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Monday, 25 of May of 2020

Law & Order – “Brazil”

We deal with disagreements with emotional detachment and reason.”

I invented Law & Order bingo last night:

  • Ripped from the headlines story (often with an anvilicious message)
  • Mildly callous one-liner to kick off theme song
  • Special guest star looking for an Emmy nomination
    • BONUS: Special guest star is better known for comedic work, trying to prove their range/be taken seriously as a thespian (or the network is trying to pull in a different demographic)
  • Some tidbit about a character’s personal life is revealed
  • Show hits the Law & Order twist (red herrings, on the stand reversals, defense attorney shenanigans, etc.)
    • BONUS: Twist doubles the story back into another ripped from the headlines story
  • Schiff One Liner at the close of the episode

You see that? That’s the bingo arm of “Brazil” waving in the air.

“Brazil” is an episode that satisfies all your bingo squares. A global warming denier scientist is poisoned at a conference, supposedly by a colleague who was fudging data points about climate change. Lupo makes the wisecrack (“It’s called homicide-istis.”) and into the theme song! Turns out that the fudging scientist is innocent (but not before we get a soapbox about cap and trade).

So the detects do their legwork and discover that special guest star Tony Hale (better known as Buster Bluth from Arrested Development) was at the conference but wasn’t supposed to be (he snuck in, stealing someone else’s badge). He looks shifty since he’s been to Brazil a whole lot, where the nearly-killed scientist lives. Oh, and it turns out he used to be married to nearly-killed scientist’s wife and has been suing for custody of their child who wife ran off with to Brazil.

A family court battle ensues, with revelations that Cutter came from a broken home (parents divorced when he was 10, dad got custody, but moved around a lot). This character beat is used by the defense to argue that Cutter is making the case personal even though it’s clear he’s not (personal is when you threaten Rubirosa). So, like in many cases, the character beat is used in the service of the procedural while still fleshing out characters. It’s not a major focus of the episode (unlike Lupo’s past with horrifying crime scenes or Cutter’s history with his old mentor), so it doesn’t make the procedural about the character.

But then the wife’s family pulls a balloon boy by having the little girl appear to wash out at sea in a little boat (only for her to have been in the shed the whole time) and it turns out that Buster was organizing the whole thing (in some fashion) with the wife’s family so the little girl would stay in the U.S. and no one would have to fly to Brazil to see the kid. Cutter breaks Buster on the stand (giving Buster his Emmy clip), gets the conviction, and everyone goes home with the closing one liner.

It’s the perfectly constructed episode of Law & Order. While not my favorite of the season (“Memo from the Dark Side” is still wonderfully captivating and smart), it’s the episode that best showcases many of the structural elements of the show and how those elements work together to build an episode (even if the ripped from the headlines stuff isn’t exactly timely).

But my interest this week, aside from the fact that it hits all the L&O tropes, is the comedic guest star. The franchise is no stranger to the visiting comic actor looking to be taken seriously. The franchise is an interesting place to do this as well, but take a look at a couple of comedic actors appearing in the franchise (and pardon the random quality of the videos).

First up is Chevy Chase in the 2006 episode “In Vino Veritas” (S17Ep7). In this episode, Chase plays Mitch Carroll, a not-in-any-way-obvious-version of Mel Gibson, a man who may’ve killed a Jewish television show producer. Carroll’s rant is pretty much Gibson’s rant during his DUI arrest.

Next up is Robin Williams on Law & Order SVU. He plays Merrit Rook, a man prone to psychological mind games to get his way. This is from the climax of the episode “Authority” (S9Ep17)

And, finally, take a look at Stephen Colbert’s breakdown at the end of Criminal Intent‘s “The Saint” (S3Ep16).

So why go on the franchise? There’s certainly the air of respectability the the franchise has, and I imagine that that plays a large part in the decision of many of these actors to go on the shows. I’m sure an extra paycheck doesn’t hurt either. Surely the networks love these sorts of appearances because it (hopefully) draws in audiences who may not otherwise tune into the show (as is the case with all major guest spots on any show, regardless of run time or genre).

One other potential factor, however, may be the franchise’s formula itself. The scope of the character’s role in the narrative varies from show to show. Williams and Colbert both figure into their episodes fairly prominently, while Chase is around for much of his, but isn’t the star of it (same with Tony Hale this week). But this allows an actor who may not be known for dramatic work to craft a character with very specific beats and lines of actions, all while following the franchise’s procedural aspects. The formulas provide a safety net as well as a boundary line: it allows them a freer place to experiment than a feature-length film (in which their performance will be viewed (theoretically) by more people), and since audiences know the formula, the actors can’t overstep the formula elements and make the episode entirely about them (though I think the Williams episodes veers into territory very early on).

Hale is no different in “Brazil.” He finds bits of business to mark his character (including rubbing his nose when nervous), and his appearance on the stand against Cutter is decent (if rushed as the episode sprints to the end). But it’s a forum for Hale to figure out a dramatic style while still working within an already established one. In this way, we find another potential value in the formula show: guest actors stretching their range and building their profiles.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • A short list of other comedic actors to visit L&O shows include Jim Gaffigan, Martin Short, Kathy Griffin, Larry Miller, David Cross, Rob Corddry, Rue McClanahan, John Ritter, Will Arnett, Lewis Black, Bob Saget, Carol Burnett, Neil Patrick Harris, and Fran Drescher.
  • Additional note: Anthony Anderson and Richard Belzer were both comics prior to joining the Law & Order franchises (Belzer is a special case as Detective Munch was on Homicide before joining SVU).


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