Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Law & Order, s3 (1992-1993)

The third season of Law & Order sees all its many potent strands continuing to come into sharp focus—it's practically at the top of its form now. The stories are fresh with news currents, and they are twisty, complicated, and satisfying—there's usually a dead person in the opening scene and always a court trial in the second half, but getting from here to there is never the same, nor are the results ever predictable. The casts and performances are great. It's not just the crimes and criminals that get attention. Sometimes they are dealt with perfunctorily while larger issues of justice and procedure are at stake. Notably, some of the hardest fought ones are still lost, a tendency that would fade some over the years as the show more and more accommodated the necessities of managing long-term hit TV. (Producer Dick Wolf and crew have succeeded at that too, as the inferior spinoff Special Victims Unit will match the longevity of the original if it's renewed this year.) The most important development in this season is the coming of Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), as the detective partner of Mike Logan (Chris Noth). After S. Epatha Merkerson and Sam Waterston, neither of whom has shown up yet (except Merkerson as someone other than her later character ... which happened with Orbach too for that matter) ... Lenny Briscoe would become the series' third most ubiquitous character, appearing across some 14 seasons. It's not hard to see the appeal. He just clicks in like he belongs. He is more recognizably New York City in his attitude and manner, with a memorable hangdog face, a bent for cynical quips, hints of a sad backstory, and something that is simply likable. Orbach was actually more of a Broadway song and dance man by trade but his aging face carried the new persona well, already used effectively for example by Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors a few years earlier. Neither Paul Sorvino nor George Dzundza had been happy as Logan's earlier partners. The show didn't suit their styles, for different reasons (and though they were both fine), but Orbach owns the role of Lenny Briscoe from the first scenes.

More telling for the natural strengths of the show, perhaps, is the use made of Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick), a forensic psychologist and regular character introduced in the previous season, which offered a sophisticated wrinkle to the police procedural, a skillful binding element to tie the two sides of the premise—"the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders"—even more tightly together. This closing of this dramatic loop of the justice system was the single greatest innovation of Law & Order. Yet in many ways, here in the third season, the fine points are still being figured out. Olivet sheds a lot of light on the procedures, consulting with detectives and prosecutors alike, offering many interesting angles around insanity, competence, social welfare, and other legal matters. But, in perhaps the single most famous episode in the 20-year run of the show, which occurs in this season (it certainly seemed to be shown all the time in reruns) they go pell-mell into a reckless place, making her a victim. The case involves a creepy gynecologist who amuses himself by molesting and raping his patients, under the cover of local anesthetics given ostensibly for procedures. No doubt it has antecedents in a real case or cases. It smacks of a certain flavor of '80s and '90s true crime. And it's an opportunity to air out issues of rape and the credibility of accusers, so with incidental acute relevance at the moment, notably in the way it resolves. I wouldn't say the show cheats on the gravity—in the last scene, Olivet is seen in therapy session beginning to deal with it. But it still seems a terrible abuse of a character, even if she is back in further episodes with minimal fallout. Perhaps because so. Sometimes, maybe, using the power to traumatize and even kill major characters in a continuing series might be a little oversold. See also Ed McBain and many of his women characters. Or maybe I've just seen that episode too often.


  1. I admit to being uninformed ... my entire experience with the L&O franchise is sitting around for a few minutes here and there when my wife is watching. Perhaps it's my lack of knowledge, but I'm curious why you find SVU to be inferior. I don't know that you're wrong ... I'm basing my question on the ubiquity of SVU as much as anything. I will say, as a casual-at-most viewer, that the only one of the series that strikes me as unique is ... well, I'm not sure of the name, the one with Vincent D'Onofrio. He is such a commanding presence that if I walk in on one of his episodes with only 5 minutes to go, I have to sit down and watch just to see him use his bulk and spookiness to squeeze yet another confession from a perp.

  2. Both SVU and Criminal Intent always struck me as much more conventional broadcast drama. They were a notch above other forensics dramas like CSI and Bones but nowhere close to the original series. I agree about D'Onofrio in CI. Eventually they just built the show around him and made it work that way. And I used to put in some rerun time on SVU until the monotony made me change the channel. I suspect it's how many take the original L&O but the show has something for me that kept me watching them three and four at a time in reruns for years. I love it.

  3. I've often wondered why, since the L&O universe crosses over between shows, the detectives on the other shows don't just bring D'Onofrio in five minutes before the end. He'd solve every case.