Last year my favorite sports columnist Bill Simmons started talking about "the Mt. Rushmore of...." and I instantly knew it was a winner I love ranking things (I have an entire site dedicated to it), but the Rushmore model is so intuitive to grasp. Four names only, so there are no sentimental choices. There aren't enough spots to pay homage: you need titans, and titans only.
To explain (for my international and North Carolina readers): in South Dakota there is a giant freaking rock called Mt. Rushmore. In case you have already forgotten the picture at the beginning, here is another look:
You will perhaps notice there are "faces" carved into the rock. Those faces are of America's greatest presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln.
(Why Teddy Roosevelt and not James "the Incredible" Polk? That's a long story, which we'll get into another time, but for now, let's say this: only one president has ever had a bear named after him. That's right. The Teddy Bear comes from Roosevelt. And no, I don't consider Tummi Gummi to have been named after Taft.)
Anyway: when you have a "Mt. Rushmore" debate, what you're asking is, "If they were to carve the Mt. Rushmore of _________, who should be on it?"
Simple, right? Four names. Four faces. That's it.
Over New Year's my brother and Carlos visited me, and we spent approximately 485 hours arguing every Mt. Rushmore you could think of. Some day I may share those, but this morning I felt moved to act when R.K. Milholland (my favorite web cartoonist ) Started Twittering about how Law & Order has returned to its former glory days. This may or may not be true, but it caused me to reoly as to who the best ADA was, which caused Milholland to write me back. (This is how Twitter works. You can actually write big-shots like a universe-famous web-cartoonist, and sometimes they write back.)
Bottom Line: My brain shifted into "If they made the Mt. Rushmore of Law & Order...." and I knew I had something. A quick inventory of the more than 25 principle characters of Law & Order reveals 3 absolute locks, which leaves 5 or 6 possible choices for the fourth slot. Below are my picks, along with a brief explanation of why some didn't make it.
THOSE WE DON'T TAKE FOR GRANITE (Get it: granite/granted? Fine: don't laugh.)
Detective Mike Logan (Chris Noth) - The backbone of the show for so many years. Didn't make it because his C.I. work sullied Logan's legacy, Noth's association with SATC, and I never liked that plaid tie.
Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) - I've seen Merkerson in other things, and the girl can act, but she rarely gets the change to say more than one or two lines, and they are usually boring.
Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) - Even if we were going to overlook his participation in RENT, Martin never got enough to do as Green. I suspect Ed Green could have anchored the show, though.
Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) - Loved the never-acknowledged romance between Claire and Jack; cannot forgive her for waiting until Crossing Jordan to grow hair out and become Smoking hot.
A.D.A. Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks) - LOVE this character, one of the best things about old episodes. Just not on long enough.
Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) - It absolutely breaks my heart to leave Ben Stone off the L&O Rushmore. I loved his determination and doggedness but cluelessness about office politics. Exactly what you'd want in a D.A. Stone was there in the ground-breaking days, when they lost as much as they won, and tackled tough issues honestly without the need for the "Don't miss the last five minutes!!!!! twist-gimmick that became such a staple of this decade. (Not that I'm bitter.) On a personal note, I think Moriarty is one of the most underrated actors of all time. Were it not for the fact that he is quite possibly insane, I think he would be considered a lion of TV history. I have been working on a TV show idea for years with the understanding that no matter what, Moriarty is the only person I'd ever want to play the main character.
Special Shout Out - Dr. Emil Skoda (J.K. Simmons) - He wasn't on the show enough to be considered, but I cannot think of another psychiatrist I have enjoyed seeing more on television. What a refreshing changed to have a no-B.S. shrink.
[SIDE NOTE: I know that not everyone will have the same four characters I do. That's okay; you can't have all thought it through and have as good a judgment. But can we all, right here, right now, have a bond? Can we all agree that Serena Southerlyn was far-and-away the worst character ever? Thank you.]
Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) - As no-brainer as it gets. Lennie had toughness, charm, class (but not too much) and a world-weary attitude we all loved. Plus, he single-handedly revived the funny-line to end the opening. Nobody ever did it better. Admit it: if Lennie Briscoe told you something, you'd believe him. (And he was freakin' Lumiere!)
District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) - My favorite character in all of Law & Order. I haven't enjoyed a cynical curmudgeon this much since Statler and Waldorf. Schiff had the comic timing of a god, and he never over-played his part. He rarely got much red meat (except for the incredible episode where his wife was on life-support), but he always added gravitas, humor and heart to any scene he was in. Absolutely love him.
Executive District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Watterson) - I will freely admit that my questionably heterosexual love affair with Ben Stone made me discount McCoy for a few seasons, but he eventually won me over by carving out a unique character. It says a lot about a character that we could follow for so many seasons and yet not always root for! Jack was like that: you trusted him one moment, was appalled the next. He always seemed to go right to the edge, and maybe even peeked over, but usually his conscience would real him in. This new role for him (as D.A.) has brought even more depth to the character. We're not on our 14th season of Jack McCoy and still going strong.
A.D.A. Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) - This fourth spot on the Mt. Rushmore of Law & Order was a tough call, but I made it and I expect you to fall in line. Jamie was toŭgh as nails without coming off strident (cough cough Abbie Carmichael cough cough), and was sensitive without appearing maudlin. She was sexy as hell without ever flaunting it, and she related so well to anyone. Close your eyes and think of every A.D.A. right now. Did any of them get along better with the cops than Jamie? And also get along with the bosses? No, they didn't. While I love the energy of the early years, it was in the Jamie Ross era that Law & Order had its best run. Maybe that was partially the writing, but I think a fair amount of praise should go to a character that pulled things together without even trying.
It's official. I now have it in my blood, so expect to see more Mt. Rushmore columns. If you have an idea for one please email me. And if for some reason you think I have overlooked anyone in the Law & Order universe (maybe you have a thing for Russian hats), by all means leave a comment and explain why I'm wrong. If you convince me I'll write a separate column trumpeting your Awesomeness.
From the Mountaintop,
May 14, 2009
(106 days B.H.E.)