With the cancellation of Law & Order, NBC’s venerable crime drama, the television landscape gets bleaker. The ratings-challenged Peacock network has cleared the way for more reality programs to reach a younger demographic at the expense of substantive, intellectual drama. Certainly the demographic for "Law & Order" is older Americans who appreciate intricate details in crime-solving.
Instead of cat fights between desperate housewives, during its twenty-year run, "Law & Order" spotlighted the top issues of the day, and none was overlooked. A rotating cast of world-weary detectives and zealous prosecutors investigated homicides relating to a host of complex issues including abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, terrorism, corporate corruption, health care, organized crime, drugs, and many others. Unlike other crime dramas before or since, "Law & Order" paid little attention to the characters’ personal lives.
Using what was described as a “ripped-from-the-headlines” format, the show presented fictional portrayals of some of the biggest trials and scandals of the last two decades. Episodes mirrored the O.J. Simpson case, the disappearance and murder of Washington intern Chandra Levy, the Monica Lewinsky affair and the Columbine massacre.
Each episode began with an unsuspecting person stumbling onto a crime scene. The detectives would investigate the murder and present evidence to the District Attorney’s office to mount a successful prosecution. In every episode, there was always legal wrangling over the admissibility of evidence. The pre-trial motions were presented in a sophisticated way so as to add texture to the story, but still remain interesting and comprehensible to the layman.
One of the best attributes of the show was that it was filmed entirely in New York City. During the investigation, the detectives would interview witnesses who were regular New Yorkers, who spoke with their unique accents. Witnesses included everyone from doormen to cab drivers to hot dog vendors. The police had a language all their own. Criminals were referred to as “perps” or “skells,” or “mooks.”
The show, and its spinoffs, depicted a New York on the rise. When Law & Order premiered in 1990, it still had a high murder rate. Times Square was still a haven for X-rated movie theaters and prostitution. The 1990’s saw New York make tremendous comeback and some of its most rundown neighborhoods became gentrified. The show became so identified with New York that Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg made cameo appearances.
Nothing affected New York or the country more than the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Over the years, 9/11-themed plot lines were woven into the series. Just like other complex topics, the issues were presented in depth and with seriousness. Issues such as profiling terror suspects to fraud in the Victims’ Compensation Board were episode stories.
One of the key issues that Law & Order dealt with was the death penalty. When the series premiered, New York did not have the death penalty. Grief-stricken families of murder victims cried out for capital punishment against murderers and the D.A.’s felt frustrated in their ability to get justice. Following the election of Republican Gov. George Pataki, New York reinstated the death penalty and suddenly the episode plots developed a new twist. The police and D.A.’s had leverage against murder suspects. In 2004, New York’s highest court struck down the death penalty.
While the prosecution of the accused was zealous, it was sometimes colored by politics—another fact of life in a big city. District Attorney Adam Schiff (played by Steven Hill), who was purportedly based on real-life Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, would often try to avoid public trials dealing with hot-button issues. He would usually get one of his underlings to try to get the defendant to “make a deal” and plead guilty to a lesser charge.
"Law & Order" also traced the development of technology over the last two decades. In early seasons, detectives would follow down leads using pay phones. Years later, the police began using cell phones. In the mid-nineties, writers began incorporating the Internet into crime stories. First, it was tracking suspects via message boards and chat rooms. As the series went on, police investigations included checking e-mails, cell phone calls and social networking websites.
In the world of television, twenty years is an eternity. "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order Criminal Intent" will continue. However, "Law & Order" held up a mirror to America. Sometimes we liked what we saw. Sometimes we didn’t. It presented issues in an entertaining, intelligent way. The exceptional storytelling of this long-running drama will be missed, and certainly not be duplicated.
Kevin P. McVicker is an Account Supervisor with Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, a public relations firm in Alexandria, Va.
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