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Jack McCoy Will Make Everything Okay

A nation turns its lonely eyes to the one TV character we all love — even as we reevaluate how we feel about ‘Law & Order’ and other shows that venerate law enforcement

During the Super Bowl, there were plenty of promos advertising upcoming blockbusters: Nope, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Jurassic Park Dominion. But the one that got me most excited wasn’t for a movie — it was for an old TV show, one that’s been off the air for 12 years. God help me, I’m one of those people who felt a little electric surge when NBC dropped its Law & Order teaser.

A longtime fan of the Emmy-winning flagship series, I’ve largely avoided all the spinoffs, which I’m sure are perfectly fine but deviate enough from the original formula to leave me uninterested. So, naturally, I’m intrigued by Law & Order’s return, although what made me happiest is the fact that Jack McCoy is back: Yup, Sam Waterston will be reprising his role as New York’s district attorney. I had issues with the later seasons of Law & Order, and in the midst of the Defund the Police age, it’s fair to criticize shows like this that paint law enforcement in an overly positive light. If you add in the fact that nostalgia is a menace to be fought at every turn, there are myriad reasons to be wary. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but get my hopes up — and judging from the internet’s reaction, I wasn’t alone. We all love Jack McCoy.

Waterston’s career was already impressive before signing on to Law & Order. He’d earned an Oscar nomination for The Killing Fields. He’d received Emmy nominations, including several for I’ll Fly Away, the series he did right before Law & Order. (He played a district attorney there, as well.) Initially, when he signed on to play Jack McCoy, replacing Michael Moriarty, he only agreed to a one-year deal. “I didn’t think I’d be there long,” he told the New York Times recently, although the worry of putting four kids through school made the steady gig look appealing, ultimately remaining part of the series for a decade and a half, when it was canceled in 2010. 

For the bulk of Waterston’s time on Law & Order, McCoy was the assistant D.A., the main character of each episode’s second half, when the lawyers try to put away the criminal(s) that the cops caught in the first half. Moriarty’s Ben Stone was a brilliant, dedicated, somewhat dry man, very much adhering to the first few seasons’ emphasis on absolute realism and muted performances. But by Season Five, Law & Order had loosened up a little, and while no one would accuse McCoy of being flashy, his righteous zeal had a little more swagger than Stone’s did. 

Also, he was a far more complicated character. McCoy had anger issues, as well as a bad habit of bedding his subordinates — most notably, Jill Hennessy’s Claire Kincaid, a hush-hush relationship that was never exactly commented on but was readily apparent. (Watching those episodes before I entered the workforce, I had no idea how accurate they were in terms of depicting how everyone knows that so-and-so is sleeping with so-and-so, yet nobody talks about it because it’s easier just to look the other way.) McCoy was a prick and a blowhard, but he was also the smartest guy in any room he walked into — and he cared deeply about making sure justice was done. He didn’t seem to have much of a life outside of his job, which is probably why he was so good at it (and also why his girlfriends were coworkers). He loved the Clash and scotch, motorcycles and blue jeans. He hated losing, and he rarely did.

The most famous and beloved fictional lawyers tend to be defense attorneys, the Atticus Finches who are idealistic champions of the little guy. But for 16 seasons, Jack McCoy represented the prosecution, tearing into slimy lawyers and mendacious witnesses, telling off crooked judges and flouting the law if it was getting in the way of him nailing a crook. Sure, he got slapped on the wrist frequently. (He faced the possibility of disbarment a couple times, if I remember correctly.) But to my mind, Law & Order never really glorified this behavior. As writer Pete Tosiello put it earlier this month, the show “offered a gentle critique of law enforcement, presenting a parade of flawed individuals navigating a byzantine justice system.” Tosiello suggested that Law & Order “hinges on a lesser-of-two-evils logic: The institutions may be imperfect, and the cops imperfect, but their vocation is, by definition, good,” a philosophy that “allowed the show to celebrate the justice system while acknowledging its failures.”

No character in Law & Order’s run was more flawed than Jack McCoy, which might explain why he was also among its most virtuous. In a sense, he represented the unresolved tension within the show: We want the good guys to put the bad guys behind bars, but what if that sometimes requires cutting corners or exploiting a legal loophole? The ferocity of McCoy’s passion was stirring — his closing statement in front of the jury was often an episode’s emotional highlight — but Law & Order was nuanced enough to quietly frown at his hotheaded demeanor. (If you wanted to know how the show felt about what he’d done, watch how his female assistant D.A.s react to him at the end of an episode — the writers often let the women serve as the series’ moral compass.)  

And yet, McCoy’s rigidity — his absolute certainty in his correctness — made the show utterly riveting. It was also a balm. Life is so challenging, full of maddening vagaries and unfairness, but on a weekly basis, Law & Order gave you a modicum of stability. McCoy didn’t always nail the perp, but it was never from lack of trying. McCoy you could rely on — he always knew what to do, what argument to make, what tactic to unveil to get the guilty to confess on the witness stand. On a very basic level, it was extraordinarily satisfying to watch McCoy bring the hammer down on that week’s criminal — things rarely work out the way we wish they would, but on Law & Order they often did. Beyond his desire for justice, what was most admirable about McCoy was his unfailing competence. Like so many of the detectives and lawyers on Law & Order, McCoy was smart and resourceful, and there was comfort in knowing that he was representing us, all the people out there in TV land who want to think that law enforcement will save the day. Jack McCoy would make sure everything was okay.

This sentiment, of course, is endemic to so many cop shows and procedurals that position law enforcement as the protagonists we’re meant to root for. As a longtime fan, I think Law & Order actually was fairly balanced in this regard, showing the damage done when the detectives took shortcuts. (For god’s sake, Briscoe, get a search warrant before you break into that guy’s apartment.) Still, the show perpetuated the notion that law enforcement was to be celebrated — although, even here, I’d argue that there was plenty of gray area. Look no further than McCoy, whose old man (whom he had a very contentious relationship with) was a cop. And probably because of that fact, McCoy rarely got angrier than when dealing with crooked police officers, taking it even more personally than every other crime that crossed his desk. Maybe it was merely another example of dismissing systemic issues as “just a few bad apples,” but McCoy’s fury at least suggested that Law & Order understood the moral rot within seemingly hallowed institutions. 

In Tosiello’s essay, he notes, “The original Law & Order … took pains to establish its characters as public servants, not superheroes. On the job, the detectives and attorneys wore drab, rumpled suits and worked desk phones from cramped offices. Off the job, they drank and avoided their families, because dealing with predators makes for a harrowing day.” Waterston embodied that everyday weariness — his hairstyle was unremarkable, his eyes were always tired, he constantly was eating shitty Chinese takeout late at night while pouring over law books and reams of court documents. And like so many viewers, he had a hardass boss — District Attorney Adam Schiff (the late Steven Hill) — who would bust his chops and demand results, which made McCoy even more sympathetic and relatable. McCoy was a working stiff, just one honorable guy fighting a rising tide of crime and corruption. But he wouldn’t give up. He liked winning too much.

In Waterston’s final years on Law & Order, he got a promotion of sorts, as McCoy became the interim district attorney and then later got elected to the job. In an attempt at dramatic irony, the writers cast Linus Roache to play Assistant D.A. Michael Cutter, a sort of Jack McCoy 2.0 — even more tenacious and strong-willed than his predecessor. It was poignant to see McCoy sit in Schiff’s familiar chair behind that familiar desk, discovering how different that job was to the one he once held. But it also meant we got less Waterston in each episode, and as the show grew more sensationalized in its subject matter, it lost its fiery center. By the time Law & Order was canceled, I confess I had stopped paying attention.

The actor, now 81, has been busy since Law & Order went away, appearing in everything from The Newsroom to Grace and Frankie to On the Basis of Sex. He even popped up on Law & Order: SVU. According to what I’ve read about this new season of Law & Order, Jack McCoy is still district attorney, but he’s a little frailer, which is very understandable considering Waterston’s age. (In the Times profile, it’s mentioned that, as with the first time around, he’s only signed a contract for one season.) 

Anthony Anderson will also be back for this new season, reprising his role as Detective Bernard, but with all due respect, I think most who tune in will be doing so because of Jack McCoy. For more than a decade, the character was like a father figure — albeit one who practiced tough love and sometimes lost his temper. (Come to think of it, those qualities probably made him even more of a father figure to some.) But we knew McCoy always had his heart in the right place, even when he let ego or personal feelings get in the way. 

How the new season tackles issues like Black Lives Matter or Defund the Police, I shudder to think. (I’m fearful these topics will be handled in a heavy-handed or superficial manner, a crime the latter seasons of the show’s original run were definitely guilty of committing.) But at Law & Order’s best, Waterston’s simple decency mitigated his character’s arrogance and self-righteousness, weaknesses that were symptomatic of larger failings within law enforcement itself. You saw a loyal public servant doing his best, all too aware when his best simply wasn’t good enough. It’s foolish to believe in institutions, or fictional characters, but Sam Waterston made you want to believe in Jack McCoy. Deep down, even though it’s foolish, sometimes we want our father to take care of everything.