Why 'Law & Order' Spinoff Was Canceled Despite Series Order

When NBC surprisingly decided to cancel Law & Order: For the Defense before an episode even aired [...]

When NBC surprisingly decided to cancel Law & Order: For the Defense before an episode even aired Thursday, it came as a surprise to everyone. After all, NBC had granted the project a series order and even a spot on the Fall 2021 schedule when the show was announced in May. The peacock network never announced why the latest iteration of its trademark franchise isn't happening, but there are some possible reasons why NBC decided against airing Dick Wolf's new project.

For the Defense was announced back in May, and would have focused on defense attorneys, who are usually nothing more than just foils for the heroic district attorneys on the Law & Order shows, save for a chosen few who previously served as ADAs. Carol Mendelsohn (CSI) was hired as For the Defense's showrunner and would have executive produced with Wolf, Peter Jankowski, Julie Weitz, and Arthur Forney. NBC said the show would air on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET to kick off an "all Law & Order night," with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Organized Crime following at 9 p.m. ET and 10 p.m. ET, respectively.

Between May's announcement and July 15, something happened behind the scenes. NBC announced For the Defense was no longer happening. SVU will start its season with a two-hour special on Sept. 23. Eventually, the Thursday, 8 p.m. ET slot will be taken over by The Blacklist on Oct. 21. NBC and Wolf didn't make a statement about For the Defense, but the two are reportedly working on another Law & Order spin-off.

The first possible reason for For the Defense meeting an early death is casting. Wolf and NBC never announced who was going to star in this show. Since Organized Crime proved that a new Law & Order show needs to launch with a beloved franchise star in the lead, NBC might have decided that none were available to kick-start For the Defense. The best character to lead the show would have been former SVU ADA Rafael Barba, played by Raul Esparza. In the January SVU episode "Sightless in a Savage Land," it was established that he became a criminal defense attorney. Many other ADAs have become criminal defense attorneys in the world of the show, but Barba has made multiple appearances since leaving in SVU Season 19. It's true that Barba remains a fan-favorite character, but he certainly isn't at the same level of popularity as Christopher Meloni's Det. Elliot Stabler.

Another reason why For the Defense might not have worked out is that Wolf's past attempts to bring focus to the "order" side of Law & Order haven't worked out. The last time Wolf tried this in the main Law & Order franchise was Law & Order: Trial by Jury, which focused on both the prosecution and defense as they prepared their cases to go to trial. Even Bebe Neuwirth and appearances from franchise favorites Fred Dalton Thompson and Jerry Orbach couldn't keep the show from being canceled in January 2006. Trial by Jury became the first Law & Order series canceled. One episode didn't even air on NBC and later debuted on Court TV (now TruTV). A focus on prosecutors even failed in the Chicago world, as the only entry in that franchise to get canceled is Chicago Justice. After the show ended, the only reminder that it even existed was Philip Winchester's Peter Stone moving to SVU.

It could be some time before we really understand how For the Defense failed and why no one was cast. After all, the last time this happened with a planned Law & Order spin-off, the project died without even a whimper. Back in September 2018, NBC trumpeted Law & Order: Hate Crimes, which was supposed to launch during SVU's 20th season. The show was delayed in March 2019, then SVU showrunner Warren Leight announced a few months later the show would move to Peacock. No one was cast in this project as well, and there was no announcement when the project died (or even if it really is dead).