Wait, what? Law & Order in a TV Graveyard feature? But Law & Order is still on right now. That’s true in a way: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is now into its 19th season and the franchise’s new format, the anthology True Crime, debuted last year with a season all about the Menendez murders. But the original Law & Order has been off screens since 2010 and subsequent instalments Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury and LA all ended years ago too. That said, the franchise is so famous and so successful and plays in repeats everywhere that you might be wondering why we’re bothering picking it. The reason for that is: it’s been nearly 28 years since the first season began on U.S. screens and brought about the biggest change in network police shows since Police Story (1973-1978) nearly two decades before. And, although fundamentally the same structure at its outset as it was at its close, that opening blast of Dick Wolf’s seminal television series has much to recommend for those willing to explore. So we’d like to pay tribute to a massively influential show that reshaped the landscape of crime television as we moved into the ‘90s.
In the ‘80s depictions of police onscreen were mostly found in the likes of T.J. Hooker (1982-1986), Hunter (1984-1991) and Miami Vice (1984-1989). We’re not slighting any of these fine pieces of entertainment, each one with much to recommend and, in the case of Michael Mann’s era-defining show, a true televisual great. But what can be said about all is they’re either week-in-week-out escapism or concerned with more than presenting a realistic representation of the real world of police and justice. For all its bleakness and hard edges Miami Vice is still tinged with ‘80s fantasies about lifestyles and glamour, and even has a quality of prime-time soap opera to it. Enter the magnificently monikered Dick Wolf. Wolf had worked in advertising and then moved into writing for television and had earlier in the decade worked on probably Law & Order’s most direct antecedent, Hill Street Blues (1981-1987). Through this, Wolf would come to work on Miami Vice in its middle seasons.Around this time Wolf had an idea about a show that covered, as realistically as possible, cases from the beginning (i.e. the police investigation) to the conclusion (the trial and subsequent verdict).
In addition to it essentially being another police drama, the show wasn’t a completely original concept, having surfaced 25 years earlier in the short-lived Ben Gazzara/Chuck Connors series Arrest and Trial (1963-1964). Despite this, it wasn’t like anything currently on air and so Wolf first got a series order for 13 episodes from Fox, an offer that was soon withdrawn when it was decided the tone and approach didn’t fit the network’s ouput. It went via CBS for a pilot in 1988 (the episode ‘Everybody’s Favorite Bagman’ which would eventually be broadcast as the show’s 6th episode) who passed on it before landing at NBC.
The format of the show remained from the pilot: a cold open which detailed the committing of or discovery of a crime. From there the detectives would enter to investigate the crime. Once they had arrested a suspect or suspects the second half of the show would focus on the city prosecutors team from the district attorney’s office and their efforts to secure a conviction. The show was certainly episodic from the outset and unlike Hill Street Blues there’s little to no attempt at character development or story arcs. Instead each segment is all about the drama found in the cases being presented. In that sense, Law & Order can of course trace back its structure and approach in many ways to progenitors of the television crime drama like Dragnet (1951-1959). But although each episode sticks to a formula that rarely deviates, one thing Wolf and his creative team decided on early in the show’s development is that it would frequently use ‘ripped from the headlines’ inspirations for its cases to give each drama up-to-date cultural relevance. This meant that a plot used either current ‘hot’ issues as an inspiration or, as was the case in many season one episodes, they were directly inspired by specific cases. Unlike something like Dragnet which did the same thing, using real cases as the basis for episodes, Law & Order also worked to deliver something more challenging and nuanced than Webb’s earlier classics.
If we take the first episode of the series, ‘Prescription for Death’, we find an ambitious show that decided to tackle it this way straight from the beginning. Where other shows might have gone for something action packed or bombastic, involving murder or some sort of ‘glamorous’ crime to match contemporaries, Law & Order kicks off with an emotionally-charged story of possible medical negligence and cover-up that resulted in the death of a young woman. This was directly inspired by a similar case from the mid-80s. The second show focuses on whether a white woman (played by Cynthia Nixon in an excellent guest role), previously the victim of a violent assault which had ended a dance career, was right in using deadly force against two young black men she claims threatened her on a subway train, similarly directly inspired by a case from recent memory at the time. Neither of these offer comforting ‘justice has been served’ endings but instead comment on the imperfect nature of what is wrong and right, and what justice and the law really is.
The episode is also a good example of the approach the show takes to these kind of issues throughout. The two detectives, Greevey and Logan, are both white males but Greevey is a middle-aged family man whilst Logan is a younger, single man. Consequently, in the course of investigating a crime, when the two detectives discuss or comment on the case or their approach to it, they have frequently differing opinions, thereby mirroring the viewer experience. This the show to set up the second half of each episode: the court case. Here, those differences that the two detectives verbalised come more into play as the district attorney’s office decide how to prosecute. The two DAs are also two men of differing ages and experiences — Stone, the older and Robinette the younger man. But Robinette is also black, and this frequently plays into cases that come up, especially as many involve race or issues that the generations could have significantly different standpoints on.
We should also consider how this is not the New York of today after zero tolerance, with Times Square as its glittering and soulless corporate heart. This is New York at the end of the ‘80s — often dangerous, nearly bankrupt. The show doesn’t try and hide away from this, and instead encourages viewers to consider and debate on those ‘hot’ issues like race, sexual violence, gay rights and so on. One can imagine how the show sparked some heated discussions in homes across America after broadcast. It’s one of the ways being rigidly formulaic helps Law & Order — at least in its early run — in that it would always use its format for this purpose. Being shot on location on the streets of New York also provides a verisimilitude of sorts to proceedings that helps the first season (and subsequent ones too) act as a time capsule of what the city was then like. It’s not a The Wire-like commitment to realism of course, but for a network show it helps ground the series despite the artificiality of each episode’s structure and whilst specifically dating the show, actually helps contribute now to its longevity and relevance.
And so this is why, despite franchise fatigue and the proliferation of not-always-successful spin-offs and rip-offs of Wolf’s original classic, the first — and still best — Law & Order is worth revisiting from the start. It’s well-made, gripping and intelligent network fare that seeks to move outside of the often undeniably right-leaning interpretations of police work from various ‘80s series. It’s actually more successful at this than many current network police series where the conclusion inevitably ends with the gun as solution. It’s a natural mix of Wolf’s inspirations from Webb’s Dragnet onwards through to the morally-less-clearcut approach of (mostly early) Miami Vice. It is both capsule of the original broadcast time’s social mores and a city now lost forever to time. It’s not always subtle — in fact, it is inarguably sometimes direct in its politics despite the attempts at balance. That said, much of what it covered during that first run is still (sometimes astonishingly so) relevant to today. Later plot lines in the season cover topics like misogyny (in respect of whether a victim of sexual assault and battery was ‘asking for it’), sex worker rights, race relations such as the fabrication of evidence in the shooting of a young black man, or when a African-American girl accuses two white cops of rape, the issue of a woman’s right to choose, police corruption and gun violence. The race-focused episodes even (though likely not necessarily intentionally at the time) undeniably centre around the social constructs that forced black people in America into roles defined for them by a society seeking to demonise them.
Aside from the social issues covered, there’s also a company of outstanding actors to enjoy throughout. Greevey and Logan are played by respected character actor George Dzundza and Chris Noth (Mr Big from Sex and the City before the smug got him). Stone is played by character actor and cult star Michael Moriarty, known to many Larry Cohen fans. Robinette meanwhile is played by the fabulously-voiced Richard Brooks, who for many will always be Jubal Early from Firefly’s ‘Objects in Space’ episode. Other series regulars and an incredible roster of guest stars, many of who went onto classic series and roles in their own right, help reinforce the quality of these early episodes. As the series continued more female characters would be added in as series regulars too.
In amongst the reruns and the sheer volume of franchise options to choose from, if you have never enjoyed the show from the beginning it’s revelatory in quality and depth and something that continues for much of the flagship series’ run. If you’re a fan of police procedurals, human-impact stories and high-standard network drama it is well worth your time.