Monday, September 14, 2015

A salute to the greatest procedural ever as Law & Order turns 25!

Yesterday marked the 25th Anniversary of the premiere of one of the greatest TV dramas of all time: Law & Order. Dick Wolf's procedural has left behind an amazing legacy. Consider these stats:

- 456 episodes
- 7 spinoff series. (Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, Law & Order: LA, Law & Order: UK, Conviction and the non-fiction Crime & Punishment.)
- a collective 59 seasons of television from those shows!
- One Emmy win for Outstanding Drama Series.

In that, it's easy to forget the "Mothership" L&O struggled for a while to find its audience. Today's television climate doesn't seem to allow for the kind of nurturing that let Law & Order sprout into the empire it became. It's first three seasons it finished ranked in the low 40s, at a time when that was a pretty terrible place to be. NBC was ready to cancel the show unless Dick Wolf added some women to the all-male cast for the 4th season. The additions coincided with a ratings climb to #38 for season 4 and #27 for season 5. From then on, with one exception, the show's ranking rose every season until it peaked at #7 in season 12. 

How many shows get their greatest success in their second decade? The L&O universe didn't even begin branching out into spinoffs until SVU debuted during the mothership's ninth season. It's hard not to marvel at that long game as we prepare to enter a new TV season, where some shows will be declared dead by week 2.

It's possible one factor in L&O's rising popularity was the syndicated reruns that seemed to run endlessly, first on A&E (where I became addicted to the show) and later on TNT. As a pure procedural, there were no serialized stories to complicate rerun scheduling or viewer experience, and remarkably, many of the social issues it dealt with from over the years - abortion, racial tension, terrorism - have remained relevant even two decades later.

I was an occasional watcher of Law & Order around the time of the fifth season, but I wasn't a total convert until the novelty of the drama crossing over with equally acclaimed drama Homicide: Life on the Street lured me in. I'd seen HLOTS here and there, but the stunt of mixing the two casts made me a convert to both shows. From that point, I watched the syndicated reruns every night and in college, made an effort to schedule my classes around the repeats. 

Law & Order was one of those series that showed me what great TV writing could be. It was my gateway drug into an entire generation of fantastic compelling drama, and it remains one of the shows I can watch endlessly. A couple of my spec scripts have been procedural, no doubt due to the influence of the series. It's such a brilliant concept for a show because the half-cops, half-courtroom approach makes for complex, twisting stories.  As Dick Wolf has often said, "The first half is a murder mystery, the second half is a moral mystery."

I've already paid tribute to my favorite Law & Order character, Jack McCoy, in this earlier post, so today I decided to spotlight 10 classic L&Os that can probably teach you a thing or two about writing.

Sanctuary (season 4) - A Jewish driver accidentally runs over a black boy in Harlem and leaves the scene. When the investigation rules it an accident and prosecutors decline to file charges, outrage in the black community sparks a riot caught by television cameras. Racial tensions run high as Ben Stone pursues convictions for men who killed an innocent man during that melee. It's got echoes of issues that surrounded the Rodney King and Reginald Denny trials (the latter a clear influence on the riot) and is another great instance of Law & Order using its procedural format to pick at larger social matters.

Remand (season 6) - The inspiration this time is the Kitty Genovese murder. A 30 year-old conviction is jeopardized by new evidence, and when a new trial is ordered, McCoy has to win the case without the aid of a confession obtained decades ago under circumstances that now appear dubious. It's an instance where the show manages to explore the sort of police work done 30 years earlier, and work in some personal stakes amid the motions. (Adam Schiff prosecuted this case and is determined that the still-living victim not see her rapist go free, even though his sentence is already longer than many similar convicts.

Charm City (season 6) - A master class in how to write a crossover between two shows with very different styles. Frank Pembleton, Tim Bayliss and John Munch from Homicide make appearances, and despite their show's vastly different approach (Homicide is much more of a character-based show than L&O ever was), they fit right in. Pembleton's manipulative style in "The Box" - rarely put under scrutiny on his own turf - becomes the complication in McCoy's case here. Better still, the story is constructed in a way that doesn't leave things feeling unresolved for viewers unable to track down the Homicide half.

D-Girl/Turnaround/Showtime (season 7) - the only three-parter in the show's history, and a pivitol episodes in terms of the audience because for these airings, Law & Order took over ER's timeslot while the other show stored up new episodes for sweeps. The OJ trial clearly inspired the media circus that surrounds the investigation into the murder of a studio exec and the expanded scope lets the writers play with more twists and red herrings than normal. Gilmore Girls fans will enjoy seeing not just Lauren Graham here, but her on-screen boyfriend Scott Cohen here as well. Again, character stakes are woven in through strife in Curtis's marriage and Jamie Ross's tension with her ex-husband, the defense attorney opposing McCoy and Ross. This allows for a few more instances of the show's various partnerships interacting to discuss matters beyond the case. It also sets up one of my favorite McCoy lines in court: "Your grief might be more convincing, sir, if you hadn't just admitted... you cut off your wife's head!"

Double Down (season 7) - one of the best episodes in the entire franchise. Law & Order is often at pains to develop conflict among its regulars because its rare to use continuing subplots that make it easier to develop and resolve tension across several episodes. It also would get tiresome to have everyone at each other's throats over every case, so in general the characters work together pretty harmoniously and professionally. This episode is something of an exception to that, as the cops and prosecutors differ on how to handle a case where a captured bank robber and cop killer wants an incredibly light sentence for giving up the location of his dying hostage. McCoy makes the deal, then spends the back half of the episode trying one legal trick after another to nulify it. When the only card he has left to play requires the cops putting their own necks on the line, the result is one of L&O's best courtroom moments.

Terminal (season 7) - The personal stakes this time come from the governor clashing with Adam Schiff when Schiff refuses to pursue the death penalty. Schiff faces removal from office in an episode that gives the great Steven Hill more screen time than normal. For Schiff, the matter is complicated by his ailing wife's condition making it necessary to for him to decide if he should prolong her life through life support. The final shot plays entirely on Schiff's face as sound effects indicate the termination of life support... and the heartbreaking outcome. Hill's brief gasp of sorrow is more devastating that the vast majority of emotional histrionics found in most medical dramas.

Refuge (season 9) - another rare two-parter finds McCoy taking on the Russian Mob. McCoy's case hangs on the testimony of a traumatized young boy, only to have a mistrial declared when the boy's testimony goes out of bounds. Before a new trial can begin, an ADA and the boy's mother are murdered, and the boy left in critical condition. That he survived creates a complication that forces McCoy to either put him through another trial or withdraw his case. (In a cruel twist, had the boy died, his prior testimony would be admissible.) At that point, McCoy fights dirty, going well past the edge of what the law permits as he suspends habeas corpus. Some of this plays VERY differently post-9/11. Here McCoy is the hero for breaking the rules to go after "the bad guys" but in a post Bush/Cheney world, McCoy's actions are horrifying in their own way.

Gunshow (season 10) - A man shoots up a park with a semi-automatic gun which he converted to fully automatic. McCoy's investigation finds that the gun manufactors were not only aware of the design flaw that made the gun vulnerable to tampering, but they ignored it despite the fact making the gun tamper-proof would have added minimal costs. Thus, he takes on the gun companies in court and delivers a powerful closing statement pouring out two trays in succession. The first tray contains the number of bullets the gunman could have fired in a 30-second period using a semi-automatic. The second... contains the number of bullets he actually fired using a fully-automatic weapon. The difference in sound as each tray's contents hit the floor are a masterful bit of theatricality.

Killerz (season 10) - A chilling episode revolving around the prosecution of a sociopathic 10 year-old girl for the murder of a younger boy. The legal and moral questions surrounding how to bring this killer to justice let the characters grapple with hard questions, but the real highlight is Hallee Hirsh's (later Mark Greene's daughter on ER) unsettling performance as the killer.

Justice (season 10) - Another twisting plot that brings back Jamie Ross - this time in opposition to her former partner McCoy. There's some deft legal maneuvering and an incredibly well-constructed mystery that I dare not spoil. McCoy not only has to face his former colleague, but he also takes on a judge after uncovering evidence that he buried possibly exculpatory evidence years ago when he was prosecuting a murder. Like many of the best episodes, this episode will have you marveling at the density of what the writers pack into 44 minutes, balancing strong twists while insuring the characters still drive the story.

I could easily have selected another 10 or 15 episodes, but these all stand as a pretty good representation of the series at its best. My "golden era" of the show is Seasons 5-10, though the "Cutter years" of seasons 18-20 were also fantastic. If you haven't exposed yourself to the mothership series, I urge you to rectify that immediatley. For those of you who have watched, what are your favorite episodes?


  1. A couple of my personal faves were SISTERS OF MERCY from Season 2, and BORN BAD from Season 4. Both were heartbreaking in their own way. In SOM, you knew it would take a prosecute with a unique personality like Stone's to cut through the inherent misogyny that spawned that situation. A more practical personality probably wouldn't have perused it.

    McCoy was such a great character I have a hard time picking a favorite from his era.

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  3. fantastic show, one of my all time faves... and let's not forget how one of the first cops was exited from the show... he was murdered.

    From an NYC pov (my turf) the show was shot here and it was a lifeline for theatre actors... it became a badge to be on the show... and to see it being filmed.

    Even in its last season... it was fantastic, and I wish it had not been cancelled. It was more grounded than SUV or any of the other shows... it was current and exciting and about the stories more than the characters... when we grew tired of a character, they were sent out.

    Great, great show.

    1. Coming to the show in syndication, I never warmed to Max Grievey the way I did to Lennie Briscoe, but his exit was pretty brutal.

      I agree with you about it being more grounded than the spinoffs. I watched SVU for a long time mostly out of affection for Munch, but even in its best moments it never spoke to me the way the Mothership did. At its peak, L&O was a weekly dose of "GodDAMN I wish I'd written that!"

  4. How did L&O Mother Ship only win 1 Emmy? Blasphemy!

    The young actress in Killerz never fails to freak me out. It's a disturbing episode, especially given that the girl is clearly a sociopath/psychopath with absolutely no feelings or conscience.