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So You've Decided to Watch Law & Order

Bob Chipman | 9 Feb 2015 12:00
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Here's the skinny on every series in the Law & Order franchise.

The online release of a teaser for an upcoming episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is normally the last thing The Internet gets itself worked up about - which is incredible in and of itself, considering that "gigs of chatter about meaningless trivium hardly anyone actually cares about" is pretty-much The Internet's reason for existing. Still, that's exactly what happened last week, because this week's new episode is covering certain recent unpleasantries in the online and gaming communities.

The reaction to the episode will likely be as predictable as... well, an episode of Special Victims Unit itself, one imagines. But as someone who's probably watched more Law & Order over the years than is humanly healthy (I work mostly overnight and cable networks like to run them in blocks) it was amusing to me to see the perplexed reaction from some "geek" circles unfamiliar the franchise's... "unique" sense of tone and rhythm, which I can only accurately summarize as "2015's crimes solved by 1994's TV cops." It's easy to forget, in this supposed "Golden Age" of cutting-edge cable dramas, classy limited-series and built-for-bingers streaming heavyweights, that decidedly middlebrow programmers like this still reign supreme across a lot of network TV - many of them running long enough to have accrued fan-followings that would be the envy of more prestigious critical-darlings.

Suffice it to say, it seems like more than a few people (not all of them "gamers," but many of them) will be dipping into this franchise for the first time; which, I imagine most have probably already guessed, is more than enough of a fig-leaf to justify finally taking this breakdown of the franchise's myriad incarnations out of my "to do" pile. Enjoy!

LAW & ORDER (1990 - 2010)

Sometimes clarified as L&O "Classic" or "Prime" by fans, this was the original series and the original fire for an entire epoch of broadcast television. Interesting, then, that in the 90s it was viewed as a revival of the mostly-dead "procedural" genre; i.e. shows where the story and tension were derived not (primarily) from the characters but from the step-by-step details of their work. This format had ruled the cop and lawyer genres in the 50s and 60s, beginning with Jack Webb's immortal Dragnet, but had fallen out of favor in the 70s and 80s as legal dramas became more consumed with the psyches and personal-lives of its profession and cop shows came to favor action and/or witty banter.

Law & Order revived both forms of the genre by mashing them together: The series is rigidly - almost dogmatically - committed to a formula. Each episode is an hour long. In the opening moments, a crime is either committed or discovered. Over the course of roughly half an hour, the regular police characters investigate the crime and (for the most part) make an arrest by the half hour mark. At that point, the focus shifts to the regular lawyer characters, who prosecute the case. It's also common for both halves to feature a plot twist: The "inciting" crime will often appear ordinary, only to lead to a more complicated crime typically derived from a newsworthy "ripped from the headlines" real-life case; and it's pretty standard for the first person arrested to not be the "real" or "boss" criminal.

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