|NEW YORK, August 28, 2011 –We begin our series of fall season previews by catching up on the current fate of Law & Order, a once robust Dick Wolf franchise that appears to be singing its collective swan song. One by one, the elements of the franchise have either worn out audience goodwill or have been so butchered by their creators/producers that they’re not likely to survive much longer.|
As nearly every L&O fan knows by now, the first two shows to be terminated were the original New York-based L&O and its late, unsuccessful spinoff, L&A-LA. Franchise paterfamilias Law & Order seems to have expired primarily due to old age.
Fresh and new when it debuted in the 1990-1991 TV season, L&O’s innovative half- cop-half-courtroom format endured for years, breaking new ground for a cops and robbers-style series. New York’s finest detectives occasionally screwed up, the city’s crack prosecutors occasionally botched a case or got hung up on technicalities, and obvious miscarriages of justice occurred and had to be dealt with, just like in real life and unlike the venerable Perry Mason series where Perry always won. Each character had his or her personal issues. No perfection. What a concept.
Even more interesting, and surprisingly intelligent for its time: the law itself—with a nod toward Dr. Johnson—could still be an ass. The cops and prosecutors could forge a case that was morally and ethically superior. But a sharp or unscrupulous defense attorney, or a petty error by the cops could still find loopholes in the code that allowed a clearly guilty perp to get off scot-free—free to roam the streets of New York yet once again. We all know this happens. But now, a TV show had the guts to show the results.
This kind of plot uncertainty was, at the time of the series launch, still an unusual element in a dramatic TV series and it added an unaccustomed layer of complexity to the show. We couldn’t always count on our law enforcement knights catching the bad guys and winning the case. And it was this innovation, arguably, that created a high level of interest in the original series, transforming a once shopworn format into something intriguing for the newly sophisticated and skeptical Clinton-era generation of TV viewers.
After the turn of the new century, however, the original series began its molasses slow slide into Nielsen oblivion. Constant cast changes and shifting timeslots took their toll, as they often do on mature series. Arguably, L&O’s long, slow decline was due, at least in part, to the increasing political stridency of its scripts, many of which took on a strident anti-Bush administration theme as the 2000s progressed.
L&O:LA, a late entry to the franchise, never found its sea legs in its short, unhappy life. In the first place, the change of venue was hardly inspired. Too many films and TV shows are either filmed entirely on location in LA or use the California back lots and countryside as a substitute for something else, as in the surprisingly frequent NCIS scenes taking place in an arid, relatively treeless “Virginia” countryside. Not to mention the fact that the CBS series also rolled out a successful spinoff in NCIS-LA. So why did we need another from L&O?
Worse, the character rollout in LA never worked from the get-go. Frantically substituting actors and backstories wrecked what credibility the series did have and viewership—along with the series—collapsed before the show had completed a season.
The lesson: a poor rollout of a spinoff—even one derived from a popular series—is doomed to an ugly and early demise.
The less said about the remainder of the L&O franchise, perhaps the better. After needlessly inserting a second pair of detectives in a platoon arrangement with its popular Goren and Eames duo, L&O: CI began bumping around in NBC’s schedule quite capriciously which caused its once large audience to dwindle. Viewers got to the point where they were never quite able to figure out when the next episode would air.
On the verge of cancellation, network hacks got the bright idea of bumping CI to their lower-rated sister network, USA. On one hand, this did give the series a chance of regaining its popularity relatively unhindered on a network that needed a viewership boost. On the other hand, episodes on USA were also a sometimes things, an effect compounded by the lengthy Hollywood writers strike which virtually obliterated an entire season not long after the network switch.
Worse, after saying goodbye to Chris Noth’s laconic, troubled alternative detective Mike Logan, CI substituted a wooden Jeff Goldblum as detective Zack Nichols. Goldblum slept through the part—a matter made worse when the series decided to eliminate Goren and Eames entirely in a ridiculous, hurried two-parter, making Goldblum the king of the hill for what was turning into a dying series.
Goldblum apparently gave up on his non-effort last season. USA’s solution: bring Goren and Eames back for an 8-episode season and wrap the series up forever. And that’s what they did. The decision was reasonably popular with Goren and Eames fans who hoped the brief revival of the original series might result in its return for another full season. But the damage had already been done, and it appears that CI has breathed its last.
Had USA eliminated the second set of detectives early on, L&O: CI might have enjoyed renewed interest on that network, given its increasingly popular focus on quirky characters over plot and storyline. But, beginning with Monk and continuing through series like Burn Notice and Psych, the USA format involved a good deal of humor, never a strong suit for the Law & Order franchise. So in the end, CI proved to be a poor fit with the USA evolution, and that, too, may have contributed to its demise.
What’s left standing in the L&O franchise? L&O: SVU, that’s what. But it’s likely to be increasingly unrecognizable beginning this fall. Longtime series regular detective Eliot Stabler, portrayed by steely-eyed Chris Meloni, is gone, reportedly due to a contract squabble. Meanwhile, Eliot’s partner, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) will see less action this season, reportedly due to her own request for a reduced presence to provide her with more family time.
The logical conclusion here, under the circumstances, would have been to promote the show’s second-level detectives to top billing, but this was a no-go for reasons undisclosed. We’ll explore the possible reasons for this a bit further in our concluding L&O piece.