Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Law & Order, s5 (1994-1995)

In 1994, before cable and then streaming sent it all sprawling (disruption, baby, it's a virtue now), it was still critically important for any TV series to reach a fifth season because that opened the door to rerun syndication Valhalla, extending into perpetuity (The Simpsons, for example, is still going and so is its rerun industry, post-10th-season naysayers notwithstanding). That year, 1994, was also important in the annals of broadcast crime and true-crime because in June O.J. Simpson allegedly committed the double homicide for which he was acquitted, and the whole riveting debacle—from the slow-motion police chase on live TV to the reading of the verdict 16 months later—radically changed lots of things about crime and broadcast and celebrity. The coming of DNA evidence as indisputable arbiter was another big part of the change, resulting in a resurgence in the popular appetite for crime fare, especially true-crime fare, propelled on a daily basis in large part by the ongoing O.J. case (and then into the maw of the JonBenet Ramsey mystery, where it appears to have consumed itself in a way, though leaving an entire true-crime industry behind still visible on multiple cable channels). Law & Order was well positioned to take advantage of these currents, even as it receded some next to the flood of documentaries in the Bill Kurtis style. But that didn't matter much because now Law & Order reruns were always there waiting for you on the A&E channel when you were done with the cold-case files or whatnot.

With the arrival of Sam Waterston as ADA Jack McCoy, who would never leave the show from that point on, Law & Order took more of a cautious running-in-place kind of approach. There are still episodes in the "ripped from the headlines" mode (and always would be, at varying degrees of intensity season to season), but a couple of other themes are starting to creep more into prominence. One is a familiar conventional safe approach to a TV series, focusing on the ensemble nature of the cast and devoting time to personal character development. For example, there's an episode this season where Captain Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) shoots and kills an assailant off-hours and finds herself in deep dutch when the evidence doesn't match her story. Or, almost immediately, McCoy begins an affair with his assistant Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy). This affair is particularly weak sauce in the flagship show (though stuff like it would be more like the staple in the spinoffs), but at least it never dominates. In fact, the affair between McCoy and Kincaid was virtually invisible to me as I first encountered the show and watched it for years mostly in reruns, and it was only when I was going through this season systematically that I saw the subtle hints of chumminess between them for what they are. So lawyerly, so professional, so icky now.

The other theme, a much better one and indeed what would become a signature of the show, is working out the intricacies of a case as it makes its way from the street and through the legal system. These plots can be twisty and unpredictable but they feel true to life that way exactly, things always being the product of other things interrupted, delayed, set aside, rethought. Often the turns and switch-ups in an episode go by so fast it's almost bewildering, but the chaos is enclosed by the familiarity and structure of the institutional roles themselves. That's one reason I'm impatient with personal character development in this show, even though it is usually one of my favorite things anywhere else—in Law & Order I'm more interested in seeing these people as they act out their institutional roles. Exploring complexities of the legal system was there from the first, of course, for example often playing with the plea bargaining aspects of cases. But in this season they are taking it further, using the stories themselves as they develop to set off series of surprises. They go all over the map, but they draw the map plain as you go from one point to the next. Suddenly you're somewhere else entirely from what you thought. It's a kind of misdirection by screenplay and works well on television, with a minimum of four of five attempts at a surprise per show anyway, dictated by commercial interruptions. In turn, a surprising number of them work on Law & Order. It gets to be like watching a magician. You're never sure where it's going and suddenly it's there and always was. I decided to chart one out as a way of seeing for myself how they advance from Point A to Point Z37 with complete plausibility (stuff like the casting and dialogue are still excellent, I should mention, every episode basically).

"Act of God" (airdate March 22, 1995) starts with a kid after dark using mountain-climbing gear to scale the side of a building in Manhattan. The building blows up and kills him. It's treated as an arson, but the boy's death makes it a potential homicide. But first the police have to eliminate that the boy was there to plant the bomb. Then, when they have and also know from forensics that the explosive was dynamite, that points to a construction industry source. The investigation begins to look at the general contractor who was renovating the building, Palley (Robert John Burke). Palley points to others but everyone seems to have a problem with him. Then it turns out Palley has financial problems. Palley tells police he had no motive to destroy the building because he had an investor committed to his company but that turns out not to be true. Whether or not Palley knew the investor turned him down hinges on whether Palley's girlfriend, Chris (Melinda Mullins), passed along a message from the investor to him. She says she didn't. She's a construction worker who met Palley on the job and is generally evasive with the police. They have a strong circumstantial case against Palley—among other things, he lived onsite but was away that night because, he says, he couldn't sleep and was taking a walk—and arrest him. But they can't find any bomb-making materials in the rubble of Palley's trailer. And then it turns out his girlfriend Chris has a husband, Hank (Skipp Sudduth), who is an alcoholic, used to be licensed for demolition work, and knew about the affair. When police find bomb-making material and other evidence at Hank's place, Palley is set free and Hank taken to trial. The case is strong against him and he is found guilty, in a typical verdict-reading scene that signals the end of the show. However, we still have some 12 minutes to go. Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach, always great) comes to McCoy with a detail about the case no one else noticed. Palley had said he was taking a walk that night, but he never put in an appearance after the building blew, and none of his personal effects were found in the rubble. He'd left with his stuff and never come back because he was the bomber. McCoy puts a wiretap on Chris's phone and runs around futilely trying to get the guilty verdict against Hank set aside. The police put a scare into Chris which produces tape of Chris and Palley that can be construed as conspiracy, but a judge won't let them bring the case to trial because someone else has already been found guilty of it—hence, reasonable doubt for Chris and Palley, as a lawyer dryly observes. "The only way we can get [Hank] released," says McCoy, "is to prove his wife and Palley committed the crime. Which we can't do because we convicted [Hank]. Joseph Heller would love this one." So they change their theory of the conspiracy, based on the tape of the call, saying it is evidence of a conspiracy between wife and husband Chris and Hank, which is patently absurd and everyone knows it, but guess what. Dramatic entrance into conference of Hank, in shackles, who says he will so testify. "But, Hank," Chris says, breaking down, "you know that isn't true." "True?" Hank says. "I know what's true." It's a great moment and it's that magic trick again, suddenly pulling a stark domestic drama out of the thicket of byzantine legal maneuverings and chatter, careening into this wonderful wrenching moment where it all comes together. Beautiful.

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