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Law & Order

Cast: Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer, Dann Florek, Ice-T, B.D. Wong, Diane Neal, Tamara Tunie
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET

(NBC)

Ripped from the Headlines

“I


n the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups.” Thus begins every episode of Law & Order, television’s longest-running drama. Refining down the ever-popular Cop Show and Lawyer Show concepts, creator Dick Wolf brought forth from the ashes an anthology crime series unlike any other, one that follows a felony from its discovery to the jury’s decision… and then does it over again in the next episode. Same time, same channel. Different victim, different perp.


And now, Law & Order is back, again. Its twelfth season began on September 26, with another imaginative crime, this time, homicide by pooch. Seems that someone is teaching dogs to kill each other in an underground dogfight racket. As the episode begins, it appears that, a result of all its abuse and conditioning, one renegade has killed not only another of its kind, but the victim-dog’s owner as well. This is how the “law” gets in on the act. Then along comes the “order,” the lawyers, who bring the poor dog into the courtroom fitted with a Hannibal Lecter-style muzzle, looking for all the world like it might crave fava beans and Chianti at any moment. All in all, it’s another day at the office for our boys in blue (well, boys in suits, really) and their law school-graduate counterparts. Another day of practically true-life crime and, it is to be hoped, punishment. Which just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the very same.


The 2001 premiere was an episode like many others, hearkening back to the days of original protagonists Detective Mike Logan (Chris Noth) and his partner, Max Greevey (George Dzundza). Good Irish Catholic boys (like most of the folks to be found in New York’s gritty finest, if this show is to be believed) they, too, would investigate grisly murders of the tabloid kind, and with the help of their sarcastic captain, Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), would at last identify the guilty. Then along would come the Assistant District Attorney, Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and his assistant, Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks), and all too often find that just because they had their collar, didn’t mean they had their man. Bad guys would get off, get deals, or get dead, and the second half-hour of the show would run the gamut, from ethical dilemmas to legal posturing to pithy epigrams that summed up the moral of the story.


Over time, those five purveyors of law and/or order moved on up and others moved in, but still, the course of true justice never runs smooth. Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino), replaced Greevey, and then Anita van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) replaced Cragen. Then Cerreta got shot and Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach, perhaps otherwise best known as Baby’s Dad from Dirty Dancing) took over the role as wisecracking veteran to first Logan, and then Det. Reynaldo Curtis Benjamin Bratt). With one partner now Mr. Big and the other starring in Sandra Bullock movies, Briscoe must wonder when new guy Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) will be selling out shows on Broadway.


With the rest of the cast in a state of perpetual flux, it was always good to be able to depend upon the venerable presence of longest serving alumnus, District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). Although he was only in a few scenes per episode, and his actual case-trying days were long behind him, Schiff’ ironclad convictions and biting irony made him a comforting constant in an uncertain world. But then he was traded in last season for Academy Award winner Dianne Weist as DA Nora Lewin, and he is now, we are told, negotiating reparations for Holocaust survivors in Vienna.


Well, at least he wasn’t killed, which was the fate of poor ADA Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennesy). Supplanting Robinette as Stone’s helpmeet, she was inherited by Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) when he took over the office. He brought with him a certain reputation for affairs with his subordinates, and Kincaid was a beautiful brunette (as are many female ADAs, apparently), with firm opinions on equality and no fear of taking her superiors to task. She announced she was leaving at the end of the seventh season, and appeared to die in a car accident not long after.


Whether Claire and Jack were ever romantically involved is still a matter of some speculation and debate among fans of the show, very Mulder and Scully. They shared inferences, gestures, tender looks, and intimate dinners, but whether or not they ever really hooked up is a question that has never been definitively answered. And therein lies the essence of what makes this such compelling drama. Certainly, we know these Law & Order characters, all their forcefulness and frailty. But it is precisely because we get no exposition about their histories or exhaustive details about their personal lives that they become fascinating. When the backstory (even current story) of a main character is only revealed in random comments and reactions, the added dimension of mystery can only heighten our interest. Were Logan and the lovely Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick) an item, as her witness box confirmation of a “personal relationship” might suggest? Are McCoy and Jamie Ross (Cary Lowell), another assistant, continuing a relationship, or did he perhaps take up with the next brunette, Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon)? We have no idea. Indeed, the death of Claire Kincaid was only confirmed by a sad-eyed McCoy after years of viewer conjecture as to her fate.


In stark contrast to so many other shows of its crime-fighting ilk, Law & Order has not devolved into soap opera. It is first and foremost a study of contemporary society, of crime and justice and what those concepts mean in our modern, Court TV-fueled age. It’s about the crimes, and not about the people who investigate them. Plus, it offers no easy answers. Life isn’t fair and the good guys don’t always triumph. Some villains are not so villainous, some crimes seem almost justified, and right doesn’t always prevail. Or at all. Witnesses are impossible (Logan: “It’s just like the Gospels—four guys telling the same story and they’re all different”), juries are manipulable, and the press is a rabid dog that can ruin a crime scene, a life, and a perfectly good prosecution. Like Adam Schiff once said: “Utopia’s a small town upstate, with a different zip code from the criminal justice system.”


Even as most crime shows deplore the evil that men do, they at times also celebrate it. Law & Order does not make this mistake. Though it frequently, and most chillingly, tells tales of true crime—the monstrous pit bull is the most recent example—it also treats them with the dread, indeed, the disgust they deserve. It is essential viewing if for no other reason than it reaches through the desensitising lens of media frenzy to the human cost that lies beneath. It reminds us that there can be no excuses for murder, no reasons or rationale for those who commit it… no matter how many interviews they give or best-selling tell-all books they release. Law & Order refuses to glamorise its subject matter, despite its often glamorous stars. Its progeny, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and the fall-premiering Law & Order: Criminal Intent, expand upon its themes in many ways. In SVU, we’ve even seen inside the lead investigators’ homes and CI gives us insights from the wrong-doer’s point of view, but the original will always be the best. The only minor concern is that, after eleven successful seasons (and with a guaranteed run through the year 2005), plus the demands of the other two shows in the triumvirate, the folks at Creepy Murder Plot Headquarters might run out of the various permutations of sin that people can commit.


But with a new ADA—a blonde, this time, rejoicing in the name of Serena Southerlyn (played by Elisabeth Rohm, last seen as strung-out cop Kate Lockley on the WB’s Angel)—a new show (CI) for in-house cross-over episodes, and a lot of old laws to be broken and re-broken, the future looks bright (if not exactly rosy) for the folks of Law & Order. Besides, who knows? Maybe the cast will be exactly the same at the end of this season. If that’s not a new twist for the show to deliver its fans, then nothing is.

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