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'Law & Order' Creaks Back in to a Changed World

By Dustin Rowles | TV | February 25, 2022 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | February 25, 2022 |


I am a longtime and loyal fan of the original Law & Order, so loyal, in fact, that aside from a few episodes of Organized Crime and a flirtation with the short-lived Trial by Jury, I haven’t seen more than an episode or two of the other spin-offs, including SVU. It’s not the murder investigations themselves that I am drawn to but the way the law and order mesh in the criminal justice system.

However, my real love — and the show that inspired me to go to law school — was David E. Kelley’s The Practice, a show primarily about defense lawyers where the prosecutors (most notably Lara Flynn Boyle’s A.D.A. Helen Gamble) were positioned as the villains. The lawyers on The Practice were civil libertarians who often used morally questionable tactics to protect their clients and take on the racism and abuses of the criminal justice system. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the principal cast in Law & Order were seen as the heroes fighting to protect that very same system.

A lot has changed in the 12 years since Law & Order left the air, and while I understand that SVU has evolved some to reflect our new reality, viewers accustomed to seeing good guys solve crimes and convict murderers on the original Law & Order may find its return somewhat jarring for reasons other than the typical tin-eared dialogue.

It begins with Detective Frank Cosgrove (Jeffrey Donovan), who is far from the dry wit and no-nonsense of Jerry Orbach’s celebrated Lennie Brisco. Cosgrove is more Stabler-like, closer to the kind of unlikable cop who might have been a suspect in earlier L&O episodes: He gets testy with Black suspects — to the chagrin of his partner, Anthony Anderson’s Detective Kevin Bernard — and objects (along with Camryn Manheim’s Lt. Kate Dixon) to the approach of the liberal do-gooders in the prosecutor’s office.

Meanwhile, a new prosecutor, Hugh Dancy’s E.A.D.A. Nolan Price, seems to want to approach his job as though courting progressive voters, but he’s also not above exploiting the gender of his A.D.A. Samantha Maroun (Odelya Halevi) to win a case. It’s a clunky transition from old L&O to new and it may take several episodes for it to find its legs, but I at least appreciate the new approach, which dabbles in morally and ethically grey areas and doesn’t position its characters necessarily as the heroes. The unlikable Cosgrove, for instance, wants to protect the system, while Price wants to challenge it, but he’s not particularly likable, either.


Spoiler: The case that is ripped from the headlines centers on the murder of the Cosby-esque Henry King, shot to death after being released from prison for raping 40 women because of a miscalculation by a prosecutor, Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell, who starred on the show in its 7th and 8th seasons). She essentially granted King immunity so that he could reveal the details of one rape, but she turned around and prosecuted him after 39 other victims came forward.

There isn’t much meat to the investigation. Jamie Ross is briefly considered a suspect, as is King’s wife, but thanks to CCTV and the ability to analyze DNA on an errant cigarette butt, Bernard and Cosgrove quickly arrest King’s first victim, whom Consgrove manipulates into confessing by lying. He tells her that they captured the murder on camera (they did not), and that they’ll let her go after she confesses (they do not) because the murder is justified (it is not).

Cosgrove is an old-school asshole, but he doesn’t do anything illegal. Price, nevertheless, wants to self-exclude the confession because it was not obtained ethically (though, as Jack McKoy (Sam Waterston) tells him, if it’s legal, then it’s ethical). Price believes he can secure a conviction without a confession, but when the defense uses a jury nullification strategy — seeking to exonerate her because she’s sympathetic — Price has to resort to some questionable tactics of his own. He asks Maroun to give the closing arguments because she can use her own rage — her sister was raped, and she wanted to kill the rapist but did not — to win back the jury. Maroun is not particularly comfortable with weaponizing her experience against a rape victim, but she acquiesces and delivers the argument that secures a conviction.

It’s clunky, and not a particularly successful return for Law & Order, but I at least appreciate what the episode is designed to do, which is to show how messy and unjust the criminal justice system is. It reflects a necessity for the series to evolve. There will be some growing pains as the series zeroes in on a new perspective and hopefully restrains itself from looking like it’s trying too hard to do so.

Header Image Source: NBC