When Dick Wolf was creating "Law and Order", he was told there had already been a show that followed a crime from it's commission through the investigation the arrest and the subsequent trial. It was called "Arrest and Trial" and was on from 1963-64, a quarter century before the pilot for "Law and Order", (I'll call them A&T and L&O). Wolf screened an episode of A&T and concluded that their show was very different from his. He was right. The biggest difference, however, was not in concept but in time.
A&T is a 90 minute show, L&O an hour. L&O is a story-driven show with the nature of it's characters suddenly and starkly revealed. A&T is a character study that shows situations developing over time and their effect on people as they happen. In L&O the cops are cops but the lawyers are prosecutors, attempting to forge justice using the imperfect tool of the law. Their adversaries are usually rather sleazy criminals who cared about no one but themselves and their equally self-interested attorneys, people who care nothing about law or justice but just want to win. In A&T the cops are part psychoanalysts and the criminals victims of tragic circumstances. The lawyers are highly principled defense attorneys. The prosecutor is a very friendly adversary who almost reluctantly does his job, even though he may even be sympathetic toward the accused. L&O is mostly about legal issues as the lawyers dual with each other. Whatever moral issues come up have been violated by the criminals. In A&T, there is always some great moral issue that dominates the question of whether the accused is guilty of the crime. How do we treat the insane? Drug addicts? The emotionally distraught?
When I had a chance to view A&T myself after many years of watching L&O, I found it a pleasant surprise, perhaps the most underrated show of my favorite TV decade, the Sixties. The length and emphasis on crime as human tragedy provided some very fine actors such as James Whitmore, Joseph Schildkraut, Mickey Rooney, Roddy McDowell, (who starred in a version of "Crime and Punishment") and many others with tours de force. The writing and acting was very strong. Ben Gazzara, (who I recently spotted in an L&O episode, with his voice apparently dubbed for some reason- I hope he isn't having health problems), played a very thoughtful and sympathetic policeman and Chuck Conners was fine and forceful as an idealistic attorney. It's a consistently entertaining show, one that covers much of the same ground as the excellent "The Defenders" from the same period.
But it's clearly a product of it's time. There are no bad guys. The victims are often faceless or minor characters. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are brothers in arms, fighting for what's right. There's never talk of a deal. This was from a time when, in the last generation, we'd survived a depression, won a war, were holding back Communism and reaching for the moon. We were going to get rid of poverty and injustice. A great many shows presented the contemporary world, one with problems but problems which seemed soluble with heroic effort. Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Defenders, East Side West Side, Naked City, even Route 66. A&T was definitely a product of this environment.
L&O is product of a much more cynical age, one where people are grubbing for whatever they can get, protecting their own interests and bending the law anyway they can to get what they want out of it.