I have a knack for spotting the semi-famous.  A talent for spying the marginally well-known.

Gloria Reuben, for instance.  She hasn’t been around much since her days as a one-time contract player on “ER” but I saw her at an outdoor cafe in the East Village.  Also: Kenley Collins, the runner-up from season 5 of “Project Runway.”  She was in line at the AMC Loews on 3rd avenue.  I felt a little thrill of recognition and then a trickle of shame at my own unseemly interest.

Then there was the time I glimpsed Dianne Wiest carrying a bag of groceries onto a subway car somewhere on the Upper West Side.

I told my friends and they were politely puzzled.

You know,” I said, frustrated.  “Dianne Wiest.  From ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’?”

No, as it turned out, they didn’t know.  They didn’t know and they didn’t much care.  Not about Dianne Wiest and not about Jill Hennessy either.

I was walking home from work when I spotted Jill.  She was wearing a long paisley halter dress and her hair was loose and wavy.  I was wildly excited and began searching through the address book in my cell phone for someone to call.  Then I remembered that- barring my sister- no one would be interested.  There would be no gasps, no enthusiasm.  Just blank looks and vacant stares.  “Crossing Jordan” had been canceled and, for most people, Jill Hennessy was just another vaguely familiar face.  “Didn’t she used to-” they’d start.  “Wasn’t she?”

Not for me, though.

Me and Jill?  We’ll always have “Law & Order.”


At  any given time on any given day, somewhere on the cable dial “Law & Order” is playing.  Not always the original flavor.  Sometimes it’s “Law & Order: SVU” or “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”  But the fact remains: Dick Wolf is one rich sonavubitch.


Two construction workers are carrying a ladder.  They stop to ogle a pretty young thing with dark hair and a vibrant smile.  “Spring has sprung,” one quips.  Distracted, they break through a window.  Peering inside to assess the damage they see the requisite Dead Guy.  Wa-wa.

It’s a scene I’ve seen a million times.  I don’t find it shocking or discomfiting.  Not hardly.  If anything, it’s reassuring.


I have walked through Central Park on a variety of occasions and never once stumbled across a corpse.  Which is a shame because I already have the scene choreographed in my head.

I’m on my cell phone with my mother and she’s haranguing me about signing up for JDate.  “Would it kill you just to try?” she’s asking.  I say something smart-alecky in return and roll my eyes.  Suddenly, it’s upon me: a body.  I pause for half a measure.

“Mom,” I start, “Mom- I’m going to have to call you back.”


Those beats- chung chung!–  those intoxicating ineffable beats!

“In the criminal justice system,” a voice intones, “the People are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the Police who investigate the crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders.  These are their stories.”  The voice is indescribably comforting.    My heart rate slows.  My breathing relaxes.  I’m home.


I like procedural dramas.  Almost indiscriminately.  I like “Without a Trace,” and “Cold Case” and “The Closer.”  I’ve seen most episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”  I refer to Detectives Benson and Stabler as “Olivia” and Elliot” like we’re longtime pals.  Which, I suppose, we are.

Under duress, I’ll even watch “CSI,” and “CSI: New York.”

I’ve never admitted it publicly, but I’ve taken a shine to “NCIS.”  Sure the premise is shaky and the acronym sounds made up.  But damn it  if those crazy kids don’t make for some compelling TV.

I draw the line at “CSI: Miami.”   But my rules aren’t hard and fast.  Given the right level of boredom, I wouldn’t rule anything out.

But my love for the flagship “Law & Order” series is anything but casual or indiscriminate.  It borders on obsessive.

In a 2002 essay Molly Haskell described the phenomenon succinctly: “At a more advanced level of addiction,” she writes, “the show is a member of a member of the family.”+

And like a family member, its loss is wrenching.


In the beginning, there was no Sam Waterston.  In the beginning it was an all-male cast and ratings were mediocre.  Michael Moriarty was the tough-as-nails prosecutor Ben Stone and Richard Brooks was his more sensitive assistant, Paul Robinette.  They had Chris Noth, of course, but he had yet to become Mr. Big.  Wasn’t big at all.  Was, in fact, just a two-bit character actor with a handful of TV movies to his name.  “Law & Order” was just another police procedural and nobody cared.

Even in syndication, they hardly ever play episodes from the first season.  Why bother?  No one wants to see George Dzundza play good cop.  And what’s Dann Florek doing outside the SVU squad room?  Frankly, it’s disconcerting.  A discordant note in an otherwise perfect symphony.

So S. Epatha Merkerson replaced Florek in the fourth season and that same year Jill Hennessy joined the cast, becoming the first in a revolving door of leggy brunette A.D.A.s.  Women, finally.  And about time, too.

But something was still missing.  A bit of razzle-dazzle, perhaps.  A touch of borscht-belt humor.  The man himself: Jerry Orbach.


It’s been over five years but I never really recovered from his death.  Jerry Orbach: taken from us, his adoring public, at just 69 years old.

In a Bravo poll, Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe was named the 30th greatest TV character of all time.  In a Hallmark Channel poll he was number three on the list of greatest TV detectives.  He was the cop to end all cops.  And even the real boys in blue liked him.

Lennie liked to crack wise.  He liked puns. Real groaners.  He was a two-time divorcee and a recovering alcoholic but he wasn’t hard.  He was crusty, maybe, but he had a soft-hearted, world-weary charm.  He was the beating heart of “Law & Order.”  The soul, too.

Jerry Orbach wasn’t so different.  Like Briscoe, he was the son of a Jewish father and an Irish mother.  He was warm and funny.  In his New York Times obituary, he’s quoted as saying that, in his younger years doing summer stock he learned “not to do too much with my eyebrows.”++

It’s just the sort of joke Lennie Briscoe would make.


First it was Lennie and Mike Logan (Chris Noth).  Then it was Lennie and Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt).  He had a long run with Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin): nearly six seasons.

Logan was an Irish-Catholic wild card and Rey was a straight-arrow mestizo.  Ed Green was a dapper African-American who looked good in his camel coat and his Rolex.

Lennie treated them all just the same: a little joke to cut the tension and maybe a stop at the hot dog cart on the way back to the precinct.


As Adam Schiff, Steven Hill always seemed one deep breath away from keeling over.  He had an air of irreversible exhaustion and permanent, low-level irritation.  He never seemed to have actual lines.  Mostly he just grumbled.  If he could be said to have a catch phrase it was an Eeyore-ish “harrummph.”


For the record, I was a Carey Lowell fan.  There aren’t many of us.  Most prefer Angie Harmon’s tough Texan, Abbie Carmichael.  More personality.  But I liked Carey Lowell.  Her Jamie Ross was a consummate professional.  She didn’t grandstand.  She did her job and then she went home to daughter.  And, unlike her predecessor, she was strangely immune to the dubious appeal of Jack McCoy.


Jack McCoy: he of the raffish salt-and-pepper mop and the voracious appetite for ambitious young lady lawyers.

As Jack McCoy, Sam Waterston appeared in 368 episodes making him the second longest-running cast member, outdone  only by S. Epatha Merkerson.

Sam Waterston knew enough not to mess with a good thing.  He inherited the District Attorney post from Steven Hill and, after a fashion, his TD Waterhouse endorsement as well.

McCoy could be counted on for his killer closing arguments and his take-no-prisoners approach to justice.  He couldn’t stand to lose.  A trait inherited, perhaps, from his abusive cop father.

But Jack never went in for all that psychobabble.  “Wanna go for a drink?” he’ll ask.

The door closes.  The screen goes black.


I went to camp with a girl named Alex.  She was an actress and, when I knew her, she was competing for roles in Disney Channel original movies.  Because she grew up in Manhattan, it was inevitable that she’d one day end up on “Law & Order.”

Nearly every New York actor has at least one episode on her resume.

Alex was on two episodes of “Law & Order,” actually.  And two episodes of “Criminal Intent,” too.  I don’t remember much about the characters she played but she’s pretty and young and I seem to recall her telling lies in short dresses.

My friend Gwen is also an actress.  She grew up in Nebraska, though, and moved to the city only recently.  She has an arisocratic, Grace Kelly sort of beauty.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, good manners.  She would, I thought, have made an excellent daughter of privilege.  A good-girl-gone-bad sort of role.  You know the type.  Sarah Paulson did it in Season 4.

Gwen would have been perfect..

And now she’ll never have her chance.


” ‘Law & Order’ was supposed to live forever,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times.  “The fact that it almost did…doesn’t mitigate the shock of NBC’s announcement…that it had pulled the plug.”+++

I read this line and found myself nodding vigorously.

“The original classic is,” Molly Haskell noted, “for some people…the cup of Ovaltine that, with reassuring predictability, tucks them in at night.  One couple falls asleep, like clockwork, just before Sam Waterston or Steven Hill has closed the office door with yet another rueful aperçu.”+

I read this line and found myself choking up a bit.

In a world where little is certain, “Law & Order” could be relied upon to deliver.

The stock market crashes and Lehman Brothers implodes.  We drop bombs on Iraq and Arizona tries to rewrite the Constitution.  We’re battered by earthquakes and tsunamis and semi-automatic weapons.  The ozone layer grows ever thinner and global warming keeps us all sweating.  The earth rotates on its axis.

But “Law & Order”?  “Law & Order” remains the same.  In an hour, the perpetrator will be caught and justice served.  In an hour, chaos will be thwarted and harmony restored.  Forever and ever, amen.

Or at least that’s what we were promised.

But Jerry Orbach died and “Law & Order” got canceled and nothing, it seems, stays the same.

Emerson would have us believe that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  But I think there’s something to be said for consistency.  Something to be said for the day-in, day-out of it all.

One day in April my father decided that, after 33 years, he’d had enough of being married.  He packed up his Brioni ties and he left.

Less than a month later, NBC announced that it was all over for “Law & Order.”

Dick Wolf, of course, is planning another spin-off.  “Law & Order: Los Angeles.”  But it’s a fool’s errand.  The show can’t survive in the harsh sun of southern California.  It can’t live outside New York’s hothouse.  It can’t and it shouldn’t.

It’s the end of an era.





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Marni holds a B.A. from Vassar in Women's Studies. The degree turned out to be of little practical value, but nonetheless holds a lot of sentimental weight. She's written for BUST, Playgirl, Heeb and gURL.com. Her interests include subverting the patriarchy, reading, and "Law and Order": the Jerry Orbach years. She'd like to know why the inhabitants of the tiny Maine hamlet Cabot Cove so frequently come to violent ends. She'd also like someone to hire her.

37 responses to “These Are Our Stories”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    I can’t tell you how glad to see that you have recovered from your writing block! And here you are!
    I’m always so incredibly pleased when you’ve posted, because, my darling girl, you weave your words so very very well – You can write about anything and make it enchanting and interesting and rich.
    You inspire me.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      Oh, Zara- you’re too nice to me.

      I wish we’d had more time when you were in the U.S.! And now you’re back in New Zealand, a million miles away…

  2. Simon Smithson says:


    Did you try ‘Dianne Wiest from The Lost Boys? She is the quintessential birdlike mother in that movie.

    I love that someone holds TV as near and dear to their heart as I do.

    I have never seen an episode of Law and Order. However, I am familiar with my friend Tim’s strange passion for the show. As in, he’s bought DVDs and either video or board games. And he’s the coiner of the phrase ‘Orbach lawyered the fuck out of some guy last night.’

    Nice to see you back, Marni.

  3. Kimberly says:

    Law and Order, Schmaw and Order. Your father walked out?

    You deftly hid that ton of bricks and then, BLAMMO.

    Your writing is a slash of red lipstick.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      I know. It’s funny how I can’t seem to write about even the most innocuous of subjects without slipping that little tidbit in. For a while, I practically introduced myself that way. “Hi, I’m Marni Grossman and my father just left my mother after 33 years of marriage.”

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Oh Marni,

    I’m so sorry that your father’s exit will forever be combined with the exit of L & O. Now every time the show is mentioned, which is often, you will also have that pain renewed in your heart caused by your father. I didn’t know this was going to be sad, and you hardly even let us know. One tiny line among many. Those who skim our pieces will not pick it up. I did. I heard you and I am so sorry.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      Thanks so much, Irene. It’s such a strange time. Pretty much everything is a reminder. If I wasn’t living at home, it might be different. But as things stand…

      I have three dresses and a skirt sitting on a chair in my bedroom, waiting to be dry-cleaned. Except that my Dad always took the dry-cleaning.

      You know. The little things.

  5. Gloria says:

    Dianne Weist has been in all kinds of great movies! The Lost Boys (I would argue that that movie is great), Parenthood, Edward Scissorhands. That would have been cool to see her. I’ve never seen Hannah and Her Sisters.

    I’ve never seen any of the crime shows you talk about, except Cold Case – which my daughter used to watch in her early adolescence. I didn’t mind it. It had fewer of those duh-duh-duuuuuuuuuuuhhh moments, so it felt less like watching daytime soaps.I guess most of the shows just came out after I quit watching TV (which I am not saying as some sort of moral statement. I just quit. It doesn’t do it for me as much anymore – with a few exceptions. However, I was raised by it for the first fifteen years of my life, so I guess I’ve just had my lifetime’s worth.)

    The funny thing about Jerry Orbach is that I distinctly remember him both as Jo Polniaczek’s dad on The Facts of Life and as Dorothy Petrillo’s ex-husband on The Golden Girls – but a quick IMDB search reveals that I’m wrong on both accounts – and I saw every episode of both shows multiple times. Weird. It turns out that I’m remembering him as Dr. Jake Houseman from Dirty Dancing. Funny. He sticks in my mind as the guy who played every tall, gangly Italian dad in everything filmed in English between 1980 and 1989. He’s just that guy.

    This was a really fascinating, illuminating read, Marni. Thank you.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      I’m impressed that you were able to quit TV. I was raised largely without it. Well, sort of.

      My sister and I weren’t allowed to watch TV on weekdays. Possibly that explains my current addiction. I also just have a really good memory for pop culture factoids. When asked to memorize say, the parts of the brain, I’m lost. But if you want to know the highlights of Anthony LaPaglia’s career, I’m your girl. A dubious honor to say the least.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    “Borscht-belt humor” is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time.

  7. Marni, if they don’t know who Diane Weist is, they don’t deserve to be your friend. You can call me the next time you see her. Also, give a ring if you spot Lily Taylor, Leeland Orser, Titus Welliver, or Greta Gerwig. Awesome deep background on the demise of Law & Order. I, personally, can only watch the Orbach/Noth tandem. I guess mostly because I tuned into them back in the days when my TV had a set-top antenna, three channels, and no remote. Great details: his leery eye on TD Waterhouse, packing up those Brioni ties.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      Orbach/Noth years were good years. I think of season 5 as the apotheosis of the series: Chris Noth, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, Jill Hennessy, S. Epatha Merkerson and Steven Hill.

      Also, seeing Lily Taylor and Leland Orser would excite me too. I know a lot of people have mixed feelings on Taylor- mostly, I think, because of her character on “Six Feet Under”- but I love her.

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Marni, wasn’t Diane Weist in a Woody Allen film? Wotever, she was rivetingly impressive.

    Since I haven’t watched tv for 20 years I’d be a big blank about your piece, but I found your comment to Irene a wrencher of major emotional proportions: “It’s such a strange time. Pretty much everything is a reminder. If I wasn’t living at home, it might be different. But as things stand…”

    “I have three dresses and a skirt sitting on a chair in my bedroom, waiting to be dry-cleaned. Except that my Dad always took the dry-cleaning.”

    “You know. The little things.”

    Huge hurt and its follow-up, anger, is totally appropriate here. So is the need for (and getting of) huge hugs and follow-up crying. Totally likely, natural, forgivable and relievable.

    Here are my hugs (which may end up looking like the Uche caterpillar) :P;;;;;;

  9. Greg Olear says:

    I attended an 80th birthday celebration for Arthur Miller at Town Hall in NYC — one of the coolest things I ever saw, and I was 23 or 24 at the time, the tickets materializing out of nowhere — at which Sam Waterson and Dianne Wiest did a scene from “The Crucible.”

    This is a great tribute to a show that — and I know I’m going to sound like Matt claiming he’s never heard a Billy Joel song — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full episode of. Without knowing that it’s the title of a show, the idea of “Law and order gets canceled” is scary.

    Rent The Wire. That’s the logical next step here.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      It’s amazing how many people seem to have never watched the show. How have you avoided it, I wonder?

      I’m jealous that you got to see Sam and Diane in person doing the crucible. I mean, it’s Nick Carraway!

  10. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    I have no idea how I missed the “television” boat. Movies, yes. Television, no. I hear the hype about things like “Mad Men,” and I have no idea how I repeatedly get left behind. (I did, however, manage to become “Lost” obsessed.) So I only have very cursory knowledge of “Law and Order,” yet I still loved reading about your ardent appreciation of it. Sorry for your loss! 🙂

    • Marni Grossman says:

      “Mad Men” is pretty great. And each episode is like a beautiful little film. Much, much recommended.

  11. Angela Tung says:

    i’m an SVU and Criminal Intent fan myself. i love Vincent D’Onoforio. what do you think about big name movie people getting into the L&O franchise? Jeff Goldblum and, apparently, Sharon Stone???

    i’m sorry about your dad, and it feels rather cold to write this, but i do love how you connected the two – the loss of Law & Order/Jerry Orbach and the situation with your father.

    and that scene in Central Park with you finding a dead body while talking to your mom about dating? that is a chick flick murder mystery i would read. 🙂

    • Marni Grossman says:

      It took some time for me to warm up to Vincent D’Onofrio. At first I found his tics irritating and his all-knowing smugness unbearable. But then I sort of grew to love it.

      Of course, I also love Jeff Goldblum. Just in general. I find him oddly sexy. There’s an amazing article that you’ll- I hope!- enjoy from Slate about the Jeff Goldblum/L&O issue- http://www.slate.com/id/2221234. The description of D’Onofrio is pretty hilarious.

  12. Matt says:

    Wonderful eulogy, Marni. Farewell, Law & Order. May you rest in peace.

    And so, so sorry to hear about your dad. That sort of thing is tough to handle, whether you’re five years old or twenty-five.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the procedural television, myself. Partly, I think, because I worked for a police department, and those shows are full of innacuracies (the CSIs have enough made-up technology and science that they qualify as science fiction), but mostly because I grow tired of the formula. They’re what I consider “hamburger” television: single serving, each one more or less the same. Nothing wrong with hamburgers, metaphorically or otherwise, but I don’t want to eat one every night. The closest I come to procedurals are House and Lie to Me, mostly because I really enjoy watching Hugh Laurie and Tim Roth save the day by being huge bastards, and both are more character studies than they are mysteries. Oh, and I suppose I should add Castle to that list as well. Nathan Fillion gets massive credit from me for Firefly, and the show gets some nice meta-humor going at times.

    I prefer the approach used by the BBC/HBO/Showime etc: shorter seasons with sharply drawn characters and through-running plotlines, that play like miniseries with a definitive endpoint in mind. Give me Deadwood, Dexter or Mad Men and I’m a happy man.

    • Marni Grossman says:

      I love “Mad Men.” And I was a huge fan of “Six Feet Under.” I can recognize when a show is actually, you know, good. But procedurals are like worn-in shoes. Comfort food.

      And thanks for the sympathy. You’re supposed to be an adult, of course, but I don’t think anyone is a grown-up where their parents are concerned.

  13. JM Blaine says:

    I don’t really watch any of those sorts of shows –
    I’m more of a Saved by the Bell guy –
    but I always wondered if Dick Wolf
    was some sort crass pseudonym?
    Is it?

  14. Richard Cox says:

    My favorite character of Dianne Wiest’s is the mother in Edward Scissorhands. She was so sugary sweet and polite to the strange Edward and I wished I were her son. I love it when she’s spackling the foundation on his face and says “Darn this stuff!”

    I’ve never watched any of those shows you mentioned, so I don’t know what to say about them. I think I’ve seen CSI once or twice at my parents’ house but I’m not sure of it. I got rid of cable and got a TiVo but mainly I use it to stream Netflix. Now that “Lost” is gone and “The Office” is on hiatus (and a downward trend) I don’t record anything. I love a bunch of HBO and Showtimes series but you can stream those or buy them on DVD.

    You mentioned about your dad somewhere else before. I’m really sorry about that. It must be such a world-altering thing. 🙁

  15. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    This makes me want to revisit this show that I usually only pay half attention to, especially the Orbach years. I know enough about it to agree with you that it makes no sense in LA. It’s worth noting (since I always note these kind of things) that the French title for this series that gets heavy rotation in syndication over here is “New York District.” Thanks for another thoughtful, wonderfully written piece.

  16. Gwen says:

    Wow, I’m honored to have received a mention, and the indirect comparison to Sarah Paulson is also terribly flattering. Too much so, probably.

    But where you really hit me hard is the end, and now I’m crying with you at my day job.

    When I can move my audiences as well as you can move your readers, that’s when I know I’ll have made it as an actress!

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