Today will go down in TV history: NBC is airing the final episode of its 20-year-long drama series, Law & Order. The mother ship of the successful franchise which spawned three – and soon, a fourth – spinoff shows will bow out after 456 episodes.
The season finale is directed by Montreal-born Concordia grad René Balcer (ironically his directing debut) who helped create the show as a first-season writer and returned to save it in 2007.
The brainchild of Dick Wolf, an advertising copywriter who turned to television and worked as a writer and producer on Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, the critically acclaimed and very popular NBC veteran show almost didn’t make it to the screen. The pilot, Everybody’s Favorite Bagman, was turned down by Fox and CBS for being too realistic because of the grainy, cinéma-vérité quality of its images and its sharp writing. Thankfully, NBC picked it up. Law & Order went on to become one of the most respected shows on television, earning a first Emmy for Best Drama in 1997 of a total of eight, plus Edgar and Silver Gavel awards for exceptional writing.
Set and filmed in New York – the show’s main and most endearing character, Law & Order never was an average crime show. First conceived by Wolf as a half-hour two-parter at a time when hour-long dramas were considered doomed, it almost never strayed from its hallmark plotline: in the first half, the police investigate a crime; in the second part, the district attorneys prosecute the offenders. “These are their stories,” claimed a voice at the very beginning. “These are our stories,” many New Yorkers – and, for that matter, many Americans – might add. For L&O‘s ripped-from-the-headlines stories thoughtfully, powerfully and topically reflected on the state of the Union, as seen through the eyes and lives of Gotham City’s citizens.
In fact, during its twenty-season run, Law & Order consistently addressed the major social and political issues of American Society, from hate crimes to abortion, to the death penalty to the Patriot Act, not to mention stories about political assassinations, reality TV, arms control, corrupt doctors and corporations, military-endorsed drug-trafficking, a rigged polls plot mere months after the 2000 Bush election – and even torture in Iraq during Secretary Dick Cheney’s administration, as told in the outstanding 20th season opener.
Still, tying with Gunsmoke – the other longest night-time drama on US TV – was no walk in the park. Often acclaimed, for more than 15 years, as one of the best-written shows on Television, Law & Order came dangerously close to cancellation because of mediocre scripts and sagging ratings. At the end of its 17th season, it was brought back to life when writer and producer René Balcer took over as showrunner – again. Two decades ago, Balcer had joined the writing staff during the show’s first season, then gone on to become its executive producer and earn the Emmy for Best Drama as well as most of its writing awards. He had left at the end of Season 10 to develop and executive-produce L&O‘s second spin-off, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, now in its 9th season on the cable channel USA. Since he returned in 2007, and for three seasons, Law & Order has regained its artistic grandeur, if not its audience.
Still, this isn’t the end. The show won’t disappear from the screens anytime soon; in Canada, it airs on CTV; it has been syndicated on numerous American cable channels; several of its early seasons are available on DVD; and – last, but not least – there is still much left to write about the show.
No other television drama has drawn a more acute and uncompromising portrait of America at the turn of the century. And it might take much more than twenty years before television historians and cultural critics – including the author of this piece – find this fine chronicle obsolete.
CTV, Saturdays and Sundays at 9/8C.
NBC, Monday May 24 at 10/9C
Seasons 1 to 7 and Season 14 (fan favourite Jerry Orbach’s last) are available on DVD (Universal).
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (L&O’s first spin off) ends its 11th season on NBC May 24 at 10/9C and will start its 12th in the fall of 2010.
Law & Order : Criminal Intent currently airs on USA channel Wednesdays at 10/9C
PS: NBC has ordered a 13-episode try-out of a new spin-off, Law & Order: Los Angeles, for the 2010-11 season. But it just doesn’t feel right.