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On TV: Disorderly Conduct

Things have gotten so out of hand on Law & Order it's a wonder the accused are allowed any defense at all.

TV review, October 20, 2006

Everybody agrees that the Law & Order shows have become unwatchable lately -- that the whole franchise has finally, as the kids say, jumped the shark. But this dread TV epitaph doesn't really catch the way the three series (Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) have gone bad. These days, I don't think they could muster enough creative energy among them to jump a crack in a sidewalk. They're more like zombies in a George Romero movie: bizarre and listless parodies of their former selves, shambling off aimlessly into the dark.

They used to seem invincible. This was particularly true of the original L & O. When it caught its groove, it was as rigorously stylized as Kabuki. You just knew that approximately 12 minutes into any episode Lenny Briscoe would make a bitter joke about his marriage (usually some version of "He's been stabbed 25 times in the back -- just like my ex-wife did to me at our settlement hearing"). At 38 minutes in, Adam Schiff would declare the case unwinnable and tell Jack McCoy to make a deal. (Schiff was amazingly defeatist for a DA; it's a wonder he lasted at his job for so long.) There's never been any show better suited to a drinking game.

Back then, you couldn't see any reason why the series wouldn't keep spinning out endless variations on the basic template forever -- all marked out with those faux-precise registers of dates and times and locations, and those famous, mysterious chu-chunks on the sound track, like the jaws of justice clapping shut. But it's obvious now that there was always a destabilizing force at work in the L & O universe: a secret fascination with the irrational.

It showed up first in the spin-offs. While original-flavor L & O always stuck with ripped-from-the-tabloids current events, L & O: SVU replaced that with what it calls the "heinous" -- meaning that preposterous kink-o-rama in which the world is divided up into frenzied perverts and their hopelessly damaged victims. (My wife, who refuses to watch the show, calls it "L & O: Twisted Fucks.") On L & O: CI, meanwhile, the weirdness centers on Vincent D'Onofrio's freaky performance as Detective Goren -- he inserts so many abrupt pauses, fractured rhythms, and inappropriate bursts of emotion into every line it's like he's doing an impression of Christopher Walken after a stroke.

But even the stolid original had its undercurrent of the strange. It showed up in the plotting. The on-screen action achieved an Easter Island immobility, but the stories would shift and twist like dreams. This is why the show was so ideally suited to the cable TV marathon: no matter how many hundreds of hours you watched, you never had the slightest clue where any episode was going. If it started out with a carjacking in Soho, it'd end with the illegal organ trade in Borneo; if a homeless person was found dead in Central Park, they'd sooner or later be talking about nuclear war with Canada.

There was an ostensibly logical explanation: the plotting was supposed to represent the Byzantine complexity of the law, how hard it was for the cops and prosecutors to do their jobs. But this was nonsense. Any real-world police force or prosecutor's office that spent so much time floundering in the dark would be laughingstocks, even in New York. The actual point was the anger: a vigilante contempt for anyone in the legal system who got in the way of the administration of justice, from defense attorneys to trial judges to those useless, fickle clucks who sit on juries.

This is just where the shows have turned into self-parody. The old anger has escalated into uncontrolled fury. Anytime a defense lawyer comes on, you expect an organ chord of doom on the sound track; a motion to suppress evidence instantly sends the cops and prosecutors into a tailspin of dithering despair. It just seems so unfair to them that the accused is even permitted to put on any defense at all. And you can see why, because the judge -- particularly any judge who doesn't happen to be a white male -- is invariably some insane liberal cretin who's happy to torpedo the prosecution's case for sheer spite.

The deck stacking against the heroes is necessary to create the illusion of suspense. While the plots go on contorting like anacondas, the premises are now just shrugs of seen-it-all exhaustion. The original L & O devotes itself exclusively to knee-jerk agitprop: last week's episode put forth the Fox News-worthy thesis that hate crimes against Arab-Americans were put-up jobs staged by evil foreign Arabs. L & O: CI, meanwhile, which doesn't concern itself with such earthly issues as politics, did an episode about a profiler of serial killers whose own daughter was . . . a serial killer! But my own favorite was a recent episode of SVU. Evidently weary of rubber fetishists and autoerotic asphyxiators, they came up with a gang of diabetes-maddened overweight teenagers who were mutilating skinny mean teenagers. As a diabetic myself, I can only hope this episode serves as a solemn warning to those of you who have normal blood glucose levels: the day of our vengeance is coming!

But the place where the shows all fly off into pure hallucination now is their casting. They've always been famous for the speed at which they burn through casts, but now they appear to be picking people at random. This is the only real suspense they have: who's suddenly gone and how joltingly incongruous the new actor is. On L & O, Dennis Farina is out, and Jesse Martin's new partner is a chic actress named Milena Govich who trained for L & O's bleak landscape in Broadway musicals. On SVU, Mariska Hargitay is on maternity leave, so in comes the fabulous Eurotrash babe Connie Nielsen (from Olivier Assayas's Demonlover) -- wearing inexplicable braided locks like a Bavarian milkmaid and unwisely attempting some sort of deep-borough New York accent. The new cop on CI, meanwhile, replacing Annabella Sciorra, is Julianne Nicholson, an androgynous indie waif who seems to be channeling Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. But there's an even stranger apparition replacing Jame Sheridan as the captain -- a miserably awkward and uncomfortable Eric Bogosian. Who's next, Willem Dafoe? David Bowie?

But worst of all is the Chris Noth problem. D'Onofrio now alternates episodes with Noth, who's been brought back from oblivion as Detective Logan, late of the original L & O. It apparently doesn't matter that this cuts the last rational supports out from under D'Onofrio's Method-actor shtick. The implicit premise of CI was that Goren's weird antics were tolerated because he was a Sherlock Holmesian genius. But now Logan, that lifer, solves exactly the same unsolvable cases with nothing more than his working-stiff charm. So why on earth would anyone put up with Goren?

But that's applying a logic that, it's now obvious, the L & O project has no use for. This season, the buried irony of the title is finally coming to light: while we've always known these shows hate the law, they're now giving up on their last lingering commitments to order.