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Tony Goldwyn’s ‘Law & Order’ Casting Is a Smart Extension of a Soapy Network Legacy

Tony Goldwyn is a true-blue network guy.

Taking over the prosecutor’s office for “Law & Order” in Season 23, the steely actor is set to debut District Attorney Nicholas Baxter on the revived legal drama Thursday, March 14 at 8 p.m. ET. The character introduction comes just two weeks after Sam Waterston stepped down as the legendary Jack McCoy. For his final appearance at NBC in Episode 4 “The Last Dance,” the iconic DA sacrificed his reelection campaign to fight corruption in the mayor’s office. Leaving his post after 30 years, McCoy assured his colleagues that the next DA would be an even stronger legal mind.

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Replacing Waterston won’t be easy. The 83-year-old’s retirement from the series created a major vacancy in TV’s most famous police procedural. And that’s a genre already difficult to keep compelling in an increasingly divided America. “Law & Order” is still doing well in the ratings, averaging 6.4 million viewers each week according to Universal. But the ripped-from-the-headlines approach has seen dwindling returns among critics who have grown increasingly frustrated with its awkward and aimless writing.

Even the most fervent Dick Wolf fans agree that something is presently off about the formulaic Wolf Universe — stuck in a multi-year cycle of confused buzzwords and humanitarian sentiment that spins everything from “Law & Order: SVU” to “Chicago Fire.” Last week’s “Law & Order” saw Detective Shaw (Mehcad Brooks) talk a suicidal man off of a ledge only to see that same man later shoot up an emergency room; cue John Quiñones and the camera crew of “What Would You Do?”

Still, there is a big audience coming back for more of the same with “Law & Order” and you can’t just pick the next Perry Mason; HBO actually tried that with Matthew Rhys and saw their remake canceled after two very expensive seasons. Selecting an adequate successor as the next “Law & Order” DA seems essential to the show improving. Lose faith in the entertainment value of a determined man delivering a feverish closing argument and the whole franchise is D.O.A. But manage to make fans fall in love with a new face of justice and that could steer not just a few episodes but even multiple seasons of an otherwise uninspired crime drama.

Landing on Goldwyn was a brilliant choice by casting directors Jonathan Strauss and Philip Huffman. Assuming the script isn’t ridiculous (a big assumption with “Law & Order,” yes), Episode 6 “Balance of Power” stands to make the most of Goldwyn’s reputation as a network heartthrob while simultaneously reassuring viewers that not much will change about the television mainstay.

Goldwyn has appeared in plenty of popular movies, breaking through with “Ghost” in 1990 and snagging a role in the 2024 Best Picture winner “Oppenheimer.” And the actor is not new to the “Law & Order” franchise; he played the brother to Vincent D’Onofrio’s starring detective on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” from 2007 to 2008. But the multi-hyphenate talent (Goldwyn also directed a 2006 episode of “Law & Order”) is known to fans first and foremost as President Fitzgerald Grant III — or “Fitz” — the U.S. president whose affair with a D.C. fixer made Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal.”

Tony Goldwyn in “Scandal” (left) and “Law & Order” (right)
Tony Goldwyn in “Scandal” (left) and “Law & Order” (right)

Somewhere out there is a high school government teacher champing at the bit to tell you just how different the roles of Manhattan District Attorney and U.S. Commander in Chief really are. But there’s something to be said for an incoming “Law & Order” actor who is already established with a large network demographic. In a recent interview with TV Line, Goldwyn remarked on the continued popularity of ABC’s “Scandal,” saying he didn’t understand the mania back then and continues to be awestruck by its impacts now.

Hitting almost 12.7 million viewers at its peak in Season 4, the small screen sensation unfolded weekly to astounding success from 2012 to 2018. Goldwyn’s part — a tortured romantic whose gilded cage is the White House — has resonated just as well with younger audiences streaming Olivia Pope’s journey for the first time online. That means he’s a familiar and potentially eye-drawing heartthrob to a cross-section of viewers that may not be a perfect overlap with the standard “Law & Order” audience, but could match up enough to matter.

Funnily enough, Goldwyn got his start in TV with a minor role on the NBC medical drama “St. Elsewhere.” Airing from 1982 to 1988, that show is primarily remembered for creating the Tommy Westphall Universe. The famous fan theory is a sprawling consequence of a finale revelation that the entirety of “St. Elsewhere” actually took place in the dream of an autistic child named Tommy. Really. With so many cross-series references at the network, that meant by extension hundreds of NBC shows — including “Law & Order,” “Scandal,” and “St. Elsewhere” — all technically take place in that one kid’s dream.

A performer native to network TV, Goldwyn seems like a natural fit for “Law & Order.” The actor is well-versed in making impassioned speeches about difficult high-takes decisions thanks to “Scandal” and, if anyone could use a keyed-in sense of bracing uncertainty, it’s a district attorney in 2024. Goldwyn described Baxter as “more modern” and “more politically sensitive,” again speaking with TV Line.

“Whereas McCoy was very much, ‘The law is everything and the law tells us exactly what the decision needs to be,’” Goldwyn said in that same interview, “Nicholas Baxter is a guy who really takes in broader political implications of every decision.”

Yes, Nick sounds a little wishy-washy but so did Fitz. Toss a slow-simmering love triangle into the background of this fictional NYC and Goldwyn could make the case for “Law & Order” getting good again.

“Law & Order” Season 24 airs Thursdays on NBC and streams next day on Peacock; Goldwyn joins the cast in Episode 6, which is set to air March 14 at 8 p.m. ET.

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