What Law & Order Taught Us

Jonathan V. Last | Posted on 05/24/10

But the biggest lesson of Law & Order? Justice may not always prevail, but even when it doesn't, the good guys have a scotch, go home, and come back to work the next morning. That's character.

On Monday, Law & Order journeyed into TV's undiscovered country after 20 seasons and 456 glorious episodes. America has a lot to learn from this magnificent war-horse of a series.

* The murderer is always the guy (or gal) you vaguely recognize. Over the years, 5,934 actors appeared in speaking roles in Law & Order, and whenever you dimly knew a face from a commercial or a supporting role in an indie film, you knew he or she was guilty.

* The plea bargain is a great civilizational advance. Without the plea bargain, our legal system would be non-functional. By my unscientific count, barely half of the cases in Law & Order reached a jury verdict - as often as not, the prosecution and the defense struck a deal, many times before the trial even began. Those pleas saved the New York taxpayers scads of money and kept the courtrooms from being gridlocked. As district attorney Arthur Branch (played by Fred Dalton Thompson) remarked to a particularly disapproving ADA, "The plea bargain is the greatest advance in jurisprudence since the invention of the guillotine."

* A good deputy doesn't flatter the boss. That disapproving ADA Serena Southerlyn (played by Elisabeth Röhm) was the only character to be fired within the fictional confines of the show. Her boss axed her because she was constantly pushing back against her superiors, to the point of insubordination. But the best deputies in Law & Order weren't yes-women. On the contrary, the show's finest ADA, Abbie Carmichael (played by Angie Harmon), often challenged her boss - not out of petulance, but because her skill set and worldview complemented, rather than mirrored, his.

* Extremism in the defense of virtue can be a vice. The only times executive assistant district attorney Jack McCoy (played by Sam Waterston) stepped over the line were when his passions got the better of his judgment. Waterston's predecessor, Michael Moriarty (who played EADA Ben Stone) ran into similar, real-life problems. Early in Law & Order's tenure, Attorney General Janet Reno criticized the show for being too violent (a complaint which seems quaintly naïve today). Moriarty became so concerned with censorship and government influence that he quit the show, moved to Canada, and declared himself a political exile. He was right to deplore Reno's silly criticism. But it was a shame to lose his excellent work.

* The rigidity of form can lead to artistic greatness. Law & Order adhered to a detailed formula: every show had five acts; information was parceled out in a pattern; detectives and district attorneys acted in certain ways. Even the "ca-ching" sound operated according to a rule - it was used only between scenes indicating a transition in the story line and no more than twice per act. Creator Dick Wolf was so obsessive about these strictures that he compiled the bylaws of Law & Order into a thousand-page bible, which guided the development of each episode. Instead of stifling creativity, this strict obedience to form fostered it, much as the restrictions of the sonnet allowed some of the most artful and beautiful poetry to emerge from language.

* Without a strong central idea, all character-driven drama eventually becomes a soap opera. The key to Law & Order's longevity is that the show's main character was actually New York City. (Wolf himself has acknowledged this.) The series regulars were always just reacting to her, which both made the lead characters replaceable and kept the show from devolving into a production of who-is-sleeping-with-whom - the tedious endgame of all hour-long TV dramas these days.

* You can subvert ideological biases by framing them cleverly. There was never much doubt that Law & Order was the product of Hollywood-Manhattan liberalism. Whenever an episode focused on a hot-button topic - environmental terrorism, Terri Schiavo, abortion, cop-killer bullets - you knew where the show's sympathies lay. But the narrative point of view was that of the state, seeking prosecution of (guilty) law-breakers-which is an inherently conservative perspective. By forcing its writers to come at their biases from off-angles, the show's forays into politics were lively and off-kilter, not hectoring and dull.

* No one in Hollywood knows anything. Between advertising, royalties, spin-offs, and DVD sales, you measure Law & Order's financial contribution to NBC and its various parent companies in the billions. That's with a "b." The show's income from foreign rights alone was well over $500 million. Law & Order was, easily, the most financially successful program NBC aired in the past 20 years. Yet the show was originally supposed to be on Fox.

Fox picked up 13 episodes based on the strength of Dick Wolf's pitch, only to have Barry Diller - then head of the network, who is and was, by all accounts, one of the shrewdest minds in Hollywood - step in and quash the order, allowing the series to fall into NBC's lap.

* But the biggest lesson of Law & Order? Justice may not always prevail, but even when it doesn't, the good guys have a scotch, go home, and come back to work the next morning. That's character.





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