Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Law & Order, s6 (1995-1996)

Earlier this year the first Law & Order spinoff, Special Victims Unit, was renewed for its 21st season and also broadcast a 457th episode, thus overtaking the 20 seasons and 456 episodes of the original for third place on the list of longest-running TV shows, behind The Simpsons (30/662 and counting) and Gunsmoke (20/535). No doubt producer Dick Wolf ("awhoooo!") is proud and happy to have two titles in that top 5 but I'm less sure we as viewers can count it as a good thing overall. On the other hand, like The Simpsons (and unlike Gunsmoke, Special Victims Unit, or Lassie), Law & Order at least can still stake claim to genuine TV innovation, so there's that.

Yet the one thing readily apparent from the sixth season of Law & Order is a willingness to play it safe and fall back on tried and true strategies of ensemble 'n' episode TV. Even the signature wrinkle of focusing on institutional roles rather than individual characters is starting to feel a little humdrum. The show's original junior detective, Mike Logan (Chris Noth), is suddenly gone, disappeared for an incident briefly shown in the last five minutes of the previous season. He's replaced by Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and predictably a bunch of episodes track the awkwardness of his jelling with senior detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).

The change feels mechanical and uninspired, as opposed to mechanical and inspired, which this show does at its best. In a way there was something like an attempt to make up for Logan's abrupt and arbitrary departure—which apparently was about Noth being fired from the show—and in a way it merely repeated the problem, when the last show of the season featured an even more arbitrary (and permanent) loss of second-chair ADA Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy). It's one of the most unusual episodes in the entire run of the show, a meditation on the ripple effects of the death penalty and summary execution. The episode still plays as quite moving, but coming at the end of the season, with its implicit reminder of May sweeps month, it also feels calculated.

Similarly, a two-part crossover with Homicide: Life on the Street is ambitious and surprising, dealing with the same miscreant from two views, in two cities. It's not bad. It's different. It's weird and interesting to see Law & Order done in the style of Homicide (and vice versa I'm sure, though I was never enough of a Homicide fan to know), and the case itself has some chilling and prescient details about white supremacists. But on another level I can't help noticing they were February shows, another key sweeps month. Sweeps months (February, May, July, and November) are when viewership numbers are calculated for setting advertising rates, at least when broadcast dominated. They are generally best-foot-forward periods when shows are specifically trying to swell audience size—May, the end of the old conventional season, is often the single month when shows try their hardest.

It's not to say the basic formula of Law & Order isn't still working here. It is, basically. Until near the end, Law & Order remained one of the most reliably watchable any-old-episode shows on TV in reruns. That basic formula still sets it apart from most other TV, including its own spinoffs. But looking at the Law & Order shows in consecutive order does make it easier to see that, the more they play it safe, the more it looks like plain old TV. And much of this season is spent playing it safe, with those few outlier episodes in sweeps periods only putting the shift to conventional in sharper relief.

When disclaimers are flashed at the start of a show that's the ripped-from-the-headlines signal to start guessing the real-life original case. One of those in this season was actually Kitty Genovese ("Cookie Costello"), which felt stale even in the '90s. But at least it has one of those memorably great lines for DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill), as an old case is suddenly remanded for retrial because of a legal technicality. The criminal, he says, "just crawled halfway out of a hole we dug for him 30 years ago. You hit him with a shovel before he crawls all the way out." And the snap! lines that finish off the opening scenes are as good as ever, as always. "An art teacher," says Curtis about one victim, "who'd she ever hurt?" "Yeah," says Lenny, "an algebra teacher I could understand."

Random stars include Ken Leung as a semiregular lab tech, Peter Sarsgaard in a small role, Hank from Breaking Bad (Dean Norris), Clay Davis from The Wire (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Jennifer Garner as a youthful seducer, and of course more. The celebrity hunting did seem slightly thinned down but the potential for surprising faces is still strong, episode to episode, and there are also still lots of great unfamiliar players I suspect are drawn from New York's theater circles. The show is also perfectly capable of twisty satisfying stories. But overall, for the first time, it's slightly off this season.

No comments:

Post a Comment