[9 December 2008]
If you had a kid the day Law & Order premiered, it’s 18-years-old now. There are real cops who started their careers and retired in the time Law & Order has been on the air. In fact, the only things that’ll survive the apocalypse are cockroaches, Twinkies, and Law & Order.
Considering the show is in its 19th season and spawned roughly 32 spin-offs (including one, Law & Order Special Victims Unit that’s been on for a decade), it’s easy to forget how novel the show was when it started. The notion of taking a crime, from discovery to prosecution, and splitting each 47-minute episode into two halves, one covering the police’s role, the other, the court’s, was a daring approach to crime dramas, which often focused on only one or the other.
Then, slowly but surely, Law & Order became the model shows messed with. There was Boomtown which covered a crime from different perspectives, Homicide which was a grittier version of Law & Order set in Baltimore, and The Wire which proved you could do seasons of police procedural centered on a single case.
But Law & Order, particularly during the mid-‘90s, had an astounding run of genre-setting episodes. In season six, collected here on DVD, the cases began to center around the emerging Internet amid the usual stand-bys (racial attacks, family issues, etc.), and began to show the impact working on an endless amount of cases has on the prosecutors and the cops alike. And coupled with a Homicide crossover, it’s one the strongest Law & Order seasons.
Season six opens with the introduction of Rey Curtis (played by Benjamin Bratt) who is replacing Chris Noth’s Mike Logan, who has been suspended indefinitely from the force (later to re-join for a run on Law & Order Criminal Intent). Curtis is tossed into the rotation quickly with wisecracking elder detective Lennie Briscoe (played by the wonderful Jerry Orbach). Curtis and Briscoe are quite literally two different generations of detectives working together, and a lot of the earlier cases of the season center around Curtis trying to learn how to carry himself as a homicide police, and Briscoe trying to learn about computers, cell phones, and not drinking on the job.
When Briscoe and Curtis catch the criminals they’re looking for (they invariably always do, otherwise the show would be called simply ‘Law’), they hand the cases off to assistant district attorney Jack McCoy (played by Sam Waterston) and his assistant Claire Kincaid (played by Jill Hennessey) who are directed to get cases done as quickly as possible the crotchety district attorney, Adam Schiff (Steven Hill).
The format is always the same: Briscoe and Curtis spend 23-minutes finding the person who murdered the dead person found at the beginning, and McCoy and Kincaid send them to jail. There’s a lot that could go wrong in between (lying witnesses, frame jobs, insanity pleas, etc.), and it often does.
A handful of the 23 cases in season six are centered on Internet crimes (like a guy harassing a woman on a message board, whether or not writing online constitutes free speech), which at first blush could seem outdated. It strikes you as utterly hilarious when Briscoe complains about why anyone would want a cell phone or talk on the Internet, but that ends up being less the focus than a funny little part that dates the episode: the cases are always timeless and entertaining.
The middle of the season is blessed by a crossover with Homicide when a racist bomber from Baltimore releases poison gas on a train in New York, leading to a joint investigation with the detectives and prosecutors from both shows going after one criminal. The first part of the two part crossover is present in the set as a Law & Order episode, and the set’s only special feature is the Homicide episode that ends the case. But the results are more akin to Homicide’s modus operandi: the criminal kills himself before he can be prosecuted, leaving the detectives feeling they’re barely making a dent in the violent crime rate.
The season six finale is one of the better Law & Orders to air, as it delves deeper into the psyche of the players involved. The episode opens in the state prison where Briscoe, Curtis, Kincaid and McCoy are watching the execution of a guy they convicted for rape/murder. The four people handle the situation differently—Briscoe gets super-bummed out, and coupled with his daughter, from whom he is estranged, telling him he did a bad job raising her, starts drinking again. Curtis gets stressed out and cheats on his wife— rather shocking, given his principles. McCoy passes the day drinking and reflecting on his life. Kincaid struggles to rectify her personal beliefs of being anti-death penalty, and the duties of her job.
The episode cracks through the “find the bad guys and convict ‘em” façade, and presents the characters of the show as people who are struggling with their personal lives and their professional ones. It proves that the crossover with Homicide rubbed some of that show’s desperation onto Law & Order.
Season six ends with a cliff hanger that finds Kincaid and Briscoe involved in a car accident, proving Law and Order is capable of high dramatics in addition to their old formula. Kincaid dies from the crash, but at the time, it was the most shocking way for a cast member to leave the show, until a latter D.A. is murdered.
Overall, the sixth season of Law & Order is one of the strongest of the series, and is the beginning of a run of greatness for the show (that may not have tapered, except for the seasons where Dennis Farina was the star). The ubiquity of these episodes in syndication may lessen their collective impact, but this set highlights a show that has been often imitated, but never matched.