Monday, July 10, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 9: Law & Order

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files

What can I say about Law & Order that I haven't already touched on in multiple earlier posts?

I first came upon Dick Wolf's ubiquitous crime drama during the summer after Season 5. At that point, it was to me little more than another legal show to pass the time. It had the virtue of being easy to catch a random episode of, being entirely episodic. Half of the hour is the investigation of the crime, half is the prosecution.

It took me a while to fully appreciate the genius of Dick Wolf's design - half the show was a murder mystery, half was a moral mystery. In other words, we explore the whodunit, and then the case brings out the social issues around the whodunit. It was a brilliant way to inject social commentary, whether the issue was abortion, abusive parents, racial tension and bigotry, corruption, or even female circumcision. It was a structure that demanded each episode be ABOUT something.

Two circumstances made me a regular viewer in season 6. First, the show did a crossover with Homicide: Life on the Street, which I also was a casual viewer of but hadn't really taken to yet. At this point in time, sitcoms were doing crossover stories pretty regularly, but you didn't see TV dramas - let alone dramas from completely unrelated creators and producers - doing that. It was a gimmick, but it worked. After that I was a regular viewer of both shows.

The second circumstance: A&E had just begun airing the first five seasons of the show in reruns - two episodes a day. I spent much of the next several months taping each episode and watching them when I had a chance. (Kids, before DVRs and streaming THIS was how you binge-watched.) The show was known for its cast turnover. Each season saw the departure of at least one actor and the arrival of a new one. The cable channel didn't run the episodes in order, so you never knew if that night's offering was going to feature Jerry Orbach or Paul Sorvino as the lead cop, or Sam Waterston or Michael Moriarty as the lead prosecutor.

One virtue of the writing was that the cases were often so twisty that I could catch a rerun I'd seen just six months earlier and have no idea where that particular case was going to lead and how anything ended up. Only The Simpsons had proven that complex in reruns and it made the vast majority of episodes almost addictively rewatchable. And rewatch, I did. In college, I'd do my best to schedule my college classes around the A&E reruns.

Given that, it's no surprise that the show's influence was keenly felt on the first feature screenplay I ever wrote. It was an assignment for my screenwriting class and as my classmates read my pages, two consistent reactions emerged - they really liked my twists and fast pace. And it TOTALLY felt like a Law & Order story.

So here's the impact that the series had on my writing:

- Get in scenes as late as possible, leave as early as possible. I already wrote a whole post on this, but it's worth repeating. Because of the story distance the show has to cover so quickly, there's not a wasted moment. This is a great series to teach you about efficiency.

- Story density and complexity. Few episodes are straightforward. There's always a left-turn in the story that comes out of nowhere, but also feels organic in the moment. The best way to do this is by plotting backwards. Know where you want to go and find the most circuitous way to get there that still lets you lay pipe for the rest. Keep upending expectations.

- Use the procedural framework to explore several sides of an issue. Let those issues provoke debates among your characters. Through that you can define the issue AND the players.

Law & Order is an incredible accomplishment in television. Just look at the stats:

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

Earlier Law & Order posts:

A Farewell to Law & Order and Jack McCoy, TV's greatest prosecutor

Start late, get out early - Law & Order: LA

A salute to the greatest procedural ever as Law & Order turns 25! (Includes a list of best episodes)

A tribute to Law & Order's Adam Schiff, Steven Hill

I'm a guest on the Law & Order podcast "These Are Their Stories!"

Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street

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