How does one exactly bid farewell to the end of a history-setting era? I’m not entirely sure. Last night, the series finale of Law & Order aired and for a moment it brought back a lot of memories. The writers and cast did not know this was the end but in many ways it was a perfect conclusion to a twenty-year saga of putting prisoners behind bars. It had its ups and downs, its moments of absurdity and brilliance, but overall it was just solid, thought-provoking television.
My own journey with it began several years ago when I moved into an apartment. I worked from home and my afternoons were, for the most part, free, allowing me to find something to occupy my time when not penning editorials and formatting pages. I started watching L&O because it was there, three glorious episodes of it each afternoon on TNT, but after about two episodes I was hooked. Well, I guess that is not entirely true — my real motivation for it came one morning when my mother called and said, “You know that girl from Phantom of the Opera? Emmy something? She was on L&O last night. It’s repeating this afternoon. You should watch it.” So I did… and never looked back. I fell in love… with the court system, with the police force, with the characters that brought truly daunting questions to life. My favorite was Jack. His passion in the courtroom sometimes overwhelmed his ethics, but I admire men who stand up for the truth.
Last night, Jack gave a real tongue-thrashing to a civil attorney standing in his way of discerning the identity of a potential school-mass-murderer, and I thought, “Jack has one last hurrah! How awesome is that?!?”
The strength of its best seasons, which would have to be its earlier seasons, is that the show asks hard questions without ever taking sides. Or at least, it used to. In recent years a more liberal agenda has shown in the writing which has directly contributed to its ratings taking a hit. The combined departure and death of Lennie and the decline in popular cast members, as well as getting a bit preachy on the “conservatives suck and we should always portray them in a bad light” undertone lessened public interest significantly. Most of the adults I know love the earlier seasons but quit watching several years ago. But it was the first series to bring awareness to global events and state debates that to this day are still relevant. The antiquated computers and hairstyles may be out of date, but the material is as solid today as it was twenty years ago. The concerns are the same, the motivations for murder no different.
Some of the greatest moments in L&O history stand out in my mind. One of them came from this season which, in spite of a lot of leftist leaning plot lines, still managed to convey the issue of abortion in powerful terms. Both sides are presented and argued with such passion that the formerly pro-choice ADA Connie concludes at the end that she has changed her stance to pro-life. Other episodes have brought awareness to abuse and slavery overseas, horrible practices within sub-cultures (things like female circumcision), abuses of corporate and local government authorities, the merits and downfalls of having a “blue wall” (cops uniting to protect each other), stem cell research, gay marriage, and much more.
In the last fifteen seasons (about six of which are truly stellar) we came to know and love a host of unforgettable characters: Lennie, the former alcoholic with a slew of ex-wives all demanding alimony; Logan, the hot-tempered cop who ends his career in New York by punching the lights out of a corrupt senator; Ray, the idealistic Spanish detective with a wife with MS and a very high standard of morals; Ed and his passion for the job; Lt. Van Buren, who worked her way up by the skin of her teeth, deals with racism and sexism, got into more than one all-and-out screaming session with the District Attorney’s office, and finally fought with and conquered cancer. (That’s not even all of them!) Then we have the formidable Jack McCoy, who had an abusive father, is a somewhat lapsed Catholic (but still allows it to influence his views), and doesn’t play by the rules; Claire, his former lover and assistant and with whom he constantly collided on political issues; Jamie, his whip-smart assistant who eventually left the DA’s office to become a defense attorney (and returned on occasion to make him miserable); Abby, the intelligent and deeply conservative woman who was all about kicking butt and taking names; Serena, whose most memorable moment was revealing her lesbianism on the eve of being fired, and so forth.
Sarcasm and legal quips make up the banter, murders, kidnappings, high-stakes heists, and the gray areas of the law contribute to the cases. In its glory days, the show opened with a half hour of Lennie making wisecracks while tracking down and arresting the perp, then Jack violently defending law and the right of order in the courtroom, finishing off with a rousing ending statement to the jury. Like it or hate it, there is nary a person on this planet who has not seen the original at least once. Even the BBC loves it, since it has started its own spin-off in the last couple of years: Law & Order UK. Most of the plots are recycled from our early seasons, with a few minor changes, but nevertheless it is entertaining to hear the material in a British accent from wig-wearing “barristers.”
Perhaps the most memorable conclusion to an episode, however, came in one of the earlier seasons, involving a mob case in which the only witness is a child. Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone drops in at the office and learns that that very afternoon, the child’s “uncle” came to take her home. There is a significant pause, his eyes filling with concern, and then the chilling final line:
“She doesn’t have an uncle.”
That, my dear readers, is the stuff the series is made of, and the reason it is now tied for the longest-running television drama. It’s the stuff of greatness, and while I have on occasion found myself insulted by some of the show’s conclusions, at the end of the day it is still one of the most remarkable and thought-provoking series ever released. So thank you, Dick Wolf, for introducing me to an interest in law, order, and everything in between. It’s been fun.