Friday, May 14, 2010

Bringing the Gavel Down on "Law & Order"

It's that time of year again. As we come to the end of the May sweeps period, the networks have announced a slew of pickups, renewals, and cancellations for the next television season. "V" and "Chuck" have been saved from the brink, but the axe has fallen on "Heroes," "FlashForward," "Scrubs," "The Wanda Sykes Show," "Better off Ted," "Romantically Challenged," and one of the most venerable properties on the NBC schedule, the original "Law & Order," which has been continuously on the air since 1990. There have been signs that "Law & Order" was in trouble after pulling in limp ratings all season, but the news appears to have caught just about everyone off guard. It was widely expected that the crime drama would be able to eke out at least one more season, if only to allow veteran producer Dick Wolf the satisfaction of beating "Gunsmoke's" twenty season record.

The impact of the cancellation is blunted by the fact that there are two "Law & Order" spinoffs still going strong: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" on NBC and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" on USA. There's also "Law & Order: UK," currently in its second series, one of the very rare examples of an American show being successfully remade by the British instead of the other way around. For for the sake of being of being a completist, I should also mention "Law & Order: Trial by Jury," the only real bomb of the franchise, which had a quick run in 2005, and the odd hybrid "Law & Order: Crime & Punishment," from 2002 which was essentially a "Dateline" style program that followed real criminal cases through the judicial system. And to top it off, yet another spinoff, "Law & Order: Los Angeles," will be premiering in the fall on NBC.

It's tempting to think that the original "Law & Order" could have been saved by an in-series retooling of the premise, or another round of major cast changes that other shows - including other "Law & Order" shows - have used to stave off cancellation. However, a quick glance at the lengthy cast list that the show has accumulated over the years reveals that it's all been tried before. The majority of the cast has come and gone. The last original cast member, Adam Schiff, left the program after ten years. S. Epatha Merkerson, who had the longest tenure at seventeen years, recently announced that this would be her last season. Arguably the most popular cast member, Jerry Orbach, retired after nearly twelve years back in 2004 and the show has never been the same since. The most recent seasons have won critical praise for newcomers Jeremy Sisto, Anthony Anderson, and Linus Roache, but they failed to connect with audiences.

As for retooling or relaunching the show with an altered premise, this is where "Law & Order" falls victim to its own success. The show originated a winning formula that was successfully carried over to its progeny, and it would be impossible to divorce it from its most iconic elements now - the New York City setting, the ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling, and the iconic "doink-doinks" of the interstitials. Clearly there's enough material to sustain the show, but there's not as much to distinguish it, now that the television landscape is littered with "Law & Order" spinoffs, and other cop and lawyer shows that it's influenced. And while it might seem odd that a new spinoff is coming on the heels of its progenitor's demise, twenty years of history adds up to a lot of baggage to be shipped out to the West Coast. It's much easier for NBC to start from scratch.

I never watched the original "Law & Order" regularly, though I caught the occasional episode now and then, usually when a big-name guest star dropped in. I'm much more familiar with the spinoffs, though from what I can tell, the only real difference between the shows is their characters. With that in mind, I think "Law & Order" hit its expiration date a few years ago when we lost Jerry Orbach. When I think of the original, I still think of him and Jesse L. Martin as the leads. The current cast is very good, but today's "Law & Order" might as well be another spinoff. The only one I'm really going to miss is Sam Waterston, who after S. Epatha Merkerson had the longest run on the show with sixteen years under his belt. Considering the franchise's penchant for crossovers, though, he'll surely turn up again somewhere - perhaps in Los Angeles.

"Law & Over" is dead. Long live "Law & Order." It's an easy show to let go of, because really, it's never going to go away.

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