Law & Order: Is Tony Goldwyn Up to the Task of Filling Sam Waterston?

at .

Sam Waterson's departure from Law & Order left a hole that'll be hard to fill. Waterson played Jack McCoy for 30 years, making his name synonymous with the long-running police/lawyer procedural.

Someone had to take his place, and Tony Goldwyn is not only an accomplished actor in his own right but has appeared within the Law & Order universe before. (Goldwyn played Frank Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.)

Goldwyn's Nicholas Baxter has only had a few episodes to shine in. He's a different type of district attorney than McCoy, so his character will take some getting used to, but the change in direction could be precisely what Law & Order Season 23 needs.

Tony Goldwyn Replaces Sam Waterson - Law & Order

McCoy was often soft-spoken, though he could get loud when he was passionately angry and mostly stayed in his office. Baxter differentiated himself from the get-go; his first scene involved inserting himself into a crime scene and introducing himself.

This worked on multiple levels. It immediately created tension; the cops weren't used to the DA infringing on their territory and didn't like it. It also signaled to viewers that Baxter was nothing like McCoy.

Baxter Arrives in NYC - Law & Order

So far, Baxter is hard to figure out -- which is a risky strategy, but if done right, it can help him become a beloved character in his own right. Too much mystery or contradictory information will become confusing, but he's written as layered and complex right now.

How McCoy Left and Baxter Came In

McCoy exited Law & Order in the best possible way for him. He defied the mayor, trying a controversial case himself, and then resigned to protect himself and Price from political repercussions.

Sam Waterson's exit was handled beautifully, and afterward, Law & Order went the realistic route instead of immediately introducing his replacement.

Price stepped in as acting DA for an episode before Baxter's arrival, giving viewers the space to grieve and adjust to a McCoyless world before introducing Baxter.

Big Shoes to Fill - Law & Order

Baxter's Conflict With Nolan Leads to More Riveting Television

Many of Price and McCoy's conflicts boiled down to McCoy asking if Price's risky strategy idea would work and Price insisting it would.

Their relationship had fallen into a rut that was more formulaic than interesting.

As sad as it was to lose Sam Waterson, bringing in a new character gives Law & Order the chance to correct that problem. So far, they've risen beautifully to the occasion.

Baxter Considers His Options - Law & Order

Baxter purposely avoided taking Price's calls when Price needed an immediate answer, leaving him to decide for himself. This created division among fans, with some cheering Baxter on for expecting Price to make autonomous decisions while others felt he was not doing his job correctly.

While this may not sound like a great beginning, it's a strong strategy. When a new character does something that some fans love, and others hate, it gets everyone talking and tuning in to find out what the character is up to next.

Nolan Price is not a popular ADA, so having some pushback to his ideas is a welcome change from the past. Sam Waterson did excellent work as McCoy, but the dynamic was no longer working and was overdue for this kind of shakeup.

Baxter's Perspective Allows for The Ethical Dilemmas Law & Order is Famous For

When Law & Order originally aired, one of its strengths was that it asked ethical questions without providing answers.

Baxter Meets Price - Law & Order

The legal side of the hour often presented issues fairly, showing more than one side without demonizing either one, and the final scene usually left the ADAs questioning their decisions.

For the most part, the reboot has been more heavyhanded, making it clear which side the writers sided with. Baxter's perspective is more nuanced than McCoy's.

Post-reboot, McCoy seemed to have lost his way, becoming overly focused on winning cases. He even insisted that potentially fake video testimony be entered into evidence, which did not seem in line with his character.

Fortunately, his final case reawakened his passion for justice. Now, Baxter has a different perspective than the version of McCoy, who has graced television screens for the past three years.

On Law & Order Season 23 Episode 8, for example, Baxter refused to let Price accept a plea deal for manslaughter because he wanted to demonstrate that he was willing to hold violent criminals accountable, especially those whose crime might have been influenced by racist ideas.

New Guy in Charge - Law & Order

He cared more about the message he wanted to send than whether he'd win the case -- and he lost. 

We can debate all day whether he made the right call, and that's the point. Baxter's perspective differs from McCoy's, allowing him to make divisive decisions that drive conflict within the DA's office and courtroom.

McCoy's Shadow Will Hang Over Baxter for a While

Baxter's done a lot to differentiate himself. Clearly, he's a bold, energetic DA dedicated to justice. Comparisons to McCoy are inevitable.

That's the recast curse. Tony Goldwyn has the unenviable position of following a widely beloved and respected actor, which means that some people will never accept him, and others will do so grudgingly while feeling disloyal to Sam Waterson.

Baxter vs. Nolan - Law & Order

But Goldwyn is the right man for the job. He has infused Baxter with multiple layers that make his character compelling and courageously stepped in to fill the enormous hole Sam Waterson left behind.

Over to you, Law & Order fanatics. What do you think of Tony Goldwyn's performance so far? Will he be able to step into the role that Sam Waterson made his for over three decades?

Hit the big, blue SHOW COMMENTS button and let us know.

Law & Order airs on NBC on Thursdays at 9/8c.

Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. His debut young adult novel, Reinventing Hannah, is available on Amazon. Follow him on X.

Show Comments
Tags: ,

Law & Order Quotes

Bernard: We'd like to see the surveillance footage from last night, if that's possible.
Mrs. King: I'm afraid I haven't used them in years.
Donovan: Your husband is the most hated man in America and you don't even turn on the alarm?
Mrs. King: I'm from North Carolina. We don't even lock our front doors.

Every victim deserves our respect, even the ones that raped 40 women.