With last night a pretty slow one on the health-care editing beat, this story in the NYT made me snap my eyes wide open: “Law & Order” is thisclose to cancellation. Get OUT. I thought I’d never see the day. Literally. As long as the show could continue to calve spinoffs, I thought there would always be a place somewhere on the NBC schedule for the bifurcated drama of separate but equal branches of the criminal justice system. It might dwindle down to “Law & Order: Nuisance Animals,” but dammit, it would be enriching Dick Wolf and employing east-coast actors at all levels of the food chain. It would be, as the lingo goes, part of the brand. Not having it there will take some getting used to. (And will likely never happen. I may outlive the series itself, but surely I won’t outlast syndication.)
I’ve never been a huge fan of the series — see Lance Mannion or James Wolcott for that — but I’ve watched quite a bit of it. I came to it late, when its earliest seasons were already rotating through daily syndication on A&E. It was after Kate was born; she got hungry about the time the 1 p.m. episode was coming on, so I got in the habit of watching while she nursed. (All those soft-focus pictures of mothers gazing with love at their suckling infants? Bunk. You do that for the first day. Then you catch up on your magazines.)
I soon learned the rhythms of the show, as well as its too-obvious signposts. The wry, cold open, in which two stereotypical New Yorkers stumble across a body while arguing about rent or restaurants; the first misdirection; the second misdirection; the arrest at the bottom of the hour, followed by the legal strategizing in the second half, which always finished with a wry walk-off line by D.A. Adam Schiff. I learned that if you see an actor you recognize in a seemingly minor scene early on, that’s the one who will be on trial later on. (This was a syndication thing; Wolf was pretty good about hiring good actors on the upward trajectory of their career, so just because they were better-known in 1996 didn’t mean they were in 1991, when the episode first appeared.) I enjoyed the stunts — the sweeps-month two-parters with “Homicide: Life on the Street,” most notably. For some reason those stayed in the syndication rotation, which was disconcerting; stripped of their first half, they felt orphaned.
And like everybody else, eventually I tired of it all. The flip side of such a well-run machine was numbing predictability and, worse, a certain arch smugness — L&O more or less became the self-appointed court of last resort for the endings you wanted to see in real life. Early on, the writing staff established itself as unapologetic headline-rippers, basing its fictional stories on real-life cases that didn’t end satisfactorily, and giving the public the ending it wanted. O.J., Kobe, JonBenet — they all appeared in slightly altered form, with the usual legal disclaimers. (When I was at Michigan, I sat through a few sessions of a TV-writing class with a faculty member who’d done time in the L&O writers’ room. The first order of business was to establish a file full of ripped headlines to base spec scripts on. I was astonished at how many in the class at this prestigious university couldn’t figure this one out. Here she was, giving you a license to dispense with your own imagination, and they couldn’t wrap their heads around it.)
But you have to give Dick Wolf credit for helping show business. I once read that the best and worst thing that can happen to an actor is to get cast on a soap opera — the best being the steady work that can last for years, the worst being, duh, the soap opera. I guess L&O was the upmarket version of that, although his best people rotated through pretty quickly and a few went on to greater things. I wish Sam Waterston would do something else, ditto Diane Wiest, but it’s not like anyone’s beating down the door to cast geezer actors in anything, and both have had stellar careers in film and theater. You can’t blame anyone who chooses to make a living in such a perilous business for choosing job security, and the show isn’t terrible — the earliest seasons are still my favorite, and some of the writing in those brief scenes is so tight and economical, it’s almost haiku.
But they lost me at SVU, a shameless effort to attract the same sickos who enjoy the repulsive CSI franchise. Rape simply isn’t entertaining for me. (Not like MURDER, anyway!) I get really sick of hearing about fluids.
Latest word is that the show will likely not go away; if Wolf can’t reach an agreement with NBC, he’ll be off to a cable channel. So maybe the previous 800 words don’t mean anything. But if it does, I’ve said my piece: Once I was a fan. I’m not anymore. Roll credits.
The best single episode, IMO: “The Troubles.” Argue your own case in comments.