|It's an excruciating experience for Chris Noth to watch his earliest epsiodes of Law & Order, the series showcased in TNT's eight-episode marathon on Sunday, March 5. Not that there was anything wrong with the plots or the pacing in 1990, when the long-running crime drama was in its infancy. In many ways, he believes, Law & Order was a better show then than it is today. So what's the turnoff for Noth, who played Det. Mike Logan? Simply put, having to endure the performance of ... Chris Noth.|
As everyone knows by now, complex crime stories come first on Law & Order; character development is essentially an afterthought. "The actors have been bitching about that since Law & Order began," Noth says. "And the danger is when you try to force character into it where maybe it's not warranted. That's why it's hard for me to even look at the first six episodes. Because I'm practically waving my arms and screaming, 'Look at me! I'm a character!'"
Perhaps Noth is being overly critical. Actors often obsess about their own work. But it's true he didn't have to try so much to be noticed. Chris Noth has screen presence that's hard to miss -? and he can convey more information with one exasperated look than many actors can with a whole soliloquy. All these years later, Logan remains a fan favorite ?- and the Logan-Briscoe years of 1992 to '95, when Noth worked the mean streets of Manhattan alongside Jerry Orbach, is widely regarded as the version of the show at its best.
Flash forward to the 2005-06 TV season, with Noth once again playing Mike Logan, this time on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, one of L&O's multiple spinoffs. Noth still has the same love/hate relationship with the procedural storytelling format. "The stories on Law & Order are like Sherman's march to Atlanta," he declares. "They go forward and you can't fight the current." But these days, Noth might be just a little bit better at going with the flow.
"All of the things that I used to complain about, I still complain about," he admits. "But it's something I have to accept. It's what the show is. There are times when the writers say, 'Um, can you do that with a look instead of a line?' And I'm like, 'Geez, probably not.' But they ask you to try because they just need to get that train rolling. It's a specific discipline for an actor and it can be grueling sometimes. But then, when they cut together, it works."
Longtime Law & Order fans might have been surprised when Noth joined the Criminal Intent cast, starring in what amounts to every other episode, thus reducing the workload for Vincent D'Onofrio. Noth's departure from the original after season five, after all, wasn't under the best of terms. When I interviewed him in 1996, Noth was downright brutal in comments about executive producer Dick Wolf, actor Benjamin Bratt (Noth's replacement) and the overall quality of the show (which he said had slipped, becoming a Murder, She Wrote?style whodunit).
"Did I say that?" Noth says 10 years later. "No, not me. It's so long ago. I can't even remember yesterday. But I was coming off five years on a show and it didn't end great. So, whatever. I was probably just being a hardass." Fair enough. But what changed? "Dick Wolf made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
During the years between his two turns as Logan, Noth kept active in a variety of film, TV and theater roles. The one that made the biggest impact was Mr. Big, Sarah Jessica Parker?s off-again, on-again love interest in Sex and the City. "I'm not allowed to answer any questions about Sex and the City," he says. "It's a legal matter." Really? "No, I'm just kidding. Sex and the City was a great show and I loved it for what it was. But the response to it became something so much more than (what the show was meant to be)."
Noth notes that the original Law & Order ("I refuse to call it the 'mothership'") also made an impact on our popular culture, especially in terms of TV storytelling technique. "The style that Law & Order created seems to be the vogue thing today," he says. "When we started, the idea of cutting to the chase and trimming off the fat and getting to the heart of the story and the crime and the procedure was a novelty. Now it's in everything you see, even dumb shows taking on that style and pretending they're something they're not."
Which means all of the Law & Order shows, Noth says, must continue to aim high. The alternative, he fears, is settling into a routine and becoming boring, an unpardonable crime in television. "There's already a certain amount of recycling going around. I've seen it. Some of the shows that we did in the first five years, those scenes have been taken and reworked a different way." But at the same time, he concedes, "There are only so many ways you can kill someone."
Meanwhile, much to Noth's disappointment, there's one quality that the current shows may never be able to re-create. "You can't really shoot the old Law & Order in New York today, because it's a different city," the inveterate New Yorker says. "Manhattan's really much more of a theme park now. It's a less interesting borough. I like the fact that it's safer. I ride the subways and it's great that they?re safe. But that doesn't mean it has to become a mall, does it? I miss the integrity of neighborhoods and small businesses and different ethnic flavors. I think there's room for the disenfranchised in this borough. I don't think we have to sweep it under the rug. We can have a safe city and it can be clean with some of the other elements of character that I'm talking about that we need to protect. That's all I'm saying." But for all that Manhattan has changed, non-resident Law & Order viewers probably won't see the difference reflected on-screen. They will still relish the journey from crime scene to precinct to courtroom and all the twists and turns in between.
Don't miss TNT's Law & Order marathon, Sunday, March 5, 11am/10c.