Monday, May 24, 2010

A Farewell to Law & Order and Jack McCoy, TV's greatest prosecutor

Farewell, Jack McCoy.

If that name has no meaning for you, then you likely haven't turned on a TV in the last sixteen years or so. Since the 1994-95 season, Sam Waterston has brought the character of Jack McCoy to life each week on Law & Order. Introduced as the Executive Assistant District Attorney, McCoy finally got a promotion to New York's District Attorney three seasons ago. He's the prosecutor we all wish was representing us, the guy who looks beyond politics and goes strictly after justice.

Tonight, after 20 seasons on NBC Law & Order will air its last original episode. 20 seasons! The only scripted show on TV that is older than that is The Simpsons, which beats L&O's first airdate by nine months. That kind of achievement is likely to never be seen again in TV. Think about this - there are students graduating college this spring who cannot remember a world where Law & Order wasn't on the air.

As the final episode was shot while it was still assumed the series would get a 21st season, the finale will likely offer no closure for long-time fans. It's utterly shameful that NBC would treat a long-time cornerstone of its lineup with this much disrespect, and one hopes that the rumors of a two-hour TV movie to tie up all the lose ends prove to be true.

It was one of the first major series to tackle issues like abortion and child abuse. The show regularly "rips from the headlines," often borrowing details of set-ups from real life cases before spinning them into new directions. Executive Producer Dick Wolf always says, "The first half of the show is a legal mystery, the second half is a moral mystery."

I started watching the show occasionally in the fifth season, McCoy's first, and became a full-blown regular viewer in season six. For me, the golden age of Law & Order is pretty much Seasons 5-10 and 18-20. When I did Mock Trial for two years in high school, I modeled my performance on Jack McCoy and walked away with three "Best Attorney" awards.

(How did I get three awards in two years? Well, each team has to compete in two trials, one as the plaintiff and one as the defendant. Usually each team member only takes one part in one trial. I handled the closing arguments and cross-examinations for both sides. So after spending the morning fighting for the plaintiff and totally demolishing the defense's witnesses on the stand, I then played the defense attorney in the afternoon and likewise cleaned the prosecution's clock.)

Late in my high school years, I discovered that A&E ran two episodes a day and within a matter of months I'd seen most of the series. When I entered college, I even scheduled my classes around the afternoon reruns. (That might - MIGHT - be an exaggeration. Or it might not.) I became a true crime buff and there might have even been a brief point when I considered pursuing law as a career. The reason I didn't? Because I don't think I wanted to be a lawyer so much as I wanted to be Jack McCoy. The thing I love about Jack is that he's always out for justice. He's not political - he's neither Republican nor Democrat even though his values and motives often coincide with one side of the aisle or the other - and neither is the show.

Now, there are some pinheads out there who are probably already set to disagree with that statement. Head to and you can find a few people complaining loudly that the show promotes a "leftist agenda" and is little more than "hippie liberal propaganda," just as a trip over to sites like Television without Pity will fairly easily lead you to some poster decrying executive producer Dick Wolf for using the show as a platform for conservative, ring-wing ideals. Anytime each political party is accusing you of shilling for the other guy, you're doing something right.

I remember when I first fully realized that I was neither Republican nor Democrat, but what I call a Jack McCoy-ican. The ninth-season finale of the series was a two-part episode called "Refuge," wherein Jack took on the Russian mob. The second part opened with the aftermath of a brutal hit that claimed the life of an ADA on the case, left an 8 year-old witness critically wounded and killed his mother. Already Jack had dealt with the opposing attorneys leaking information so that jurors could be intimidated and when the Russians plant a bomb in the basement of Police headquarters, Jack has had enough. He announces he plans on having the suspects rounded up. When his second chair and his boss remind him he doesn't have enough evidence to make the arraignments stick, Jack says he's not going to present them for arraignment. His boss, the always crusty (and much missed) Adam Schiff isn't pleased:

Adam Schiff: I see. You're planning to violate three, no, five amendments to the Constitution.
Jack McCoy: It's time someone talked to Mr. Volsky in a language he understands.
Adam Schiff: And what language is that?
Jack McCoy: Adam, unless you order me not to do it ...
Adam Schiff: I'm ordering you! (leaves)
Jack McCoy: (to his second chair ADA) Hand me that stack of arrest warrants.

Thus, Jack has his suspects locked up in what amounts to a suspension of habeas corpus, appealing to higher and higher courts to keep them locked up indefinitely.

Notably, this episode aired in 1999. Had this been done post-9/11, it would be difficult not to draw comparisons between this and the legal shellgame that the Bush Administration played with the Guantanamo detainees, many of whom might not have belonged there. The difference is, when Jack does it it's for justice and not for political gain. I defy anyone to watch that two-parter and not cheer as Jack not only locks these men up without a second thought, but then defiantly argues in higher and higher courts to keep them where they belong. And as much as the episode has characters call Jack on this behavior, it's pretty clear we're supposed to see him as heroic.

So if you look at that today, you'd be expecting Jack to be on the same side of the political spectrum as Karl Rove, right?

In the very next episode "Gunshow," the tenth season opener, deals with a case where a gunman shoots a dozen or so women in a park. The investigation quickly uncovers that the gun was a legal semi-automatic that had be easily modified into a fully-automatic weapon. McCoy learns that to make the gun tamper-proof, it would have added about $50 to the manufacturing cost of a gun that retailed for over a thousand. Outraged at the negligence, he prosecutes the gun company.

Before long, the DAs get some disturbing evidence. An internal memo shows that they not only knew about the flaw, but felt that making the gun tamper-proof would have actually hurt sales. As Jack says, the gun's vulnerability is their whole marketing plan. In doing so, he gives one of the greatest closing arguments in the series history (one I can't quote effectively because it relies on some visual components) and actually wins the case, only to have the judge set aside the verdict.

The "gun control" aspect of the plot likely ticked off a number of conservatives, just as the previous episode offended some liberals. But that's Law & Order. It deals with political issues, but it is not political itself. Everyone has had their turn as the target. No single political viewpoint is 100% right, and the show understands that better than people who make their living off of politics.

Five more Jack McCoy episodes that you MUST see:

Angel (season 6) - In a story inspired by the Susan Smith case, Jack prosecutes a mother who believes God wanted her to kill her baby, and is very nearly outmaneuvered by a green defense attorney (played by Fisher Stevens) who allows Jack to underestimate him.

Double Down (season 7) - One of the series' best episodes ever. McCoy makes a immunity deal with an armed robber who killed a cop while fleeing with his missing accomplice, agreeing to a light sentence in return for the location of a kidnapped taxi driver. When the driver is found dead, McCoy works to get the agreement nullified, then stops as soon the cops discover the robber's accomplice dead. The cops are perplexed until McCoy reveals his legal shellgame, arguing that the immunity applies only to the cop's murder and not the robber. Since he kept the robber's statement, he can use it as evidence that the two men worked together on the robbery. As Briscoe notes, "So he walks for killing a cop, but you nail him for killing the cop killer?" But it's still not that simple, and the twists keep coming right up until the end. (Netflix this one NOW!)

Thrill (season 8) - McCoy tangles with the Catholic Church to make a confession admissible in the prosecution of two teens who killed a delivery boy. This episode boasts some of Jack's slyest maneuvering as he gets the defendant's trials severed from each other to keep each boy from pointing the finger at the other as the real killer, then prosecutes them simultaneously in two different courtrooms.

Nullification (season 8) - McCoy takes on members of a right-wing militia who killed an armored truck driver while robbing an offtrack betting parlor. The militia leader represents all the men at trial and argues that they should be treated as POWs in a war against the government and push for the jury to nullify. Even when things turn against him at trial, Jack's win-at-all-costs attitude still won't allow him to use government records that should have been destroyed in order to bump one more juror and get a mistrial. After what has to be one of Jack's greatest closing arguments ever, the jury returns a hung verdict. The delighted militia leader gloats, "Admit it, Mr. McCoy. We won." With conviction in his voice, Jack says, "You didn't win anything. The system you wanted to destroy won. I'll see you back here in a couple months. Enjoy your freedom. While you still have it."

Under the Influence (season 8) - While prosecuting a drunk driver, Jack gets emotionally involved recalling how his previous assistant and lover was killed by a drunk driver. When he bends the rules to put away the defendant, he crosses a line that could get him disbarred.

There have been great episodes in the last few years too, as the new EADA Cutter has shown an even greater ingenuity than Jack in bending the rules. It's amusing to see Jack dealing with this younger, brasher version of himself. (Somewhere, Jack's former boss Adam Schiff must be smiling.) Even better, when McCoy calls Cutter on the carpet, Cutter is always quick to site an earlier episode where Jack bent the rules in similar ways. As a Law & Order fanboy, I enjoy trying to beat Cutter to his references and its nice to see a show that remembers its history even 10 or 15 years after the fact.

So farewell, Law & Order. We'll always have the reruns and the DVDs, but it won't be quite the same.


  1. I love L&O and SVU. I grew up with it as a child in the early 90s and it's gonna be weird when it goes off the air, but we'll always have TNT reruns.

    i agree with you about Jack McCoy not being political, but rather who was just out for justice. The show made me think about the legal system in ways that I never learned in school, it ain't a white 'N' black world, and there's a lot of gray areas.

  2. Always hated that show. Glad to see it go.

  3. loved this show more than life itself (ok, exaggeration there)
    i like your post because im just now beginning to really pay attention to politics. im counting down the days to my 18th birthday just so i can vote. i am also neither a republican or democrat. i want whats best for the people AND the country. Justice is above all labels.
    im officially, proudly declaring myself a McCoyist

  4. Hah. I was a huge fan of this show, too, though I gotta say I love the first four seasons. I don't care what anyone says - I love Michael Moriarty as Ben Stone.

  5. HUGE FAN!!!! i hope the reruns never go. i wish there was a McCoyican party, i would totally vote for them

  6. HUGE FAN!!!! i hope the reruns never go. i wish there was a McCoyican party, i would totally vote for them

  7. Mccoy is literally my hero. . I try to mirror my views to his, as while eating the show I agreed with mossy everything that he did in the pursuit of justice.

  8. Nullification- McCoy's closing argument was the best from all of his episodes. I liked Ben Stone's sort of quiet, polite demeanor. I liked the way he called every man sir. He was tough, though. When he almost reassigned Claire for her mistake, I was like, damn!

  9. I ran across your blog in my search for scripts or hardcopy of some particular espisodes while preparing a research proposal on #EthicsofCare. My interests lie in the paradox of looking for justice in a dominance-ordered paradigm based on arbitrary division of society to create a steep hierarchy of values and who is valued. I really appreciated your blog eulogy.

  10. Law and Order is one of my absolute favorites when it comes to television. It's hard to believe that Jack McCoy has been gone for 17 years. It seems like just yesterday when I started watching.

    Bill Lewis
    Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

  11. In watching the episodes, I've noticed how the District Attorney's office and the EADA's office got some facelifts. For instance, in the hallway between the D.A.'s office and the E.A.D.A.'s office, there are portraits of some bald man that were hanging on the wall, but are gone when Jack McCoy takes over as D.A. The E.A.D.A.s office is painted pastel white, along with a markerboard hanging on the back of the door when Mike Cutter takes over that office. Then, back in the D.A.'s office, there were doors on the cabinets behind and to the side of the desk, but they're also removed when McCoy takes over.