'Law & Order': Why it was important, and why you weren't watching it
Now that the cancellation of Law & Order has been announced, I can say what I’ve been wanting to write for the past 24 hours: Everyone who’s now talking about how much the show will be missed… where were ya when it counted?
Law & Order has been having a very good season. The frequent fireworks between Sam Waterston and his ADAs played by Linus Roache and Alana de la Garza were colorful sparklers. The series’ rare private-life subplot — the cancer diagnosis received by S. Epatha Merkeson’s Lt. Van Buren — has been handled with both muted emotion and an unsentimental realism rare for TV.
But the fact that I even have to remind you of who’s doing what on the current show points to Law & Order‘s relative irrelevance to many people, and to the media. I don’t see Roache or de la Garza popping up on many of those “TV’s hottest hotties!” lists, and magazines and newspapers have missed out on good excuses to do lengthy career profiles of Waterston or Merkerson because… well, because by today’s media standards, they’re not Twitter-trending topics of interest.
It’s almost hard to believe now, in this time of twisting narratives in everything from Lost to Damages, that when it premiered in 1990, Law & Order‘s premise was considered novel — even a bit radical. Dividing an hour-long drama into two halves, one for the police procedural, and the last 30 minutes for the courtroom drama? How schizophrenic, some said. Skeptics jeered that NBC might lose viewers for one half or the other, if their favorite characters didn’t remain onscreen for the full 60 minutes.
But the public really liked the format, which was a new take combining the cop and lawyer genres. The show maintained a broad audience for a long time, in part because it had an age- and ethnic-diverse cast. People loved the stern-uncle approach of Steven Hill’s D.A. Adam Schiff, and producer Dick Wolf maintained a revolving door of attractive young women of varying degrees of charm, including Jill Hennessey, Carrie Lowell, Angie Harmon, and Elisabeth Rohm. The men were also uneven wild-cards: Michael Moriarty was an entertainingly mannered eccentric years before Vincent D’Onofrio took over that territory on Criminal Intent, and some folks never did cotton to the folksy mumbling of Fred Thompson when he replaced Steven Hill and Diane Wiest as D.A.
L&O prided itself on ripped-from-the-headlines plots, trading on the controversies of the day. But at the same time, it was also comfort-television: You knew most cases would be wrapped up within the hour, you knew that even if the prosecution lost, there’d be a few words of bittersweet wisdom to be gleaned from Hill or Waterston just before the fade-out.
The show’s New York location-shooting gave it a distinctive look: hazy gray, low-budget, old Manhattan architecture. The series also provided work for countless New York-based actors whose true vocation was the stage, and who used their L&O day-player paychecks to continue pursuing their Broadway dreams. (Ben Shenkman, Jack Gilpin, Kate Burton, Elaine Stritch, Frances Sternhagen, and Mary Beth Hurt were among the many to sit on the witness stand, or wear judge’s robes, or sit behind the battered metal desk in the interrogation room.)
In the history of TV, Law & Order served as a bridge between the first generations of cop and law shows (Dragnet; The Defenders) and the new breed of such shows (NYPD Blue; Homicide: Life on the Streets; The Practice). It was a sturdy bridge, even when its workers left and were replaced. Behind the scenes, Wolf was a pioneer in the idea that it was the concept, not the stars, that people tuned in to see. As soon as a featured actor made noise about money or a bigger role, he or she could find themselves disappeared quicker than a General Pinochet protester.
Law & Order was never “cool.” It was as soothing as the lousy puns and hangdog sincerity of the late Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe. (Although Chris Noth and Jesse L. Martin both lent their cool-cat moodinesses to the show for a time.) In recent years, the more hyperbolic Special Victims Unit got the bigger ratings and more attention. But Law & Order made a case for the decency — and flaws — of the justice system as well as any work of popular culture, and gave us a lot of fine acting in the bargain.
You don’t know what you were missing. The continued quality of the show is more important than the who-really-cares feat of beating Gunsmoke‘s 20-year record. Then again, after the final new episodes air on May 24, it’ll never be too late to start watching the reruns, to find a home for your burst of nostalgia.
For more: It’s official: NBC cancels ‘Law & Order’