22 December 2004 | mentalcritic
One of the few good television shows still standing...
Television in Western society has become something of a cultural and imaginative wasteland, with the lowest common denominator now firmly in charge. As attempts to create something imaginative or different get cancelled faster than Mike Tyson can embarrass the sport of boxing, the drivel that we call Reality TV just keeps on keeping on. Which makes those of us with an active brain in our heads all the more grateful that a simple two-act series about criminal prosecution can last for fourteen-plus years.
The premise is as refreshing as it is simple. Before Law & Order, the majority of television shows about lawyers showed defense lawyers doing the police's job and solving cases for them. Competent police or prosecution lawyers did not exist in this highly fictitious setting, so Law & Order turned that on its head. Law & Order begins with a witness running into a victim, or a victim coming forth after some kind of unspeakable act. First, the police, almost always represented by two particular detectives, gather evidence and make inquiries. Then the district attorneys attempt to prosecute the case. Very simple at first, but it is the complex relationships between the regular cast, as well as the quirks of the guest stars, that make the show what it is.
Like any long-running television series, Law & Order has had its ups and downs. I doubt that anyone is going to look upon the era in which Jill Hennessy was replaced by Carey Lowell, indisputably the worst Bond girl of all time, with any great kindness. Indeed, the true golden era of the show was with Jerry Orbach, Benjamin Bratt, Jill Hennessy, and Sam Waterston. Now that three of this foursome have left the show, and no less than three attempts to fill the very big void left by Hennessy have failed, it looks like Law & Order has long passed its apex. Not that this is necessarily bad. All good things must come to an end, even if many would prefer a bad Law & Order to a good Survivor.
Aside from the cast dynamic, the stories are what makes the show truly work. Although they are quite relevant to the modern era, they show no signs of dating, with a story from the first season often seeming as current as a story from the most recent, changes in prices, fashions, or cultures notwithstanding. Although many of the stories are uniquely American in nature, a fair percentage are of the kind that could literally happen anywhere.
Another aspect that sets Law & Order apart is its ability to show that even the simplest of cases do not always have a happy ending. Blatant murderers go free because someone at the lab screws up a test, people we sympathise with in spite of their guilt are sent to prison and meet grisly fates, or some of the inequities of the system are displayed in such bold colour its a wonder the show hasn't been clamped down upon by the current President. This is a good thing, however, as a less sugar-coated version of the system makes for much more compelling viewing. In the end, one gets to see that while the system is not perfect, it works hard to protect everyone, which is just the way it should be. It is not a coincidence that many of the District Attorney characters who quit often wind up coming back in guest appearances... as defense lawyers. Even the excruciating Carey Lowell made a half-decent fist of such a return.
Were I giving Law & Order a score, it would be a solid ten out of ten. In spite of some woeful casting decisions, it has never had a truly dull moment. Maybe soon it might even find a second wind, relatively speaking.