Test Pilot #3: Law & Order
Debut date: September 13, 1990 on NBC
Series legacy: The prototype procedural for late 20th century and 21st century television, particularly the broadcast networks, a series that was once great for what it was, but something that wore out its welcome due to ubiquity all across cable thanks to syndication.
Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
The first batch of Test Pilot files were chosen because of their importance to today’s television landscape. The medium has expanded in a lot of ways over the past 15-20 years, and to get this series of posts going, we are going to tackle four series that are perhaps most important to what we see on television today — and perhaps what we’ll see in the future. If successful, we’ll eventually move on to failed pilots, groups of posts based on genre, etc. It’s not as exciting to only look at the high-quality stuff, so hopefully we’ll get to some interesting failures in the future.
Today, perhaps the most influential broadcast network series of the last 25 years, Law & Order. The NBC series debuted over 20 years ago, but the original just stopped airing new episodes in May. But of course, it’s not really gone because Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been going strong on NBC for years, Criminal Intent is still hanging on over at USA and just tonight, NBC brings on the latest iteration, Law & Order: Los Angeles. In this entry, TVitter bad-ass and Monster of Television, Noel Kirkpatrick and I discuss the series. For an amateur critic and scholar, Noel’s a rare breed who actually loves Law & Order in an era when we’re all foaming at the mouth for complex, serialized dramas (not that he doesn’t like those too). I believe his response to Jimmy Fallon’s Emmy eulogy was something like “I felt every drop of that 40 [ounce alcoholic drink].” I know, hilarious, right? Let’s start off with Noel’s great response to the pilot(s):
Law & Order‘s journey to the small screen isn’t all that unique, though it’s certainly interesting.
Dick Wolf struck upon the idea for creating two shows for the price of one: half of the hour would focus on the police catching a criminal while the second half would do with the trial of the criminal. The novel thing was that Law & Order would focus on the prosecutors, not the defense an attorneys. Indeed, a show already existed that had this format called Arrest and Trial, but it only lasted for a season, and focused on the defense attorneys (who almost always got their client off by positioning them as “the wrong man.”).
Developed for Universal Television, the show bounced from network to network before it got back to NBC, where it would stay for 20 seasons. FOX picked the series up for a 13-episode order without ordering or seeing a pilot, but then the head of FOX, Barry Diller, decided it wasn’t a FOX show and dropped it. CBS liked the idea enough to order a pilot which would become “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman.” While Wolf says everyone at CBS liked the show, the network decided not to pick up the show due to the lack of marketable stars (little did they know how big Chris Noth would get in, well, 8 years).
NBC, despite concerns that the show would not maintain its intensity from week to week, picked up the show and ordered more scripts beyond “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman.” The actual pilot episode aired sixth, with “Prescription for Death” airing as the first episode of the series on September 13, 1990.
The two pilots, as it were, represent Law & Order‘s distinct narrative flavors. “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” begins as the investigation of one crime (a mugging gone bad) and through the investigation morphs into an even bigger crime (corruption in multiple branches of municipal government with ties to organized crime), a common narrative approach for the series it continued, especially when the show started attracting splashy guest stars. “Prescription for Death” is significantly more straight forward an episode, with no spiraling case work as it deals with the death of a young woman due to a doctor being intoxicated and writing out the wrong meds.
But both episodes also rely on the show’s trademark “ripped from the headlines” approach. “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” is inspired by a New York City case involving the parking bureau and corruption, while “Prescription for Death” draws its plot from the Libby Zion debacle (replacing exhaustion with alcoholism). Indeed, the disclaimers attached to each episode are a little lengthier and stay on the screen longer than they ever do now (the disclaimer for the episode “Indifference,” based on the Joel Steinberg case, not only scrolls up the screen before the credits, but is read by the announcer).
But the disclaimers were probably more necessary then than they are now given the show’s gritty aesthetics and docudrama leanings, which have mostly been swept away in favor of a polished, quality hour-long drama look while still keeping the narrative style intact.
“Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” was filmed on 16mm hand-held cameras to achieve a vérité style (Dick Wolf had the director watch The Battle of Algiers before filming), which works particularly well during the Law part. New York looks dingy and old, from the streets to the police station to the various locations Detectives Greevey and Logan visit, and there’s not much visiting the upper East Side (at least in this episode). The camera is mobile and jerky as we follow Logan through alleys and yards, providing a stronger embedded filmmaker quality to the episode.
The Order section, on the other hand, leans more toward a docudrama feeling. More time is spent in the courtroom with various witnesses than anywhere else. The episodes emphasize the use of witness testimony (evidence is never shown nor really discussed) and takes up the bulk of that last 30 minutes. Indeed, whereas today the show will alternate between witness and DAs crafting strategy in Adam Schiff’s office, the first episode drives home the actual trial itself as key. This does make the Order part drag on a bit as there’s very little to break up testimonies (no opening or closing statements), but it does serve the episode’s purpose in attempting to showcase the process of following the case from start to finish. Indeed, the episode doesn’t even end with the reading of the verdict and instead has a title card superimposed over the last scene, telling the audience what happened.
“Prescription for Death” works much the same way, though given its emphasis on doctors and upper-class NYCers, the grit is considerably toned down. I’m not entirely sure that the episode was shot on 16mm (it certainly doesn’t look like it), and the hand-held camera work isn’t as noticeable.
Even in these early episodes, other traits that would become synonymous with Law & Order are present, though not fully fleshed out. While there are fewer of the white text on black background intertitle cards, there are still no establishing shots or transitions between scenes. The dialectical conversations between characters, each taking a side on a particular issue, slowly comes to the forefront, though isn’t as present as it would sometimes later become.
“Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” has a little on race within the NYPD, but isn’t a motivating factor. “Prescription for Death” is considerably more dialectical, as Logan and Greevey feel differently about doctors and debate the standards of accountability doctors should be held to in comparison to cops and air traffic controllers. They debate the issues, but never come to a conclusion, only working as a sounding board for ideas to motivate conversations at home.
Through these debates, we learn little bits about the personal lives of these police (Logan’s dad had a heart transplant, Greevey suffered through bad diagnoses, Cragen is a recovery alcoholic). Even here, the cases serve to enlighten us a bit about the characters, give us some insight into their psyches even while denying us the chance to see them at home (Greevey talks about his wife and kids, Logan about a girlfriend who is a beat cop (who we actually see…while she’s on the clock)).
No episode gets devoted to Cragen falling off the wagon (indeed, he’s now the SVU commander), and Greevey’s medical problems aren’t seeds planted for future episodes: they’re just facts that came out while discussing a case and then are quickly tossed aside because the case matters more than their lives.
And the cases will always matter more than them, just like the institutions they sometimes run up against will matter more than them. “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman” reaches into the seats of power, though never in a way that gets fleshed out, but these cops are only at the very bottom of a case, without the necessary resources to get to the top (nor are they overly concerned with it). And in this way, Law & Order establishes the necessary groundwork for shows like The Wire to exist.
Indeed, when I compared The Wire to Law & Order earlier this summer, I was told the more apt comparison was Homicide: Life on the Street. While that’s right, without Law & Order, there’s no Homicide which means there’s no Wire (let alone the CSI: shows). I realize these types of genealogies aren’t the best devices to engage, but Law & Order contributed to the standards and expectations for televisual procedural, both in terms of style and in terms of narrative. And with it living seemingly forever in syndication, it will be hard to forget Law & Order‘s legacy.
And now, some analysis from me, as the person who is less familiar with the series:
Like anyone who spent a lot time watching television during the ’90s, I’ve obviously seen a load of Law & Order in my day. My parents were big fans of the series during the so-called glory years of Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe. So what’s exceptionally odd about the series as a whole and something that I definitely noticed while watching these two pilots is that it’s easy to think of Law & Order in very specific ways or with specific people.
Meaning, to me, Law & Order is the mid-’90s series I watched growing up (which I guess is nice since that’s the era that was heavily honored in nominations by the Emmys), and one that doesn’t seem to be connected to the series that went off the air last May. I know that they are in the same world, produced by the same people and still feature the glorious and ageless Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy.
Thus, watching these two episodes were somewhat familiar, but at the same time distant to the series I knew and actually loved. A number of the series’ most famous attributes are here in the slice-of-life cold opening, the music and the transition between the two sides of the law, but because I’m unfamiliar with the characters (particularly George Dzundza’s Max Greevy), it somehow felt like I wasn’t even watching Law & Order. Of course, then the dun-dun music kicked in and I was knocked back into familiarity like Pavlov’s dog.
However, one thing that did surprise me about these two pilot episodes is how well the characters are sketched out, even this early on. These days, when people think of Law & Order there’s an assumption that it’s a generic procedural that didn’t rely on anything but pulled-from-the-headlines stories and fairly typical formulas. But these two episodes, especially “Prescription for Death,” have some great character moments. Cragen’s story about his battle with alcoholism and Greevy’s tale about his battle with doctors were exceptional moments that really emphasized who these men were amid the veneer of the tough New York cop stereotype. Those beats reminded me of the time when I watched the series and how often the series did tell personal stories to Lennie Briscoe. Law & Order wasn’t great at creating fully-formed characters, especially for the amount of time certain characters were around, but it wasn’t awful at doing so (say, like CSI: is).
Of course, these episodes are both inherently New York-ian, or at least what I assume is New York. Again, I was younger when I watched the series regularly and honestly, a lot of my first experiences with the Big Apple came from watching Law & Order. Not that I was completely naive, but it’s easy, as a 10-year old to think of New York as a place where bodies are left lying in Central Park where some morning jogger stumbles upon them. Though neither of these episodes use that approach, but the cops just stumbling upon the body at the beginning of “Bagman” made me smile in a grim, weird way.
Finally, in thinking about the text of the episodes themselves, it’s interesting how both episodes don’t actually end in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits. “Everyone’s Favorite Bagman” ends still in the courtroom with a documentary-style text reveal of the case’s results, while “Death” ends with a shocked jury and the press hounding the obviously guilty doctor. While the verdicts are told and implied respectively, there’s some feeling that it’s not exactly all about the end result, but the work that leads up to said result.
Noel touched on the comparisons between Law & Order, Homicide and The Wire (and I think Hill Street Blues should be involved as well), and I’d imagine that if asked any television critic or scholar, they’d rank this series at the bottom of the that list. And while I’d probably say the same thing, I don’t think they are far apart as it might seem. The Wire is a television epic and Hill Street and Homicide are great, but Law & Order is probably the most influential of them all because it appealed to a broader audience while still maintaining some semblance of quality.
Before Hill Street and L&O, legal and police dramas were much lighter fare. When Law & Order came on the air, the biggest legal drama was L.A. Law, but the series lacked the kind of grittiness that Hill Street and Law & Order brought to the table and since this NBC series hit the air in 1990, there have surely been more series like Law & Order than there were like L.A. Law. One thing about L&O is that it is gritty without being obnoxiously gritty, so while certain later hits like CSI: owe some of their success to the series, they took things further because that was the only real way to expand on the formula I guess. I personally prefer the gritty realistic aesthetic of these episodes than the fantastical grotesque in CSI:.
And with any series that lasts so long, the legacy of Law & Order has been negatively colored by how it limped to the finish in those final few years with characters no one could really care about even for this series’ standards and how EP Dick Wolf pushed to break the Gunsmoke record for longest running broadcast drama. I’m not sure that’s fair. The mid- to late-’90s run of the series was great to watch as an adolescent and anytime I catch those episodes on TNT, I find myself hooked in. While I don’t think it’s fair to completely disregard weak seasons just to prove a point, it is important to note that Law & Order was very good at a certain time and still somewhat about mediocre when it left the air. Something should be said for the fact that so many series tried to emulate the formula over the years and failed because viewers would rather just watch the original innovator (unless it’s a spin-off of said innovator in SVU‘s case).
One final thing: The syndication and ubiquitous nature of the series. Is there something else besides the usually op:en-and-shut nature of the series that lends itself to syndication success? What does it say about our culture that the longest running drama series of the last 30 years is a series that reaffirms our dominant hegemonic views of justice? Obviously, we love justice, but we also love anti-heroes and soapy melodramas. Apparently, we just love justice so much that we can’t get enough of it. Thus, it makes sense that as another Law & Order ends, another one begins tonight. Will the Los Angeles version of the series be any different from the New York offering? Probably not. Does it really matter? Absolutely not.
Conclusions on legacy: Wrongfully derided because it stuck around a few years too long, still a fine, albeit formulaic drama that everyone enjoys — even if they say they don’t.