I was as excited as anyone when NBC decided to revive its stalwart Law & Order mothership a decade after the series ended its first 20-year run. Bringing back Law & Order should have been a slam dunk, particularly in a network television landscape dominated by procedurals, especially since this is a procedural we know and love and have continued to watch in reruns since it went off the air.
To provide some continuity, the series also smartly brought back a couple of regulars in the beloved Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy, as well as Anthony Anderson’s Detective Bernard. They further surrounded them with several established veteran actors — Jeffrey Donovan, Hugh Dancy, and Camryn Manheim — and brought Odelya Halevi into an Assistant ADA position that’s launched several careers over the years.
What could go wrong?
Not to minimize the effort it takes to produce a quality episode of television, but Law & Order is as close to plug-and-play as there is on television. You take a novel legal issue, wrap it around a murder, and throw in a few zingers and a stoic glance, and Bob’s your uncle.
The big problem with this ten-episode run, however, is that Law & Order continues to rip from those headlines instead of gently tearing at them. This season has been led around by the nose by a decade’s worth of missed news stories. They’re choosing all the low-hanging fruit — Bill Cosby, Britney Spears, Elizabeth Holmes, Gabrielle Petito — and allowing the facts of those cases to completely dictate the storylines. The cases are less “inspired by” and more like poorly constructed abridged versions of the original, like SNL Trump parodies. As Roxana wrote over on Vulture this week, “I should not be watching Law & Order and trying to puzzle through which ‘real person’ the series is taking on this week!”
Exactly. Not every case needs to be ripped straight from the New York Post. Maybe try, instead, doing a LexisNexis search for novel legal issues in murder cases. The cases that are ripped from the headlines this season were usually interesting when they were in the headlines because of the public figures involved and not the legal arguments they hinged upon. The series is not giving the lawyers anything juicy to argue; it’s parroting the real-life cases (this week’s Ed Buck episode was basically a copy-and-paste job). Give us case law. Give us precedent! Don’t give us a Lieutenant who — six episodes ago — was all about doing the job within the NYPD’s systemic limitations who suddenly develops a conscience because she saw some bullies tormenting an unhoused man. This is Law & Order, not an episode of God Friended Me! And I’m not even going to get into the terrible dialogue that poor Sam Waterston has had to deliver this season.
Speaking of the Lieutenant, the murder investigations this season have been even worse than the legal cases. Detectives Bernard and Cosgrove question a few potential suspects, wince at the racism or homophobia elicited in their answers, provide some shallow commentary on the racism or homophobia, and then the desk cop sitting across from them finds the murderer on CCTV footage. Where is the fun in that? Where is the hard-nosed detective work? Where’s the twist? The murderer in nearly every single case is exactly who we thought it would be (mostly, again, because the real-world headlines spoil it). There’s not been a surprise in these investigations all season long.
It’s not like the original Law & Order was going to win any Emmys for writing, but it was suitably staid. The revival, on the other hand, is hollow. The old version went through the motions but with conviction. Now it just feels like they’re half-assing it. They’re not selling the characters, they’re not selling the investigations or the legal cases. They’re selling the headlines. This is not Law & Order. It’s a lifeless, lightly fictionalized weekly docuseries, and it is bad.