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RIP, Law & Order (1990-2010): A Eulogy to a National Treasure

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It would appear that Law & Order will not be getting that record breaking 21st season after all. The legendary crime drama will end at the end of this season, its twentieth, with 456 episodes in the can. It will end its run tied with Gunsmoke as the longest-running prime-time drama in network television history. After assurances from NBC brass that they would not want to deny Dick Wolf his shot at the record books, a strong pilot slate and middling ratings for the warhorse has singled the end for television's best network drama. Yes, you heard that right. Following a creative resurgence three seasons ago, the show had been in rare form not seen since the Steven Hill left the show in 2000.

Even at its worst, the show had always been entertaining, thoughtful, and politically and socially nutritious. Even during the dark years, the Fred Thompson/Elisabeth Rohm/Milena Govich era, the show still had relatively compelling stories and the comforting presence of Sam Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson. But, with Special Victims Unit taking away all of the sex crimes and Criminal Intent stealing the psychologically damaged criminal masterminds, the flagship was left with ripped-from-the-headlines adaptations and a flurry of wealthy white people killing each other for inheritances. But one cannot deny that the writing slowly became more heavy handed, more obvious and on the nose, and just plain less-intelligent. Veterans like Dennis Farina, brought in to replace the dying Jerry Orbach, were wasted and promising newcomers like Annie Parisse were killed off after two seasons because the network executives didn't find her hot enough (says them...).

Long gone was ice-cold procedural opening seasons with Michael Moriarty, Chris Noth, and Richard Brooks, where the mood was grim, the emotions were generally buttoned up, and the city felt lived in (and died in). Long missed was the snappy storytelling and rich chemistry that defined the show during the buzz-setting years of Jerry Orbach, Benjamin Bratt, Jill Hennessy (who was incredibly sexy without ever acting overtly sexual), and Carrie Lowell. No offense intended against Jesse L. Martin (who really should have been allowed at least one duet with Jerry Orbach), Dianne Wiest (given the impossible task of replacing Hill's incomparably grouchy and succinct Adam Schiff) or Angie Harmon (whose hard charging ADA grew on us as her character was allowed to flesh out). They just had the bad luck of having their tenures fall during the 'off decade'.

But with the 18th season, starting at the beginning of 2008 (it started in January and ran through May ala 24 or Lost), the show found its footing again. Major casting overhauls finally put Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy as the head District Attorney and Linus Roache and Alana De La Garza (a holdover from season 17) in the ADA chairs. Dennis Farina and Jesse L. Martin (who left of his own accord after nine seasons) were replaced with the surprisingly winning duo off Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson. The young blood at the DAs office provided a new dynamic to replace the creaky 'McCoy mentors/patronizes a hot young female assistant' pattern. Most importantly, the show recaptured the buttoned-down, character development-through-plot, substance over style writing that defined this American classic. Once again, the mysteries were complicated, the legal tiddly winks were fascinating, the 'law' portion was every bit as engaging as the climactic 'order' half, and the show broke out of its 'rich white people dying' phase and once again treated New York City as the melting pot that it is.

The show was again unafraid of being intelligently controversial, with leading characters espousing unpopular opinions on hot-button subjects without judgment or ridicule. While Dick Wolf is a Democrat, and the show has remained relatively liberal, the characters have been all over the map politically and it has always taken pains to present politically charged cases in apolitical lights (often rewriting GOP 'ripped-from-the-headlines' storylines to make the villains as Democrats to muddy the moral waters). Only Law & Order would dare take on the Bush/Cheney torture scandal and reveal the Obama administration as obstructionist villains. Only Law & Order could pull off an emotionally charged episode concerning the murder of an abortion doctor without having each character merely spouting talking points according to their rigid political dogma (the outrage that greeted said episode missed the point that we weren't supposed to agree with every pro/anti abortion argument in play). And only Law & Order could take a story apparently concerning the attempted murder of a climate change denier and turn it into a wrenching tale involving parental custody rights. Characters we liked routinely made decisions we hated and/or had opinions we disagreed with. Jack McCoy has undergone an almost humorous transition, dealing with both his new role as a political animal and the dilemma of being a fiery liberal who represents the often conservative field of law enforcement. And, in what was to be her final season, S. Epatha Merkerson was given a potent and timely subplot concerning her struggle with cancer, which in turn provided Ernie Hudson with his best role since Oz went off the air. Most importantly, the show has returned to the subtle, low-key writing that defined its best years. The last three seasons have succeeded in making Law & Order into the toughest, knottiest, trickiest, smartest, and just plain best network drama on TV once again.

And now it is over. I was prepared for the end of Lost and 24. Heck, current evidence suggests that it's just the time for them to be on their way ("Oooh... Jack Bauer is dressing up like Cobra Commander and avenging a woman in refrigerator/glorified booty call by kidnapping and terrorizing Charles Logan... just like he did at the end of season five!"). But Law & Order is the show that I will truly miss next season. Criminal Intent has jettisoned the characters that made it unique (Bobby Goren, you are gone but not forgotten), and the unintentionally hilarious Special Victims Unit can't stop shooting itself in the foot ("Let's end another Munch-less season with Sharon Stone as a new ADA and make every other character into an idiot so she can come out on top!"), so it would appear that the Law & Order franchise has reached an end. It has jumped the shark, nuked the fridge, and/or been tossed into the glowing river of urine and turned into smoke. Maybe the upcoming spin-off, Law & Order: We got HUGE tax rebates for shooting in LA will have a decent-enough cast to make it worth the effort. Maybe Sam Watterston will join SVU on a reoccurring basis. But this is truly the end of an era. To put the kibosh on the creatively rejuvenated show that has made the network so much money just one season before it could set a record, it's almost an act of cruelty on NBC's part. And for those who still enjoy quality scripted drama, it's another blow to the continuing relevance of network television.

Goodbye to the wonderfully entertaining men and women who investigated crime and/or prosecuted the offenders. This is truly the end of something. I honestly thought that Law & Order and The Simpsons (another oldie but still goodie after all these years) would live forever, joining the immortal likes of 60 Minutes and Sesame Street. At least NBC had the good sense to put Heroes out of its misery in the bargain.

Scott Mendelson