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'Law & Order' rewrote television history

Viewers may forget that 'Law & Order' changed the way that detectives and prosecutors are viewed

Michael Barnes
This season, Anthony Anderson and Jeremy Sisto play detectives to S. Epatha Merkerson's lieutenant. 'Law & Order' ends its 20-season run on Monday.

During the course of 20 years, familiarity might have lulled the casual viewer into forgetting that "Law & Order," which ends its marathon run Monday, May 24, at 9 p.m., broke ground on several television fronts.

Split procedural: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by separate yet equally important groups," intones the introduction to "Law & Order." Few procedural shows so elegantly balanced the portrayal of "the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders." Even producer Dick Wolf's other franchise hits, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," didn't match this balancing act, sticking instead almost exclusively to the more sensational detective work.

Prosecutors as heroes: Stretching as far back as "Perry Mason," TV's fictional lawyers usually argued for the defense. "Law & Order" was born during a conservative era, and even borrowed its title from a familiar Republican campaign theme. It could be argued that the show neutralized criminal prosecution as a political billy club by showing that Manhattan-based liberals could fight crime just as honorably and enthusiastically as conservatives. The show also reminded us that prosecutors represented "the people" — that's the rest of us, folks.

Rapid episodic narrative: Procedurals from the 1980s — "Hill Street Blues," "Cagney & Lacey" and "Miami Vice," — often interrupted storytelling with car-chase action, charismatic scenery or painfully slow character development. "Law & Order" moves at such a rapid, clipped rate, one can't leave the room without missing a key clue. Some scenes last mere seconds.

Taut, restrained writing, acting and directing: Playwrights penned many episodes of "Law & Order." They knew how to write with economy and density. Similarly, the show's producers and directors utilized the finest New York stage actors, who adapted quickly to the series' disciplined style. (A peek at any printed Broadway program during the past two decades revealed dozens of "L&O" credits.)

New York as location: Gritty and glamorous, the Big Apple was never so thoroughly explored as on this series. The viewer witnessed all of it, uptown and downtown, high and low, and in every season of the year. It changed the way we perceive the city: On his first outing to New York, my eldest nephew refused to visit Central Park. "Haven't you seen 'Law & Order'? he said. "That's where all the bodies show up!"

Women and minorities in authority: For 17 of its 20 years, S. Epatha Merkerson played Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order" after guesting as a grief-stricken mother in the first season. (The franchise recycled actors frequently.) She, along with other women and minorities, didn't play saints, but their quiet, rarely questioned authority made an impression on a generation of viewers. Of course, some of the female assistant district attorneys were cast from a shallower modeling pool, but ...

Legal education: Never take the stand in your own defense. Always demand a lawyer right away. Question all sentencing deals, especially if given an artificial deadline. Remember, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers are people, too. They are subject to the same foibles as the rest of humanity. Beware.

Salon magazine recently published a humorous take on the "Law & Order" clichés, reminding us of workaholics too busy to focus on murder investigations; marquee stars who made obvious prime suspects; the guessing game about which real crimes inspired the writers; the audio logo ("chung chung"); and the ghoulish wisecracks that only the late Jerry Orbach delivered effectively.

Loyal fans cherished those clichés. Yet even those who fell from fealty should remember that "Law & Order" rewrote television history along the way.