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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What is the enduring appeal of the ‘Law and Order’ franchise?

This suggestion for a QOTD came in from reader Patrick before I posted yesterday’s trailer for Law and Order: UK. But that coincidence only reinforces the necessity of the question itself.

The question: What is the enduring appeal of the Law and Order franchise?

I think it’s an especially interesting question to ask because L&O completely defies the standards of dramatic television at the moment. Whether it’s cop dramas or doctor dramas or retro-1960s-ad-men dramas or frakkin’-toaster-holocaust dramas, TV drama these days is all about years-long story arcs and complex characters and complicated relationships between the characters. They’re like Russian novels.

And that’s great. But it makes it hard to watch just one episode of Lost or Damages or The Closer. Not so Law and Order. Which is, I think, part of the ongoing appeal of the show. When the original L&O debuted in 1990, it didn’t stand out with its standalone stories more focused on plot than character (the Russian-novel trend began with The X-Files a few years later). Today, though, L&O is like a light snack instead of a dramatic feast. I love the Russian-novel trend, because it makes for very satisfying entertainment, but it requires a significant investment of time (and one that doesn’t always pay off in the end). But every episode of L&O guarantees a resolution.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • JoshDM

    You what they say, when you have a hit series…

    you make spin-offs.


  • JasonJ

    I didn’t watch the show until I met my wife back in 01, now I watch it religiously. It’s too bad Criminal Intent isn’t on anymore, that one was my favorite. Watching Vinny D get the suspects all nutted up was always good fun.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    You almost get a classic Doctor Who effect from the show. Everyone has his era. Although there are some light ongoing continuity and character notes, each story is effectively self-contained. It can be written and shot and acted very well, or not.

    The main interests for me are the chemistry in any given cast, and the quality of writing. Those have leapt upward since last season, and the most recent huge cast makeover. Season 18 was almost a soft reboot, like season seven of Doctor Who — and on the other end, they had their shit together.

    Which is well, because the show had been getting worse and worse since Tom Baker — I mean, Jerry Orbach — left. The new cast, and the new dynamics within it, is as good as the show has ever had. Even the returning cast members were energized and had far more to do with their characters.

    At its worst, the show is just a turn of the TV meat grinder. At its best, it’s a furious set of limitations leading to interesting reinvention.

  • PaulW

    The appeal of Law&Order:

    1) The format: a basic whodunnit murder mystery, Agatha Christie-like with the body, the cast of suspects, the plot twists and hidden layers of guilt
    2) The ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness of the stories: I’m willing to bet there’s a L&O being scripted right now where a plane is forced to land in the Hudson River and while dredging it up they find a murder victim in the plane’s bathroom
    3) The fact that there are major shades of gray to each episode: the murder victim may have been deserving of death; the person on trial is genuinely innocent (or there are moral questions about why he/she is on trial); the wrong person is on trial and is suffering for the sins of a loved one; the person on trial is clearly guilty, but because of our society’s mob mentality/blind spots on topics such as racial and gender issues the defendant gets away with it.
    On this last point, the show has a lot of Catholicism to its worldview: guilt, penance, forgiveness, God’s judgment shows up a lot as character motivators and plot points. My favorite episode was a roman a clef of the Moxley/Skakel murder trial, and an old friend of Briscoe’s had been part of a 20-year coverup. At the end of the episode, after the murderer had pled guilty, Briscoe goes to see his friend. After a brief build-up of making the audience think the friend had committed suicide, Briscoe finds his friend tinkering in the back (“Think I was gonna eat my gun, Lenny?”). After they talk a bit about the case, Briscoe’s friend admits he let a murderer go free for 20 years, and with tears forming he looks over and asks “Do you forgive me, Lenny?” “Every day,” Briscoe answers, and sums up the whole point of the series (well, at least in my mind).

  • Paul

    It’s nice for a quick fix and a peek a boo at increasingly gory bodies, but the arguments they get into seem pretty by the boo. Cops getting the bad guys is a tried and true formula that makes us feel better about the world, even better because these shows, so far as I can tell, the good guys are playing by the rules and still obtain justice, unlike the Lethal Weapon movies, for example.

    I have one friend who watched them to see his friends. He’s an actor and these shows, with their constant need for revolving victims, mourners, witnesses, and criminals has been a boon for local employment.

  • maryann and i have often commented that it seems as if every NY actor’s bio has an L&O listing. in england, it seems to be “The Bill” or “Doctor Who”…

  • Will

    To JasonJ, Criminal Intent is on USA network now, and with original episodes periodically. I’ve seen advertising for the new season, so I assume it’ll be coming back soon.

    I seem to recall NBC borrowing the new episodes to re-air, like they’re doing with Friday Night Lights right now.

  • Ide Cyan

    Law & Order (the original series) has an ongoing story arc, too, this year: McCoy’s electoral campaign as District Attorney. And there are other smaller things, like Lupo’s law classes. I started watching the show again last year because its renewed appeal for me was the new cast additions and the recently improved writing. The focus of the series isn’t on the characters, but they are there and they make the episodes and the cases more interesting.

  • Scott

    Problem with original flavour L&O is that after almost twenty years of pretty much the same formula – cops investigate, DAs prosecute, moral complexity galore – it starts getting a bit ‘seen it all before’ after a while.

  • eric-jon rössel waugh

    Last season had a few light ongoing threads as well — even a recurring villain!

  • Gee

    I’ve never watched Law & Order. (It is shown in the UK but not on one of the main channels.) Do the guilty always (usually) get caught/punished and the innocent go free, or is it more like real life with mis-carriages of justice? Do they ever go back on a case if there has been a wrong decision and show the appeal process?

  • JasonJ

    To JasonJ, Criminal Intent is on USA network now, and with original episodes periodically. I’ve seen advertising for the new season, so I assume it’ll be coming back soon.

    I have seen those, but they have a different feel to them due to not being produced by the same people. Their not bad, just not the same.

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