|"Law & Order" launches its 19th season with a dark episode that asks whether the justice system can go after a perpetrator so hard that it ceases to be "just."|
More specifically, it asks whether the anti-terror laws passed after Sept. 11 can be stretched beyond their original intent to ensnare people who may have done something wrong, but who are by no logical definition terrorists.
Critics who accuse "Law & Order" of left-wing navel-gazing will no doubt find that concern reinforced here.
The crimes in question occur during a couple of New York street fights, after which District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) invokes a terror statute to prosecute the perps when a lack of willing witnesses makes any other gambit untenable.
The show begins with a Wall Street broker collapsing and dying at his office from massive internal bleeding.
It turns out he had foolishly entered one of the street fights held in Union Square before a group of bloodthirsty spectators. Unfortunately, he chose to challenge a guy with legitimate boxing skills and no qualms about continuing to pummel our man after he was beaten and trying to surrender.
Detectives Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) and Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) quickly figure out what happened, but can't find the evidence or willing witnesses to make a murder rap stick.
So friends of the victim take justice into their own hands, launching a street brawl with the perp and his friends.
Before the cops can break it up, three people are dead - including a guy taking a walk in the park with his wife and young son.
Once again, however, the cops can't get all the pieces for a murder rap, and this triggers citywide outrage - which is a problem for McCoy, since he's up for re-election and doesn't want voters to think he can't stop rumbles in public parks.
That's when he turns to the terrorism option, the discussions and execution of which form the dramatic heart and troubling darkness of this episode.
As you would expect from a show entering its 19th season, the acting and the pacing are strong and confident. "L&O" has always been smart enough to stick with what works.
Still, producer Dick Wolf has chosen to start the year with anything but a simple good-guy/bad-guy yarn.
Interestingly, the characters never allude to RICO law, which has also been used to nail a wide range of suspects who couldn't be touched by a more direct approach.
Instead, this episode seems to treat anti-terror laws as a case unto themselves, and it lets the prosecutor and defense lawyer debate their value and danger.
Whether or not it adds up to justice, Wolf wants viewers to at least find it troubling.