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‘Law & Order’ faces early death sentence

By Dean Goodman
May 14, 2010

If “Law & Order” were a killer, it would have received the lethal injection years ago.

A report circulated Thursday that the NBC crime procedural famed for its “ripped-from-the-headlines” plots might finally be canceled at the end of its current 20th season, just one year short of replacing “Gunsmoke” as the longest-running drama in American primetime history.epatha

Fans were shocked. Even though the show can no longer get arrested in the ratings, the perceived wisdom was that no NBC executive would want to go down in history as the perp who denied “Law & Order” a chance to rewrite the record books. The show could still cop a plea, possibly relegated to cable like its spin-off “Criminal Intent.” Or, once again, its producers could bump off some expensive cast members in a bid to trim costs if NBC demands a lower license fee to air it.

Coincidentally or not, S. Epatha Merkerson (pictured below) said last month she would quit at the end of this season after 17 years. Her cancer-stricken character, Lt. Van Buren, is the show’s mainstay amid an accelerating revolving door of cops and litigators. Quick, name any of the other actors or characters from this season – apart from 16-year veteran Sam Waterston’s sidelined D.A. character Jack McCoy, of course.

The sad fact is that the one-time Emmy winner for best drama (all the way back in 1997) never recovered from the departure of the late Jerry Orbach (a.k.a. wise-cracking Det. Lennie Briscoe) iceat the end of Season 14 in 2004. That was the last year the show made the season’s top 20 (No. 14, 16 million viewers). As this season nears its end, it ranks at No. 60 with just 7.3 million viewers.

At least the other spin-off, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” is doing OK — even if year-on-year ratings are off by a similar amount (about 10 percent) as the mothership “Law & Order”. Nearing the end of its 11th season, “SVU” ranks at No. 40 with 9.3 million viewers. The show’s cast, headed by Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, has remained remarkably stable. But maybe some cross-pollination is in order? SVU’s Ice-T (pictured at left) as a thuggish new lieutenant on L&O, for starters?

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