Law & Order / Law & Order: Special Victims Unit / Law & Order: Criminal Intent

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

Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET (NBC)
Cast: Vincent D’Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe, Jamey Sheridan, Courtney B. Vance

by Lesley Smith

Law & Order

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Law & Order: Criminal Intent

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Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise launched its 2004 premiere episodes on 21 September, with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In recent years the premieres have strained for significance, as if determined to prove that the topicality claimed in the “ripped from the headlines” tag-line was no idle boast. The storylines this season are no exception. They featured the war in Iraq, the abuse of Iraqi detainees, the threat of shock jocks, and a brand new plot — married NYC firefighters starting again, with the wives of comrades who died on 9/11.

Despite these efforts, the week’s most disturbing moment did not come from New York Post-style sensation. Instead, it came from an admission by Detective Robert Goren (Vincent d’Onofrio) in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, that seismically shifted our knowledge of the character. When emotional insight and psychological veracity win out over sensationalism, hope flares once more that network drama might still be willing to appeal to adults.

For the last three years, Law & Order (now entering its 16th season) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (sixth season) have been running on automatic pilot for much of their runs. Last season, even Criminal Intent (entering its fourth year) seemed content with ho-hum plots, relying on the strangeness of Goren. A look back over the last decade suggests Wolf and his writers have fallen into a sclerotic pattern of casting and character structure. It holds women in supporting roles, and traps male characters into predictable interactions. A once successful formula now verges on the tediously formulaic.

The SVU premiere concerned the duplicity of a fertility doctor, hackneyed territory visited previously in the series’ different incarnations. This particular malevolent medic stored embryos from Michele (delicately played by guest star Lea Thompson) and implanted them in other women. The grieving mother of a kidnapped child, poor Michele had thought these were destroyed. Through sheer serendipity, she sees a girl she believes is her missing child, only to learn that she was born from one of the stored embryos to another woman.

Though the question of how one defines mother (and father) is critical during this era of technological reproduction, the episode eclipsed the legal complexities in favor of one silly plot point after another. The first child wasn’t kidnapped after all, but died in a fatal car crash with her father. The mother is unbalanced. No, she’s sane. She rescinds her claim on her newly found daughter. Then she kidnaps her. Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) instructs ADA Novak (Diane Neal) on the judgment of Solomon. He’s fast becoming an ur-authority on parental psychology, as well as the series’ emotional center, taking on the role once inhabited by his partner, Olivia (Mariska Hargitay), now the only woman investigator in SVU.

The episode’s final twist was so typically Law & Order that it was almost self-parodic: the dastardly doctor had implanted four more embryos. By this time, any reasonably sensitive viewer would have succumbed so thoroughly to revelation fatigue that he or she would never want to hear about the issue again. This is exactly the opposite reaction to that elicited by the series’ early episodes, when the aftertaste lingered disturbingly for hours and sometimes days after the closing credits.

The departure from Law & Order of longtime senior cop Lenny Briscoe (11-year L&O veteran Jerry Orbach, soon to re-appear on this season’s franchise extension, Law & Order: Trial by Jury) offered an opportunity to re-invigorate the series, which faced two serious problems. First, the cop partnerships have fallen off since the departure of Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) in 1999. Tensions between loyalty and deeply held personal views, once played out in the nitty-gritty of investigative foot-slogging, are now largely absent. The fault doesn’t lie solely with Jesse L. Martin, who plays Detective Ed. Green. While he is one of the most affectless actors on primetime television, the character has been written only as a younger, hipper foil to Briscoe.

Second, the show has remained male-dominated. The female ADA who works with Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) — consistent since the arrival of Jill Hennessey in 1993 as Claire Kincaid — remains secondary, no matter who plays her (the pattern is so repetitive that it prompted one recent contributor to the Law & Order forum to complain, “ADA — Tired of the Babes”).

The arrival of Dennis Farina as yet another senior unreconstructed cop (casually racist, possibly sexist) is a major disappointment. Reprising his well-dressed wise-guy shtick, Farina was introduced during back-to-back premiere episodes. In the first, an Iraqi woman (Sarita Choudhury), apparently happily married to an American oil executive, murders a female soldier returned from Baghdad prison guard duty who may have, but probably didn’t, torture the Iraqi woman’s brother. Various characters voice the current mainstream views about the war in Iraq, and the guilty verdict is a no-brainer. The second was even less interesting, using a ferry crash to set up a fireman’s familial troubles, then offering only another more troll through adultery, money, retribution, and death.

The one place in the franchise where plot and character development are not yet on life support is Law & Order: Criminal Intent. D’Onofrio plays Goren superbly, as a jittery autodidact so deeply aware of his own psychological fragility that he has simply abandoned any emotional life outside his own insights into the motivations of major criminals. While the other Law & Orders depend upon the interactions of ensemble casts, CI focuses on one singular mind at work within a supportive, but very small and subsidiary team. The flat lighting and dialogue-driven plots recall the Law & Orders of the early ’90s, where tight budgets kept extras, action sequences, and guest spots to a minimum, and tensions derived from a constant teasing of audience expectations through conflicts between knowledge of the characters and the exigencies of the law.

Through nothing more spectacular than this, the premiere of CI provided one of the most satisfying viewing experiences of this season. Pursuing the killer of an obnoxious radio host with drug problems, a soon to be ex-wife, and major depression, not to mention a panoply of “fans,” Goren and his partner Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) narrow their focus to a nurse at the detox clinic the radio host once attended. Goren slips into his routine — what Eames calls “playing” the suspect — pretending friendship, trying to gain her confidence, even meeting her alone.

As viewers wait for what might be the first misstep by the professionally perfectionist Goren, the “play” comes to fruition in the breakdown and arrest of the suspect. So far, so conventional — until the episode’s end, when the murderer turns to Goren and berates him for letting her be arrested, claiming that she saw in his eyes that he really cared for her. Instead of the usual smirk and ruthless put-down, Goren says, “I didn’t mean for you to see that.” The self-recognition of both vulnerability and aberrance provided a truly moving moment, where the abyss forever at Goren’s feet opened at those of the viewer.

The quality of such scenes suggests the franchise could produce engaging drama on a regular basis. The fact that this moment came from a very atypical Law & Order character suggests the direction in which the series (plural) should move. The fact that Farina replaced Orbach suggests this is unlikely.

It’s hard to fault these series for marginalizing women, as almost every other cop show (and all the CSI series) do the same. (Even Cold Case, which initially revolved around Lilly Rush [luminous Kathryn Morris], has added a younger male partner.) Juggling the sexual balance of the Law & Orders could start to kick the commonplace out of the shows. And as they film in NYC, the producers could pull onto the screen an extraordinary range of first-rate actors to embody such complex roles. But on the evidence of premiere week, no one should hold her breath.