Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Law & Order, s1 (1990-1991)

USA, TV series (NBC)
Creator: Dick Wolf
Cast: George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Dann Florek, Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, Steven Hill

I've been meaning to make a project of the original Law & Order TV show, a daunting task, not least because it's one of the longest-running shows ever, after only The Simpsons (still going) and tied with Gunsmoke. Interestingly, or not, its longevity is currently being stalked by one of its own spinoffs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which has now gone 18 seasons, compared with the original's (and Gunsmoke's) 20. The Simpsons, by comparison, has now gone 28. I say "or not" because, to be clear, I don't consider the spinoffs, any of them, in the same league. Law & Order, the flagship, had a purity of abstraction the others ultimately never came close to—really never tried, as they were intended as more conventional TV drama in their conception. Indeed, even the flagship series eventually succumbed to TV's institutional pressures, most notably in its prolonged unlovely affair with Sam Waterston.

But all that is far in the future for this first season, which brings me to my other reason for putting it off so long. When I first discovered Law & Order, in syndicated reruns in the mid-'90s, it was easy to spot the earliest episodes. No, it was not just the presence of George Dzundza as detective Max Greevey, who appeared only in this first season, as partner to Mike Logan (Chris Noth, still with baby fat). Many episodes in the first season are qualitatively different. The characters are slightly out of key, their interrelations have not jelled yet. There's even one District Attorney who is not Adam Schiff (let alone Arthur Branch).

The stories are much more fluid in terms of the apportionment of time to police investigation and trial sequences, which over the years came to be pretty much straight-up 50/50. In the first season that can be more lopsided. The Assistant DA, Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), is more impulsive and erratic. Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks) is Paul Robinette, he's always steady, but his relationship with Stone is more ambiguous, marked by wariness and distrust. Heck, there's even an episode where S. Epatha Merkerson shows up as a character who is not Anita Van Buren, ultimately the most prolific character in the series.

So it's not quite right, it's just slightly off, but the good news is many of these episodes crackle as much as anything in the whole run. Yes, there are stinkers and weird throwaways, but unlike, say, Seinfeld, which started the year before, there are more than a few gems here in the first season. It's amazing to think that Law & Order started before Rodney King was videotaped being beaten and ended after Barack Obama was elected president. It lived in each passing moment, purely of the times as they went by, with its dedicated "ripped from the headlines" bravado. Some of that good energy is a matter of great performances, as the show always took advantage of the theatrical talent available on location where it was shot, New York City. At its best, Law & Order bobs and weaves and throws punches with a heavy wisecracking mojo that comes from the city itself. That's already here in the first season.

As a police procedural, half of the show's basic formula ("Law"), it's one of my favorites, simply excellent at doing it, drawing on obvious sources such as the Jack Webb style of police interview, the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, and Hill Street Blues, and laying it all over with its own swagger. They name-check Donald Trump, face down abortion and racial politics, and give a nice feel for the lives of cops. Ditto the legal system ("Order"), when it goes courtside. I like a good legal drama too, as who does not? And, again, the show feels all over the realities of plea bargaining and deal making the way it actually seems to go down.

Already the show is proudly and defiantly in the face of current events—the disclaimers are everywhere, like a badge of honor. We fictionalized it but you know who we're talking about (Bernhard Goetz, Jack Kevorkian, Robert Chambers the "Preppie Killer," Tawana Brawley, and various other well-known cases). And already, in the best episodes, the plots are swift and surprising, with lots of twists. Logan's suits, especially the ties, are already ridiculous. It's the stink of crime in the midst of teeming life, and the never-ending cry for justice. What more can you ask for? How about 19 more seasons, most of them even better?

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