Dubbed a “dramamentary” by its co-creators, Dick Wolf and Bill Guttentag, Law & Order: Crime & Punishment promises to deliver the long-running franchise’s drama with reality show punch. This is not “ripped from the headlines,” ladies and gentlemen. This is the headlines.
Complete with the obligatory theme song remix and gritty frame-grab intro, the series covers a new case each week. For Law & Order viewers, the formula will be familiar: the camera follows actual San Diego prosecutors and their legal and law enforcement colleagues behind the scenes as they discuss, investigate, and recreate crimes they then try in court.
Law & Order brings together the best elements of cop and courtroom shows, cutting between detectives, attorneys, victims, and perps, effectively mixing the sensational and the “accurate.” Smart writing, solid acting, and topical storylines keep the franchise lively. These series capitalize on the allure of real-life crime while glossing over complicated procedure: characters bend a few laws, make a few deals, all in the service of exciting plotlines and fast pacing.
Crime & Punishment‘s connection to “reality” is allegedly more direct, which introduces a complex set of problems. As Court TV has demonstrated, in actuality (even as it might be shaped for TV or broken into commercial-ready bits), courtroom proceedings tend to be dull and too technical for casual viewers. Attorneys’ battles are often procedural rather than distinctive; actual court cases can be sprawling and tedious. The solution here is to blend the content (real cases) with fictional plot devices and eye-catching camerawork to create a series that’s both “real” and compelling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t succeed on either count.
Consider the second episode in the current, sophomore season, a murder and arson case divided into two trials: People v. Ronald Barker and People v. Ny Nourn. Ronald Barker and Ny Nourn are accused of conspiring to murder Ny’s boss and former lover, David Stevens, in order to save their own relationship. According to evidence and case testimony, the two lured him to a remote location, shot him twice in the head, stuffed him in a car and set it ablaze. Three years later, the relationship went south and Ronald threatened to go to the police to expose Ny. But Ny beat him to the punch, giving a statement a day earlier. What ensues is predictable finger-pointing: Barker says Ny planned and drove him to it; she claims he brutalized, raped, and abused her, forcing her involvement in the murder.
The cases are presented concurrently, competing statements, confessions, and images edited against one another as the story unfolds. Even though this suggests links between the cases and compresses the proceedings in the interest of time, the strategy poses a serious problem: it’s unclear throughout whether or not the proceedings are actually separate. Rather than concentrating on the events of the cases, the audience is left disoriented, wondering whose trial they’re seeing at any given time.
The dueling stories are crucial to set up a conflict, but the poor editing and clumsy storytelling create confusion, not connections. For example, as the prosecutor builds the case against Ronald Barker — who has decided to represent himself in the trial — the camera spasmodically cuts between the prosecutor and Barker. The technique is tiresome and heavy-handed. Okay, he’s perverse. It’s disturbing. We get it.
The strangeness of the trials — owing in no small part to the strangeness of the defendants — undercuts the seriousness of the case and all but erases the victim, David Stevens. Aside from his photograph and a few fleeting shots of his grieving father in the courtroom, Stevens is invisible. The episode’s focus is elsewhere, sidetracked by the Barker’s buffoonish in-court efforts and the salacious details of Ny and Barker’s twisted relationship.
In short, it’s great reality TV. Arguably, reality programming’s appeal is not its relevance to real life or viewers’ identifications with protagonists. Rather, it depends on the “idiots on parade” factor, such that audiences can judge the objects before them. And here, despite the gravity of the cases — nearly always dealing with horrific violence and loss — Crime & Punishment seems intent, at least in part, on jumping on that bandwagon. Over the course of the episode, the narrative took a darkly comic turn and was, at times, difficult to watch, especially when we recall that this bumbling defendant is a cold-blooded killer, aided by an equally malicious female accomplice. Oh yeah. This is real.
Perhaps ironically, the other Law & Orders have conditioned the audience to expect convincing narratives rooted in enough reality — emotional, psychological, criminal, legal — to feel recognizable and seductive. Crime & Punishment tries to convey the emotional effects of real life events, but its sloppy editing, poorly conceived camera work, and sensationalist focus trivialize its subjects. Despite its serious aspirations, Crime & Punishment doesn’t do justice to its formula-setting counterparts. And that’s a real shame.