After 20 years of dependably formulaic plotlines, play-by-play accounts of sexual deviance and faux-intellectual moralizing, it appears that the upcoming season finale of Law & Order will be the show’s last. Rumors began circulating yesterday that NBC abruptly decided not to renew the declining series (though its two spinoffs will continue). With the show will depart a long legacy of coveted guest-star spots, which have given countless aspiring actors their first break. To celebrate two decades of Americans’ devoted Law & Order consumption, we look back at our favorite guest stars in each of the show’s most popular categories.
1. The teen star proving he’s all grown up: Just like Saved by the Bell’s Jessie Spano made Showgirls and Screech made a revolting sex tape, Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) tried breaking his teen-idol reputation by playing a gay pornstar on Law & Order. His performance was actually pretty good, although it did make us feel a little like a pedophile appreciating his milky-white talent in the early ’90s.
2. The equal-opportunity lawyer: Law & Order beats critics to the punch by casting as many black judges and lawyers as it does black hobos and autoerotic asphyxiators. In its first season, the then unknown Samuel L. Jackson plays a sharp-witted attorney defending four white gang rapists. Added bonus: one of them was Philip Seymour Hoffman, earning his first IMDB credit.
3. The in-on-the-joke comedian: Two real-life queer icons collided when Kathy Griffin played a gay-rights activist named Babs who wants to touch lesbian icon Mariska Hargitay’s rubyfruit!!!! Meow!! But since it’s a lesbian episode (titled “P.C.,” naturally) Babs only gets a kiss and the editors cut it anyway (though the leaked scene went viral).
4. The little big man predator: Of all the virgin-obsessed rapists over the years, none was quite as terrifying as that grinning goblin Martin Short. This breed of wormy creep — a close relative of the doughy potato-man creep — revels in duping the cops with sadistic mind games in order to compensate for other obvious shortcomings.
5. The the-Prozac-made-me-do-it defendant: In his guest spot, the young Rory Culkin could have easily followed in Macaulay’s footsteps and become another bad-stepdad heartthrob. But instead of playing a victim of an “especially heinous” sex crime, he went on to Law & Order: Criminal Intent and played out one of that show’s favorite tropes: the crackpot shrink’s twinkie defense. This time a lawyer argued that taking antidepressants can destroy the part of the brain that makes you not kill children.
6. The typecast breaker: Cynthia Nixon won an Emmy for playing a famously outrageous SVU suspect with Multiple Personality Disorder. She was at once a bloodthirsty Russian, a grieving mom, a quivering child, and — what better way to shirk her fuddy-duddy Miranda Hobbes typecast? — a pigtailed high-schooler in heat.
7. The mascara-melting beauty queen: Before Claire Danes was (and always will be) Angela Chase from My So-Called Life, she played an aspiring model on the verge of a meltdown. It was on this episode that she got her start as a heroine to a nation of silently suffering teens by stabbing (with a pair of scissors) a photographer-cum-pimp who tells her that she’ll never be a model because her legs are too fat.
8. The perp with daddy issues: Almost as much as Law & Order writers love a pervert with two sets of DNA, they love a righteous morality play. Playing Ice-T’s stepson, Ludacris was a bad seed whose sins reflected his troubled upbringing. It really got us thinking: Who is to blame for the horrors of the world? The individual or the society that shaped them? The deadbeat dad or the trainwreck child? Michael Lohan or Lindsay? So many deep questions.
9. The uncomfortably sexualized crying girl: It’s probably no surprise that Chloe succubus Amanda Seyfried got her start as an SVU Lolita who is raped and then forced to relay the sordid details over and over. Once again, blonde mermaid hair and teary blue eyes make for a disturbingly titillating yet sympathetic victim.
10. The “feminist” fatale: On the surface, recurring catwoman Nicole Wallace, played by Kicking and Screaming’s Olivia d’Abo, is all velvet and lip gloss and a cute overbite. But underneath, she’s a serial man-eater who marries for money and then kills her husbands. Her real purpose on the show, however, is to stir up Detective Goren’s Freudian demons, sustain a narrative thread, and evoke some pop psychology. Also for boobs.
11. The repeat offender: If it seems like you’ve seen an episode before, it may not be due to a recycled plot — it might be because working actor Edward D. Murphy’s in it. Murphy has played a foreman, a medic, three different crime-scene unit techs, and seven other characters since 1991. Runner-up Lee Shepherd has played seven different roles in eleven episodes.