So it’s mid-November and you’re complaining about the number of Christmas advertisements that have already popped up on TV and in stores, but at the same time you’re worried about falling behind on your shopping. And for awhile now you’ve been on the lookout for the perfect present for that shut-in relative who’s lived without NBC or TNT for the past two decades but loves watching DVDs.
You’re in luck.
All 20 seasons of NBC’s Law & Order are now available in one box set. It contains 104 discs and 456 episodes, costs $699 and will weigh more than the couch you’re sitting on when you unwrap it. In fact, when it’s pulled out from under the Christmas tree, grandpa, dad and a pair of grandkids will have to team up to lift it off the floor.
It’s an orgy of murder, betrayal, assaults, kidnappings, seen-it-all detectives, bumbling beat cops who mess up the crime scene, sleazy defense attorneys, corrupt judges, rabble-rousing preachers with secret agendas, serious voice-overs informing us the criminal justice system is made up of two separate yet equally important groups, the dun-dun sound (or however you spell the most famous sound on TV), Solomon-like District Attorneys, pretty assistant DAs who threaten to turn their boss in to the ethics board – but don’t, witnesses who say they didn’t see anything but five seconds later say, “Oh, wait, now that you say that I did see a guy get shot in the head”, decapitated corpses in Central Park, armless corpses in the Hudson, crass jokes about headless, armless corpses found in an alley, evil schoolchildren, race-baiting lawyers, baseball players who kill because they’re afraid of being outed, directors who kill because they hate their ex-wife, U.S. attorneys who trample on the state’s case, murderous militias, parents who take the blame for murders committed by their kids, kids who blame abuse for the murders they commit and a hell of a lot of Jack McCoy.
God I want it.
Law & Order is no longer in production, finally killed off in 2010. It was probably time. The series took advantage of 96 percent of the headlines that appeared in the New York Post and New York Daily News between 1975 and 2010. Surely New York and every other city could have continued producing real-life stories the writers could hijack, but eventually we would have witnessed Law & Order scribes committing crimes just so the tabloids can write headlines about salacious cases, proving the show with even more fodder.
I didn’t watch the series as much in its final years, so I’m not the most reliable judge for those episodes. But I missed the old players in their old roles. Jack McCoy did a good job when he took over the top spot in the DA’s office, but it wasn’t quite the same as when he was personally prosecuting the cases in the courtroom. He was a bit like a genius defensive coordinator who does a solid job as the head coach but remains just a bit out of his element. A Buddy Ryan type.
Of course, as long as there are cable networks, Law & Order will never really die. TNT doesn’t play the show as consistently as it once did, when you could turn on the network day or night and be guaranteed of catching a “block” of Law & Order episodes. The marathons – whether on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July or just a random date when the station wanted to air 16 consecutive episodes – remain my favorite. Now, with this box set, those marathons could last 24 hours. With prodigious use of uppers, that could stretch into a 48-hour marathon. Eventually, about the time detective Curtis is talking about his marriage problems and you’re on hour 94 of the marathon, friends will throw an intervention or call the proper authorities.
What would you learn by watching all 456 of those episodes? Which episodes would you watch again, just moments after it ended? Which characters do you want to see again, and which ones are you glad were killed off or resigned? Who’s your favorite DA? Who was the best villain?
One L&O junkie has some thoughts:
FAVORITE EPISODE TITLE
“Subterranean Homeboy Blues,” from the first season. As the series went on, the series titles became a bit more basic, often just a single word. But the first season offered some classics, even if they make no sense unless you’ve seen the episode, and even then it’s not a guarantee. “By hooker, by crook,” “Out of the half-light,” “Sonata for a solo organ.”
“Subterranean Homeboy Blues” starred Cynthia Nixon, who, in a story ripped from the Bernie Goetz headlines from the 1980s, shoots two black men on the subway. Was it self-defense or revenge? The title’s an ode to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Still doesn’t make any sense.
STRANGEST DEFENSE ATTORNEY
Lennie Briscoe. Actually, the defense attorney portrayed by Jerry Orbach was named Frank Lehrmann. Orbach played a lawyer in the second season, before Lennie came to life – and the series – in the third season. I didn’t know that the first time I saw the episode, which was obviously in a rerun. I think I saw it when Law & Order aired on A&E, before it found its home on TNT. At first I wondered, “Wait, did Lennie become a defense attorney after leaving the force? Considering the contempt he had for lawyers, that’d be weird. Or did he become a cop after first serving as a lawyer? That’d be even stranger.” Obviously it was neither of those scenarios. Chris Noth and Paul Sorvino worked as the detectives that season. Orbach soon replaced Sorvino and Lennie Briscoe – the best character on the show – was born.
LEAST-FAVORITE INTERROGATION TACTIC
Detective Curtis – the dashing Benjamin Bratt – loved to threaten suspects with the lethal injection. “They’ll strap you down, put a needle in your arm…” Sometimes the criminal cracked, occasionally they scoffed. Sounded tough. A smart crook wouldn’t have crumbled, not if he knew his history. New York State hasn’t executed anyone since 1963. The state supreme court ruled it unconstitutional in 2004. But way before that, when Curtis worked cases with Lennie, there was little chance a killer would actually ever be put to death. Still, the threat of the death penalty allowed Curtis to intimidate suspects and gave McCoy a chance to wrestle with his conscience while being berated by his assistant DAs about the wrongness of the act.
Seems impossible to pick one, but creepy children have haunted me since I was a kid and Ralphie Glick – who had just become a vampire, and not one of the hip types that rule the box office these days – floated outside the window of his brother’s bedroom in Salem’s Lot, scratched the glass and asked to be let inside. So the character of Jenny Brandt in the season 10 episode “Killerz” proved especially disturbing. Actress Hallee Hirsh played Jenny, who kills a little boy and stuffs him in a sewer pipe, but not before pulling his pants down and sticking a battery in his mouth. Detectives originally focus on an adult, before zeroing in on the sociopathic Jenny, who’s just 10 years old. She can’t be tried as an adult – no lethal injection for her, Detective Curtis! – and she ends up back in her mother’s custody, after the state fails to get her placed into a hospital. The episode ends with Jenny eyeing another little boy in the hallway. McCoy and Angie Harmon’s Abbie Carmichael look on. We know she’s evil. We know she’ll kill again, whether it’s as a kid or a grown-up. Fade to credits.
The comedian Larry Miller played a guy named Michael Dobson, who had a thing for killing wives. The first time he got away with it, as police discovered too late a videotape linking Dobson with the hitman who shot the wife. All the while Miller/Dobson insults the police and prosecutors, leading them on, taunting and teasing. You kind of want him to get away with it, and he does.
He returned two years later, with another dead wife and more insults for the prosecution. This time he gets convicted when a woman who would have been Mrs. Dobson III rats him out. His final disgusted line?
I had a thing for the episodes that ended with the defendant escaping, only to be killed in the end, done in by his own impulses and lack of control. Not sure how that goes with my opposition to the death penalty. Hypocritical might be the word.
In season seven, a serial rapist played by Burt Young of Rocky fame is suspected in a murder. A lack of evidence leads to one of McCoy’s classic out-of-the-box tactics. He orders the detectives to harass the rapist, while also trying to get him locked away for the good of the community. Finally the rapist snaps and tries killing his daughter’s roommate. The daughter had stood by her dad, but finally stands up to him, killing him and saving the roommate. McCoy is not disappointed the rapist won’t ever have to stand trial.
Another time, a murderer gets off by seducing one of the jurors, only to end up killed by her when he attacks her in her own apartment. Again we’re left satisfied that justice has been done. Or has it?
An episode in season four called “Mayhem” – not as exciting as “Subterranean Homeboy Blues” – differs from the normal plot by following three different cases but sticks with the police. In one case, Briscoe and Logan arrest a chubby, bespectacled man for being a possible serial killer. He’s jailed, but says he’s innocent. Eventually he’s cleared. When the detectives go to Rikers to release him, they find out another inmate stabbed the man earlier, killing him. “Took his baloney sandwich,” adds a correction officer while Lennie turns and appears to curse. Bad guys sometimes get off on L&O and there were other cases where the first suspect turned out to be innocent. But seeing the deceased, chubby victim laid out on a gurney was the saddest of them all.
FAVORITE PLOT PLOY
I like dirty prosecutors. One time, McCoy discovers an old female colleague – and McCoy always had a thing for his female colleagues – purposely convicted the wrong man. One of my favorite episodes came in Season 8 – “Shadow.” An assistant district attorney named Charlie Harmon had been taking bribes on cases and eventually killed a bail bondsman. He was friends with Jamie Ross, but that relationship can’t save him in the end. McCoy sets up a phony trial to nail Harmon. When Harmon says he’ll mess up the whole system by talking about rigged cases, his old pal Ross tells him she’ll go after his wife as an accessory. That shuts him up. And sends him to prison.
The actor who played Harmon, David Marshall Grant, later made an appearance on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Again he portrayed a sleazy prosecutor, this time one who kills an intruder and sets it up so police think his wife tried to kill him. Again he gets busted at the end. Guy was typecast. But as far as I know he never appeared on Special Victims Unit as a prosecutor who murders a hooker and then sets up her pimp to be wrongfully accused. Then again, that show is still on the air, so there’s time.
In the mid- to late-90s, this thing called the Internet made several appearances on the show. It usually involved Detective Curtis logging in and explaining in the most rudimentary of terms what it was he was doing, while Lennie stood by making wisecracks about how the police business had changed.
“What is this thing? You could launch the Space Shuttle with it! Hey, can it make my coffee?”
One time Curtis goes on a message board to draw out a suspect, who begins to insult the police, believing he’s anonymous. He’s really rude. Poor speller. Filled with rage. The guy was either a suspect in a crime or simply a commenter on a newspaper website.
Impossible to limit it to one, 10 or 50. How do you even define it? Great ending, great last-second twist? Passionate closing by McCoy or Ben Stone? Brilliant move by Adam Schiff? Perfect bad guy? Controversial issue? Neat use of the real-life headline?
To me the best episodes are the ones that, if I turn it on at 1:20 in the morning on TNT, I’ll stay up till 2 to watch the ending, no matter how early I have to get up. Even if you’ve seen the ending a dozen times, you want to watch it again.
A few classics:
“Double Down” A cop gets killed and McCoy makes a deal with the killer to try and find a kidnapping victim. When that fails and the guy is set to be freed for the cop killing, McCoy ends up prosecuting the guy for murdering his own partner.
“We Like Mike” A Good Samaritan has bad luck when he’s charged with the murder he witnessed. At every turn things go bad – when he’s finally released, the real killer’s family begins threatening him. On the stand he refuses to testify, until McCoy bullies him into doing the right thing.
“D-Girl” The famous three-parter based on the case of some football player who murdered his wife and companion. That trial made some headlines. In the Law & Order treatment, it’s a director who kills his movie executive wife, then flees to California, enters rehab, blames the murder on a shrink and finally melts down on the stand, devastated by McCoy’s cross-examination. I don’t know if it needed three episodes. Then again, it was based on O.J., so it probably could have stretched into a five-parter.
I could go on. But instead I’ll head over to Netflix, which now streams the first eight seasons.
Will I ever buy the Law & Order box set? Probably not. It’s hard to imagine who will. But Christmas is coming up. And if you’re my Secret Santa or even the real guy, or simply someone who’s come into some money recently and wants to get me a little something that doesn’t even cost $700, well, my address is…