Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Law & Order, s4 (1993-1994)

The fourth season of Law & Order—getting it across the finish line for rerun syndication, otherwise known as The Rest of Our Lives—was an active one in terms of the original strategy of focusing on specific justice system roles, occupied by shifting characters, rather than the other way round which most of TV did, at least as of the mid-'90s (Bob Newhart, Tom Selleck, William Shatner, etc.). So without preamble or explanation a white man and a black man (Dann Florek as chief of detectives Donald Cragen and Richard Brooks as second-chair ADA Paul Robinette, respectively) are replaced even before the start of the new season by a black woman and a white woman (S. Epatha Merkerson as chief of detectives Anita Van Buren and Jill Hennessy as second-chair ADA Claire Kincaid, respectively). Merkerson, of course, would turn out to be the most prolific player in the show, appearing in 391 episodes (counting one role in an episode from an earlier season as someone other than Van Buren—#3 Jerry Orbach has an earlier one-off like that too). There did not appear to be any hard feelings—Florek directed a few episodes in this season, and much later reappeared, again as Cragen, in 331 episodes of the spinoff Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (which this year will match the 20-season run of the flagship, and can pull ahead with one more renewal next spring). Mastermind Dick Wolf and crew get right to the backstory of Claire Kincaid and the clashes Van Buren faces with men who report to her. In terms of the staples of episode-based TV—stories, characters, production, and performances—Law & Order arrived practically hitting on all cylinders and the fourth season is no exception. One of the highlights is an epic confrontation, verging on super-heroic, between ADA Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and a rascally brilliant opponent in ex-con Phillip Swann (Zeljko Ivanek). Plus there are the usual intriguing if random markers of prescience, such as the Russian mafia operating in the background, or another oblique appearance by Donald Trump (I'm starting to understand the deep roots he holds in popular culture, even if he was never anything to me).

The biggest change of this season doesn't happen actually until the next—that is, the replacement of ADA Stone with Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), who would go on to become #2 behind Merkerson for ubiquity in the show, appearing in 368 episodes. His domination / overstaying is an issue for later seasons, but because he essentially became the ADA associated with the show, inevitably it overshadowed Moriarty's work, which was every bit as good. In retrospect now it looks a little like some kind of mistake that was corrected, so I want to say something for Moriarty on his way out. I understand things look different on the inside of TV in terms of ratings considerations—what looks to us like "calling this rut a groove and going with it" too often misunderstands the rewarding commercial facts of a rut. It might well have hurt the show's popularity and even cut the run down earlier if they had swapped out Waterston for a third ADA sooner (and then exited him altogether from the show, please). I always wondered what Treat Williams would do with the role, for example. Moriarty and Waterston were both gifted theatrical actors leaning toward Method styles in approach. For players like that, a thundering righteous prosecutor is a dream horse of a role. Moriarty played his with a courtly grace and severity that felt like Ben Stone might have his origins in the South. Stone moved swiftly to use the justice system tools at his disposal, and when he was convinced he was right he sometimes strayed into gray areas of ethics and even law. Sometimes he just plain made mistakes. But he had compassion too and Law & Order screenplays often make ADAs more arbiters of justice, possessed of higher wisdom—or so they would like to think—than simply functioning bureaucrats (which may or may not be the reality, I wouldn't know). In many ways, Moriarty framed out the ADA role that would dominate the show and Waterston always worked within it. If anyone had known it would go 20 years, I wish they would have given Moriarty another one, brought in Waterston for only five, and then two others back of that (neither of them Linus Roache, please). But now I'm living in a dream world.

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