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. Prologue
.

PROLOGUE

.

Rule of law
(& order)

Among police procedurals, as they're known in the entertainment trades, the production most worth watching these days is Law & Order, and I mean the original, not spin-offs like Law & Order SVU, which features former Miss Beverly Hills Mariska Hargitay as a big-eyed sex-crime detective in fab pastel turtlenecks, or Law & Order: Criminal Intent, in which Vincent D'Onofrio's detective plays Mt. St. Helens to everyone else's Golden Pond.

I don't think it's my imagination at work when I say that the field of procedurals was richer just a few years ago, when Andy Sipowicz sweated through his permanent-press short-sleeve dress shirt while wrestling mopes, skells, and inner demons; and the late Inspector Morse could summon intelligence, melancholy, and long sips of Scotch to the study of murder most foul; and Homicide: Life on the Street used Andre Braugher's furious incandescence to illuminate hell (movingly and convincingly played by Baltimore).

But these shows are gone now, and in their places the very pale and very mannered David Caruso and a crew of male and female pretties from Miami run dust particles through cyclotrons and turn out mug shots, and Medium Patricia Arquette cheats plot problems by chatting up the dead, and Tony Shalhoub is Monk, an obsessive-compulsive on psychiatric leave from the force who nonetheless inserts himself into police cases without being arrested and compelled to take his meds, and who has become, in my view, the crime fighter most likely to make you root for the perps since the clueless Jessica Fletcher moved out of Cabot Cove and left the locals to mourn their many dead in peace.


LAW & ORDER has its own deficits, of course. It is television drama, which means that nearly all the women players are more beautiful than they need be, that the police solve cases in days, and that the featured guest star murdered the young woman whose body was found behind a Chinese restaurant on 10th Avenue by some tipsy fool in a tuxedo out walking his dog after returning late from a wedding in Secaucus. (Curtis: "It checks out, Lennie; the caterer said the guy was there until they closed the bar." Briscoe: "I didn't know they closed bars in Jersey. Must be a new rule.")

The accidental discovery of a corpse by an innocent, and detective Briscoe's side-of-the-mouth wisecracks, are among many familiar variables in the calculus of a Law & Order plot, a formula so well developed (361 shows over 15 years, and counting) that it lends itself not just to parody but to mechanized parody, as on the "Random Law and Order Plot Generator" website, which, with a click of the refresh button, turns out a nearly infinite set of Mad Libs variations, including:

A dead taxi driver is discovered in the street by two trash-talking, heavily accented children. Briscoe and Curtis initially pin the crime on Matey McYardarm, but after they sweat the confession out of the suspect . . . they arrest a deli owner. . . . McCoy must overcome a unique defense to win. The old D.A. calls a press conference and says, "Advice is like castor oil, easy to give but dreadful to take." Mr. Ed guest stars.

For a devotee like me, however, the glory of Law & Order is the restraint its writers use in developing dramas that eschew car chases, gunplay, smart-ass camera work, undisciplined plot turns, criminals who froth and drool, and principal characters who have private lives right out of Perils of Pauline. NYPD Blue, another artful show that purported to tell stories of real life in the police business, by contrast burdened its most authentic character, Sipowicz, with the deaths of two wives (one by murder), a son (also murder), and two partners (one by murder, one by a long season of heart disease), not to mention prostate cancer and being shot flagrante delicto—all over the course of a mere 12 years of life.

It's Law & Order's flatness, in fact, that not only allows plots to display their contours, but permits real human detail to stand out: Sam Waterston (D.A. Jack McCoy) reflexively buttoning his suit coat when he rises from his chair in court; the late Jerry Orbach (Briscoe) idly picking at the memory of his divorce for 12 seasons; or S. Epatha Merkerson (Lt. Anita Van Buren) not talking to her subordinates about her race-discrimination lawsuit against the NYPD.

In Law & Order as in police dramas since Monsieur Lecoq, neither who done it nor how they did it is the key issue, but rather the attempted restoration of balance to a society listing under the weight of a crime. In police procedurals produced for television, this resolution is always achieved, invariably through the exposure and punishment (or shooting) of the criminal. Here Law & Order stands out, because sometimes the perp proves more able and clever than the forces of law or order, leaving the cops and district attorneys to admit to each other and their bartenders that they failed, which may not be what the laws of TV crime drama demand but certainly reflects the order of life known to every viewer.

Our story on Kathleen O'Toole's efforts to restore balance to society begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

 


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