Did Law and Order And Its Spinoffs Help Wreck The National Perception of the Criminal Justice System?
Perhaps. This Is My Story.
The ‘reboot’ of Law and Order — one that was neither asked for nor, based on early reviews, particularly worth the viewers’ time — has raised many questions from critics. In the era where police practices are increasing coming under national scrutiny, many wonder whether the police procedural, part of television almost since the founding of the medium, time has passed. Some people — not all of them TV critics — wonder whether these procedurals have led to a perception of the police that has made so much of the behavior we’ve learned over the decades about corruption and false convictions and the shootings that seem to come every week accepted as the cost of doing business. To put it in the kind of phrase that Jack McCoy himself might use in a different context, does Law and Order have blood on its hands?
The answer is…complicated. Like everyone else, I have watched the endless reruns on Law and Order for so long, I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t at least one cable channel perpetually broadcasting them. And in one sense, it’s hard not consider a lot of what we see on Law and Order as the best PR the NYPD ever got. But when you watch so many of the best episodes of the original series — which in my opinion cover the 1990s — you don’t get the picture of either the supercop or the ruthless prosecutor. What you get in so many episodes, particularly in the first two or three seasons where the camerawork seemed to be have more washed out tones then they did later on, is a group of professionals trying to work within a justice system so flawed, they can barely keep up. I am reminded particular of Dann Florek’s world weary Donald Cragen, the Lieutenant in the first three seasons or Chris Noth’s perpetually cynical Mike Logan, one of the most beloved characters in the entire franchise (probably even now after everything we’ve learned about Noth’s personal behavior) trying not to take the bloodshed personally, but mourning the losses of the occasional innocent victims.
And in the early seasons of the series, so many of the people who worked in the DA’s office seemed to be hanging on to misguided idealism in the face of a broken justice system. There’s no possible way the constant departures and arrivals of new cast members could have been arranged this way, but as so many of the ADAs ended up leaving the DA’s office, you got the feeling that they were departing before they were eaten alive. Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks, who was in the first three seasons) and Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) both left the District Attorney’s Office to become defense attorneys. Claire Kincaid’s (Jill Hennessy) character was memorably killed off at the end of Season 6, but in the episodes leading up to it, there had been repeated hints that she had become tired of the problems with her job and wanted to resign. Even Ben Stone (the troubled Michael Moriarty), the first DA the series had was a man of conscience and justice and his character ended up resigning because he believed his relentless pursuit of the former had led to a reluctant witness’ death.
So for the first half of the series, I basically believe Law and Order whatever its flaws, did believe that its characters were troubled by their actions and trying to follow the justice system. The same certainly can’t be said for any of the spinoffs that have followed in its wake.
Before I begin going through SVU, let me state the obvious: sexually based offenses, however heinous, were not considered by the series as special. The flagship series had dealt with, by my count, at least two dozen episodes that dealt with rape, assault, or sexually based murders. Law and Order treated them the same as every other case that came through their doors, even when those same cases directly affected the regulars. This was true in two of the very best episodes. ‘Helpless’ in Season 3, dealt with Elizabeth Olivet, the police psychiatrist (the always undervalued Carolyn McCormick) being threatened and then raped by her OB-GYN. As the detectives investigate, they learn this doctor has a history of sexual violence and in the final moments, it is revealed that he is a full-on predator with more than fifty assault victims coming out of the woodwork. In Season 5’s ‘Bad Faith’, Logan is forced to confront his childhood assault by his parish priest, another sexual predator who did the same to many of his own friends and as we learn in the final minutes, his own son. Neither is treated with remorse by either prosecutor, but they don’t particular treat either with any less ferocity than they do any other murderers they are prosecuting. Nor did the flagship series stop investigating sexual assaults and murders just because SVU was around, though they were more occasions for crossover episodes than anything else.
So why did Dick Wolf make SVU the first spinoff of Law and Order? I think Wolf and his writers just wanted to excuse to look at vengeance more than they did justice. They actually gave the game away in the first season: there was no regular DA during that season, except for occasional cameos by Angie Harmon’s Abby Carmichael, who seemed there less to ready the defendants for court and more to give tacit approval of the convictions to come. There would be ADA’s in future seasons of SVU — Stephanie March and Diane Neal spent much of the first ten years going back and forth — but they were never given the same personalities as so many of the other prosecutors on Law and Order and indeed were written out and back in with so little justification that you got the feeling that for all intents and purposes the prosecutors were stick figures. There have been a lot of ADAs in the last several seasons but the trials on SVU were never given the same significance they were given on Law and Order. I think Wolf and his writers are sending a subtle message: the justice system doesn’t work in favor of these criminals.
And I say that message is subtle because of how the detectives — particularly Christopher Meloni’s Eliot Stabler treated almost every potential suspect who was unfortunate enough to end up in the interrogation room. In the entirety of Law and Order, it was an aberration to see a suspect being touched, much less manhandled during an interrogation. In SVU, not only was it the rule, it was tolerated, which is horrible enough but is worse when you consider: a) the commanding officer for Stabler and so many detectives was Cragen, who’d spent the first three seasons keeping detectives in check and, b) one of the detectives on the squad was Homicide’s John Munch (Richard Belzer) a veteran of a show that, for all its flaws, spent its entire run with a similar hands off policy. The message was very clear and has been underlying SVU even a decade after Meloni had been written off: these people deserve it. Even if they’re not guilty of the crimes they’re currently investigating, they are predators, rapists, sex fiends. They deserve a beatdown just for existing. (This message was carried even further, sadly, in Wolf’s next major police procedural Chicago PD in which the cops don’t even bother to focus their violence only on rapists.)
Criminal Intent is a harder show to peg. There aren’t so much violations of justice here, but the fact is the series is centered on locking up the criminal more than anything else. The reason I’ve never been quite convinced in belongs in the Law and Order franchise proper is that it rarely even went by the basics of either series. The justification for its existence was that these were ‘the worst criminal offenders’ and in all honesty, the crimes were barely a notch on some of the things in the original or SVU. Essentially, Criminal Intent was a series to focus on the NYPD equivalent of Sherlock Holmes: played alternatively by Vincent D’Onofrio for much of the series run, Chris Noth for a few seasons to relieve D’Onofrio and Jeff Goldblum for a few seasons near the end. They were given support by female detectives: Kathryn Erbe, Annabella Sciorra for awhile, Julianne Nicholson and a few in between. None of the investigators had any of the realism that you would find in Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe or the lion’s share of detectives on either series: they seemed more the equivalent of human encyclopedias capable of picking up minute details that any other cop would need a team of CSIs to notice. Did Dick Wolf create this series just to do his own version of Columbo? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is two separate things: in comparison to Law and Order or SVU, Criminal Intent’s run was relatively short: ‘only’ ten seasons. And it wasn’t nearly as popular as the other two when it came to ratings; after six seasons, it left NBC and spent the rest of its run on USA. That’s an impressive track record for any other series except one designed by Dick Wolf.
I also know that this show didn’t even bother going through the motions of the format at all. It did start out with a prosecutor: Courtney B. Vance as ADA Carver. (The fact that Criminal Intent utterly wasted one of the greatest actors of all time is another reason I never like it.) But practically from the start of the series, the trial was, if anything, smaller than it was on SVU when it happened at all. There were barely any scenes in the courtroom, which made sense: it was all about the magic of the detectives. Vance’s character was given less to do, and by Season 5 he left the series. Not long after the series stopped even with the pretense of being in the courtroom.
In the 2000s, there followed those rarest of things: unsuccessful Law and Order spinoffs. Trial by Jury a spinoff supposed to center on courtroom was there and gone by the middle of the 2005 season. (Jerry Orbach, who’s iconic Lennie Briscoe, was supposed to be a lead, died in the first few episodes. Given the ratings, it might not have made a difference even if he’d lived.) In 2010, the quintessential New York series tried an LA department (a bit hard to fathom, but there’s a UK version that lasted six seasons.) This series staggered from the beginning, particularly with its actors. That being said, there was one key change halfway through that may speak to a larger sense about how Wolf viewed the criminal justice system.
Halfway through the series Alfred Molina’s character, a cop turned DA, ended up going back to be a criminal investigator. Now it could have merely been a cast shakeup to get interest in a flagging series. Thing is, I remember the ads and I remember Molina’s character saying: “Now I’m getting justice with a badge and a gun.” That’s a scary message to come from a former prosecutor no matter how you try to slice it. The fact that the series was soon cancelled doesn’t change that face.
I haven’t followed Organized Crime, the most recent and successful spinoff of Law and Order, but based on the few episodes I’ve seen, it really doesn’t play close to the formula. It’s serialized, like basically every series on TV these days, and it deals with the pursuit of a crime boss. The closest equivalent to it that I can think of is the 1980s classic Wiseguy, which featured a lot of undercover work to bring down crime bosses. Back then, the series was ahead of its time and still does seem brilliant viewed even now. Organized Crime, by contrast, basically seems an excuse to give a beloved character his own franchise, and based on what I’ve heard about Christopher Meloni’s work, an excuse for Stable to embrace his inner monster. It is notable that in this series, trials are practically unheard of and the major case that the series had spent all of Season 1 building too — the murder of Cathy Stabler by Dylan McDermott’s mobster character — more energy is spent throwing vitriol at his defense attorney (Raul Esparza) who worked for the DA’s for several seasons. Years of friendship are cast aside, and after the case ends in a mistrial Olivia Benson, who worked along side him for years and who he must have pulled her and her detectives asses out of the fire, tells him: “I don’t know who you are anymore.”
Honestly that’s how Wolf views the defense attorney and criminal justice in particular. His shortest run series, in addition to Trial by Jury, are Chicago Justice an attempt to add a look at law in every aspect of his world in Chicago and Conviction, a series set in New York’s world of prosecution and public defenders. Because for all the lip service the voiceover gives to the ‘criminal justice system’ in every episode of Law and Order, the message that one takes from so many of the series in the Law and Order franchise is that criminals don’t deserve justice. They deserve beatings, imprisonment and being the ‘victims’ of vigilante justice. I can’t tell you how many episode of the series — even the flagship one — that have ended with the criminal being shot by a family member or a loved one, often in the courtroom itself. Wolf may argue for the people being represented, but he much prefers it when the people carry out ‘justice’ in their own right. Law and Order may have revolutionized the police procedural, but in the eyes of Wolf, there’s a part of him that still wishes we were in the Wild West, where the only law and order that mattered were by those who carried the guns and used them the fastest.