Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We're done here . . .

I'm not a heavy commercial television watcher. I enjoy thinking -- mental engagement -- and most of the commercial shows I've tried to watch don't ask me to think. They invite me to slump down in my chair, eat popcorn, and watch. They seem fueled by melodrama and violence. People get badly hurt even in the comedies.

I just can't make the slight entertainment I get from watching such shows worth wading through all those ads.

Not so Law and Order. You present me with an episode of that show, and I am right there, glued to the tube, as it were, ads and all.

There was a great deal of on-air hoopla yesterday in public radio world about a couple of long-running TV shows airing their final episodes. On Point devoted an hour to "Lost." Fresh Air spent an hour on what BBC radio referred to as the best advertisement ever for the use of torture, "24." Both are programs, I'm forced to admit, that I've never watched. I did try to watch "24" once, but there were too many advertisements between scenes of Jack racing around with his cell phone to his ear for me to finish even that one episode..

What I want to know is where was all  the hoopla yesterday for Law and Order? A 20-year old show that also aired its final episode last night. A show where physical violence was rare and melodrama was non-existent.

I remember watching L & O for the first time. Chris Noth, Michael Moriarty, George Dzundza,  Richard Brooks and the inimitable Steven Hill, doing their thing as the first Law and Order cast of many. It was 20 years ago. I  was tucked up in my bedroom at my little house in Sweet Briar, Virginia, and decided to give the show a try because I liked Steven Hill as an actor. I remember sitting there once the show was over and thinking, wow, I'm going to have to do some thinking about what just happened on my TV. This show is, like, complex.

And there you have what, for me, is one of  the two great appeals of  Law and Order. It takes on society's most challenging issues -- immigration, the "war" on terror, abortion, suspect rights, freedom of the press, what constitutes legal insanity, the death penalty, and -- and explores them. I never watched an episode that collapsed into a simplistic, black and white presentation of a complex situation. I never watched an episode that offered a pat answer for a complicated societal question.

The second reason I love the show is because of the actors who were in it. Go no further than long-termers Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson (Lt. Van Buren is one of my personal role models) and Jesse Martin.  Take a look at their stage credits sometime. These aren't movie stars, slumming in television; they are real, live, trained, disciplined working actors who want parts in which they can disappear.

penultimate L & O cast 

Jan Maxwell had a wonderful OpEd piece in The New York Times about Law and Order from a working stage actor's point of view. 
For two decades the show has been a staple gig for New York actors, a reliable way to make money between stage roles — which is why tonight, when what is likely to be the final episode is broadcast, New Yorkers might hear a collective wail emanating from the theater district. What will we do without “Law & Order”?
When the show first appeared in 1990, actors in the city rejoiced. Before then, cost and concerns for film crews’ safety usually meant that “New York” was played by Vancouver or Toronto. “Law & Order’s” producers took a risk and immediately started casting local actors for the sort of one-off jobs that we rely on to subsidize our theater habit.
I recognize a lot of the actors on the show from other roles or from seeing them on stage, but then I quickly forget I've seen them before because they so fully inhabit their Law and Order characters. 

So there you have my assessment of the now-wrapped Law and Order: It offered nuanced presentations of complex societal issues, peopled by actors who really knew how to act. And sadly, as the L & O defense lawyers were always saying to the L & O prosecutors at the close of their frequent meetings, “we’re done here.”

As I said, where’s the hoopla?


  1. I stayed up long enough to say "Bung BUNG" during the show's opening as my wife settled in to watch the final episode. I should ask if she cried...

  2. I almost called NPR to protest the extended coverage of "Lost." -- one reason I listen is to avoid celebrities, television and such. However, maybe I need to think about this some more. Enjoyed your comments about "Law and Order."

  3. Perhaps there was not as much hoopla surrounding the end of "Law and Order" because the show has become so ubiquitous - anyone with cable or a satellite dish can turn on the TV pretty much anytime and find an episode playing. And then there's "SVU" and "Criminal Intent" (which, in my opinion, are not a match the original).

    A very thought-provoking TV series, nonetheless, and I will continue to watch the reruns.

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