Robert Fulford's column about Law & Order

(Globe and Mail, August 14, 1999)

We who watch Law & Order on television know that a major crime must be revealed in the first minute or two, before the first commercial. Two cops will be innocently nattering about the Knicks, or a janitor will be trudging downstairs to check the furnace. Suddenly, a corpse will appear. This surprises everybody except the audience.

In all of television, is there any show more formalized than Law & Order?

When you see it for the first time, it appears to be a superior cops-and-robbers hour, little more. But regular viewers learn that it's as tightly structured as a sonnet or fugue. After nine seasons and more than 200 episodes, it still unfolds every week exactly as it did when it went on the air in 1990 -- same portentous theme music, same stolid camera work, same old-fashioned editing, same two-act plot. Two cops solve a crime in the first act, and two lawyers from the district attorney's office prosecute the guilty in the second. The cops work for a lieutenant, whose job is to harass them. The prosecutors have a district attorney, who complains sourly about their performance.

That's all there is, yet the writers make each 44-minute episode dense with facts and ideas, particularly legal ideas. The situations, often versions of crimes recently in the news, are never boring; the dialogue has a certain snap. Among some people I know, Law & Order has become a cult. It helps that it's so available. In addition to recent programs reappearing on CTV and NBC, A&E runs the first seven seasons, over and over again, two different episodes each weekday, at 3 a.m., 1 p.m., 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT. On May 31, Memorial Day in the U.S., A&E ran a 12-hour marathon of Law & Order repeats, so that people could gather in groups and watch old favourites together.

Drama always demands that we suspend disbelief, but Law & Order asks more than most. It wants us to believe that every interesting murder in New York is automatically assigned to the same two detectives and the same two assistant DAs. It also asks that we believe New Yorkers aren't intimidated by police. Most of us would pay close attention if the police came to call, but witnesses on Law & Order refuse even to stop what they're doing. Making a pie crust, replacing a brake liner, tapping on a computer -- doesn't matter, they just keep at it while the cops ask questions. Some director set this bizarre pattern in 1990, and the others see no reason to change it.

This is one show that depicts the legal system on its own terms. The police and lawyers may sometimes lock up the wrong guy for while, but if they sort things out properly in the end, there's no harm done. The fact that they've terrified him, and maybe ruined his reputation forever, is rarely mentioned. TV law has come a long way since the earliest courtroom programs, Perry Mason (1957-66, in its original incarnation) and The Defenders (1961-65). Those heroes routinely proved the prosecutors wrong. In Law & Order, nobody needs to prove them wrong because they're always right. They just have to overcome sleazy lawyers who exploit loopholes and defendant-friendly judges.

Law & Order represents the triumph of format over character. Its notoriously high turnover rate among performers changes little that matters. When an actor gets fired or decides to quit, a new character, with a new actor, is born and the routine recreates itself. This fall Detective Eddie Jordan (Jesse L. Martin) will join the force to replace Detective Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) -- the 10th major change since 1990, by my count. We regulars know the fates of some who are gone. We know that Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennesy), an assistant DA, died in a car crash and that bad guys murdered Detective Sergeant Max Greevey (George Dzundza).

Others vanish without explanation. We still haven't been told what happened to the man whose presence dominated the first four seasons, Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), executive assistant district attorney. Moriarty's brittle, angry style helped establish the program's identity, and the writers exploited his measured arrogance. (When a lawyer hoping for a plea bargain asked Ben Stone what he wanted, he answered: "Peace on Earth, the Mets in the Series, and your client in jail for the rest of his life.") Stone's replacement, Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), has never developed into so vivid a character. Perhaps out of desperation, the writers have made him slightly bent. He doesn't take bribes, but sometimes he stretches the law and occasionally he ignores it.

The moods of Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), the DA since 1990, run the gamut from morose to melancholy, with an occasional stop at choler. Once, after his assistants bungled, he asked them, "When did we turn this office over to the Marx Brothers?" He goes back a long way in politics -- he speaks of "the Lindsay campaign" as if it were yesterday (he means the one that made John Lindsay mayor in 1965). The actor playing him, Hill, goes back even further. He turned 77 this year, and he's been in TV longer than almost anyone. In 1954, several golden ages ago, he won an award as best TV actor of the season. Over the decades, he's had regular parts on both a soap (One Life to Live) and an action series (Mission Impossible), and he's showed up on The Untouchables in the 1950s, The Fugitive in the 1960s, and thirtysomething in the 1980s. He wears this vast experience with weary grace.

Law & Order often depicts two subjects that are usually ignored in American television: religion and class. Both Ben Stone and Jack McCoy are Catholics, and so are most of the cops, so the subject of guilt comes up often and the word "confession" takes on more than legal meaning. As for class, rich people on Law & Order believe they deserve special treatment, but the police try to avoid giving it to them. These cops don't like the rich, and you can see the smiles creeping across their faces when they find drugs infesting an exclusive private school. Justice done is always pleasing, but one thing gives these guys a special glow of satisfaction: putting the cuffs on a murder suspect in a dinner jacket just as he's leaving in a limo for the Metropolitan Opera. Obviously, they think that's what puts the fun into police work. You get the idea that class conflict is as permanent as every other characteristic of Law & Order.

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