The granddaddy of Dick Wolf’s franchise turns 18 this year. Which is 126 seasons in television years. Only Gunsmoke ran longer and it looks as though Wolf intends on leaving ol’ Marshall Dillon in the dust. In truth, Law & Order could conceivably run twice as long because it’s a very different program from Gunsmoke. Not just different in genre (although superficially both are about “law” and “order”), but also different in their audience appeal. Gunsmoke ran for 20 seasons from 1955 and 1975 on CBS, driven by James Arness’s star performance. If Arness walked away after five seasons, that would’ve been the end of Gunsmoke. Law & Order, however, doesn’t have a single actor left from its first season and it still continues to thrive. Its cast has been a revolving door of some of Broadway’s finest who have come and gone without seriously damaging the show’s following. This is because Law & Order is plot rather than character-driven, held together by its rigid two-part structure: 30 minutes of police procedural followed by 30 minutes of legal drama. This has been the key to Wolf’s massive success and, armed with any number of reasonably strong actors and decent stories, the show could run for many years to come. It’s really a brilliant stroke of high concept TV, bringing together the two most popular genres of television into one seamless story.
This strict, repetitive and virtually ritualistic narrative formula also accounts for the show’s massive popularity. There’s something comforting in the fades to black and the insistent gavel hits. The less we know about the personal lives of the cops and lawyers the better; it’s how they do their job that matters. Of course it helps that the stories are, more often than not, very well written. They start in one place and, about 35 minutes later, turn into something much more unusual.
It’s been a long time since the days of Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, Chris Noth, Paul Sorvino and Steven Hill. Each season comes with the potential for some major change in the cast, usually the female Executive Assistant DA, and this season is no different. Gone is failed presidential hopeful Fred Dalton Thompson as DA Arthur Branch as well as Milena Govitch’s Nina Cassidy. Govitch was last season’s experiment with a female partner for Detective Green (Jesse L. Martin), a role that’s been cast and recast since Jerry Orbach’s passing. The idea of finally placing a female character in the “law” part of the show was long in coming but Govitch wasn’t the right choice for the role. Dull and annoyingly “tough,” Cassidy can be placed on the same trash heap as Michael Imperioli’s temp job as Detective Nick Falco.
This season returns to formula by casting the brooding Jeremy Sisto as Detective Cyrus Lupo. Whoever came up with that name needs to take a vacation but both the character and the actor fit very comfortably within the show’s narrative and stylistic universe. Lupo is an effective foil for Green’s open-book niceness, often employing methods that seem bizarre to the veteran detective. Clearly in tune with the show’s dramatic needs, Sisto underplays the part without reducing himself, like Govitch, to an automaton. Joining him this season is English actor Linus Roache as the new Executive ADA Michael Cutter. Roache is a fine actor but in many ways he has the more difficult role, replacing the much loved Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) in the courtroom. McCoy is still around, though, in what is probably the new season’s most dramatic concept: promoting him to DA and watching him squirm as he has to play the voice of reason to the more reckless Cutter. S. Epatha Merkerson, Martin and Alana De La Garza all return in their respective roles, though it is rumored that Martin intends to leave and will be replaced by Anthony Anderson later this season.
The season premiere, “Called Home,” was far from the series’s best hour but it did a reasonably good job of introducing Lupo as a more introspective and oddly cerebral partner for Green. The episode was pulpier than usual, looking like a stray script from producer Rene Balcer’s Criminal Intent files. Detective Lupo is given a somewhat overly dramatic setup by having him return from work abroad as a member of the NYPD Intelligence Squad only to find that his brother has committed suicide under very mysterious circumstances. The episode’s issue was that of assisted suicide but less time was spent on this Kevorkian theme, or on the legal wranglings involved, than on Lupo’s personal connection to the case and on building instant audience interest and sympathy for the new character. While this approach would be considered “good” writing on almost any other program, it’s simply wrong for Law & Order. The show is a procedural and its effectiveness comes from watching how the cases unfold, from collecting evidence to the interrogation of suspects. The challenge is to create strong characters within the interplay of questions and answers rather than through their backstories. The characters can’t be ciphers but they also cannot be more important than the case itself. Balcer designed Criminal Intent to deviate from this formula and weave crime dramas that pushed the personal problems of Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) to the breaking point. On that show, the backstory for Lupo would be expected; here, it’s a crutch that damages the episode as a whole.
This is how Cutter is introduced—that is, he’s not introduced at all. He’s just there arguing with Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza) and McCoy. It’s very smart dramatically, requiring the audience to just go with the flow and observe Cutter in action. At first, he comes off looking like a self-absorbed, cold-blooded Wall Street broker, but we soon see that the fire brewing within is directed toward injustice as much as it was for McCoy. The difference is that Cutter seems more willing to take risks without McCoy’s careful calculation. These are character traits we pick up through observation, not exposition, and scenes involving Roache, Waterston and De La Garza capture the house style effortlessly. Unfortunately, the premiere episode as a whole betrayed a certain desperation with the original formula, like the Coca-Cola Company with the New Coke. Only here, Balcer does not so much reinvent the Law & Order formula for the 21st century as he spikes it with a shot of Criminal Intent. Both that show and the most popular of the three currently on the air, SVU, are pulpier than their progenitor and much of this premiere script really seems to be reaching out to their audience. Trying too hard to prove that the original show is no old fogey and quickly establish its new characters, the episode fails to deliver what made the show effective in the first place: character defined by dramatic action rather than narration.
Fortunately, the show solves all of these problems from the second episode on, with the focus placed back onto the stories and ethical dilemmas themselves. Any question of whether the series has lost its mojo is dispelled as “Darkness” is one of the series’s best episodes. It plays on the issue of price fixing by energy companies but as usual it does not start there. Amid a citywide power blackout, a housekeeper is slain and the wife and daughter of an energy company executive (The Wire’s Tom McCarthy) are kidnapped. This conceit allows for gripping scenes of urban paranoia and the dramatic tension of police officers working against the clock to save them, walking on foot through the city using old-fashioned whistle signals for the walkie talkies they can’t operate. Discovering the kidnappers’ hideout, Lupo and Green conduct a warrantless search with Cutter’s approval and this comes to haunt them later, forcing Cutter to make a personal appeal to the conscience of the executive to admit to his wrongdoing in creating the power outage and in the process save his own daughter from going to prison. This kind of moral dilemma is classic Law & Order material and “Darkness” is the perfect balance of procedural, issue-oriented plot and characterization. All three elements work together in a clockwork mechanism.
Each of the following episodes this season has kept right on this track, highlighting a clever thematic storyline while doling out small portions of character. “Ripped from the headlines” are crimes involving missing pants at the drycleaners, racial tensions propagated by parents, gay genes and the morality of legal executions. We learn that Detective Lupo is fairly fluent in Spanish and is taking night classes at Brooklyn Law School. Eighteen years in, the series seems as fresh as ever. More cast changes looming on the horizon do not seem threatening at all since the new blood fires up the old cylinders so effectively. The show truly seems to be bulletproof. In the end, it won’t matter if Anderson doesn’t turn out to be an effective replacement for Martin. He can be replaced by another actor who may be more suitable. On a show like Law & Order, the only thing that shouldn’t be expendable is the format.