Law and Order – Theme Song Analysis Unit (DUN-DUN)

Back in the early days of The Learned Fangirl, when it was just a personal co-blog and we weren’t serious about it, Raizel and I had a recurring feature we called “TLF has Bad Taste” where we would riff on the weird pop culture issues we obsessed over for no reason in an essay that held no intellectual or critical merit.

In that spirit, here is an essay based on a real-life conversation* where we analyze every single one of the Law and Order theme songs.

First of all, you might be asking: “aren’t all of the Law and Order theme songs basically the same?” No, they are absolutely not. As a musician and someone that a.) had decades worth of episodes inflicted on me by my super-fan mother, and b.) became a late-stage fan of the franchise through the Organized Crime spin-off c.) is a weirdo that thinks about this kind of stuff for no reason, I consider myself a self-taught expert on Law and Order theme songs. Likewise, Raizel is an expert on the franchise due to its role as a pop culture supplement to her law school career, so together we have authority:

Anyway, here is our collective analysis (DUN-DUN):

Law & Order (original)

A restrained but confident introduction to the L&O universe. Very much a theme song of its time, with classic Mike Post late 80s/early 90s horn-and-midi synth stylings, punctuated by a smooth-jazz clarinet solo for flavor. The longer version, used in earlier episodes, has a funky extended guitar solo and a dramatic lengthening of the police siren-like crescendo that is later shortened for time. (You can still hear the full theme from time to time on reruns though!)

Grade: A –

Special Victims Unit

Simultaneously the weirdest and the least chaotic of the spin-off themes. Weird because it’s the only one of the spin-off themes that doesn’t share the original L&O melody, it’s like a Bizarro World version of the theme, like they didn’t have the rights to use the actual melody. However, it shares the mellower tone of the original and doesn’t indulge in the blaring electronic horns and random synth runs of later spin-offs. Also the clarinet is replaced by an oboe (the Olivia Benson of wind instruments) some faint bongo-like drum patterns, and what sounds like a bit of fretless bass. Probably the most musically interesting of the themes. It’s not as in your face as later themes, though

Grade: B+

Criminal Intent/Trial by Jury

Fun fact: L&O Criminal Intent has TWO theme songs! The original has a shuffling rhythm paired with a vampy hard rock guitar, very gritty but still with a jazzy sax bridge. It’s got a very hard-worn, dirty bar floor kinda theme. It’s a theme that plans to meet you down by the docks to pass on some intel before getting shot and falling into the lake before they can snitch.

In later seasons, that theme is replaced by the theme song for the short- lived L&O: Trial by Jury spin-off. The most charitable way to describe the CI/Trial by Jury theme song is … “energetic.” There’s a lot going on, I’d say there’s about 10-20 tracks of background synth noises going on here, it’s got some boom-chuck-chucka noises for no good reason. It starts out pretty conventionally –  if not a bit hectic  – and then about 25 seconds in gets EXTREMELY over the top: lots of blaring midi horns, LOTS of them, some really obnoxious keyboard runs close to the end. It gets VERY loud.  It’s a theme song that needs to do some calming breathing exercises and have some herbal tea or something, because it has lost its chill.

Criminal Intent Original Grade: B-

CI/Trial by Jury Grade: D

L&O: Los Angeles

Apparently this show came out around that time period on TV where they were trying to do away with full theme songs, there is no real L&O: LA theme, just the title card with the main melody playing over it. Boo. Tomato Tomato.

Grade: F

Law and Order: UK

Raizel: “it sounds like Horatio Hornblower.” She is correct. With the militaristic drums and solemn strings, the UK theme has more in common with a historical war drama than with any of the US shows, which isn’t surprising but it also feels unfair that the global spin-off gets what sounds like a real orchestra for its theme while the US versions just piles on the midi tracks. 

Grade: B

Law and Order: True Crime

Does this have a theme song? We could not find one. Also, does anyone even remember this show?

Grade: N/A

Organized Crime

The Organized Crime theme is VERY L&O meets the DC Extended Universe, which is fitting because Organized Crime Detective Stabler is basically Batman. Organized Crime shares the bombast of the Trial By Jury theme, but it’s also the first of the L&O theme songs that feels loosely inspired by the show rather than a full-on riff. It opens with a powerful and commanding percussive buildup and a droning trombone,
it’s got a lot of drama and feels like something out of an action film. It’s the kind of theme song that will dangle you over the side of a building until you talk or kill your friend as a “warning” or something. Unlike the chill-deficient Trial By Jury theme, this theme fits the bonkers tone of the show.

Grade: B

Law and Order (reboot)

They tried to be slick and front like the theme song is unchanged but they clearly add this very busy-sounding synth loop under the original song in order to “update” it, but it mostly sounds distracting and annoying.

Grade: C

What’s your favorite Law and Order theme song? Did you even think about the differences or are we, once again, weirdos?

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