It Might Be Time for the ‘Law & Order’ Franchise to Retire

It Might Be Time for the ‘Law & Order’ Franchise to Retire

It’s been nearly 34 years since the first episode of Law & Order aired. Ever since, NBC has always featured some kind of Law & Order series on its weekly TV schedule, including the network’s current Thursday night slate, which includes a revamped version of the original series followed by Special Victims Unit and Organized Crime. That’s three solid hours of “ripped from the headlines” cases and ominous chung-chung sounds, week after week… which may seem like a lot. But hey, these are formulaic shows, and formulas are easily replicated.


Then again, formulas can also be easily tainted. Ingredients go bad. Additives don’t mix. The machinery rusts. You get the idea. The point is that while the Law & Order franchise is still reliably diverting and keeps generating solid ratings, something about the whole enterprise lately has been a bit… off.

 


It’s hard to say how far back the problem goes. The original Law & Order—an Emmy-winning smash hit in the ’90s—was creatively sputtering by the time it signed off for the first time in 2010. It hasn’t really returned to form since it was revived in 2022. The mothership series maintains two links to its heyday: Sam Waterston playing District Attorney Jack McCoy, and a commitment to turning sensational and often politically divisive real-life news stories into gripping procedural plots.
In its latter years, though, Law & Order has taken an approach to hot-button social issues that amounts to having characters snippily toss around the most reductive pro and con positions. This week’s Season 23 premiere, “Freedom of Expression,” puts that process into overdrive. The episode is ostensibly about the murder of a university professor. Before the hour is over, it touches on: college administrator plagiarism scandals; a lacrosse program rocked by hazing accusations; concerns about transgender athletes; the debate over whether the phrase “From the River to the Sea” is antisemitic; and frustration over American social institutions silencing pro-Palestinian voices.
That’s a lot to pack into one short courtroom drama, and no, “Freedom of Expression” doesn’t handle these complicated subjects with thoughtful nuance and tasteful restraint. The story (co-written by series creator Dick Wolf) leans hard into the notion that university campuses today are overrun with politically radical professors and intellectually immature, oversensitive students. It offers no insight, only agitation and escalation.
The new Law & Order takes a lot of its cues from its more successful spinoff, SVU, which at its best has made emotional manipulation and shock value into pop art. This week’s Season 25 premiere, “Tunnel Blind,” illustrates how good the show is at hooking viewers with something horrible, only to swap that out later for something appalling.
Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) takes an intense personal interest in the case of a missing teenage girl, because she thinks she saw the abductee looking dazed in a truck before the crime was reported. Searching for the creep who took the kid leads to an even more disturbing discovery: This child’s likeness has been replicated in the form of a sex doll, and one of the doll’s customers may have tried to turn his fantasy into reality. That’s the SVU touch. The crimes are always a notch or two more stomach-turning than you expected.
One of the other ways Law & Order: Special Victims Unit changed the franchise was by focusing more on the private lives of its cop and attorney characters, giving them multi-episode story arcs and sometimes connecting their cases to something from their own pasts. This is now standard practice for an L&O show. “Tunnel Blind” is mostly about Benson’s drive to find this girl and punish her kidnapper. In “Freedom of Expression,” ADA Samantha Maroun (Odelya Halevi) is affected by her family’s roots in the Middle East.

Law & Order: Organized Crime takes the character-driven style even further. The series is, ostensibly, “The Stabler Show,” giving actor Christopher Meloni’s moody, moralizing ex-SVU character Detective Elliot Stabler a place to be lonely and tortured for an hour a week, as he cracks down on drug gangs with the help of a small but dedicated team. The case in this week’s Season 4 premiere, “Memory Lane,” is mainly a frame for Stabler’s personal drama, as he suffers the death of a confidential informant, puts his life on the line in a mobile fentanyl lab, and takes care of his dementia-addled mother (played by Ellen Burstyn, who delivers an incredibly vivid performance in her few scenes). This is all a far cry from the original Law & Order’s no-frills, case-of-the-week format.

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