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Why 'Law & Order's' Michael Cutter still sets the bar for lawyers on TV

Linus Roache starred as Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter in the final three seasons of NBC's 'Law & Order.'
Linus Roache starred as Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter in the final three seasons of NBC's 'Law & Order.'

TV doesn't make lawyers like Michael Cutter anymore.

It's been just over six years since the character was introduced as Law & Order's chief prosecutor, taking over for a promoted Jack McCoy. Almost four years since NBC shuttered the legendary series. But Cutter - one hundred percent perfectly played by Golden Globe nominee Linus Roache - has lived on, first through a guest stint on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and now through perpetual reruns of the mothership on cable. And it's been watching those reruns for hours every Sunday that's led us to want to repeat something we said six years ago: Michael Cutter wasn't only the best lawyer Law & Order ever saw, but also one of the best to ever be seen on TV.

Why bring this up again now, you ask? Why devote column space to a show that's moved into the history books? Because we've realized Cutter represents an elite class of TV character. Everyone has their favorite when a series is airing; becoming invested in the characters is one of the major reeasons why a show works or doesn't work. It's not out of the ordinary to say that when Law & Order was on, we were huge fans of Cutter's impassioned prosecutions of the bad guys.

It is out of the ordinary to watch the same episodes years later, and be impressed by him all over again. To feel energized by Roache's performances again. To realize that yes, we've missed this guy, and no, he didn't really get enough credit.

It's hard to create a character that stands the test of time like that. Think of all the series on all the channels over just the past six years, and all the players on every single one of those shows. Even if you just zero in on lawyers, legal and procedural shows are probably the biggest genre on television. Focusing on the Law & Order franchise is still no small affair, not with two decades and a half-dozen spinoffs. Yet even with all that history, and the show's mandate not to focus on the personal lives of its characters, we still were enraptured by Michael Cutter.

What made him so great was that you never quite knew what he was going to do next. "This guy's nuts, you know that?" said the murder suspect in Season 20's 'Innocence,' and it was so true. We saw Cutter routinely outwit defendants into making confessions on the stand. He often gave District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) headaches with his 'I don't give a damn' attitude. He took on the governor of New York and, with some nudging from McCoy, even the federal government.

Let's not forget the episode where he convinced foreign dignitaries that the murder suspect they were giving asylum to was an enemy spy, just to get him back on U.S. soil - and then told them he made the whole thing up. If he really was crazy, it was like a fox.

This all came alive because of the energy Roache brought to the screen. He infused Cutter with an intensity that made him magnetic. No offense intended to predecessors McCoy and Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), but neither of them commanded attention the way Michael Cutter did. No other actor save one has brought as much punch to playing a lawyer as Roache did time and again.

To go back to 'Innocence,' there's a scene where Cutter comes unglued, and threatens a defendant with federal hate crime prosecution. It's so vehement and so palpable that it leads to the aforementioned quote doubting his sanity. And it's a brilliant performance from a fantastic actor that more people should have taken notice of.

Only one character would rank higher on our list of all-time TV lawyers than Cutter: Suits' Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht). Harvey is so beautifully written, with that same kind of unpredictability, and Macht owns the screen, too. He should win an Emmy at some point. But Harvey is also meant to be that kind of driving force. On Law & Order, the characters - while entertaining - were ultimately pieces of the formula.

Except for Cutter, who came in, messed the whole thing up, and it was glorious. Whether it was his legal prowess, his sense of humor, or his adorable crush on second-chair Connie Rubirosa (Alana de la Garza, fabulous in her own right), he reinvigorated the entire show. And between him and the whole of Law & Order: UK, we rediscovered our love for this venerable TV franchise.

Which is what leads us here. Having wasted half of our Sunday yet again, because we got sucked into watching Michael Cutter take on the state of New York. Because we're still in awe of what a phenomenal actor Linus Roache is. Because here's a character that is still as impressive and fun to watch as he was six years ago - and we think that deserves some special recognition in a TV world that might have missed out on him the first time. After all, we won't see a lawyer like him again. Not unless Cutter somehow makes a return to SVU.

Law & Order seasons 18 through 20 can be watched in syndication on TNT or on demand on Amazon. For more on Linus Roache, check out our news blurb on his new role on History's Vikings.

(c)2014 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Examiner with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted. Visit my official website and follow me on Twitter at @tvbrittanyf.

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