I have a knack for spotting the semi-famous. A talent for spying the marginally well-known.
Gloria Reuben, for instance. She hasn’t been around much since her days as a one-time contract player on “ER” but I saw her at an outdoor cafe in the East Village. Also: Kenley Collins, the runner-up from season 5 of “Project Runway.” She was in line at the AMC Loews on 3rd avenue. I felt a little thrill of recognition and then a trickle of shame at my own unseemly interest.
Then there was the time I glimpsed Dianne Wiest carrying a bag of groceries onto a subway car somewhere on the Upper West Side.
I told my friends and they were politely puzzled.
“You know,” I said, frustrated. “Dianne Wiest. From ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’?”
No, as it turned out, they didn’t know. They didn’t know and they didn’t much care. Not about Dianne Wiest and not about Jill Hennessy either.
I was walking home from work when I spotted Jill. She was wearing a long paisley halter dress and her hair was loose and wavy. I was wildly excited and began searching through the address book in my cell phone for someone to call. Then I remembered that- barring my sister- no one would be interested. There would be no gasps, no enthusiasm. Just blank looks and vacant stares. “Crossing Jordan” had been canceled and, for most people, Jill Hennessy was just another vaguely familiar face. “Didn’t she used to-” they’d start. “Wasn’t she?”
Not for me, though.
Me and Jill? We’ll always have “Law & Order.”
At any given time on any given day, somewhere on the cable dial “Law & Order” is playing. Not always the original flavor. Sometimes it’s “Law & Order: SVU” or “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” But the fact remains: Dick Wolf is one rich sonavubitch.
Two construction workers are carrying a ladder. They stop to ogle a pretty young thing with dark hair and a vibrant smile. “Spring has sprung,” one quips. Distracted, they break through a window. Peering inside to assess the damage they see the requisite Dead Guy. Wa-wa.
It’s a scene I’ve seen a million times. I don’t find it shocking or discomfiting. Not hardly. If anything, it’s reassuring.
I have walked through Central Park on a variety of occasions and never once stumbled across a corpse. Which is a shame because I already have the scene choreographed in my head.
I’m on my cell phone with my mother and she’s haranguing me about signing up for JDate. “Would it kill you just to try?” she’s asking. I say something smart-alecky in return and roll my eyes. Suddenly, it’s upon me: a body. I pause for half a measure.
“Mom,” I start, “Mom- I’m going to have to call you back.”
Those beats- chung chung!– those intoxicating ineffable beats!
“In the criminal justice system,” a voice intones, “the People are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the Police who investigate the crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.” The voice is indescribably comforting. My heart rate slows. My breathing relaxes. I’m home.
I like procedural dramas. Almost indiscriminately. I like “Without a Trace,” and “Cold Case” and “The Closer.” I’ve seen most episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” I refer to Detectives Benson and Stabler as “Olivia” and Elliot” like we’re longtime pals. Which, I suppose, we are.
Under duress, I’ll even watch “CSI,” and “CSI: New York.”
I’ve never admitted it publicly, but I’ve taken a shine to “NCIS.” Sure the premise is shaky and the acronym sounds made up. But damn it if those crazy kids don’t make for some compelling TV.
I draw the line at “CSI: Miami.” But my rules aren’t hard and fast. Given the right level of boredom, I wouldn’t rule anything out.
But my love for the flagship “Law & Order” series is anything but casual or indiscriminate. It borders on obsessive.
In a 2002 essay Molly Haskell described the phenomenon succinctly: “At a more advanced level of addiction,” she writes, “the show is a member of a member of the family.”+
And like a family member, its loss is wrenching.
In the beginning, there was no Sam Waterston. In the beginning it was an all-male cast and ratings were mediocre. Michael Moriarty was the tough-as-nails prosecutor Ben Stone and Richard Brooks was his more sensitive assistant, Paul Robinette. They had Chris Noth, of course, but he had yet to become Mr. Big. Wasn’t big at all. Was, in fact, just a two-bit character actor with a handful of TV movies to his name. “Law & Order” was just another police procedural and nobody cared.
Even in syndication, they hardly ever play episodes from the first season. Why bother? No one wants to see George Dzundza play good cop. And what’s Dann Florek doing outside the SVU squad room? Frankly, it’s disconcerting. A discordant note in an otherwise perfect symphony.
So S. Epatha Merkerson replaced Florek in the fourth season and that same year Jill Hennessy joined the cast, becoming the first in a revolving door of leggy brunette A.D.A.s. Women, finally. And about time, too.
But something was still missing. A bit of razzle-dazzle, perhaps. A touch of borscht-belt humor. The man himself: Jerry Orbach.
It’s been over five years but I never really recovered from his death. Jerry Orbach: taken from us, his adoring public, at just 69 years old.
In a Bravo poll, Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe was named the 30th greatest TV character of all time. In a Hallmark Channel poll he was number three on the list of greatest TV detectives. He was the cop to end all cops. And even the real boys in blue liked him.
Lennie liked to crack wise. He liked puns. Real groaners. He was a two-time divorcee and a recovering alcoholic but he wasn’t hard. He was crusty, maybe, but he had a soft-hearted, world-weary charm. He was the beating heart of “Law & Order.” The soul, too.
Jerry Orbach wasn’t so different. Like Briscoe, he was the son of a Jewish father and an Irish mother. He was warm and funny. In his New York Times obituary, he’s quoted as saying that, in his younger years doing summer stock he learned “not to do too much with my eyebrows.”++
It’s just the sort of joke Lennie Briscoe would make.
First it was Lennie and Mike Logan (Chris Noth). Then it was Lennie and Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt). He had a long run with Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin): nearly six seasons.
Logan was an Irish-Catholic wild card and Rey was a straight-arrow mestizo. Ed Green was a dapper African-American who looked good in his camel coat and his Rolex.
Lennie treated them all just the same: a little joke to cut the tension and maybe a stop at the hot dog cart on the way back to the precinct.
As Adam Schiff, Steven Hill always seemed one deep breath away from keeling over. He had an air of irreversible exhaustion and permanent, low-level irritation. He never seemed to have actual lines. Mostly he just grumbled. If he could be said to have a catch phrase it was an Eeyore-ish “harrummph.”
For the record, I was a Carey Lowell fan. There aren’t many of us. Most prefer Angie Harmon’s tough Texan, Abbie Carmichael. More personality. But I liked Carey Lowell. Her Jamie Ross was a consummate professional. She didn’t grandstand. She did her job and then she went home to daughter. And, unlike her predecessor, she was strangely immune to the dubious appeal of Jack McCoy.
Jack McCoy: he of the raffish salt-and-pepper mop and the voracious appetite for ambitious young lady lawyers.
As Jack McCoy, Sam Waterston appeared in 368 episodes making him the second longest-running cast member, outdone only by S. Epatha Merkerson.
Sam Waterston knew enough not to mess with a good thing. He inherited the District Attorney post from Steven Hill and, after a fashion, his TD Waterhouse endorsement as well.
McCoy could be counted on for his killer closing arguments and his take-no-prisoners approach to justice. He couldn’t stand to lose. A trait inherited, perhaps, from his abusive cop father.
But Jack never went in for all that psychobabble. “Wanna go for a drink?” he’ll ask.
The door closes. The screen goes black.
I went to camp with a girl named Alex. She was an actress and, when I knew her, she was competing for roles in Disney Channel original movies. Because she grew up in Manhattan, it was inevitable that she’d one day end up on “Law & Order.”
Nearly every New York actor has at least one episode on her resume.
Alex was on two episodes of “Law & Order,” actually. And two episodes of “Criminal Intent,” too. I don’t remember much about the characters she played but she’s pretty and young and I seem to recall her telling lies in short dresses.
My friend Gwen is also an actress. She grew up in Nebraska, though, and moved to the city only recently. She has an arisocratic, Grace Kelly sort of beauty. Blonde hair, blue eyes, good manners. She would, I thought, have made an excellent daughter of privilege. A good-girl-gone-bad sort of role. You know the type. Sarah Paulson did it in Season 4.
Gwen would have been perfect..
And now she’ll never have her chance.
” ‘Law & Order’ was supposed to live forever,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times. “The fact that it almost did…doesn’t mitigate the shock of NBC’s announcement…that it had pulled the plug.”+++
I read this line and found myself nodding vigorously.
“The original classic is,” Molly Haskell noted, “for some people…the cup of Ovaltine that, with reassuring predictability, tucks them in at night. One couple falls asleep, like clockwork, just before Sam Waterston or Steven Hill has closed the office door with yet another rueful aperçu.”+
I read this line and found myself choking up a bit.
In a world where little is certain, “Law & Order” could be relied upon to deliver.
The stock market crashes and Lehman Brothers implodes. We drop bombs on Iraq and Arizona tries to rewrite the Constitution. We’re battered by earthquakes and tsunamis and semi-automatic weapons. The ozone layer grows ever thinner and global warming keeps us all sweating. The earth rotates on its axis.
But “Law & Order”? “Law & Order” remains the same. In an hour, the perpetrator will be caught and justice served. In an hour, chaos will be thwarted and harmony restored. Forever and ever, amen.
Or at least that’s what we were promised.
But Jerry Orbach died and “Law & Order” got canceled and nothing, it seems, stays the same.
Emerson would have us believe that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But I think there’s something to be said for consistency. Something to be said for the day-in, day-out of it all.
One day in April my father decided that, after 33 years, he’d had enough of being married. He packed up his Brioni ties and he left.
Less than a month later, NBC announced that it was all over for “Law & Order.”
Dick Wolf, of course, is planning another spin-off. “Law & Order: Los Angeles.” But it’s a fool’s errand. The show can’t survive in the harsh sun of southern California. It can’t live outside New York’s hothouse. It can’t and it shouldn’t.
It’s the end of an era.