By Ken Tucker
Updated December 05, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST
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There’s a considerable amount of buzz right now about how good Law & Order is this season. That’s probably due to the show’s having won a best-drama Emmy in September: Suddenly, this series is prominent in the collective TV consciousness again. Maybe people who had been taking the show for granted are tuning in again, but really, Law & Order‘s been very good just about every season since it debuted in 1990. Spend a few days catching the three-times-daily reruns of it on A&E and you’ll find a remarkable consistency. The episodes air out of chronological order, but whether the lead cop is George Dzundza or Jerry Orbach, the lead lawyer Michael Moriarty or Sam Waterston, L&O holds up; it’s as fine a crime show as any that television has produced.

That said, certain distinctions in quality and construction can be made. When L&O began, it had a gimmick that transcended gimmickry. The first half of every episode showed the police investigation of a crime; the second half revealed the courtroom prosecution of that crime. It was the Doublemint twin of TV drama: two, two, two shows in one! — except no one in L&O has ever spoken in a tone that would require an exclamation point. (Indeed, I’ve long thought one reason people love to watch it each week at 10 is that it’s so soothingly quiet. Admit it: How many verdicts have you missed, having dozed off listening to the soothing reediness of Waterston’s voice?)

The half-and-half structure of L&O crumbled a few seasons ago, undermining the sturdy foundation of the series just a bit. Nowadays, cops Lennie Briscoe (Orbach) and ”Rey” Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) regularly, sometimes pointlessly, confer with Assistant District Attorneys Jack McCoy (Waterston) and Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell). Not only do the costars interact with each other, they occasionally interact with an entirely different series, boosting the lower ratings and already-high poker-face quotient of Homicide: Life on the Street. (Me, I’m looking forward to a Law & Order-Ally McBeal crossover in which McCoy will be cited for contempt for insisting that Ally defend a client for one entire trial without pouting flirtatiously at anyone.)

Over the years, the best L&Os have been dramas of ideas, in which the bloody corpse found on a Manhattan street corner at the start of the show becomes the occasion for a succession of chin-scratching ethical debates in the second half, these discussions refereed with grumpy outspokenness by DA Adam Schiff (the absolutely invaluable Steven Hill). Waterston and Lowell are a more adept team at these verbal thrust-and-parry sessions than any who’ve handled the show’s lawyer roles. (On the cop side, though, I invariably miss the presence of beefy, blunt Chris Noth, written out after the ’94-95 season.) In both acting and writing, it is the ”law” part of Law & Order that has been on the ascent this season.

To take one example: Oct. 29’s intricately written episode about an arrogant surgeon (Michael Nouri, oily, haughty, very naughty) who had harvested the organs of a not-yet-dead crime victim for transplant operations that would bring him big bucks. This time it was the lawyers who did the detective work, as McCoy and Ross pored over hospital records to suss out the truth and expose the supercilious sawbones on the stand.

The teleplay by I.C. Rapoport was beautifully paced for maximum surprise and poignancy — Nouri’s character doesn’t even show up until 20 minutes before the end — and the episode concluded with what might be a significant little kicker. To celebrate their courtroom win, McCoy pulls out a bottle of Scotch, pours himself a generous slug, and offers the same to Ross. She declines and makes a joke about how McCoy might soon need his own transplant — for his liver. It was then that we at home might have remembered that hardworking, straitlaced McCoy has been eager to hit the bottle at the conclusion of a number of L&Os this season. Hmmm. Law & Order distinguishes itself by avoiding most of the messy details of its protagonists’ private lives, but might we be on the verge of a subplot that will make us even more deeply involved with these characters than we already are? Law & Order: A-

Law & Order

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