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These Are Their Stories

The pleasing again-and-again of Law & Order.

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I have this friend who, whenever he’s walking around Manhattan, having oblivious scraps of sidewalk conversation, half-assumes he will trip over a corpse.

That’s what happens when a show films hundreds of nearly identical episodes in your city. It invades your brain. It makes you feel like an extra, but in a good way. And now that Law & Order is canceled, after 456 episodes—most of which I watched in fugue-state binges during a particularly exhausted period in my last pregnancy—it’s the little things I’ll miss. The educational opening narration: “In the criminal-justice system … ” The unspellable ka-chung. The fact that no one being questioned by the detectives ever stopped chopping pork or sculpting avant-garde clay statues to talk about their dead friend, because that’s how busy New Yorkers are.

I’ll miss the cast, of course, from perpetually unimpressed Detective Lennie Briscoe (the late Jerry Orbach), TV’s ultimate cop, to A.D.A. turned D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), to my personal favorites, redheaded medical examiner Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers (Leslie Hendrix) and bald psychiatrist Emil Skoda (J. K. Simmons), so dry-humored and insightful I often fantasized they’d run off together and get their own cynical spinoff, Consultants, with the recurring Jewish lawyer as comic relief.

I’ll even miss that revolving door of near-indistinguishable smart chicks in tight skirts, the A.D.A.’s who inspired the Saturday Night Live joke about Jack McCoy as a “kindly old grandfather who teaches cynicism to a series of supermodels.” (My favorite was the meanest of the bunch, husky-voiced Angie Harmon, whose pro-death-penalty coldness made McCoy look like a hippie in contrast.)

And I’ll miss the types, the endless, random New Yorkers—secretaries and yoga students and garbagemen and law partners and ex-wives and bartenders and dry-cleaners, each played by some happy minor New York actor—many of whom just got one scene in which they explained that their next-door neighbor no longer lived on Irving Place and that Briscoe should probably ask the principal of his old high school, and then went back to chopping pork and was never seen again.

When a show ends, there’s a social demand to find meaning in it: some vanguard quality, some dramatic paradigm shift. But Law & Order was not the kind of show most people will collect on DVD, or go to fan conventions for, or analyze frame by frame. It inspired a different kind of passionate fanhood—solo, hard-core rerun-watching. Sheer watchability, the formula that somehow works every single time, is a kind of greatness, too.

Maybe what made it so addictive was the show’s restraint, the way it rarely traded on sex. The tiniest titration of intra-office gossip, like the revelation that McCoy once slept with Edie Falco’s recurring defense attorney, felt shocking as a tell-all. (McCoy was the best A.D.A., although I also liked the doughy disdain of Michael Moriarty and Linus Roache’s icy rage. Come to think of it, maybe the show’s most arresting quality was how disgusted almost every character was, nearly all the time.)

In its early seasons, Law & Order could feel as brisk as a sonnet: setup, Briscoe wisecrack, two plot detours, an ideological debate, then a juicy cross-examination and a wry punch line from the D.A. If you watched it enough, you could build a taxonomy of Manhattan evil. There were your Upper East Side aristocrats with dirty family secrets; your sociopathic prep-schoolers with their plaid skirts and smirky cover stories; the genuinely chilling episodes about the Russian mob; the jaunty roman-à-clef celebrity plots; assorted intra-ethnic feuds; a sparkling universe of skeezeball husbands; those scaremongering the-Internet-will-kill-you plots; the tragic, hard-to-watch tales of child abuse (eventually relegated to SVU); and the rare yet satisfyingly gonzo episodes where the show became nothing but a series of red herrings, or seemed to be about one thing (sex trafficking!) but were actually about another thing entirely (identity theft).

Did you watch the two mid-nineties episodes about the wife-killing comedy-club owner played by Larry Miller? Highly recommended.

In a dry-eyed formula series, as opposed to a soap opera, it matters more when something big happens, whether politics came into play (as when McCoy ran for D.A.) or one of the ensemble revealed a traumatic past (as with the remarkably subtle treatment of Chris Noth’s Detective Mike Logan’s molestation by a priest).

Not that the show was always so restrained. In the later, cheesier seasons, it began to imitate its own winky imitators, and the velocity sped up, with writers seemingly ripping from the headlines even as crimes were being committed. In a sign, perhaps, that they should call it a day, last week they ripped off the plot of Rebecca Skloot’s nuanced nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but turned Skloot’s subjects into cartoons: Evil White Doctors versus Saintly Black Victims. When S. Epatha Merkerson’s African-American top-cop got angry at the white prosecutor—shouting that he had exploited her by exposing her personal story on the stand, without permission—in an episode that exploited an actual African-American person’s personal story without permission, the irony was so head-spinning it almost felt deliberate.

But it’s hard to stay mad at Law & Order. It was important without being Important. It wasn’t the first cop show; it wasn’t the first legal show, either. But even as the network schedules filled with copycats, each one glibber, hotter, crasser, it had something better: staying power. As long as there is syndication, we’ll always have ka-chung.


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