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.

Posted at 10:48 am in Television |

41 responses to “L&O.”

  1. Jeff Borden said on May 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Most shows lose their way and run a few years too long. “L&O” is no different. I think the overall body of work, however, remains consistently strong and entertaining. For me, the show peaked with Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe, the quintessential New Yorker who’d seen it all and kept his demons at bay with biting wit and ex-wife jokes. There was something very real about his performance. . .the smart mouth and jaded attitude overlaying his battle to stay sober and sane.

    The best episode, to me, was one that had nothing to do with law or order. I don’t recall the set-up, but something bad and wrong had happened. Jack McCoy wound up in a bar, where he had a deep conversation with another guy that revealed some raw emotions that suggested the talk could easily degenerate into a brawl. Lennie fell off the wagon and was deeply in his cups at another bar. Claire Kincaid (the phantasmogorically beautiful Jill Hennessy) tracked down Lennie and was driving him home when her car was T-boned by another vehicle, snuffing out her life.

    It was heavy shit. Great writing. Great performances. An ending that was shocking and sad. It was some fine, fine television.

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  2. Laura Lippman said on May 14, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Does anyone want to call bullshit on that 8,000 employed figure, directly and indirectly. Unless it includes every clerk who waits on every employee and every single actor who has ever appeared on the show, it sounds really high to me. But I could be wrong and would be happy to be set straight.

    ETA: In our household, L&O:SVU is known as Law & Order: Little Girls Panties. I hasten to add that this coinage was mine, lest anyone think that my better half would be critical of Dick Wolf. He’s not.

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  3. KLG said on May 14, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Jerry Orbach was the reason to watch the show after Michael Moriarty quit after throwing a stupid fit about censorship. Jill Hennessy was great and that particular episode (I think the set-up was about witnessing the execution of a convicted murderer?) may have been the beginning of a very long ending. It was impossible to willingly suspend disbelief with Angie Harmon, who couldn’t act her way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

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  4. nancy said on May 14, 2010 at 11:28 am

    It sounded high to me, too, but “and indirectly” covers a lot of waffling, sort of like those economic-impact figures you hear when some billionaire wants a city to build him a stadium.

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  5. crinoidgirl said on May 14, 2010 at 11:40 am

    My partner insists on watching every L&O, even the repeats (which she has seen multiple times), but I cannot stomach SVU. I have to leave the room.

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  6. Chris said on May 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I’ve always been a L&O fan, but I’m with Jeff Borden. It hasn’t been the same without Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe. But then I also liked Chris Noth’s Logan better than anyone else who followed him.

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  7. LAMary said on May 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Angie Harmon was bad, but Elisabeth Rohm was worse.

    My friends, the Van Treuren brothers, have each been cast on Law and Order SVU. They’re Broadway actors. Martin Van Treuren was on an episode called Taboo, and James Van Treuren was on an episode called Head. One played a professor and the other played a teacher. I always watch those episodes if I see they’re on.

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  8. Chris said on May 14, 2010 at 11:47 am

    There may be some male-female disagreement on Angie Harmon. Whooo. Just her voice alone was a turn on.

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  9. LAMary said on May 14, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Jerry Orbach was the best cop they’ve had. Paul Sorvino wasn’t bad either.

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  10. 4dbirds said on May 14, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Diane Wiest graduated with my sister from Nurnburg American High School. Diane was the prom queen. I’m ten years younger than my sister and I would stare at the the yearbook picture of the prom king and queen and even drew a necklace and tiara on Diane. My sister had a fit when she saw that, screaming I’d ruined her yearbook. Years later after Diane became famous, my sister and I laughed about it.

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  11. bobolink said on May 14, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    my L&O story. When I was expecting my third child I was a L&O junkie watching the reruns at 10 cst and hitting the jackpot on Wednesdays when the new episode would precede the rerun at 9. my husband would say I wouldn’t be so tired all the time if I didn’t stay up to watch it all. (yeah.) Anyway, fast forward to the birthday and the baby came fast, 18 minutes from ER to it’s a girl. they rushed me into a L&D room shooing out the cleaning crew which left the tv on. Just as they got my daughter stabilized, in the background, the familiar boom, boom, da, boom.

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  12. beb said on May 14, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    When I see the number of people who get a line credit on some of the animated films today I’m astonished. And that’s for one 90 minute movie. 8000 people fully or partial employeed by L&O? That seems entirely possible.

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  13. Peter said on May 14, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Sure, it’s biased, but my favorite episode was the architect who died at the train station and was found out to have a wife and not one but two mistresses, complete with families. I called bullshit on that, and then I find out that not only was it true, but it was Louis Kahn! That guy was oh my god ugly. On a good day.

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  14. ROgirl said on May 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Lenny Briscoe was the best.

    I lost interest for a while, but I have to say that the current cast is pretty good and the Lt. Van Buren cancer story has been strong without resorting to sentimentality. S. Epatha Merkerson was given a great exit storyline (btw, she’s a graduate of Wayne State University and she was wonderful in Lackawanna Blues), and if the show ends now we’ll never find out who her replacement would be.

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  15. Julie Robinson said on May 14, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    For some reason I love reading detective books but have never been a fan of the whole procedurals genre. I’ve never watched a single episode of L&O or CSI in any of their permutations. But I know how many NYC actors have depended on them while trying to get in a Broadway show, so I’m sorry if that income source will be drying up for them.

    We caught the last part of The Office last night while waiting for 30 Rock, and I believe it has jumped the shark. Anyone else?

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  16. Laura Lippman said on May 14, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Yes, the 8000 number seems possible if one includes everyone who ever had a single line. And day players. But how many industries get to claim all employees, past and present, when speaking of its economic impact? I just asked a producer I found lingering in my kitchen how many people work on his show and he estimated there are fewer than 200 salaried employees.

    Years ago, I found myself standing next to Angie Harmon in a valet line. I mentioned this to my father, an L&O junkie of the first order, but not a man given to gushiness. “Did you speak to her?” he asked. No, I said, I couldn’t think of anything to say. He said: “You could have said, ‘My father really, really likes you.'”

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  17. Jolene said on May 14, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I’ve spent an embarrassing portion of my life watching the various L&Os. Agree that Angie Harmon and Sabrina Rohm were the most wooden actresses ever, although, as Chris says, Harmon’s acting chops may not be what got her the job.

    Although it’s formulaic, I’m still impressed with what, in the better episodes, they manage to accomplish in an hour (or however many minutes of actual show there are). It can’t be easy to fit the crime, the investigation, and the trial into that amount of time. Takes some careful thinking to figure out exactly what the audience needs to know and establish some degree of sympathy for the characters in that amount of time. That said, I would pay money never to hear “ripped from the headlines” again. C’mon people, use some imagination!

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  18. Peter said on May 14, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    NY Times just confirmed that it has formally been cancelled.

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  19. deb said on May 14, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Laura, like that wouldn’t have creeped her out.

    Jeff, I immediately thought of the same episode. KLG is right — all this bad stuff went down after they watched an execution. (Benjamin Bratt’s character went off the rails by having a steamy fling with some random but compelling girl he’d just met.) The whole thing was brilliant.

    The ending was shocking, but as a viewer, I was not sorry to see Jill Hennessy go. Her acting was terrible. Angie Harmon was a huge improvement.

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  20. Jolene said on May 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    One more thing: One of the kicks about watching L&O is seeing people in bit parts or even fairly large parts who are now known for entirely different things. Steven Colbert and Rob Corddry, for instance, have both been bad guys, and it seems like I’ve seen other Daily Show regulars too. Ed Helms, maybe.

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  21. Jeff Borden said on May 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm


    I forgot about the transgressions of Bratt’s character, who was always the happily married ying to Lennie’s cynical divorced guy yang. It was an amazing episode, though I will respectfully differ with your assessments of Hennessy vs. Harmon. Hennessy had the beautiful, well-educated at all the right schools, dressed in very expensive but very conservative clothing, WASP vibe down to a T.

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  22. Bruce Fields said on May 14, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Looks like http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098844/fullcredits lists about 3000 names. (From curl http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098844/fullcredits | sed “s/>/>\n/g” |grep ‘/name/’ |sed ‘s/^.*href=\”\([^”]*\)\”.*$/\1/g’|sort|uniq|wc -l, which gives 3088.)

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  23. brian stouder said on May 14, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I’m enjoying this discussion, even though I’ve never watched these shows (my lovely wife and in-laws enjoy them immensely, though, and discuss them quite as much as we, here, are). Isn’t it fascinating how women (as in Hennessy versus Harmon) cause the most passionate disagreements? Take for example this “Ripped from the headlines” story from today, regarding the woman who flirted with the president, when he stopped for lunch the other day –


    In less time than it takes to say “extra crispy,” the formerly anonymous 45-year-old was on big-time news sites around the world. The New York Times blogged about her. The New York Daily News wrote a feature. The New York Post turned an off-the-cuff comment into the headline: “Buffalo woman stuns Obama with spicy pickup line.” Jay Leno got into the act and fired off a joke about her. Someone dubbed her the “Buffalo cougar.” Twitterers passed the story around, and people began leaping to the conclusion that Haley was a publicity hound, a jerk, a loose woman, a “classless tramp” or all of the above.

    But the part of the story that makes my heart absolutley go out to her is this:

    She told NBC News in Buffalo Thursday that she’d already had more publicity than she wanted. “People tell me I should think before I open my mouth,” she admitted. Among those who say that is her teenage daughter. “She yelled at me,” Haley said. “She said I embarrassed her. I was just being funny.”

    I could be wrong, but if some idiotic man (like me) made a similar joke with the First Lady, there wouldn’t be nearly the divided reaction; there’d be no passion.

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  24. moe99 said on May 14, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I too have to admit that I have never seen a full episode of L&O. I was saving all this tv for retirement at the old folks’ home. Oh well….

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  25. Deborah said on May 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Peter, Louis Kahn may have been ugly (he was horribly burned as a young child) but oh my God was that man talented. Far and away my favorite architect. If you’ve ever been to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, you know what I mean. I cry every time I see the movie made by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, called “My Architect”. For those not familiar, Nathaniel was the son of Louis’s mistress and he had a daughter by another mistress before that. Both of these women were architects and were probably bowled over by his talent and intellect, not his looks. He died in a restroom in Penn Station on his way back from India where he designed a masterpiece, they almost buried him in a pauper’s grave because he had blacked out his address on his driver’s license for some reason. His business was nearly bankrupt by that time, even though he was a design genius.

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  26. paddyo' said on May 14, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    I stopped watching “L&O” when it began to spin off into, well, so many spinoffs. But boy, the first few years were pretty good. I agree, LAMary, Paul Sorvino was quite a cop (particularly when you think about him as a steely-eyed, pre-Sopranos mobster in “Goodfellas” AND, BTW, in the not-half-bad Tom Cruise flick, “The Firm”). The cross-pollinated episodes with “Homicide: Life on the Street” also were quite good (Richard Belzer!). And Chris Noth, infinitely better than “Big” in “Sex & The City” . . .

    I also remember being bemused when Dann Florek came to L&O early on, fresh from his recurring role as the clown of a husband to long-suffering secretary Roxanne Melman on another big ’80s fave, “L.A. Law.” It took a while to see him as not-a-goofball . . .

    “CSI,” which I don’t watch, seems to have inherited the L&O mantle, complete with spinoffitude . . .

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  27. Dexter said on May 14, 2010 at 5:00 pm


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  28. Jolene said on May 14, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Just remembered: The wonderful Michael Kinsley has an essay re the (to him) inexplicable appeal of L&O re-runs. To find it, google “Kinsley” and “law and order”. (Can’t link cuz I’m typing on my phone.)

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  29. Deborah said on May 14, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    My favorite part of L&O is the Doink Doink sound


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  30. paddyo' said on May 14, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Love the “doink!” sound . . . I’m sure this must’ve happened at other ballparks, but some years ago, the Colorado Rockies began to use it over the P.A. system as the “punch-out” sound whenever a Rox pitcher struck out an opposing batter. Haven’t been to a game in a year now, and frankly don’t recall now if it’s still in use.

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  31. Jen said on May 14, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    I never watched the original L&O. I have, however, watched several episodes of “Law & Order: SVU,” because my college roommates loved it, and it creeped me out to no end. I can stomach a lot of things, but I agree with Nancy that rape and sexual assault is not entertaining. *shudder*

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  32. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on May 14, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    I think of “cha-ching” as in the register rings up another sale . . .

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  33. Denice B. said on May 15, 2010 at 12:53 am

    My favorite was ‘L&O Criminal Intent’. I loved Vincent D’Orfenio (?) as Robert Goren. He always seemed to walk the tightrope between genius and insanity. Just waiting for him to snap. Now we have Jeff Goldbloom. It’s pretty good, but I want Goren and Eames back… I think I’ve seen them all by now. Doink Doink!!!

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  34. Dexter said on May 16, 2010 at 3:02 am


    Graffitti in Detroit by banksy

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  35. Deborah said on May 16, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Greetings from Abiquiu New Mexico.
    I love Banksy, interesting twist on the story, Dexter. I expected it to be about people objecting to Banksy’s graffiti, not that they were upset about moving it. I like Shephard Fairey (spelling?) too. He’s the guy who did Obey Giant and of course the Obama Hope image, among others. Interesting how outsider artists have become mainstream.

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  36. LAMary said on May 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm


    I think he’s gay.

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  37. Kirk said on May 16, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    The way he handled that shootin’ iron was a dead giveaway.

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  38. Deborah said on May 16, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    The way he says “Why” is hilarious, “Whaaaa”.

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  39. brian stouder said on May 17, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Mary – that was funny! And what was he running for, with his long gun at the ready? County Assesor?

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  40. LAMary said on May 17, 2010 at 9:18 am

    He’s running for the state agriculture commissioner in Alabama.

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  41. brian stouder said on May 17, 2010 at 9:39 am

    The armed ag commish; sounds like an episode of Green Acres.

    Completely apart from funny news, but on the subject of genuine Law and Order, today’s news from Detroit is an example of why I (for one) will always reside in the cheap seats, here at nn.c. I’ve no idea what Nance will blog about, although I suspect she’ll touch on the completely terrible – indeed heartbreaking – news about the little girl who ended up dead on her living room floor, when the cops went all A-Team on the household. Professional newsies can modulate things, analyze/weigh/extrapolate and (ultimately) illuminate such an awful set of circumstances.

    I cannot get past the dead girl’s Disney princess blanket (our almost-6 year old daughter has one of those)

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