LAW AND ORDER: THE FINAL CHUNG-CHUNG

by E.C. Fish on May 15, 2010

“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

 

My emotions, such as they are, were remarkably mixed when I learned of NBC’s cancellation of the twenty year old Law and Order. Though a devoted fan from the start, it’s been years since the show fell off my DVR schedule, and despite NBC’s tendency to use the program to fill the numerous holes in its schedule post-Leno, I hadn’t watched any of this season’s episodes at all, and probably wouldn’t have watched next year’s, either. Though it was for much of its run one of the best weekly hours on television, L & O had over time metastasized (along with The Simpsons and SNL) into just one more bolus in an increasingly constipated culture, another blankie that the dominant Boomer demographic refused to let go of, a series of comforting cliches worn by repetition into the national consciousness.

And oh, what repetition. Anyone who’s been unemployed, convalescing, or otherwise involuntarily exposed to daytime television over the last decade or so can attest to the constant marathon of L&O reruns that blanket daytime cable programming. Add in the series’ franchised spin-offs–Law and Order: SVU, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, the short-lived Law and Order: Trial By Jury, as well as my own unproduced pilot script Law and Order: SUV (“In the criminal justice system, four wheel drive vehicle related offenses are considered especially heinous…”)– and its influence on a slew of other crime procedurals and their spin offs and imitators, and what was once a paragon of television turned into a giant, gelatinous megatrope.

Still, it’s almost impossible to express just what a revelation the first few seasons of Law and Order were back in the early ’90’s. Showing up at the exhausted tail end of the Reagan/ Bush era and competing in a television schedule dominated by coziness (Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Father Dowling, In The Heat of the Night) and slickness (LA Law, thirtysomething, Macgyver), Law and Order was nothing short of startling. It was grimly New York, in stark contrast to the dominant sunshiny LA paradigm, and grimly realistic in comparison to the ridiculous Hollywood fantasies of most television writing before and since. It was also impeccably produced and acted. The original cast, with George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Dann Florek, Steven Hill, Michael Moriarty, and Richard Brooks, and subsequent ringers Paul Sorvino, Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jill Hennessy, and Jerry Orbach, made up one of the strongest acting ensembles in television history (though the ensemble nature of the show eventually drove off would be prima donnas Dzundza, Sorvino, and Moriarty), and they were supported by a veritable pantheon of American stage and screen character acting week after week. The stories were refreshingly street level, unsentimental and unglamorous, and often commented satirically on the days’ events.

It was, of course, too good to last. NBC network interference resulted in the sexing up and dumbing down of the cast and concept starting in the third season (which initially brought in the still superlative Hennessy and Merkerson), with a series of supermodel types eventually replacing Hennessy, Benjamin Bratt clomping around in the too-big shoes of Noth, and Steven Hill’s bracing New York Jewish irascibility replaced by the incongruous folksy Southern cracker barrel philosophizing of conservative icon Fred Thompson. As for the setting, it is telling that L&O’s replacement on next fall’s schedule is Law and Order: LA, a seeming final triumph of Hollywood hegemony over much of what was good and different about the original series.

Nothing lasts forever, and in some ways L&O didn’t last much longer than those first few seasons. Still, L&O will continue, both in its influence, its spin-offs, and those interminable reruns. News of a possible cable run for the unseen British spin-off Law and Order: UK (Jamie Bamber! Freema Agyeman!! Bill Paterson!!!) has even this lapsed fan a bit excited.

This piece originally appeared at The Pubhouse Dialogues

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