Law & Order: Los Angeles, or When Zombie Shows Attack
Shows jump networks. Most recently, Scrubs and Medium changed networks after their original nets passed on renewal. While I can’t speak to Medium‘s transition from NBC to CBS, Scrubs retooled itself as a med school show, with some of the old regulars hanging around, interacting with the new interns. The vibe never really took off for me (I’m told it got better after the first few episodes, but I didn’t stick around to find out) and it was cancelled.
Shows also get uncancelled. Futurama and Family Guy being the most prominent examples. Cancelled by Fox, the shows managed to live in syndication and DVD sales, motivating new pick-ups by either the old network or a new one. To what degree these shows maintain their quality is debatable (I liked early Family Guy episodes, but found its return episode to be dismal; Futurama has been hit or miss, depending on the movie or the episode).
Finally, one last bit: When Lost was on the air, a joke was that the final season would be a zombie season. While this joke, in a very metaphysical way, may’ve turned out to be true in the final season, it wasn’t like the final season just went through the motions, or that Jack devoured Hurley’s brains. Which might’ve been cool, actually…
What does all of this have to do with Law & Order: Los Angeles (or LOLA as seems to be the popular shortening)? Well, LOLA finds itself in the weird position of be a spin-off of a institutional franchise that itself was just cancelled, feels like a slightly re-tooled version of that cancelled show, but, above all, feels like a reanimated corpse of that cancelled show.
LOLA wasn’t a good idea to start with. As I’ve repeated, it’s Dragnet and there was no reason to remake Dragnet (again). And beyond that, L&O is New York. It built itself on creating that New York state of mind, New York as the 7th regular character on a show with a cast of 6. That mattered, it meant something very specific to the show and to audiences. And even in the early going, regardless of the L&O show in question, we had chemistry between characters.
LOLA has none of this.
First there’s LA. I don’t have a sense of place here because, well, there isn’t one. LA seems to just be any generic warm coastal city with a number of clubs and beaches. It could be Miami for all I know. I freely acknowledge that 2 episodes not a sense of place make…except when the franchise has excelled at creating a sense of NYC within its very first episode in each of its series. It’s frustrating in its lack of specificity.
I think having the detectives constantly remind the that it’s LA or Hollywood, by commenting on how crazy the town is with its celebrities and fashion, is somehow supposed to make up for the fact that they never seem to be in a city. Indeed, these comments don’t help the show’s case, as it doesn’t feel like the cops are cynical insiders used to the city’s comings and goings, but that both, particularly Skeet Ulrich’s character, feel like new transfers, outsiders lost in a maze.
So the location’s a bust. What about the characters? Again, a little too soon to tell, but they’re all pretty stiff so far. There’s limited chemistry thus far between Winters and Jaruszalski, who I guess like each other but I don’t see them working together productively or interestingly. The DA’s office doesn’t fare much better. I own up to the fact that I find Terrance Howard to be an incredibly dull actor, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Alfred Molina, on the other hand, gives a muscular performance (I like how he’s media aware without being the DA, a trait normally assigned to the boss DA), but I’m not sure where either man fits.
And fitting is, really, the operative term here. One of the reasons why Law & Order, in any incarnation, survives is for its dialectical approach to topics. It allows its characters to discuss a point of view without coming to a conclusion: it spurs on conversation among the audience (at least that’s the intent, I think). I don’t have a sense of who these people are, except for Howard’s Dekker, who is painfully idealistic and moral. His stipulation to save Winters’ wife some embarrassing testimony is not something I expect, nor necessarily cared for (Molina’s Morales would’ve tossed her to the wolves, I think).
Believe it or not, I’m not going to beat up on the show for entering Winters’ personal life so soon. This isn’t a new trend for the franchise (characters’ lives intersect in SVU and CI), though I do quibble with Jaruszalski coming over to the house to talk about the case. Part of L&O‘s appeal is its stark professionalism, and having them sit on the patio looking over photos, while may be true to cops in real life, doesn’t fit the brand of professionalism that has marked the series.
Or perhaps that’s what marks this as LA. An informalism between partners. Even the show’s look is smoother, glossier than its NY counterparts. But for that reason, it feels sterile and all too clean.
One last big thing before I close this out, and it’s something that hasn’t come up in the series yet, but is in cast materials. Both Winters and DDA Price (Regina Hall) are influenced by the Rodney King riots back in the 1990s. Again, this hasn’t come to surface but apparently influences their characters. This is a nice nod a major historical event, but also primes us to think about these characters’ motivation (and very likely the show’s) as still drawing heavily from the 1990s mentality as a way to talk about things.
Some of us on Twitter have discussed L&O as a 1990s period piece, where new forms of media are bad, dangerous, non-normative. You need only look at SVU‘s recent treatment of gamers to get a sense of this. I’m sure that the King riots still have cultural force within the city (how could they not?) but that the show chooses to have at least two of its characters be directly influenced by it is a way for the show to keep itself firmly in the 1990s.
So, in the end, LOLA feels like a bad imitation of the mothership. I’d go so far as to say an uncanny imitation of it, in the worst sense of that word. Like a zombie, LOLA dips too deep into the uncanny valley. It moves like the mothership, it dresses like the mothership, it sounds like the mothership. But it’s not the mothership in the same way a zombie still looks human, still dresses human, even moves human, but there’s something slightly off about it, and that’s what unnerves us. But instead of unnerving me, LOLA just bores me.
I realize a lot of this boils down to “They changed it and now it sucks!” but because of these changes, it doesn’t feel like Law & Order. It feels like a generic cop and lawyer show. There’s a distinct flavor to the other shows in the franchise, which is why they’ve lasted as long as they have, something to set it apart and yet still have it be Law & Order. LOLA hasn’t found that special something yet, and I’m not sure if it can.
I’ll say more about the show if an episode warrants it. I will be back with some thoughts on Law & Order: UK which just started airing on BBC America. They use the same scripts as from season 1, so talk about stuck in the 1990s.
- No theme song? What? Just two title cards bookending the cold open? …Whatever.
- And, speaking of no theme song, where’s the “These are their stories…” bit? What? …Whatever.
- October 9, 2010