Friday, April 9, 2010

"Why I Love 'Law & Order'"

By being picked up for next year, Law & Order will become the longest running scripted drama in television history, its twenty-one seasons surpassing Gunsmoke’s twenty, though I suspect Gunsmoke exceeds Law & Order’s episode output, since, in Gunsmoke’s day, they made 36 to 39 episodes per season, whereas today, they only make 22 to 24 episodes, and, if you’re picked up for only half a season, 13.

Phew, that’s a long sentence. And not all that interesting. Though for those who do find it interesting, I can imagine the heated debate:

LAW & ORDER FAN: “We’re the longest running drama.”

GUNSMOKE FAN: “We made more episodes.”

LAW & ORDER FAN: “We’re the longest running drama.”

GUNSMOKE FAN: “We made more episodes.”

You can play that loop till the cows come home, after which the cows would immediately leave, because who wants to listen to that all night?

I’ve been an enormous Law & Order fan from the very beginning. I continue to watch the syndicated reruns to this very day. Often more than once a day, and often the same episode more than once, though not the same episode more than once on the same day. More on the “same episode re-watch” issue later.

(I rarely watch the two Law & Order spin-offs – Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit, being particularly put off by the latter series, beginning with its title. They’re not special victims, they're “Horribly Sexually Abused Victims”, though that doesn’t quite “sing” like “Special Victims.” It’s like the show’s selling point: “If you like victims, you’ll love the special victims.”)

I was working at Universal Studios at the time Law & Order was created there, so I know a little about the back-story. Apparently, in the late eighties, hour shows were not selling well in syndication. The then studio boss was therefore intrigued by the idea of a drama, whose single-story episodes could be split into half-hour segments, thus making them easier to sell.

Out of this business necessity came Law & Order, offering two separate components of the same half-hour story – the first component concentrating on “law” (the police investigation) and the second on “order” (the trial). At some point, however, the “splitting the episode” experiment was abandoned, and the show was delivered intact in its now familiar one-hour format.

(One other semi-interesting factoid to round out the story. The “law and order” concept had already been done. It was called Arrest and Trial. The main difference was that each episode of Arrest and Trial lasted ninety minutes. The series ran for one season.)

Why do I love Law & Order? Is it because of the “ripped from the headlines” storylines? No. The “ripped from the headlines” episodes are my least favorite and, in my view, the show’s least successful offerings.

Is it the suspense? Despite how it’s promoted on television, Law & Order has little to do with “Cracking the case.” Invariably, the person arrested near the middle of the episode committed the crime.

Is it the “clank-clank” music they play to bridge the scenes? I like the “clank-clank” music – it seems to fit – it sounds like prison bars clanking shut. The “clank-clank” music is indeed an enhancing effect; but I wouldn’t want to listen to an hour of it, let alone twenty-one seasons. Three or four “clank-clanks” per episode is about all I can handle.

Is it the show’s acting that I appreciate? The series’ regulars’ acting has been, generally, uneven and is, to a large degree, irrelevant. The show is the star. Over the years, Law & Order has regularly changed its continuing cast members, indicating that even the producer doesn’t care who’s in it. As long as they’re cheap.

(Parenthetically, in the late eighties, Universal dispatched me to New York to try and persuade longtime Law & Order regular, and fine actor, Sam Waterston, to star in a comedy pilot I was making called Family Man. Waterston seemed genuinely interested, but he ultimately turned us down. Which proved to be a good thing, because, during his sixteen-year tenure on Law & Order, Waterston has never made me laugh once.)

I love Law & Order because of the arguments. In the end, the tension on Law & Order depends not on their tracking down the perpetrator – they invariably do – but rather on whether or not the protagonists – the New York District Attorneys’ Office – can successfully make their case to the jury.

Our interest is held till the last minute, because – and this is what’s great about Law & Order when it’s at its best – the arguments are written in a skillful and carefully considered manner. The audience may know the defendant is guilty – being privy to information that’s been ruled “inadmissible” in the trial – but there is no way of our determining which of the opposing lawyers' arguments the jury will buy.

The jury's decision involves more than their simply applying the law. In virtually every episode, you have longstanding legal concerns – for example, you’re not allowed to kill people – going head to head with emotional issues.

For example, a light-skinned black attorney, passing for white at some snooty law firm, kills someone who’s threatening to expose his secret. His lawyer argues for a ruling of “Temporary Insanity, due to ‘Race Rage.’” We’re aware of our country’s history of discrimination. If this discrimination did not exist, the defendant would have had no need to conceal his racial identity. However, given the, arguably, still-present climate of inequality, his client, argues his attorney, was compelled to act the way he did.

Sometimes, it’s the D.A’s office that plays the “emotion” card. A gun manufacturer makes a rifle that, though legal, can be easily converted into a more deadly assault weapon, which is not legal. The D.A. puts the gun manufacturer on trial, calling them a cold-hearted menace to public safety. The gun manufacturer’s attorney claims that his client’s actions were entirely within the law.

In every episode, Law & Order’s suspense hangs not the question of innocence or guilt, but on

How will the jury decide?

One final factor that keeps me returning to Law & Order reruns. Remember when I said, “More about the ‘same episode re-watch’ issue later”? This is “later.” So here we go.

I watch the same episodes of Law & Order over and over for a very simple reason. As many times as I’ve seen them, I almost never remember how they turn out. Credit for my forgetting can be explained by the reasonable and even-handed manner in which the cases are presented. Though it could also be a matter of advancing age.

Enjoying multiple viewings of the same episode – one of the meager blessings of a deteriorating mind.

Though I wouldn’t have watched once, if I didn’t love the arguments.


growingupartists said...

Look lawyer. AND writer.

cb said...

On the SVU name : the unit on which SVU is based is in New York. It is the Sex Crimes Unit, but NBC nixed the title due to concerns that it was too..whatever.

Pidge said...

I love the show because even if you tune in half way through, you can figure out what's going on immediately and enjoy the rest of the show. I, too, never remember how the story ends, so can enjoy the same episode, over and over. I find the other offshoots ok, but not as interesting and too salacious and sensational. I reallly miss Jerry Orbach.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you on the sister shows. Both suffer from...well"sub par" writing I guess is the polite way of saying it. And given the long running original, it also sometimes lacks some logical/emotional threads although it remains watchable.

Bob Chesson

Matt Patton said...

LAW AND ORDER was a really good show for the first four or five seasons, when it not only delivered good stories, but delivered good stories about the moral ambiguities and complications of law enforcement and they way that police and courts are often forced to deal with problems that other sectors of society should have. I realize that going out while everybody involved is drowning in money and applause is difficult, but several of the best shows I can think of did just that, instead of petering out to become a shadow of themselves.