Thursday, November 12, 2009

A day without Law & Order is a bad day

It starts with the voice-over, of course. Coolly delivered, serious. If the narrator earns royalties each time it's played, he must be pulling in eight figures.

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups..."

Then the sound. Two loud knocks, sparking a near Pavlovian response in viewers. Cut to Central Park, or Times Square, or a pizza delivery man entering a house. Random chatter between two people, followed by a gasp. A dead body. Now we see two detectives, perhaps smirking, always world-weary, annoyed with the beat cops and confused by the witness. After a quick joke about the body or the crime or the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the stiff, we're off.

When I first moved to New York, I didn't have a job and the only cable channels we got were TNT and TBS, meaning Ted Turner's empire held me hostage every weekday as I lived to hear the phrase "Up next: A Law & Order marathon." Today we have countless channels and I'm gainfully employed, but those words still spark excitement. Nothing beats hitting the menu on the TV and seeing a four-hour block of Law & Order. Occasionally, often on holidays, TNT breaks out a 12-hour marathon, an orgy of crime and punishment that I only wish lasted 20 hours.

Over the years I've also become a huge fan of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I'll watch an occasional SVU episode. But it's the mothership, one of the longest-running shows in TV history, that remains my favorite. Nearly every episode is like Game 4 of the 1987 Finals to me: no matter how many times I've seen it, and no matter when I tune in, whether it's 10 minutes into it or five minutes from the ending, I'll stop channel surfing and watch the rest of the way.

So here are some random thoughts and memories from the most persistent and omnipresent show on television, if not the finest.
* First, a complaint to TNT. The show premiered in 1990. It has been running ever since, with 22 to 24 episodes per season. Yet the past few years, nearly every rerun is from the past seven or eight seasons, meaning Chris Noth, Michael Moriarty, Jill Hennessy and even the venerable Steven Hill are almost nowhere to be seen. I like Fred Thompson's acting much more than his politics and I think he did a decent job portraying the Manhattan DA. But the show's glory years were in the 1990s. Go back to the roots, give us the best.

* Nearly every episode has a flaw that practically slaps viewers in the face, but I was somehow not sharp enough to pick up on. Only after my friend Cheri pointed it out did I realize that the following exchange, with just a few different nouns and adjectives being alternated, nearly always takes place in the first half-hour:
Detective: You didn't see anything? Around 2 p.m., at 82nd and Broadway?
Deli owner/hot dog vendor/hipster/homeless person: No, man. I told you.
Detective: A woman. Five-foot-eight, blond, maybe 130 pounds.
Deli owner/hot dog vendor/hipster/homeless person: Oh, wait a minute. There was this blond woman running past with a large gun in her hand.

These interactions nearly ruined the show for Cheri. She could barely stand to watch it for fear of the No-I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about-oh-wait-yes-I-do conversations.

* Favorite detectives: Lennie Briscoe and Mike Logan. One of the more jolting reruns that occasionally pops up is the episode where Jerry Orbach played a defense attorney. Watching that episode, nothing seems right with the world. He seemed ill-suited to the role and thankfully found a permanent home as Lennie, where he could complain about "scumbag defense attorneys" instead of portraying one. Logan returned to Criminal Intent, but he'd lost his machismo. Blame Sex and the City.

* Detective Curtis, played by Benjamin Bratt, delivered the most overused and emptiest threat. Inevitably, if a hard-scrabbled crook refused to talk, or passed on a plea bargain, Curtis would lean in real close and whisper, "You know what they do to child killers? They strap you down, stick a needle in you arm. Lethal injection, buddy." Curtis must have threatened a dozen criminals with the threat of capital punishment. The only problem is New York State hasn't executed anyone since 1963! In 2004, the New York Court of Appeals declared the death penalty unconstitutional in the state. Even before then, though, no one ever received the ultimate punishment, at least not since three months before the Kennedy assassination. A smart suspect would have called Curtis's bluff. Most, apparently unaware of recent state history, usually folded. He might as well have threatened them with a trip to the stockades.

* Creator Dick Wolf was notorious for having little problem replacing old, sometimes beloved characters. It was always entertaining seeing how he ousted the characters. Would they be killed, or perhaps disbarred for an ethics violation? Would they punch a politician, like Logan did? Did the actors have any say in how they were disposed? Probably not. The strangest exit belonged to Elisabeth Rohm's character, assistant DA Serena Southerlyn. DA Arthur Branch fires Southerlyn, supposedly because she's too sympathetic toward defendants. She asks, "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" "No. Of course not. No," Branch responds.

Fade to black, roll credits.

The moment would have made more sense and carried a greater emotional punch if, oh, her sexuality had been mentioned at any previous point in the series. It hadn't been. Meaning the first time we heard she was a lesbian was when she uttered her character's final word.

At least she didn't end up like her successor, Alexandra Borgia, who is murdered, beaten and discovered in the back of an abandoned car.

* I've seen perhaps two or three references to Inwood on the show, and I've only seen their cameras filming once in the neighborhood. Even scripted TV shows don't really think Inwood is a crucial part of Manhattan.

* Thankfully, little attention is paid to the personal lives of the characters, although that does make it more jarring when morsels of information come out, re: Serena's lesbianism.

We know Jack McCoy enjoys an occasional drink at his desk after a tough case and his "old man" was a Chicago cop, an abusive hard-ass who probably cracked some hippie skulls at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Detective Curtis's wife suffers from MS, although it only seems to come up when he's thinking of cheating on her.

"All right, act conflicted here, Benjamin. Your wife has MS. She's suffering. You're with a beautiful woman, a woman who loves brooding, Catholic cops. Bring out the emotions."

A drug dealer kills Lennie's daughter, another jolting plot twist that sort of came out of nowhere. Detective Green is probably a gambling addict. They provide decent background to the characters, but the show is about the stories and the cases, living little space for personal development.

* The best Assistant DA? My favorite was Jamie Ross, played by Carey Lowell. Angie Harmon's Abbie was a bit too intense and blood-thirsty, a conservative prosecutor who seemed like she'd be more at home in Texas railroading minority criminals into death sentences.

* Numerous actors have appeared in a variety of roles over several seasons, popping up as a defendant or lawyer. One of the best was actor Denis O'Hare. In one episode, he's a schizophrenic who kills several people with a sword. It turns out he's a brilliant man who defends himself in court. He's fine when medicated, an able adversary to McCoy. But after his sister testifies against him, he stops taking his meds and is convicted. His other memorable role is as the member of a small-town militia, who manages to hang the jury - not literally - through the strategic use of anti-government rants in the courtroom. He brilliantly portrays a madman and a guy who's just maddening. Several big-name stars appeared on the show when they were still starving actors, or at least little-known. Grey's Anatomy's Ellen Pompeo creepily played a woman who participated in her own sister's rape and murder. Early in the show's run, Cynthia Nixon portrayed a female Bernie Goetz who takes out some thugs on the subway with her gun.

* The ripped from the headlines theme gets to be a bit much. It's practically gotten to the point where I can read a story in the Post or Daily News - stripper killed by boyfriend, Sunday school teacher kills wife - and accurately predict the week it'll be co-opted as a Law & Order episode. Granted, the show always puts a different twist on the final outcome. But let the writers come up with some completely original themes and plots. That said, some of my favorite episodes are the three-part story centered around a Hollywood director who kills his wife, a plot that was so blatantly an O.J. Simpson ripoff that the only thing missing was a dim-bulb houseguest named Pato. Rip off the headlines. Maybe just not every week, for every episode.

Law & Order episodes will live forever, even if the original series doesn't. After a nuclear war, the only things that will survive will be cockroaches, plastic and Jack McCoy. I'd write more. But I think I just heard a familiar sound:


Brock said...

Great Blog! love the show! could watch all day!

Dad said...

I love it too but SVU rocks and has the best actors. When I'm not too busy I watch a couple of hours in the afternoon!!

Brock said...

when you are not to busy! hah! now that its getting colder, less golf, more SVU

Jerry said...

At least when Det. Curtis thought about cheating it was with Julia Roberts. I mean - JULIA ROBERTS! We all wished we were in his shoes at that moment...

Shawn Fury said...

Yeah, except for the fact she was sort of evil in that episode. I saw something that Curtis, Benjamin Bratt, might be making a cameo return to the show this season.

Lisa said...

Dave could watch those shows ALL day also. I like the Criminal Intent ones, but they are all good.