Friday, May 14, 2010

Goodbye Law & Order (?!)

So, news reports are everywhere that the TV series Law & Order has been cancelled after 20 seasons on NBC. Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly has a written a fine farewell here.

I have made fun of Law & Order's cookie-cutter episodes ever since it began. But I've also been a devoted fan. In fact, I regularly view both the original series and one of its spinoffs, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. (The Law & Order: SVU spinoff, though successful in its ratings, has sucked from its 2nd season on, and I have discovered there's a British version currently playing across the pond.)

And, even amidst this news about cancellation, there's been an announcement of a new spinoff, set in Los Angeles. The entertainment world sure loves its franchises.

My favorite actor on Law & Order was the late Jerry Orbach, though his super-long-in-the-tooth detective certainly strained believability in those last few seasons. Orbach possessed the rare ability to deliver even the worst lines with a paradoxical mix of absolute conviction and a kind of stoop-shouldered self-awareness that what he was saying was usually a complete cliche. After all, who among us hasn't slung their share of bullshit in the course of their job?

Another thing I like about the show is its episode-by-episode portrayal of the stark line between legality and justice. Sure, other shows make their living dramatizing the difference between right and wrong, but Law & Order is refreshing in its more realistic stance that vigilantism is not only wrong, but dangerous.

On this show, whenever someone took the law "into their own hands," things generally went very badly. It's a lesson about the complexity of morality that too few people have learned. The criminal justice system may not be perfect, but it's sure better than any alternative.

Ken Tucker writes that Law & Order "was never cool," and he's right. The show eschews stylistic trendiness, although it does specialize in "ripped from the headlines" plots that veer just shy of sensationalism. One of the more memorable plots involves a minor celebrity who hacked off the head of his ex-wife in a fit of rage. Sound familiar? There was even an episode based on the death and post-mortem custodial battles of Anna Nicole Smith.

In fact, this TV series has made its bread-and-butter by maintaining a certain, aloof distance from trendy fads, often lampooning them for dramatic effect. The excesses and hypocrisies of "reality TV" have provided ammunition for several episodes, and I remember one where the hotshot creator of a series of "Girls Gone Wild" videos is put on trial.

Sure, the plots on Law & Order were formulaic and derivative. Sure, the show's legal machinations were sometimes so improbable that they became laughable (such as when the Manhattan D.A.'s office indicted a South American general -- and actually got him to testify in a trial!). And, yes, the show had a particularly difficult time portraying IT technology. (Then again, what TV show doesn't?)

But, as broadcast entertainment goes, this show rocked. It was comfort television for me. Just hearing that tell-tale "Cha-CHUNG" sound that became the show's audio trademark would bring a smile to my face.

Here's another measure of Law & Order's significance: according to a post at the Atlantic (which quotes a New York Times story), the show provided 4,000 jobs and as much as $79 million per year in revenue for the New York City economy. Talk about a flagship! One can only hope that the new Los Angeles spinoff has a similar impact.

Law & Order already has a robust existence in syndication, so the show won't completely disappear after its final first-run episode. And I have a feeling that, before it dies, the series might do what Law & Order: Criminal Intent did: make the jump from NBC to basic cable, where it's dwindling audience could still be big enough to keep it afloat.

If so, I'll probably keep watching it.

an American television series
created & produced by Dick Wolf

1 comment:

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