Monday, May 24, 2010

The Final Cha-Chung: Remembering Law & Order

In a May 17 episode that probably should have been titled “Kinky Town,” writer Ed Zuckerman provided Law & Order with a hilarious whodunit about denial, betrayal, sneaky finances and some very bizarre sex games. It serves as a wonderful next-to-last chapter for the venerable weekly examination of New York City’s criminal justice system, just cancelled by NBC after two decades. Bewilderingly, this decision comes one season short of granting creator-executive producer Dick Wolf’s fervent wish: to boast that his series is the longest-running scripted primetime drama ever on network TV, thereby beating the 20-year run of Gunsmoke.

The Mother Ship, as everyone in the industry refers to the original cops-and-courts show that predated its spinoffs, wasn’t exactly sinking. The ratings may have been less than spectacular, but the current ensemble cast arguably is the most effective in eons. Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson, playing the lead detectives, demonstrate as much great chemistry as Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth did trading wisecracks while investigating murders, robberies, kidnappings and crimes of passion from 1992 to 1995. The performances delivered by Linus Roache and Alana De La Garza, as the hands-on prosecutors, also crackle with energy. He’s a sort of combination of his predecessors, the subtle Michael Moriarty and fiery Sam Waterston; She portrays the best prosecutorial sidekick since Jill Hennessy, only with less innocence. Reliably solid Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson -- respectively, the cranky district attorney and wise precinct commander -- never fail to amaze.

In terms of mainstream audience allure, L&O suffered from being more procedural than, say, the glitzier CSI. And, without primary characters undergoing endless personal dilemmas, this crackerjack centerpiece in Wolf’s franchise (which includes sisters-in-crime “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent”) is not as seductive an entertainment.

The Mother Ship, reruns of which will continue on various cable channels, has always offered far more depth than any of its rivals. Take, for example, one of the best episodes: In early 1991, during the first season, Mushrooms” was a masterpiece written by Robert Palm about an adolescent on trial for killing a baby with shots fired through an apartment window. But, after a long moment of silence in which Ben Stone (Moriarty) strides slowly across the courtroom, he confirms his realization that the defendant -- hired to assassinate a slimy real-estate agent -- had gone to the wrong address simply because he cannot read. While targeting the proliferation of drugs and guns in the city, the tragedy also offers a nuanced lesson on the sociological implications of illiteracy.

Critics at Large colleague Kevin Courrier was my coauthor on a 1999 book, Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion. Early on, one of our first encounters with the long arm of the law, so to speak, took place after I had picked him up in Montreal so we could work on the project for an extended period at my house. The car was full of his personal belongings, making customs officials on the Vermont side of the Quebec border suspicious. They didn’t catch our drift as we tried to explain that this would be a temporary stay rather than an illegal-alien invasion, one guard even asking why Kevin couldn’t just write the darn thing back in Canada. But then a supervisor inspected the publisher’s contract we proffered as evidence: “Your book is about ‘Law & Order’? That’s my favorite program,” he proclaimed. “I love that Jerry Orbach!” Welcome to America!

Our three-page introduction later recounted the experience and referred to Jerry, one of the kindest people imaginable, as “that favorite of border guards the world over.” Another kind man we met during our eight days on the set: The congenial Gus Makris, Emmy-winning director of photography at the time, provided us with an important key to understanding the show’s evolution. “I haven’t been to a crack house in ages,” he lamented, referring to the emphasis away from gritty scenarios in favor of more upper-crust subject matter. Indeed, in the beginning, many on the crew had considered The Battle of Algiers (1966) a touchstone for the documentary-like mise-en-scene they wanted to convey. That guerrilla filmmaking notion eventually gave way to a slicker approach; Showrunner Rene Balcer acknowledged that NBC wanted a more upscale, audience-pleasing milieu.

While we were there, Makris was working on an episode alongside a camera operator who is his longtime friend, Chris Misiano. In between takes they sometimes would suddenly burst into song together, most often a Tom Waits tune. (In their pre-show biz youth, the duo had once shot a film with Jerry Seinfeld, Misiano’s childhood pal from Massapequa, Long Island.) Another unforgettable saga is “White Rabbit,” on which Ed Zuckerman collaborated with fellow wordsmith Morgan Gendel. It was inspired by the real-life case of Katherine Ann Power, a fugitive activist who turned herself in after living underground for 20 years to escape conviction for a robbery leading to a police officer’s murder. Onscreen, the detectives and city attorneys express a range of opinions about counterculture idealism. Zuckerman saw this as “the perfect ‘Law & Order.’ Everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong.” That sounds like a twist on the Buffalo Springfield lyric, dealing with similar subject matter: “...nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Clearly, there’s “something happening here” decades after the Vietnam War and its vehement opposition at home. Orbach told us, “Everything about the 1960s still haunts me.”

The political angst of “White Rabbit” stands in amusing contrast to the domestic concerns addressed by “Love Eternal,” that recent Zuckerman episode with kinky overtones. After David Di Napoli is found stabbed to death with a sword while handcuffed in a cage in his own living room, the trail leads to a fistful of suspects: His wife, Marielle, a larger-than-life blonde bombshell who claims the guy was her soul mate and the accoutrements were only an innocently sadomasochistic part of their erotic foreplay; plus two other women and their conspiratorial husbands, who were involved in a labyrinthine money-laundering scheme with the deceased.

I cracked up at the revelation that the tacky Marielle had her first husband Larry’s ashes turned into a diamond ring. (Note to romantics: All carbon-based life forms are eligible!) The double-widow also plans to fashion a matching pendant from David’s cremated remains. How did Significant Other Number One die? She claims he was killed by Number Two. Detective Lupo (Sisto) wonders aloud if they can indict a piece of jewelry in this gem of a story on what has been a television treasure.

Saddened Law & Order aficionados now have nothing left but the postmortem.

And reruns, lots and lots and lots of reruns.

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law and Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

When I heard the news last week that Law & Order, television’s longest-running procedural drama, was being cancelled at the end of its 20th season, I found myself rather shocked. I thought the show would be around forever. For me, Law & Order was no longer the ground-breaking legal drama that it was in its first ten seasons, but still, it never lost its intelligent pursuit of the workings of the American justice system. And even if the starring cast found itself in an endless revolving door, there were always guest actors turning up to provide some of the best performances on television.

I first discovered the program back in 1995 as it was going into its fifth season. And I recognized Law & Order to be one of the most distinctly intelligent television programs I’d ever seen. Most police dramas ran like morality plays whereas Law & Order was a drama about morals. They examined the American legal system by dramatizing the way police officers, prosecutors and lawyers did their job while the writers and producers provided a unique way to address America’s social inequities.

I encountered the show just as I lost my job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and it appeared then that my radio career was over. As a result, I started to think of other ideas to keep me going and the thought of a companion book for Law & Order began then to take shape. I contacted Dick Wolf’s office with a rough outline and he really liked the idea. But realizing just how daunting the task of writing it would be, I called upon my friend Susan Green, an arts journalist, who had been a fan of the show since it began to collaborate on the project. It would take almost two years before we could find a publisher to take it on.

When we began work on it, the book became a drama in itself. First I had to move to Susan’s home in Vermont because (in the early days of e-mail and the Internet) it would have been too difficult to write apart. Our deadline was also insanely short. The blessing of the book, though, was that Dick Wolf gave us complete access to everyone while allowing us our autonomy to state critical opinions. People might not appreciate how impossibly rare that was then – and would certainly be today. But we swiftly mapped out our plan with Susan tackling the show’s history and myself ultimately sifting through close to 200 episodes to construct the guide to each season.

We went to New York to visit the set during the shooting of Season Eight with an episode called “Burned.” While there, we had a wonderful ally in production coordinator Gene Ritchings who guided us through the maze of writers, producers, actors and production people. I have very fond memories of the late Jerry Orbach, who would sing Broadway tunes between takes, being extremely generous and thoughtful with us. Carey Lowell and S. Epatha Merkerson were both wonderfully candid in their insights. Steven Hill was a master of economy in both his acting and in our interview with him. Benjamin Bratt was much warmer than the character they created for him to play. Speaking of warmer, it would have been more helpful if Sam Waterston hadn’t turned blue-blooded and treated me as if I was Mark David Chapman when I asked a simple question about his character, Jack McCoy. But Susan bailed me out by drawing on his more sympathetic side.

Since many actors had left the program, we also had to hunt them down and it still amazes me that we got to talk to everyone (save Michael Moriarty – who at that time was doing more talking to himself). My favourite interview was the most difficult one: George Dzundza. Dzundza had only lasted until the end of the first season and he departed on less than friendly terms. We found him in the most bizarre fashion, too, thanks to Chris Noth who told us about some character named Norby who had these endless poker games that Dzundza attended. Norby sounded like one of those Damon Runyon characters and thanks to that poker game we got Dzundza’s number. But keeping him on the phone when he had zero interest in talking to us was the most exhausting yet satisfying effort in the bunch.

The book, though, was written as if it were all happening in a war zone. We had an editor who knew plenty about acquiring books but little about being an actual editor. Our computers barely functioned properly – especially mine, where the period key had died so I had to save a collection of periods from previous writings and then write my sentences between them. The stress also tested our friendship because we were both so harried. I became sick in the final months due to (what I discovered much later) was a slow blood poisoning due to a dental procedure I had before I left for Vermont. And I haven’t even yet mentioned the famous Ice Storm of January 1998 that had us working out of a hotel where the waning electrical power kept the lights flickering like the buildings in David Lynch movies. All in all, I think we won the war. The book was a huge critical and financial success. Speaking as a critic, I think we did some really fine work here despite the occasional misery of writing it. I’m very proud of this book.

I could go talking about some of my favourite episodes but Susan covered a few of them already. And if you read the book, you’ll find both faves and pans. But what I’m left thinking about now is that Dick Wolf set an impossible standard for future legal dramas even with his uneven Law & Order spin-offs. In 1991, he created a courageous television program about the ethics of criminal justice in an industry where today those ethics have become criminally absent.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and co-author with Susan Green of Law and Order: The Unofficial Companion. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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