The new episodes are a faint echo of the original show
Earlier this year, NBC brought back Law and Order. The once legendary hybrid crime/legal procedural had gone off the air after twenty seasons in 2010, baffling many as the ratings for the show, while low historically, were still passable at the time mainly because all of NBC’s other programming was doing so much worse. Even if original flavor Law and Order was out of its prime, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was and still is going strong, with the show now in its twenty-third season.
To answer the question of why NBC canceled Law and Order , and for that matter whether the revival is any good, we first need to dig deep into why Law and Order was such a huge show to begin with. The reputation is well-deserved–it’s no exaggeration to say that Law and Order set the bar for nearly all serious network television storytelling in the nineties. Despite the self-contained, simplified format of one case per episode, Law and Order had an intense focus on realism, and it loaded its early episodes with what viewers would recognize today as true-crime elements. The detectives will hone in on one suspect, only to alter their perspective upon uncovering new evidence inconsistent with their current tentative theory.
Original flavor Law and Order also had a strong anti-corruption angle. Culprits would often end up being members of high society, politicians, or even other police officers. Law and Order dealt a lot with politics- indepartmentally rather than via electioneering, as the constantly exhausted District Attorney Adam Schiff had to delegate to his lead lawyers Benjamin Stone and later Jack McCoy about how to prosecute cases without stepping on the wrong toes. An important part of the format was determining relative guilt. While we usually (but not always for sure) know who committed the murder by the end of the first half, culpability is typically the major theme of the second half. The district attorney’s office has to mull over who to offer a decreased sentence and why, since especially in cases with co-conspirators, some people are clearly more guilty than others.
Early Law and Order remains surprisingly accessible. The culprits have well-described motives They’re not just generic psychopaths. Even when the crimes are passionate ones, the writers often make reference to relevant recent legal literature to denote unusual cases with counter-intuitive conclusions- often the very same counter-intuivity that frustrated the detectives in the first half. An episode dealing with a teenager who murders his father, for example, notes that while abusive children are uncommon, they’re not unheard of. Naturally, the apparent absurdity of an abusive teenager killing his father in anger compared to the more straightforward story of an abusive father killing his son forms the lynchpin of the defense.
Now, you might be thinking Law and Order sounds like a pretty great show, so why cancel it? By 2010, it really just wasn’t the same show anymore. Much like the Ship of Theseus, nearly every original element had been removed from Law and Order over the years, most obviously all of the cast. In theory this wasn’t a big deal. Because so much of the emphasis was on the cases themselves, the characters were of limited importance, though their personalities flavored whatever investigation they were running.
Decades before being murdered by Peloton, Chris Noth was mainly visible as a young, handsome, blustery Irish cop. Jerry Orbach’s sardonic expressions are an institution in and of themselves. Angie Harmon is a hilariously effective lawyer since, despite looking like a model, she’s very serious about her job. In one of Law and Order’s infrequent personality quips, she regards the salad with low-fat dressing McCoy brings her for a late-nighter with disgust, and takes the ribs he got for himself. She doesn’t diet- she works out. There’s a lot these co-workers don’t know about each other, even as Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt were noteworthy for having a strong mentor-mentee dynamic, with the then-younger Bratt having a better streetwise disposition.
Earlier Law and Order makes a point of how important it is for cops to know how to talk to people, even criminals. Cops would frequently clearly identify themselves as homicide to emphasize to potential sources that they don’t care about other crimes. Think bringing donuts to sex workers as a sort of peace offering, or just being willing to hear people out. For all its realism, Law and Order actually promoted a pretty big fantasy by implying that its idealized homicide detectives were the norm. Real life police departments are notoriously awful when it comes to actually solving murders.
By 2010, though, none of this was in the show anymore. Having gained its fame through the tagline “ripped from the headlines,” Law and Order employed a new generation of writers who saw that phrase and thought that it referred to just any random headline, not ones involving unusual crime stories. The final episode of the twentieth season deals with rubber rooms, school shootings, child molestation…a litany of all sorts of lurid, topical subjects all totally removed from a coherent narrative structure where the perpetrator’s actions make logical sense, and no meaningful legal elements to boot.
It’s an ideal finishing point for the series- the formula intact, but without the serious logic that gave the show its true depth. But even that’s just a regular bad episode. Later Law and Order definitely had lower points than that, with an Octomom and Jon And Kate Plus Eight inspired plot somehow inspiring more cringe than the reality TV show culture it was trying to criticize.
Regrettably, the twenty-first season of Law and Order picks up right where the 2010 version left off, the true crime influences of the early seasons completely forgotten. Right away the show forcibly reminds us that cops can’t do their jobs now, because people irrationally hate the police. Also, that famous comedians raped women. Except this version has a murder. Also that Theranos happened. Except this version had a murder. Also that young people are into this wacky lifestyle of living in a van and doing social media around it. Except this version had a murder. Q-Anon exists and sure is crazy. Except this version has a murder.
The last one is particularly offensive, because it takes an extremely controversial legal theory, punishing vaguely influential speech for illegal acts committed by a third person, and acts like it’s a logical, uncontroversial extension of existing case law with no meaningful political consequences. In trying to be politically topical, Law and Order manages to discount actual politics entirely. This would be a huge escalation of the criminalization of speech, and even the content of the episode itself fails to justify the argument, ultimately convicting the perpetrator on the basis of security camera footage that inexplicably had a live mic attached to it.
But even worse than this lazy plotting is its superiority complex. The aforementioned van life episode has a plethora of evidence since the victim was always posting pictures online. This makes the detectives mad, somehow. In between all this editorializing, there’s a huge gaping plot hole in that the murderer is caught burying a body that no one can find despite the small search area.
The real galling part of later Law and Order is just how all the characters seem to be completely incompetent. What’s especially obnoxious is that even mild incompetence was enough to get characters fired in early seasons, or give an overconfident defendant a death sentence. Where once there were high standards for Law and Order in New York, now there are just excuses.
I’m honestly not sure why the Law and Order reboot even exists. The people making it obviously have no idea why Law and Order used to be such an institution. That’s a real shame, since a modern show done in the style of the early episodes has a lot of potential. But that’s not what Law and Order in its 21st season is.