Where was the order? Where was the law?

Law & Order, only the longest-running TV drama in the lifetime of 85 percent of the people reading this, folded its tent and slunk off into the night Monday without so much as a hearty handclasp.

Not even a final DUNH-dunh, the distinctive sound that had signified a change of scene on the show since 1990.

The send-off violated the natural TV order, where long-running, successful series get at least a little love at the end, but NBC's last-minute decision not to order a record-breaking 21st season is pretty much par for the course these days at a network that has been clueless in prime time for most of the decade.

You'd think there would at least be some gratitude for the show that, with its spin-offs, was basically the only thing that kept The Peacock alive evenings for many years.

The law was lacking in the final episode, which never set foot inside a courtroom, though there was a grand jury riff as Linus Roache's Michael Cutter tried to wheedle some subpoenas for school kids' computer records out of a grand jury that might have been sitting in Lower Merion.

But Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) maintained order, collaring the psycho schoolteacher at the end of the hour after cops negotiated the usual labyrinth that kept us pleasantly guessing for 20 years.

Creator Dick Wolf, a savvy advertising guy before he started making TV series, put the show together, half police work and half courtroom, anticipating he might syndicate it in half-hour chunks.

Law & Order took a detour this season from its usual characters-unwelcome highway to focus on Lt. Van Buren's personal life, as S. Epatha Merkerson prepared to end the second-longest run (17 years) of any actress in a TV drama. Gunsmoke's Amanda Blake, the always reliable Miss Kitty, lasted 19 years.

And Gunsmoke and Law & Order remain tied at 20 seasons, despite Wolf's continuously stated intent to wrest the record from the western that premiered in 1955. Since the end was announced at NBC, Wolf has been uncharacteristically silent about plans to shop the show elsewhere to get the record. "Never complain. Never explain," he said, quoting Benjamin Disraeli, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Ford II.

TNT, which runs L & O reruns at least three hours a day, says it doesn't want a new season, and it will also have some say in whether Wolf gets to make one for another network.

So, the show, which employed nearly 6,000 actors in speaking roles and more than twice that many as extras over its 456 episodes, appears truly to have closed up shop.

How appropriate that ski star Lindsey Vonn and Angela Goethals (great-great-granddaughter of the man for whom the Goethals Bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island is named) would have guest roles on the final ep.

Making her debut on the show, Vonn joined such acting rookies as Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy), Allison Janney (The West Wing), Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), Ty Burrell (Modern Family), and Andrea Bowen (Desperate Housewives), who got their starts on the show, not to mention Aida Turturro and Edie Falco from The Sopranos, whose cast was about 90 percent populated with L & O guest actors.

Goethals, 33, who starred in her own TV show, Phenom, when L & O was three years old, joins a legion of established New York actors for whom the series was like an annuity. You can't go to a Broadway show without reading Law & Order in actors' credits in the Playbill. And not just supporting actors: Patti LuPone and Elaine Stritch, among others, have stopped by. Movie notables - Cynthia Nixon and Samuel L. Jackson, for instance - have guest-starred, too.

Virtually all plot, with minimal character development, the show was also a revolving door for its regular cast: 11 lead detectives and 10 assistant district attorneys. Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston had the longest runs among the cops and lawyers, but Law & Order dream teams have been proposed that might include Chris Noth, Jesse L. Martin, Angie Harmon, Michael Moriarty, or others.

The show was a victim of its years. Despite ratings higher than The Marriage Ref, Chuck, 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation, all of which NBC renewed, Law & Order could not attract advertising dollars. According to Advertising Age, companies paid only $60,000 for 30 seconds this season, half the price, for instance, that Community fetched.

They'll be willing to pay a lot more for Law & Order: Los Angeles, which will rise this fall from the ashes of "the mother ship," just as Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent spun off it while it was still alive. SVU continues on NBC in the fall, while Criminal Intent is now an original series on NBC cable partner USA Network, showing up in reruns on the broadcast channel.

Wolf may not have the record, but he'll still have three shows on the air, able to drown his sorrows in plenty of money. There's continuing controversy on exactly how to spell that distinctive L & O DUHN-duh, but Richard Belzer, the stand-up comedian who plays Detective Munch on SVU, has identified exactly what it is: "The Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound."

Contact Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@ phillynews.com. He blogs at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

storm.