Lt. Van Buren says goodbye, but not S. Epatha Merkerson

My relationship with Law & Order always has been sort of like my relationship with tiny little dogs: I enjoy them when I see them, but not enough to make them a regular part of my life.

So, I wasn’t all that sad when I heard L&O was cancelled. I mean, the show seems to be on 24 hours a day anyway, so why should I care if new episodes are made?

Then I came across an article on The Envelope site that reminded me that the show’s cancellation brings an end to the career of Lt. Anita Van Buren, played by the wonderful S. Epatha Merkerson.

As The Envelope points out, Merkerson did not get great lines or juicy stories. In fact, Van Buren only occasionally got her own storyline. But over 16 years and almost 400 episodes, she was one of the characters that gave L&O its soul. And Merkerson holds the record for the most appearances by an actress on a single series.

Law & Order showrunner Rene Balcer has nothing but praise for the actress. "The first thing you see about her is the raw talent on the screen. The second thing is her tremendous work habits. She communicates so much sometimes by saying so little. There’s just this tremendous life force in her."

Merkerson had decided to leave the show before it was cancelled, but not because she was unhappy. She just felt the character had run its course. Ironically, her storyline finally had a little meat to it: Lt. Van Buren had cervical cancer, caused by HPV that she got from her ex-husband, who had been cheating on her.

Being a supporting character is often a thankless role, but Merkerson’s talent made Van Buren a strong presence in the 27th Precinct. When she got the role, she shaped the Lieutenant’s attitude, starting with the hair. While Merkerson usually had short, twist & lock braids, that wasn’t Van Buren’s style. So, she wore a wig.

"I was always natural; Van Buren was always coiffed," she explains. "After a while, they said, ‘Take the wig off,’ and I said, ‘No, Van Buren is one of the sisters who goes to the beauty parlor.’"

Van Buren may be gone, but the good news for us is that Merkerson has a busy career, especially on stage, so we will still get to enjoy her talent. Still, I think I’ll miss Lt. Van Buren. Almost as much as the hot ADAs.

Read more about S. Epatha Merkerson’s Law & Order career and come back with your thoughts. Are you a Merkerson fan? Will you miss Van Buren?

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