Binge-Watching Killed the Syndication Star: ‘Law & Order’ at 25

This Sunday, September 13, marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Law & Order. The original L&O remains tied with Gunsmoke for longest-running scripted series, stretching 20 years, from 1990 to 2010. Now, there are just as many procedurals on TV as ever, and all of them continue to crib twists and turns seen years earlier in Dick Wolf’s magnum opus. But Law & Order also cultivated a secondary legacy.

To viewers who lived through the rise of cable, the name represented TV viewing at its most passively “boob-tubey.” We now commonly associate binge-watching with consuming TV on-demand, but we started bingeing on Law & Order years before we had a name for it. Infinitely watchable and perfectly episodic, it is the opposite of appointment television. We watched Law & Order because it was on. Always.

For many fans, the name brings to mind not only the prototypical cop dramas, but sick days and lazy weekends; the hours that turned into days lying on the couch, watching reruns on cable. In the late ‘90s and the early aughts, TNT regularly played more than four hours of Law & Order and its spinoffs each day, often in multi-hour chunks. It was also syndicated on USA, Bravo, and NBC, along with an unknowable number of regional cable channels and local affiliates looking to fill time between news broadcasts.

Humanity has not changed so drastically since then: in 2015, people are still, quite often, sick and lazy. Except instead of reruns, they’re watching on Netflix or Hulu or YouTube. In the era of cord-cutting, viewers with any streaming subscription have access to more TV and film than they could ever hope to consume, but those options come with a price: When you turn on Netflix, you always have to choose something to watch.

That seems like an insignificant consequence, except that forcing viewers to choose deprives them of the option of abstaining from choice. In the past, you may have found yourself watching hours of Law & Order simply because the remote was out of reach. Law & Order was a champion of getting viewers to indulge their sloth, to settle.

I’ve watched dozen of hours of Law & Order in my life, and I enjoyed every one I can remember, but I almost never chose it. I’ve left it on. I’ve settled for it. I’ve left and returned to it after running to the store. I would never say “no” to Law and Order, but ask me what I actually “want” and I’ll probably come up with something else.

TV series built for cable syndication aren’t called “evergreen” shows because they told timeless stories, but because they successfully hook noncommittal viewers again and again, even after the show’s receded from the zeitgeist. In this sense, Law & Order was (and is) perfect, because it expects nothing from its viewers. Every episode begins with a “clang,” followed by a mysterious crime or the discovery of a body. Every episode ends with a case closed. Viewers can, and often will, jump from Season 1 to Season 13, switch between vanilla L&O and the more salacious SVU, without missing a beat.

Such an approach doesn’t really appeal to our refined binge-watching sensibilities. Writing for modern syndication, a series can safely assume that most viewers have come to the show deliberately, resulting in shows designed to keep viewers rather than bring in new ones mid-season. Modern shows bend over backwards to establish complex continuities with A, B, and C plots for fans to remember and cross-examine.

By contrast, the traits we would consider failings by contemporary standards — formulaic plots, familiar character types, lack of narrative depth — were strengths in syndication. Turn on the TV 20 minutes into an episode? Who cares! Even casual fans only need ten seconds to recognize the familiar phase in the case where the detectives realize something is off and have to follow up with all the key players. Plus, you vaguely remember seeing this one like… two years ago? You’re pretty sure Vera Farmiga’s the bad guy.

In fact, Law & Order was often enhanced by its lack of context. Well known as an early-career stepping stone for TV and film stars, the series’ rewatch value has increased thanks to retroactive cameos by A-list names. Recalling the specifics of an episode usually boils down to describing it as “the one where Jennifer Garner was the girlfriend” or “the one with Elizabeth Banks.” It’s easier than actually describing the plot, which could be surprisingly difficult, considering how much repetition there is across 20 years of crime. (It doesn’t help that some actors have starred in episodes across the Law & Order franchise.) The potential for seeing an unexpected famous person might be exactly what kept you from changing the channel.

Obviously, there are still millions of people in the US with cable subscriptions, who are fully capable of catching Law & Order whenever it happens to be on. Like every discussion of streaming vs. cable, the threat is generational. Assuming that kids raised on Netflix grow up into adults who opt out of paying for cable, it’s only a matter of time before we forget the simple pleasure of leaving the remote out of reach.

TNT will run episodes of Law & Order from 4AM to 12PM ET on September 13.