Thursday, January 3, 2008

“Law and Order” Survives Everything, Even a Writers Strike

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

A comic in the 1980s, I believe it was Bill Hicks, said that only two things would survive a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches and Keith Richards. (He went on to impersonate Keith describing his reaction to the mushroom cloud: “I saw a bright light. I thought we were on.”) I think the 21st Century version of that joke would substitute Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” franchise for Keith Richards.

At the end of last season, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” was garnering solid ratings, but there was a question as to whether NBC would renew the other two members of the franchise, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and the granddaddy of them all, “Law & Order.” But in an 11th hour move, the network picked up both shows (although it shifted “CI” to its corporate sibling, USA Network, airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern). Not to mention that the three Wolf creations seem to be in an endless loop of reruns on basic cable stations. You would be hard-pressed to turn on your television at any time of the day and not find a “Law & Order” show on somewhere.

So it seems only fitting that nine weeks into the writers strike, with scripted shows being as rare as a Rudy Giuliani speech without a 9/11 reference, NBC rolled out three hours of new “Law & Order” programming with a new episode of “SVU” and the season premiere of “Law & Order.” Apparently, not even a work stoppage that has decimated the schedule can stop Wolf’s juggernaut.

“SVU” (NBC Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) returned from its holiday break to continue its ninth season on Tuesday with an episode about the murder of a debutante that turns out to be the tip of a crime iceberg. Watching a first-run offering of a “Law & Order” program reminds you of why the reruns score consistently high ratings and people can’t seem to get enough of Wolf’s cops and lawyers. You know exactly what you’re getting. The shows follow a strict crime, apprehension, trial formula that is adhered to episode after episode. The focus is on the work, not the private lives of the characters. And you know there will be twists and turns until the truth is revealed. Oh, and of course, it’s good. There is something comforting about turning on a show and knowing what you will (and won’t) get.

And “SVU” continues to provide grist for the mill. Tuesday’s episode sucks you in with the discovery of a body (by a paintballer, a nice change from the overused walker/jogger), leads you down a road thinking that the show will be about which member of the debutante’s upper class world was responsible for her demise, only to take the story in a new direction when a homeless preteen is caught on security footage pawning the victim’s pricey earring. Next thing you know it, we’re following detectives Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) into the world of a homeless “family,” with a dictatorial father figure ruling with an iron fist over his teenage “wife” and brood of homeless teen “children,” who steal for him and do his dirty work. He’s like Fagin after doing a stretch in Oz with Schillinger and Said.

It seems like the only concession to the times “SVU” is willing to make is to amp up the action and violence a bit. For a show about sex crimes, the episodes are usually pretty clinical and talky. But on Tuesday, there was a fairly violent scrap between Stabler and the homeless “father,” and two guest characters are gruesomely murdered as the episode goes on. In the “SVU” world, the first victim is usually the only one.

But on the whole, “SVU” is what it has always been, a well-written, well-acted procedural with a smart edge to it. The cast especially plays smart and cynical well, with Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch, Ice-T’s Detective Fin Tutola, Adam Beach’s Detective Chester Lake and Dann Florek’s Captain Donald Cragen keeping things moving.

I especially liked the interplay in Tuesday’s episode between Meloni and Hargitay as they make small talk while feasting on pizza and ice cream in an effort to coax a hungry, homeless teen into ratting out her compatriots. It’s the kind of moment that makes a Wolf show more than just a dramatized version of the transcript of a case covered on a Court TV real crime show.

While the cast of “SVU” has remained pretty stable over its run, the original “Law & Order” has been the ultimate example of form over personality. That’s not to say that beloved actors, especially the deliciously sarcastic Jerry Orbach, haven’t put their stamp on the series, but the show, as they say, goes on, no matter who stays and who goes. And when “Law & Order” (NBC Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) launched its 18th season on Wednesday, the merry-go-round took a few more spins. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) has been promoted to fill the vacancy left by the departure of District Attorney Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson, who has traded the crime scenes of New York for the campaign stops of Iowa and New Hampshire), with Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) filling McCoy’s old spot as executive assistant district attorney and boss to the returning assistant district attorney Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza). Also, Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) has a new partner, asked by his lieutenant, Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), to work with Detective Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto), who has returned to New York after four years working abroad.

The episode centers around Lupo’s return to New York and his discovery that his brother has committed suicide, but as you would expect from a show whose format has always been more important than its cast, the other personnel changes are only mentioned in passing. We’re thrown into a meeting between Cutter and Rubirosa, with no explanation as to who Cutter is. Wolf knows we’ve been watching this show for 17 years, after all, so we can figure out that he is filling McCoy’s old role. Where many shows might take an entire episode to introduce a new character (think Jack and Janet getting a new roommate on “Three’s Company”), “Law & Order” can cover it in a line of dialogue.

Based on the season premiere, Sisto and Roache will fit nicely into the “Law & Order” universe. Sisto, who has made a career out of playing unhinged characters, both evil and stupid (the husband in “Waitress”) and smart and dangerous (the photographer in “Six Feet Under”), brings an intensity to Lupo that provides a nice contrast to good guy Green. And Roache’s Cutter has a prickly, steely facade that will offer a different vibe than McCoy’s elder statesman authority figure.

The season’s first episode showed why, after all these years, “Law & Order” can still attract an audience. From the investigation through the first trial (featuring a great turn by Michael McKean as a sleazy television journalist), the plot centers on the assisted suicide efforts of a Kevorkian-like doctor and his daughter, a nurse who has taken up his cause. Just when you are saying to yourself, “Seriously, assisted suicide in 2008? How outdated is this show?”, Wolf makes an unexpected and totally interesting turn into the issue of the pain suffered by prisoners executed by lethal injection. You never see it coming, but Wolf finds a way to use an old issue to make a point about a current one (the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case as to whether the lethal injection cocktail used by most states is unconstitutionally cruel).

Wolf hasn’t been shy about the fact that he wants “Law & Order” to catch “Gunsmoke” as the longest running drama in television history. Considering that, after 17 years, “Law & Order” can replace two of its six lead cast members and still not miss a beat, I wouldn’t bet against him.

I’m not sure if the “Law & Order” franchise is Keith-like in its ability to survive a nuclear Armageddon, but it has proven its mettle in managing to sidestep the writers strike. With January scheduled to bring a cavalcade of new reality programming, that’s good enough for those of us with no interest in “The Biggest Loser,” “American Gladiators” and anything with Donald Trump (all NBC shows debuting new seasons between January 1 and January 6).