10 Best Episodes of the First 20 Seasons of ‘Law & Order,’ According to Fans

Law & Order - Anthony Anderson
Anthony Anderson in the 'Law & Order' episode "Rubber Room"

Those two “separate, yet equally important groups” of the criminal justice system are making a comeback! NBC is bringing back the original Law & Order for a 21st season more than a decade after canceling the procedural.

Law & Order, which originally aired between 1990 and 2010, found inspiration in real-life causes and au courant topics, and it sounds like Season 21 will be no different. “We will talk about all the uncomfortable subjects of 2021 and 2022, in ways that are going to make people throw their shoes at the TV. Just like always,” says Sam Waterston, who’s reprising his role as D.A. Jack McCoy, in an interview with TV Insider last week. “We’ll march right up into contentious issues and take them on. You’d be disappointed if we didn’t.”

Below, we’re detailing fan picks for the best episodes of the first 20 seasons, as identified by ShowSkimmer. Here are those standout L&O hours — including the episode that seemed for years like it’d be the series finale — presented in chronological order, alongside representative reviews from IMDb users.

Season 3, Episode 8: “Prince of Darkness”

Sergeant Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) is shot on the job as he investigates a Colombian drug cartel assassin’s involvement in a double murder. An IMDb reviewer calls this episode “the darkest and most tense” Season 3 installment.

Season 4, Episode 22: “Old Friends”

The assassination of a witness who Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) promised to protect — played by guest-star Allison Janney — prompts Ben to resign as executive A.D.A. A viewer says this “brilliant, moving finale” for Season 4 is a “fabulous episode for Michael Moriarty to go out on.”

Season 6, Episode 21: “Pro Se”

A defense attorney with schizoaffective disorder — played by guest-star Denis O’Hare — insists on defending himself after being accused of multiple murders. “It is an outstanding episode in every way, with a guest star that burns long in the memory,” one fan wrote.

Season 6, Episode 23: “Aftershock”

The Season 6 finale starts with McCoy, A.D.A. Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy), Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), and Detective Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) witnessing the execution of a man they helped convict…and it ends with Kincaid losing her life in Briscoe’s car when they’re hit by a drunk driver. “A forlorn ending, but a must-see episode for all fans, as we get to see the very human side to cops and lawyers,” says one reviewer.

Season 10, Episode 2: “Killerz”

McCoy prosecutes a 10-year-old girl accused of murdering an eight-year-old boy, arguing that she belongs in state psychiatric care. “While all the regulars are great, particularly Sam Waterston’s authoritative and ruthless McCoy, the episode belongs to Hallee Hirsch, who gives one of the show’s best and scariest child performances,” an IMDb user writes.

Season 13, Episode 23: “Couples”

Briscoe and partner Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) investigate a spate of domestic violence on one day in New York City, including a murder tied to a decades-old homicide. A fan observes that this episode “shows that ‘one of those days’ happens to cops as well as to the rest of us working schmucks.”

Season 14, Episode 1: “Bodies”

McCoy goes after a defense attorney who literally knows where his client’s bodies are buried. That client is a serial killer played by Ritchie Coster, who is “a fine actor in other roles,” a fan writes on IMDb. “But for those who know this one, any heavy he plays will always be measured against this one, the benchmark, the best ever by anyone.”

Season 16, Episode 22: “Invaders”

After A.D.A. Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse) is abducted and murdered in this Season 16 finale, McCoy goes to surprising lengths to hold those responsible accountable, including one played by Coster in another of his guest appearances. A reviewer said Law & Order was “never better when it stuck to the grit of reality like this episode.”

Season 18, Episode 14: “Burn Card”

In an episode that sees Martin exit Law & Order — while Anthony Anderson joins the cast as Detective Kevin Bernard — the murder of an avid gambler forces Green to confess his vice and give up his badge. One IMDb user called this installment a “great and somewhat surprising return to excellence” for the show.

Season 20, Episode 23: “Rubber Room”

In the Season 20 finale — which served as the unintentional series finale until NBC ordered Season 21 — the team searches for an anonymous blogger threatening to attack a New York City school, while Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) gets an optimistic update in her health battle. A reviewer called it a “fitting farewell, even though many fans hope that the show will return in some manner.” Looks like those hopes paid off!

Law & Order, Season 21 Premiere, Thursday, February 24, 8/7c, NBC