Law & Order (NBC)

Recently I came into possession of an Emmy screener DVD of Law & Order (don't ask me how I got it – oh, okay, I gave Hector Elizando a handjob) containing two episodes from the show's two thirteenth season.

Now, I had jumped off the L&O bandwagon (and, in fact, that of television entirely) a few years back, after years of sometimes obsessive interest in the show. Admittedly part of it was that L&O had grown too popular – all of a sudden, it seemed, an underdog show I regarded as a private pleasure had been "opened to the public." The thrill was gone, like when your former-virgin girlfriend takes on the entire rugby team on a scuffed-up pool table in your former best friend's rec room … not that this has ever happened to me. Fucking bitch.

A more substantial aspect to my abdication, though, was that the show just seemed to be getting long in the tooth. The elements I had long enjoyed – Jerry Orbach's deadpan corniness, S. Epatha Merkerson's loving contentiousness, Sam Waterston's quixotic intensity, the DA's inevitable exasperated utterance of "Take a deal," the reliably familiar rotation of New York character actors, the increasingly cool roster of guest stars – well, I could just see it all coming a mile away. The twists, the turns, the verdicts, all of it. It wasn't even fun identifying the real-life case on which any given episode was based.

Catching up with L&O now feels like I've been away at college, returning home thinking I know it all, embarrassed to consort with these squares, eager to get away again. But, sitting down to a nice family meal and opening up again to my roots, I discover that yes, I have changed – but these are still damn good people.

Surely the two episodes on this disc must be two of the recent best, if they're submitting them for Emmy consideration. Perhaps most of the shows are as formulaic as I remember, but these two were good enough to remind me why I liked L&O in the first place. They kept me on my toes with unpredictable plotlines, dependable performances, and some fucking good writing.

"Chosen" featured a bookie accused of murdering his business partner, who'd discovered he'd been stealing from the company till. Slam-dunk case, until the tricksy Hobbit defense attorney inflames the emotions of judge and jury alike by revealing the man had been stealing the money to support Israel!

This inventive twist gives the writers room to explore the effect of patriotic language on emotion, and they don't take the typical post-9/11 way out. At each point where I expected the drama to teeter over into some kind of pro-American bullshit, it didn't, and this reassured me that the show was still capable of taking the road less traveled.

"Suicide Box" was even better, featuring Gregory Hines (okay, so it's a little shameless for them to submit the Gregory Hines episode to the Emmys) as a more moderate Jesse Jackson-type defending a black kid who shot a white cop as retribution for police mishandling of his brother's murder.

This one shines thanks to an outstanding contribution by Jesse L. Martin, an unusually deep turn by Merkerson, and some of the most baffling twists I've seen on the show – for every easy out the writers could have taken, they chose instead to challenge themselves. And for someone who recently died, Hines is terrific.

The cast isn't "my" cast – Elizabeth Rohm isn't fit to sniff Carey Lowell's tampons, and Fred Dalton Thompson seems like a "Mad TV" characterization of Steven Hill. Sure, the good old days of Chris Noth, or Michael Moriarty, or Jill Hennessy, or Benjamin Bratt are gone.

But that's Law & Order, where glory days just lead to other glory days, leaving the judgment of "best" up to individual taste. The show was cool enough to spot greatness in William H. Macy, Samuel L. Jackson, Claire Danes, and any number of now-stars when they were no-names. … and ten years from now, it will probably be the case that the character actors you're currently watching will have turned out to be the stars of the future.

Hm, could I have convoluted that sentence any more? Well, one thing is clear: I was too cavalier about giving L&O back to the grandparent community. It may be an institution by now, but not every institution is the Gunsmoke Retirement Home.

At any rate, some of retirement's pleasures are totally desirable while you're young. L&O is one, for sure … dementia praecox, perhaps not.

Review by La Fée © 2004