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'Law & Order': Canceled, but the case isn't closed just yet

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By Tom Shales
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When NBC released the sad news last week that "Law & Order" would be canceled after 20 years on the air, the show's creator and producer, Dick Wolf, stopped well short of howling. In fact, he went the inscrutable route: "Never complain, never explain" was the terse little statement he released to the press.

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By Monday, Wolf was feeling slightly more expansive. "The patient is not dead," he said in another statement. "It is in a medically-induced coma, and we are hoping for a cure." Likely translation: "Law & Order" won't be back on NBC in the fall, but that doesn't mean it won't be back somewhere else. "Law & Order" is not just a series but also the lead ship in a large armada. It proved so successful in its first decade or so that Wolf and NBC kept spinning other shows off it, none of them quite as good as the prototype but none of them negligible, either.

Viewers who enjoy off-network showings of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," with sexy sex-crime fighters Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, on USA may not realize which network it's "off-." Technically, this "Law & Order" has its first run on USA and its second on NBC. Since NBC owns USA, it probably doesn't matter anyway. "SVU" will be back in the fall, its supporting cast including Ice-T, one of those seemingly monosyllabic rappers who turned out to be a very good, very serious actor; B.D. Wong, a versatile and ageless performer who plays a forensic psychiatrist; and Richard Belzer, the sly stand-up comic who, rare among TV actors, transferred a character he played on one series ("Homicide: Life on the Street") to another.

"Law & Order" has become, to be as unromantic as possible about it, a triumph of what is now popularly called "branding" and, to be a bit loftier about it, an American classic, a gift that keeps on giving -- certainly to Wolf, who has to have made six or seven fortunes on it, but also to the viewing audience, which gets to see not one but several intelligent adult dramas every week.

The original and very basic "Law & Order" series has always seemed to me to be 100-percent exposition, with no filler, no pesky nuances and almost no background about the series' continuing characters -- just the hard nuts and bolts of pure storytelling. But the series has departed from the rigid schematic this season by telling a parallel continuing story of a continuing character: the struggle of Lt. Anita van Buren with a ne'er-do-well ex-husband and, more traumatically, with a disease progressing through her body, scaring and scarring her as only such things can. S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays the part, gets to contribute the kinds of shadings and subtleties that the show rarely has time for.

On what was to be the final "Law & Order" of the season -- and now may be the last episode ever (airing Monday, May 24) -- Merkerson plays one of her most dramatic scenes with her back to the camera. It may seem an odd choice for the director and the actor, but it works out very effectively, with Merkerson making it more than an acting exercise. She's really quite amazing. And Ernie Hudson, who has a couple of scenes as her new fiance, is no slouch, either.

The main, parallel plotline is one of those ripped-from-the-headlines stories that Wolf has favored throughout the show's long run, especially in more recent years. It's been said that Wolf was a fan of Jack Webb's "Dragnet" in his youth, and "Law & Order" has some of "Dragnet's" brusque if not robotic demeanor. (Each show also incorporated an iconic musical cue: "Dragnet's" "dum-de-dum-dum" was answered by "Law & Order's" "bahm-bahm.")

"Dragnet," of course, opened with Webb's now-immortal preface, "This is the city," over a panoramic shot of Los Angeles. The weekly prologue to "Law & Order" is now also an unmistakable part of popular culture:

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorney, who prosecutes the offenders." What could be simpler or more direct? In fact, the farther the "Law & Order" spinoffs got from that sane, solid center, the more distractingly complex they seemed to become -- one reason none of the progeny can match papa.

From a producer's point of view, of course, "Law & Order" presents an ideal -- a show that is almost entirely actor-proof, that can keep going and going no matter what happens to the cast or how many actors demand raises. (You want a raise? Goodbye.) Over the years, many cops and prosecutors have passed through the precinct, Merkerson being one of the best and most compelling -- while many left the show for other work.

Likely contenders for a dream team: the late Jerry Orbach, who saw all the glorious, sardonic possibilities in the rumpled old flatfoot he played; Michael Moriarty, a prosecutor wearing his heart on his sleeve or his chest but always somewhere visible; Jill Hennessy, whose performance was among the most striking and affecting in the show's history; Steven Hill, the ultimate in hard-bitten and grizzled patriarchs; and Sam Waterston, impeccably authoritative as the DA through many a troubled season.

On the last episode, Waterston gets to rear back and let a smug attorney have it, right in the kisser. Not a punch, just a verbal rebuke, but all the more impactful coming from a guy who usually prides himself on reasonable restraint.

Fred Thompson, who growled around for a few seasons as a DA and later ran for Congress, never seemed to be doing much beyond playing himself: an old grouch. But he probably had his fans, as did Benjamin Bratt, and Chris Noth in his pre-"Sex and the City" days. Currently, the effortlessly enigmatic Jeremy Sisto, who in his career has played everyone from Jesus Christ to a confused transsexual, and Anthony Anderson as his partner, are a solid duo in the police force. The greatest performance of all, however, has been Wolf's, whether sparring with thick-skulled network executives or, as currently, issuing terse riddles disguised as press releases and jockeying for position. He is a man who had an idea and saw it through to magnificent execution, and he's earned himself a great big place in the pantheon for his trouble.


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