|“Law & Order” was supposed to live forever, so the fact that it almost did — 20 years is an eternity in network years — doesn’t mitigate the shock of NBC’s announcement last week that it had pulled the plug.|
Except, of course, it can’t. New episodes aren’t necessary as long as there are reruns. One reason the current season isn’t doing well in the ratings is that the show is essentially a rerun-in-progress. No need to rush home for the latest episode or waste DVR space, because it will soon end up on the continuous loop of “Law & Order” provided by TNT and other cable networks. Like the “open” sign on Korean delis and the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, “Law & Order” is always on.
In 2002, Michael Kinsley wrote a very funny and completely true essay on Slate that described his wife’s addiction to “Law & Order” reruns, which he found utterly baffling. “Other than reruns of ‘Law & Order,’ she has almost no interest in television at all,” Mr. Kinsley wrote. “She’s not even interested in new episodes of ‘Law & Order’ itself. She couldn’t tell you what night it’s on and has no view about what this country is coming to when a man like Fred Thompson can be plucked from the obscurity of the United States Senate and entrusted with the responsibility of running the prosecutor’s office on ‘Law & Order.’ ”
Even people who watch television for a living can find themselves transfixed by a rerun, though duty calls for a look at “American Idol” or a new PBS documentary about oil production. When a show has lasted 20 seasons, it’s possible to have seen an episode several times and not have a clue who did it; one of the few rewards of a bad memory is that reruns can still seem fresh on the third viewing.
Dick Wolf, who had “Dragnet” in mind when he started, devised a formula so ingeniously rigid and self-contained that no casting change, special guest star or production caprice could derail it. Season after season, the cast kept morphing: a new tall, beautiful and chilly prosecutor would replace the outgoing one, a different hardboiled police detective would deliver an opening wisecrack, a new district attorney would ride herd, and judges would flip past like packages on a post office assembly line. Yet the show remained the same — an ode to all the terrifying things that can happen in New York City.
If anything, the current cast — which includes Jeremy Sisto as the lead detective, Cyrus Lupo; Anthony Anderson as his smart-aleck partner, Kevin Bernard; and Linus Roache as Michael Cutter, the intense assistant district attorney — is a throwback to the very first season with Chris Noth, George Dzundza and Michael Moriarty.
Only the ripped-from-the-headlines plots changed, tracking tabloid obsessions as if for a time capsule: crooked cops, preppy murderers, pedophile priests, philandering politicians, molesting stepfathers, postpartum depressed killer moms, H.I.V. spreaders, steroid-enraged athletes, suicide bombers, Internet porn stars, YouTube voyeurs and Ponzi scheming financiers. The final episode, “Rubber Room” (which is to be broadcast on May 24), tips its hat to the current ado about New York City public school teachers’ being warehoused for the school year in reassignment centers known as rubber rooms.
“Law & Order” is hypnotic precisely because it is both suspenseful and utterly predictable, fascinatingly lurid but comfortingly familiar. Any season will do. It’s harder to tire of lead characters if they are enigmatic and easily replaced.
The show was addictive, but it wasn’t contagious. Given its early success, and longevity, surprisingly few other shows tried to duplicate its austerity and emphasis on form over character development.
Spinoffs like “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Law & Order: SVU” delve deeply and mawkishly into the personal lives of their heroes and heroines. So do most of the “CSI” franchises, which are supposed to showcase forensic science and rationality and are instead telenovelas with lab coats and better lighting.
Newer crime shows are even more whimsical. “The Mentalist,” on which the detective relies less on evidence than on instinct, could be titled “Charm & Intuition.” The focus on evidence and courtroom procedure on “Law & Order” seems almost passé in the era of personality-based justice.
Shows like “Bones” are as much about the romantic chemistry of the two leads as about the forensic anthropology they rely on. “Law & Order” maintains admirable restraint: love affairs and stressful home lives are glancingly mentioned and rarely depicted.
The notable exception this season is the cancer scare of Lt. Anita Van Buren, the precinct commander whom S. Epatha Merkerson has played since 1993. Ms. Merkerson won an Emmy for “Lackawanna Blues,” a 2005 HBO film, but has not won one for her work on “Law & Order.”
The cancer-story arc seems intended to do the trick: Van Buren soldiers on valiantly at work while undergoing chemotherapy and trying to manage her mounting medical expenses. No heartstring is left untugged: her cervical cancer was caused by HPV (human papillomavirus) given to her by her cheating ex-husband. That makes it all the harder for the proud and intensely private lieutenant to learn to trust her supportive boyfriend.
Yet even the occasional lapse into subplot melodrama doesn’t violate the sanctity of the formula. “Law & Order” never changes or falters.
NBC announced it would move the concept west in the fall, to wit: “Law & Order: Los Angeles.” That’s not a relocation, it’s another spinoff. The original “Law & Order” will live on long after cancellation.