Monday, May 22, 2006

Law and Order and Revenge

We taped Law and Order's season finale and didn't get around to watching it until Saturday night.

I wish we'd given it the skip.

This is twice in a row now Dick Wolf's dumped an ADA in a way that seems designed as much to humiliate and punish the actress as to explain the departure of an important character.

Elisabeth Rohm got off lightly compared to Annie Parisse. Wolf canned Rohm in an afterthought, as if to say, "By the way, I forget to mention it. You're boring and who cares if you're pretty and have great legs, you're cold and unsexy, which means your character's gay, so you're fired. Now let's see you get work as an ingenue."

But Annie Parisse had the nerve to quit on Wolf and this time it was as if Wolf said, "Oh yeah? Well then take this!" And out came the duct tape.

Jill Hennessy and Carey Lowell were allowed to leave with their dignity intact and with the door open to their return. We didn't know for sure that Claire Kincaid was killed in that car accident and it was a long time into the next season before anybody referred directly to her as being dead. In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sure anybody ever did. Is it possible Claire's in a coma somewhere? At any rate, Lowell has been back a few times and she'll probably return again.

I suppose Rohm's Serena Southerlyn might be invited back. Parisse though...

Spoiler alert for those of you who have Tivo and DVRs or who are waiting for the summer reruns.

MASH set the standard for killing off a main character. Henry Blake's death was not only beautifully handled, it felt right for the show and the character. It was in keeping with the spirit of the series and with its subject. As Henry once observed himself about war, there are two rules, "Rule Number One is that young men die."

Henry wasn't young compared to the kids coming through the 4077th's OR. But he was supposed to be 43. His wife was 38. His kids were in grade school. He was young enough to be too young.

Rule number two, you probably remember, is "Doctors can't change Rule Number One."

Henry's death was also used to signal a change in the direction and tone of the show.

In war lots of men like Henry Blake die.

In the New York County District Attorney's office very few young ADAs leave the job by being kidnapped, tortured, and left to choke to death on their own vomit in the locked trunk of an abandoned car.

What Wolf and his writers did to Annie Parisse's character wasn't true to the situation. It didn't happen as an outgrowth of her character or the plots she'd been part of. It didn't dignify her or salute her or even sum her up. It just shrank her. They reduced her to one of the practically anonymous vics whose tripped-over corpses get the ball rolling every week.

The plot that unfolded after her body was found wasn't even about her. It was about Jack McCoy seeking and getting the kind of righteous revenge that countless cop characters have sought and got in all the run of the mill cop shows that have ever aired.

For all that Alex Borgia actually mattered, they might as well have introduced a new girlfriend for Jack or discovered he had a niece we'd never heard of before or finally dragged in his ex-wife, whom we've never seen, or his daughter and killed her off the way Bonanza used to knock off Little Joe's wives and girlfriends every other week. Alex's death served the same purpose. She died to give us reason to root for the hero to get even.

Another revenge fantasy.

I gave up on Law and Order: SVU midway through the first season when it became clear that every week's episode was going to be about the detectives getting outraged and seeking revenge on the part of the victims. I gave up on Law and Order: Trial by Jury after two episodes because both shows pushed an idea that Revenge equals Justice. Over the last couple of seasons, at least, it's seemed to me that the original Law and Oder has been tending toward more and more revenge fantasies.

I know some people have seen a political sea change at work, a rightward drift of the show's sensibilities, signaled by the implausibly conservative Arthur Branch's arrival as DA.

But after watching last week's show I think what we're seeing is a loss of confidence by the writers and Wolfe in the show's premise and characters.

For years, the aspect of Law and Order that made it different from every other cop show around it was that the writers were content to let the characters reveal themselves to us in bits and pieces and almost always obliquely in conversations that weren't about them but about the job they were doing at the moment. Emotional outbursts and long speeches about their personal feelings were rarities.

What we knew of their private lives and personal feelings sneaked in at the edges of the stories. The perfection of this was the affair between McCoy and Kincaid which was never, never acknowledged. The only proof we ever had that they were in fact together was that Claire started sporting her own motorcycle jacket.

The result of this was that the characters had personal lives.

They lived off-camera in a way characters from the usual TV dramas never do. (Cheers is the only other show I can think of, comedy or drama, that made its characters' off-camera lives more vivid by not showing them and only allowing us hints.) On most TV dramas, the characters do all their living, loving, and emoting on the set, which is to say on the job. Their jobs revolve around their personal dramas. This makes for lots of drama, which is to say the characters shout at each other a lot and act at us.

Sam Waterson acted up a storm on last week's Law and Order.

I might as well have been watching ER.


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