For the most part, there just is no saving a franchise like Law & Order. I used to admire the show’s writing for having complex story lines that involved fascinating questions of legal ethics. And I used to project sad romantic notions on Sam Waterston, bargaining that the best you could probably do with a man was one that ignored you, but at least had a passionate commitment to something else that you could admire. At some point, the drama went into the typical freefall of creative starvation. Knockoffs were generated to try to hone in on our fascination with series as if it were just a bunch of fetishes and cliches.
Let’s give them one that only does sex type crimes and one in which Vincent D’Onofrio plays Columbo like he’s a second away from committing a sex type crime. These “other parts” of the Law & Order office made story secondary; instead giving us character hamster wheels like Eliot Stabler. Stabler is Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet doing cop anger, righteous “this is for my daughter” cop anger, every single, stinking week. If he were someone in your life, going through that much repeated emotional extremism, you would have organized a group of friend’s with tranquilizer guns. But Stabler lives in a world with an incredibly irresponsible Human Resources department. It was during this dreary downfall that the marketing people made the unintentionally prescient slogan “Ripped From the Headlines”, which was supposed to mean fresh and topical, but really meant that that had just fired all the writers and started over with a shredder and scotch tape.
So, I had to make a special exception to my Law & Order moratorium to watch the episode of Special Victim’s Unit with Kathy Griffin. I’m a late adopter of Griffin, who I thought was a really loud lead up to a joke that never happened. Her obnoxious hillbilly lunge for fame at all costs made one think that she might be Andy Dick. Now, I see her as the perfect wiseass to have around during the firesale that is celebrity. Griffin’s episode was written with bleeding marker sarcasm. She burst through every drab little set piece, introducing herself as a rabid queer activist that represented this group of lesbians called aggressives: a whole community of women who were some combination of the Ellen Jamesians of Garp and Eileen Wuornos. I had to Google in order to found out if there really was this thriving community of “aggressives”: constantly protesting violent lesbians who wouldn’t even look at or talk to a man. As usual, Law & Order interprets culture through an Andy Rooney filter (“why can’t they just sit in chairs on the Pride Parade floats”) and the lesbian aggressive (from I can gather a lesbian who adopts fashion and mannerisms from Urban male communities) becomes a hysterical stabby mob of women dressed like big rig jockeys. Oh, plus a murder. You always have to add the plus a murder.
The episode worked mostly because Griffin acted like a kid who’d been granted the wish to play for a day in Law & Order land. She riffed through the characters with chainsaw repartee, making fun of Stabler’s big ass, playing the hysterical radical with the hair trigger sense of offense: “So I guess I should be home with my cat, sheetrocking my bedroom.” She seemed to be visibly alive on the set, which is more than you can say for actors caught in the retirement center of the franchise who must eke nuance out of their caricature tombs the way you’d eat a sheep with a straw. Every week I expect to tune in and see the cast in their bath robes, holding bowls of cereal and watching other TV shows in the background as they go through the routine: we know we have the suspect, oops I guess we didn’t, plot twist, now we know the real suspect.
With Griffin, even the missionary expectation of the plot twist (or seizure, if you prefer) worked only because she gave her performance telonovela bombast. The secret? This penis hater lesbian secretly craved penis. The big reveal was not the “aggressive” lesbian killer, but the fact that their political mouthpiece had her mouth on a piece. Sorry to be so crass, but Kathy would want it that way. Griffin’s comic turn on the show, her enthusiasm to graffiti her way through a stagey American standby, is the only way to stomach a show that incoherently upchucks cultural detritus and staple guns some subtext that supposed to amount to a message. I guess in this case it would be: angry lesbians just haven’t found the right penis and gay people are probably closeted bisexuals. All in all a good week for Law & Order, introducing threatening sexual exotics and confirming couch prawn pieties like “lezzies are just angry they don’t have a man”. The best thing you can ever say about a current Law & Order episode is that it could always be worse; it could be CSI.