Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Some thoughts on "Law & Order"

Because I spend just about all of my waking hours (which are becoming fewer in number the older I get) working, writing, watching movies, reading, playing with my granddaughter, spending quality time with close friends, observing a major sports event and the occasional household chore, I don't have that much left to watch episodic television. I could not get all that excited about the final episode of Lost because I never saw any of the other episodes. I have never once seen a so-called "reality" show. Not that I have anything against Lost or 24 or Dexter or Mad Men or any of the other television programs folks tell me are extremely well done. It's simply a choice of what I prefer to do with my daily allotted 24 hours.

I did make it a point, however, to see Law & Order whenever I could even though I must admit that "whenever I could" usually meant when it was shown on cable channels USA or TNT. What I liked about the show was that it provided a slight twist on the normal television courtroom drama in which, before Law & Order, the heroes were always the defense attorneys. In fact, there was even a short-lived series in 1963 called Arrest and Trial that had a similar format to Law & Order, except in this one Ben Gazzara played a police officer who arrested a suspect and, in the second half of the show, Chuck Connors played the defense attorney who proved the suspect was the wrong person. (Here's a scene from that show featuring Connors and Peter Fonda.)

I did lose interest in Law & Order by the end of its 15th season, which is when Jerry Orbach, who played detective Lenny Briscoe, and Elisabeth Rohm, who played the latest in a long line of assistant district attorneys, left the show. The chemistry among the various actors who were featured in seasons 16 through 20 wasn't as potent as it was during the first 15. I must also admit I was disappointed that the show didn't make better use of that fine actor Steven Hill, who played district attorney Adam Schiff for the show's first 10 years. Hill, one of the founders of the Actors Studio, was reduced, it seemed to me, saying nothing more than "Make a deal" during this last couple of years on the show. Do yourself a favor and rent the excellent 1988 movie Running on Empty if only to see this beautiful, emotionally-charged scene between Hill and Christine Lahti. It's one of my all-time favorite movie scenes -- ranking right up close to the taxi scene in On the Waterfront. Not many folks remember that Hill also played Daniel Briggs, the original leader of the Mission: Impossible crew, when that show premiered in 1966. He left after one year because, as a Jewish actor, he refused to work on Saturdays, and was replaced by Peter Graves as Jim Phelps.

All that being said, I was rooting for the show to air for one more year just so it could have become the longest running episodic show in television history. Now it shares that distinction with Gunsmoke, a western I liked much better as a radio show than on television. The radio program seemed more realistic. I remember episodes in which Matt Dillon (played by William Conrad, who in the 1970s was the lead in the television show Cannon) performed an emergency amputation on someone who died anyway and another one in which he arrived too late to prevent a lynching. In another he saved a young woman from a gang of rapists yet couldn't stop her from becoming a prostitute. And, speaking of prostitutes, the radio show left no doubt as to the profession of Miss Kitty. Although James Arness was fine on the television version, when it expanded from 30 to 60 minutes in its seventh season it de-evolved from a western to a soap opera.

But then I have found that most television shows lose their creative energy by their seventh season. That Law & Order maintained its energy through 15 and its spinoff, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit continues to be strong through 11 seasons is miraculous. In fact, I have always found the writing for SVU to be superior to that of the original and SVU actress Mariska Hargitay has always been a revelation.

I understand that a new Law & Order show, called Law & Order: Los Angeles (I think),  is set to premier this coming fall. Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order franchise and its executive producer, really blew it with this move. What he should have done is to simply pull a Johnny Carson, who, you may recall, moved his Tonight Show to Burbank, Calif., in May of 1972 after 10 years of hosting the show in New York. But it was still essentially the same show, only the location changed. If Wolf had just moved Law & Order to a new location, even with a new cast, and still called the show by its original name, he would have had his record.

One final thought: A couple of days ago I was in a conversation with My Hero and we were trying to recall who preceded Paul Sorvino as the lead detective on the show and it finally came to me it was that greatly under appreciated actor George Dzundza who played detective Max Greevey. Interestingly enough, the reason Dzundza left after one season to be replaced by Sorvino was that the commute from his home in Los Angeles to the set in New York became too strenuous for him. Dzundza is 64 now and I would like to see the Greevey character reprised in some way on the new show.

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