larry Miller appeared three times — twice as a husband who hired people to murder his two wives, and once as himself. During his appearance as himself, Miller's "resemblance" to the wife-murderer is lampshaded by Detective Green.
Zeljko Ivanek made one appearance on Law and Order as a smug corrupt businessman, convicted for murdering an elderly man who swindled money from him (which he had, in turn, swindled for his wealthy friends) who managed to get acquitted after the police actually find the body years later. After that, he made at least two appearances as his Homicide character before making another appearance as a different character. Ivanek also appeared on SVU alongside Richard Belzer, who he had previously starred with in Homicide.