Law & Order Season 1 Review
Law & Order is now in its thirteenth year in North America with the ninth series currently showing here in the UK on Five, making it the longest running crime drama series in the US. Created by Dick Wolf (a veteran of Miami Vice), Law & Order's unique selling point is in its examination of both the criminal and legal procedures involved in bringing the perpetrator of a crime to justice. Typically, therefore, an episode of Law & Order opens with the aftermath of a crime and the subsequent police investigation, which takes up roughly half the running time. As the police determine suspects, motive, intent and criminal action, they conclude their involvement with an arrest of the chief suspect(s) at which point Law & Order shifts focus to the criminal courts and the District Attorney's office who prosecute and see the trial through to what they hope will be a successful conviction.
It may seem that, over thirteen years, Law & Order would have developed a tradition of its own, with its audience as familiar with its concepts as The A-Team's audience was to its crushed vehicles and uninjured occupants. Were Law & Order not as challenging as it is, this would be true, with any surprise in its content eventually being diminished. Law & Order, however, shows a gritty reality to the investigative and prosecuting processes with the police investigation often showing the desperate conditions in which crimes occur with the District Attorney's office often seen to be cutting deals with suspects in return for at least one successful conviction. As a result, the legal result is often left muddied by a conclusion that is anything but clear with a sense that whilst a verdict has been agreed upon by a jury, the audience is often left unsure that justice has really been served. Occasionally, this may be as a result of a cases that are anything but simple but, mostly, its due to a legal system that is both institutionally complex as well as being made so by the lives of the participants in the criminal act.
As a final example of the clear differences between this and many other criminal and legal dramas and the standout nature of this television show, both the police and the District Attorney's office are shaded slightly differently to how drama tends to present both offices of state. In Law & Order, the police are often anything but impartial, with many of the detectives being entirely prejudiced as soon as their investigation begins, typically due to the sensitive nature of many of the crimes such as the bombing of an abortion clinic. Then again, the District Attorney's office often find themselves in a position of having to maintain a legal status quo, having to play a popular perception of the crime against what they believe to be right in the long-term interests of the people. As complex as the police investigation is, it is often the necessary balance between demonstrating that justice has been served on behalf of the victim and that punishment has been handed down to the suspect that ensures Law & Order is a crime drama considerably smarter than has been produced elsewhere in recent years.
Listed below are the episodes included in this DVD release with running times included where DVD Times were offered review discs (only three of the complete set of six discs were provided):
Prescription for Death (45m55s): The consultant in an emergency ward is arrested and brought to trial following the death of a young woman in his care due to a misdiagnosis of symptoms and the wrong administration of drugs. When the consultant is suspected of drinking alcohol before doing his rounds, the police begin their investigation.
Subterranean Homeboy Blues (45m24s): When a white woman shoots two young black men on the subway, she claims it was in self defence but the police suspect otherwise. Their problem lies with a large number of witnesses on the subway at the time who are rather pleased with her actions and refuse to assist the investigation. Despite this, the District Attorney's office believe this was not so much a case of self defence as revenge for an earlier crime and although it's personally unpleasant, the young woman is put on trial to stop copycat revenge attacks in New York.
The Reaper's Helper: The police suspect that a number of men in New York who were dying of AIDS were the victims of assisted suicides, which leads them to arrest a man believed to have provided such a facility many times before.
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die: After the death of a woman, the police suspect the involvement of a young, rich man from a privileged background but with little evidence, it looks like the District Attorney's office may not be able to make a conviction stand.
Happily Ever After: The police suspect that the wife of a man who was shot was somehow involved in the crime but, as she was also injured in the shooting, both they and the District Attorney's have trouble piecing together the crime.
Everybody's Favourite Bagman: In what was actually the pilot show, a street mugging leads the detectives to a local mobster who, in talking to reduce his sentence, leads both the police and the District Attorney to a number of city officials on the make through his associates.
By Hooker, By Crook: Following the discovery of a married man knocked unconscious, the police investigation leads to a high-class prostitution ring in New York run by a face famous on the local social scene.
Poison Ivy: When a young, black student is shot by a police officer, racial tensions are heightened - more so when the police investigation reveals that the gun that was found on the victim's body may have been planted by the suspect.
Indifference: When a very young girl dies in a well-off middle-class family, the police investigate a shocking history of wife- and child-abuse by the father of the family, who is intent on maintaining his family's air of respectability.
Prisoner of Love: When an artist is found dead, the police find that the victim was famed for the sadomasochistic themes present in their art. Through their investigation, the police track down a couple of suspects but how does the District Attorney's office convince a skeptical jury that this was simple not art that accidentally went wrong.
Out of the Half-Light (44m42s): When a young black girl is found in an abandoned playground claiming that she was attacked and raped by white policeman, the police and District Attorney's office investigate but find no evidence that a crime was committed. The investigation is hampered considerably by the involvement of a black militant congressman determined to bring down the District Attorney and the Police Commissioner from the fallout of the case.
Life Choice (46m04s): After a women's choice clinic is bombed and a young woman, thought to be the person who delivered the bomb to the clinic, is found dead at the scene, the police investigate the pro-life movement but the subsequent investigation is complicated by the disagreements present in both the police and legal offices with both Det. Sgt. Max Greevey and Benjamin Stone filing their disagreement with legal abortions but preparing to continue the investigation regardless.
A Death in the Family (44m20s): After a policeman is shot dead during a standard raid, the police suspect a man with a number of previous convictions, a feeling that would seem to be confirmed when he goes on the run. When the dead policeman's partner stops returning the Assistant District Attorney's calls and the investigating police detectives believe she is not showing sufficient remorse, could it be possible that this was a case of cop shooting cop and if so, why?
The Violence of Summer (45m39s): When a rape trial collapses due to lack of evidence and a victim that refuses to testify, Greevey and Logan are asked by the District Attorney's office to re-open the case and go back to find if there is any information missed in the original investigation that would lead to a successful prosecution second time round.
The Torrents of Greed (Two Parts): When an investigation following an assault on a shop owner is connected to a mobster, the District Attorney's office turns up corruption across New York state and finds it hard to make a conviction stick when bribery charges turn back against the police and investigative teams.
Mushrooms: When two young children are accidentally shot by a killer who was apparently hired to commit the crime, the investigation leads the police to a property developer and his drug dealer.
The Secret Sharers: After a drug dealer is killed, the District Attorney's office struggle against a community closing ranks to protect the chief suspect.
The Serpent's Tooth (45m39s): When the parents in a wealthy family are murdered, the teenage sons become the chief suspects and the police are working to arrest them. As details about the terrible abuse they suffered from their father emerges, the District Attorney's office try to close the case but the police keep digging for new aspects to the crime.
The Troubles (45m26s): When a drug smuggler and gunrunner is killed, the police suspects include a drug dealer and IRA terrorist. This poses a problem for Logan who, until this time, has been sympathetic towards the activities of the IRA in Ireland. The case is complicated further by the District Attorney's office having to consult international offices and anti-terrorism police to ensure a successful conviction.
Sonata for a Solo Organ (45m27s): When a patient is given a new kidney as part of a transplant operation, the police open an investigation against the consultant and the patient's wealthy father whom it is believed harvested the organ illegally against the will of the donor. The District Attorney's office must ensure the case is watertight as they prosecute a famous New York family.
The Blue Wall (46m02s): Internal Affairs investigate the police department, particularly Captain Cragen when some evidence is erased from police files. Now that their captain is being investigated, the police detectives and the District Attorney's office have to work together to ensure that his name is rightfully cleared.
As well written as Law & Order is, and it is very well written, the show is made by the performances of the leading actors. From Season One reviewed here to the latest series being shown on Five in the UK and NBC in the US, Law & Order has ensured that only six main actors are used, replaced as they leave from season to season - three in the police, three in the District Attorney's office. In Season One, Chris Noth and George Dzundza play the investigating officers, Det. Mike Logan and Det. Sgt. Max Greevey, respectively, reporting to their captain, Donald Cragen (Dann Florek). As prosecuting attorneys, Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks, as Benjamin Stone and Paul Robinette, respectively, report to District Attorney Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill, who continued in that role up to the end of Season Ten and does, therefore, still appear in the current series showing on Five.
The six actors used here are exemplary but for Noth who is satisfactory but when compared to Dzundza, Hill and Moriarty, who are the standout actors, Noth is a little off the pace, used better in the role of the tough-talking, hot-headed Detective Logan then he would be elsewhere in the drama.
Each episode fairly zips along, with much of the character building present in other dramas absent here, using still location cards used to connect the scenes during both the investigation and the court cases. As a result, one of the criticisms laid fairly against Law & Order is of the viewer being kept forcibly from identifying with the characters, with the speed of each episode and the lack of small talk ensuring that the viewer's attention is instead fixed on the investigation and prosecution. In fact, watching eight episodes back to back, it is remarkable how little information is provided on each character with very little learned about personal history or prejudices beyond what is relevant to each case. Even in watching Season Nine on Five, it is similarly difficult to discover the equivalent details on Briscoe, Curtis, Carmichael and McCoy, all of whom have replaced Greevey, Logan, Robinette and Stone, respectively.
Finally, it is worth noting that Law & Order is one of the few television shows that have managed to spin off new television series without sacrificing the quality of either the brand either of the original or new shows. In addition to Law & Order, there is also:
Law & Order: Crime & Punishment - A documentary series about real-life court cases in San Diego, showing the prosecution not only prepare for the case but also at trial.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent - This is close to the original series of Law & Order but also shows the criminals prepare and execute the crime.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - This is the hardest-hitting spin-off, which features the Special Victims Unit, a specialist investigative group detailed onto cases with sexually orientated crimes. As well as sticking to the basic Law & Order template, this also features Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch, a character originally featured in Homicide: Life On The Streets as well as the return of Dann Florek as Captain Donald Cragen after an absence of several years.
Aside from Five, which is still showing Season Nine, readers with Sky Digital will be able to view earlier seasons on the Hallmark channel as well as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is still to receive a terrestrial showing but Five do have the UK terrestrial rights - here's hoping that they start broadcasting this soon to pick up some of the critical momentum currently boosting this series in this country, something Law & Order is well deserving of. As a last word, NBC have renewed Law & Order's commission until 2005, clearly making this release only the first of up to fifteen series and if the quality is as strong as it is here, 2005 may see Law & Order renewed once again and, should it happen, it would be deservedly so.
Law & Order has been transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (it is still broadcast in this aspect ratio in this country on Five, currently at Season Nine) and looks good, certainly in keeping with how it would have been originally broadcast. Compared to how it is currently broadcast, the picture is a little more raw but not by much and its very much in line with other television shows of its time.
If you do notice any imperfections, it is likely they are deliberate as Dick Wolf mentions in the single bonus feature that NBC originally had problems with the broadcast of the show as the 16mm prints were too scratchy for national broadcast with Wolf commenting that this was deliberate so you have been warned.
In keeping with the picture quality, Law & Order has been transferred onto DVD with its original 2.0 Pro Logic Surround soundtrack intact. In truth, the rear speakers are rarely used but this is in keeping with a show that is dialogue-heavy. Otherwise, the soundtrack, which is only presented in English, is clean with very little noise or audio distortion.
Sadly, there is but the one extra included on this release, regardless of the age of this series that, by now, ought to have produced more than what has been listed below:
Creation of Law & Order (14m16s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a short making-of that features interviews with creator Dick Wolf and co-executive produce Joe Stern and includes a large amount of footage from Season One, justifiably concentrating on the pilot episode, Everybody's Favourite Bagman. There is a fair amount of information provided by Wolf, not only in his chosen format but he is also honest in the treatment of the show by NBC, which resulted in it struggling in the ratings until a regular place in the schedules was offered.
Law & Order is really not for everyone - it can occasionally be tricky viewing with the admittedly sharp scripts pared down to their essentials, skipping through the plots with nary a pause to allow the audience to catch up. Providing that the viewer tries to keep up, this shouldn't be a problem but allow your attention to drop for a moment and Law & Order can slip away, moving with such momentum that it can be difficult to catch up with it. However, if you're interested in what is an excellent example of the type of smart American crime drama that is occasionally produced by a major networked channel, rather than HBO, and actually makes it to the UK, then this may well be for you. Before buying, I'd recommend that you try the current showing of Season Nine on Five or any of the shows on the Hallmark Channel. After that, it should be rather easier to justify spending the £40 or so on this box set of Season One. Disappointing number of extras aside, not to mention only receiving three of the six discs for review, this is great stuff - highly recommended.