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Sunday, 7 of March of 2021

Law & Order Cancelled

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

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Law & Order was cancelled today after 20 years on the air with 4 (soon to be 5) domestic spin-offs and a few international variations. The series will tie Gunsmoke as the longest running prime time drama at the end of this season. Certainly not the show that invented the procedural series, Law & Order nevertheless perfected it. Creator Dick Wolf’s goal to look at the development of a case from the police perspective and then to the lawyer perspective allows the show to essentially be a police procedural and a law procedural in one show. Drawing from shows like Dragnet and Trial and Arrest, the series never delved into the personal lives of its characters, one its signature narrative goals, something that most procedurals these days can’t live without.

While the franchise lives on in its various incarnations, none of them (save for maybe Law & Order UK given that it follows the original’s scripts but adjusted for the British systems) really capture the mothership’s tone and style. SVU and CI are both different flavors, with different emphases, mainly on the police procedural aspects. Equally, SVU is prone to telling fairly personal stories about its characters, something the original did only rarely, and is currently doing this season with Lt. Van Buren’s cancer storyline. The now defunct Trial By Jury sought a strictly legal procedural, both prosecution and defense, but it never took off.

It’s a shame that the show is going out right now, and fairly suddenly as well. As I’ve made clear in my reviews, I feel like this year’s L&O has been especially strong, with easily the strongest cast since the Briscoe/Green & McCoy/Carmichael years and some of the best episodes in the show. “Memo from the Dark Side” is required viewing for any TV fan, and “Steel Eyed-Death” shows how well the show utilizes personal stories for the sake of procedural narratives. Equally, S. Epatha Merkerson’s work this season with Van Buren’s cancer has been brilliantly played, a fine capstone to a career that marks the longest continuous appearance of any actor on the series (and I think in all of primetime as well).

While the series has fallen as a ratings powerhouse, the show is one of the most well-known in television history, and will remain that way, I hope, for many many years. It’s not possible to turn on the TV and channel surf without seeing the show, or one of its spin-offs, in syndication. The show had an uncanny ability to find actors before they become famous, and so older episodes are filled with now recognizable faces. Beyond that, the show and its spin-offs have become an institution for New York City actors and television workers and for the city in general. Very few shows can claim to be so attached and immersed in a single city, both narratively and industrially.

As the show continued, it never changed its tone or attitude toward criminals, or even the cause of crimes. In this way, the show has become a sort of 1990s period piece. Even into the 2000s, the show has maintained its stance that social ills and media influences (perhaps a symptom of its ripped from the headlines approach to narratives) were the primary causes of crime, along with gangsters and corrupt politicians. High-tech gadgets were rarely deployed in any capacity, and when the CSI franchise became increasingly popular, the show quipped through quip-master Lennie Briscoe, “These crime scene guys think they know everything.”

Rest assured that reviews of Law & Order will continue through the run of this season. In the meantime, here’s a retrospective set to the theme song that never changed on the original.

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