Monday, August 10, 2009

The Law & Order Franchise: Still Alive and Kicking

Regular readers of my blogs know that I have two blogs dedicated to the Law & Order franchise and the stars of the show, All Things Law And Order and These Are Their Stories. As the season ended last night for Law & Order Criminal Intent, and with the new season getting ready to start up in late September for the “mothership” Law & Order and Law & Order SVU, I thought it was time to turn a critical eye at the franchise as a whole.

Law & Order Criminal Intent just finished up their season with a fine finale, "Revolution" which featured the franchise’s newest detective, Zach Nichols, played by the man who was born with the word “quirky” tattooed on his behind (just kidding) – Jeff Goldblum. Off to a shaky start and after a producer was fired, Goldblum’s character seemed to become more comfortable, believable, and highly interesting as the first few weak episodes were history and the new producer and team took control. In fact, I think Goldblum has re-energized the show, and the fact that he played well off both co-stars Julianne Nicholson and Kathryn Erbe made the show even more interesting. After last season’s depressing turn with Detective Robert “Bobby” Goren, Vincent D’Onofrio had his work cut out for him this season, and his character still seemed to be carrying around the baggage of the bad experiences that Bobby had endured during the last season or so. Maybe the writers should take a cue from the Goldblum team and breathe some life back into what used to be a mentally agile, in-your-face, razor sharp Goren. D’Onofrio is such a skilled actor that his recent story lines are a waste of his talent. But for a series that NBC seemed to have given up on a few years ago, it has found a new life and resurgence on a network that cares (USA), and I see only good things for the show should it be renewed (no official word on that issue as of this writing).

Law & Order SVU’s most recent season, in my opinion, was a mixed bag. The series spent what seemed like too much time last season on personal issues for the characters, and on what I call ”for your consideration” episodes which seemed akin to begging for Emmy nominations for its key stars, Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni, along with using a gaggle of high powered guest stars. Don’t get me wrong, Mariska and Chris were key to the success of this series last season, and SVU has done very well in bringing out the talent with powerful guest stars such as Ellen Burstyn, Brenda Blethyn, and Carol Burnett, all who were nominated for Emmys. But the stories themselves seemed to suffer as a result, becoming more like a crime soap opera at times. After watching a fewer of the older episodes over the last week or so that were from the first few seasons, I have to admit that I miss the grittiness of this show. It also seems that they have gone out of their way to focus on crimes that don’t quite fit the “special victims” category, maybe in another attempt to give their key stars meatier roles. SVU is still a great show, but I admit that I am worried that the show has become more about the sizzle rather than the steak. And that may make the show tough to swallow if the trend continues.

Fans were concerned when Meloni and Hargitay were holding out in contract negotiations, but not me. After the many years of changes in the mothership series, I got used to cast changes and I felt comfortable that SVU could have survived without one or both of the top stars. In fact, with the large amount of male TV stars out there that could have fallen into the role if Meloni were to vacate his role, I envisioned the show actually being more interesting if one of the two stars left, and a cast change maybe bringing on a whole new group of fans. The show did well by cutting lose a deadpan Michaela McManus and by bringing back Stephanie March to reprise her role as ADA Cabot (with the obvious omission of any mention of her work as a bureau chief while on the series, “Conviction”). I think without March’s return, the season may have been just average. While some die-hard fans think I am too hard on Law & Order SVU, it’s only because I think it is sacrificing the quality of its story lines to become more of a character driven show.

Law & Order - the mothership, the original recipe, call it whatever you like - is going on its 20th season and showed more signs of life last season than it had in a long time. The season featured a slow buildup in tension for District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) as he fought to win the election and keep his office. The season ended with a rather delicious episode where Jack gets the upper hand against his opponent, and gets to bring down the governor in the process, but left fans hanging as to the actual outcome of the election. Of course, the show had the added bonus of a real live New York governor’s scandal during the show’s 19th season which gave writers a great chance to do some “ripped from the headlines” story-stealing, but at least they added a nice twist all of their own. In a change from her first season with the show, ADA Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza) seemed to have softened her look and grew a backbone, and many times provided either a fresh approach to a case or a tidbit of information that helped win a case, proving she is much more than a pretty face. And while EADA Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) seemed to try to win most of has cases by some underhanded maneuver, he saved his best for last when he outmaneuvered the governor and got him to resign, all without McCoy’s knowledge or approval. Not to forget the detectives – Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Bernard (Anthony Anderson – who are starting to act more like real working partners. Sure there will never be another Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) but Sisto and Bernard seem better matched than Lupo and Greene (Jesse L. Martin). The only problem I see is that they still have S. Epatha Merkerson in a role that woefully underutilizes her talents. And by the way, either Sisto or Bernard needs to shave, because their facial hair looks too similar.

The bottom line is that the Law & Order franchise is one that still has a lot of life left in it, despite the rumors of the show’s demise over the years. Criminal Intent has found new life with the addition of Jeff Goldblum and likely some better writers and producers. SVU still has solid regulars on the show, and can command very high-powered guest stars, which help to draw viewers. And hopefully Law & Order will start the season with Jack McCoy having won the election as District Attorney, closing one story line, but maybe opening up more political trouble down the road for him and his staff. Yes, I’d say the franchise is still alive and kicking.

All Text Content (Recaps, Review, Commentary) © unless otherwise noted

Check out my blog home page for the latest information, at I Like To Watch TV, here.


Lisa R. said...

Wow! Very insightful and thoughtful analysis. I agree with what you mentioned about CI; Bobby Goren needs to shake off his current sluggishness and get back to his quirky self.

I haven't watched enough SVU this season to give an informed opinion, but what I caught of the season finale has put me off the series. I hope they come back with less "soap opera" stories as well.

And lastly, the Mothership. I think they had excellent stories, direction, and character moments this season. Any scenes with de la Garza, Roache, and Waterston and I was glued to my seat! They have a crackling chemistry. And the Lupo/Bernard partnership is good, too. I hope they come back with another great year. Thanks for your wonderful post!

Sara said...

I love the fact that Leslie Hendrix who plays the M.E. got more screen time in L&O CI this season. I like seeing her out of the lab and on the crime scene. Nice change.

Chris, let us know when the new season is slated to begin.