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Low Culture

Low Culture 16: Law & Order And Television As Prophecy
Andrew Walker , August 20th, 2020 07:21

Andrew Walker celebrates a TV show which is often easily dismissed as a poor cousin of The Wire or NYPD Blue because in it he sees an unusual amount of prescience...

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The preceding story is fictional…

There it is! That face! There’s something… Something about that expression that resonates with me… Where have I seen it before? Watching the interview of the President of the United States by the reporter Jonathan Swan, there’s a moment when Swan makes a face like he can’t believe what he’s hearing.

It’s a sort of double-take and blink, mouth slightly agape. The American President -that’s the same America as referred to in the phrase “The American Century”- obviously hasn’t got a clue what he’s talking about. Swan isn’t an ingenue, he’s aware who Donald Trump is and how he handles himself, but like one of these things that you “know” but really don’t appreciate its’ full gravity until you experience it in person, it’s the face of someone who suddenly feels a rock in the kilter of life, sees at once the depth of how screwed the world has, very suddenly, become.

It’s an expression that has sprung onto my face many times in the last few years. I have found myself wearing holes in it, I have worn it so frequently. A sort of surprised and indignant look, on the way to anger. It’s the look of someone whose low expectations were just exceeded, but just shocked enough you don’t know where the anger should be directed. It is the look of someone who has just had the rug pulled out from underneath them, and they find they’ve been standing above a bottomless pit all along. As the look sets in, it’s as if consequence after appalling consequence seem to unfold in your mind’s eye.

Its unsurprising that Swan’s expressions have become an internet meme.

But I know that face from somewhere else, I realise. I recognise it from my favourite TV series, which I have been bingeing during lockdown.

It is the expression that frequently lights the face of a lead character in the American cop show Law & Order. I have come to see this expression of alarm and indignancy is an element of the show’s winning formula, and - after watching it fairly obsessively - I believe it is a part of the reason this programme describes our current moment very well; a full decade after it was cancelled.

Between 1990 and 2010, week after week on the US network NBC, upright and principled Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy (played by Sam Waterston), his legal colleagues in the District Attorney’s office and the detectives of the 27th Precinct, tracked down murderers, took them off the streets and built legal prosecutions against them.

They winkled out the weaknesses and inconsistencies in their stories until they had the truth, and then tried to and prove it all in front of a jury. The last segment of the show usually features a lengthy and impassioned courtroom oration, an elegant rhetorical exposition by McCoy, star prosecutor of New York, to persuade the jury of the state’s case. McCoy, watery-eyed liberal, with a core of steel and a righteous edge, wields the legal system’s biggest weapon, the plea bargain.

A Soixante-Huitard, McCoy’s sense justice was forged in his generation’s demonstrations against Vietnam. Although he believes in the law as the only brake on man’s animal nature, there are times he concludes it is right to skate the rules and stretch the law in the service of a greater good. He believes that his dedication to the system affords him the opportunity, the responsibility, to put his judicial discretion in the service of progressive attitudes to social problems. It’s a hubris that returns to haunt him.

But McCoy - Atticus Finch on the Hudson - knows his job is not simply that of a work-a-day lawyer. Every case holds within it an explosive possibility; that it could blow the finely balanced system apart. If he makes a misstep, just once, a murderer will be set free. Even worse, circumstances could lead to more being let go. If the public lose trust in the system, it will eat itself. He knows this, and he knows that what makes our system of governance so precious is this very fragility; open as it is to abuse, corruption, paradoxical binds in the law. The burden is heavy, he is only too aware that his expertise and character -and that of his colleagues- are all that stands between the city and anarchy.

When a pro-se defendant traps them in a legal paradox, or the police make a mistake that could see the accused freed under their constitutional protections, when a key witness recants on the stand, when a judge exceeds his authority, or grants the defences’ latest absurd motion, we see The Face. The chords of the soundtrack rise, and we - the viewers - realise something dramatic is about to happen; the episode is about to flip from a gritty police procedural, into soaring TV melodrama, and in doing so enter the realm of myth.

As a TV programme, Law & Order’s current low standing - in the UK at least - means it is usually easily dismissed. During its heyday, it barely made the transition across the Atlantic to Britain. I had never heard of it until it was already in its dotage. Many people in Britain have never seen it, and when I talk about it, friends look at me quizzically. It is never listed in anyone’s top ten, or mentioned in the same breath as its contemporaries NYPD Blue or The Wire. It did spawn a raft of arguably more famous, but in my view inferior spinoffs, including a UK version. These unfortunately have somewhat coloured opinions of the original project.

If you want to see it, 5USA show it all the time in the UK. In fact, the show dwells in that strange limbo of dated television; always on, yet considered utterly irrelevant to contemporary culture.

But to me, it is also a TV show that stands among the most innovative and mould-breaking storytelling of the last 30 years. The pinnacle of the show’s brilliance is a magic trick its makers’ cast, a spell that mixes different ingredients that combine in a powerful and satisfying potion. It’s a recipe that breaks all the normal rules about storytelling on TV and the movies, but instead of failing completely, in a very strange way, it elevates it beyond being a just another prime-time cop show.

Sometimes, fiction hits a certain resonant spot and strange things can happen. Storytellers can, in certain rare circumstances, do something breath-taking and strange. Without apparent intent, they can become prophets, and their stories a kind of prophecy.

When he was developing the ideas that would eventually become Law & Order, former ad-man, turned TV show-runner Dick Wolf wanted to combine the police procedural with a documentary sensibility to create a show that would profess a broadly positive view of the American justice system. Wolf had previously worked on the hit series Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice and he was searching for an original way of doing a new kind of crime show based in New York.

His idea was to divide the programme in two, the first part would show the police tracking the perps, and the second would be the prosecution of the accused. The idea was not wholly original, Wolf discovered. There had been a show in the 60s that had been similarly divided between police and the courts, but in that show, the formula dictated the defence lawyers discover every week the police got the wrong man, and set about freeing the innocent. Faced with something that had been done before, Wolf rolled the combination wheels of the show’s elements, this time making prosecutors the heroes. This method of re-jigging the elements to surmount a problem was one he would return to.

Slightly incongruously for a show where the agents of state power are the good guys, one of Wolf’s main influences was the film The Battle Of Algiers. Wolf got all the people coming in on the production to imbibe the film’s visual realism, but he was also influenced by the allegorical nature of the characters. As in a Restoration morality play, the characters stand in for the forces of identity, under the commonwealth.

The idea of the show would be a police procedural which would also become a forum for discussion, the exposition, of the Big Ideas of American life.

The first three series, the ones where the cast and crew believed they were making raw, mould-breaking original television, are nowadays all but unwatchable. While they laudably tried to hone in on life on the street, situations that affected people hitherto under-represented on TV, there are no women among the recurring cast and the scripts are too obviously stylised and unconvincing. The grit level in those first few seasons was very high, but the show was too macho, the characters that would prove to be big hits with the viewers had not been developed. The little elements of the show that I find really enjoyable had not fallen into place. It was preachy, not entertaining, and in places edged into exploitation. Wolf didn’t want to make a soap opera when he made Law & Order, but what they made first was just too intense and in all the wrong ways.

There was intensity behind the camera too. It had been only a few years since New York itself had been brought low by crime. In the 1970s and early 1980s New York was near bankruptcy, suffered atrocious social conditions, poor housing and deprivation. But by the 1990s the city had experienced a near-miraculous rebirth, and this TV series represented a chance to get in on the ground floor for the first round of mythmaking about the turn around.

Sensing an opportunity to be feted for a performance, all the actors began instantly to rub each other up the wrong way. Clashing egos can sometimes lead to great things, but this was not one of those times. According to cast, everyone on set seemed to have some sort of vainglorious fire burning within them, one actor playing a detective complained the format prevented him from ever “killing the bull”. It was unsustainable, and by the fourth season most of the original major characters had been written out.

Unlike members of the original cast, I think the changes that happened gradually between the 3rd and 6th series saved the show and allowed it to take on its most interesting form. It wasn’t until the 10th series that the elements were perfected. To actor Chris Noth - who left his role as Mike Logan in season five, becoming Big in Sex And The City a few years later - the changes were deleterious to his artistic credo. He told the authors of an unofficial history of the first decade of Law & Order that the producers switched the show’s priorities so it was less about the rough side of New York and started to feature more “Upper West Side” storylines about crimes among the well-to-do.

To Noth, this move was all about selling out for ratings, but I’m glad they shifted their attention. If it weren’t for the show’s growing obsession with returning again and again to telling stories of family betrayal and the unravelling of dynasties, of hubris and degradation among the elite, the element of myth the show created might have been entirely missing. I’ve always thought that if more people like what you do, that’s a good thing, and more people responded to the show’s winning formula; a combination of verisimilitude and melodrama.

Each episode begins in darkness, before something emerges from the depths. Edges appear, touched by white light as lens flare resolves itself into the stems, bowls, bars and serifs of two words in monumental, bold letters. They track away from us into the black, like we’re stepping back to see them in their entirety. We see the phrase “Law & Order” forming in negative space, then illuminated in a shining blaze of red and blue. A deep, almost ecclesiastical, voice enunciates the show’s canonical text; “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups; The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.” I was hooked from the first time I saw it.

The best episodes start cold, often with two never-before-seen characters, talking about their lives with spicy New York insouciance. They dive right in to the minutiae, describing the plot to a drama that, as seasoned viewers know, we won’t be seeing any more of. Two people on a first date discovering they are hopelessly poorly matched; An aircon engineer and his young nephew talk about family responsibility over the generation gap; two guys straighten out the cover story one will tell his philandering friend’s wife; the joggers who go to Central Park at night because it is just too crowded during the day. All these people have just two things in common, one, they live in New York, and two, they are about to discover a body.

Unusually for TV, these characters are not the focus of the drama. The writers invested time in showing a New York minute of their lives, but one of Law & Order’s unique storytelling quirks means that, more often than not, these characters are never seen again. They cede the stage to the cops, who take it from there. There is just time for a spot of flatfoot badinage before the titles and credits, time to scold a forensic tech for getting above their station, or delivering some procedural instructions to a beat cop, before turning to address the body with the sour-mash quips of the professional who deals with death.

The endings too caught my attention, they were so different from other shows. Invariably the last scene is a brief one, phrased as if the lawyers are packing up their desks and heading to the elevators at the close of a case. The critically important thing about Law & Order is that they don’t win every time. That set the world apart from other cop shows in my eyes. The lead characters did their best, but sometimes - due to their own hubris, silly mistakes, or action out of their control, the case just didn’t go their way. In the last scene the three lawyer leads take a step back from the impassioned fray. They crack wise, or deadpan a cynical witticism, or they prognosticate. They rarely -if ever - do a victory lap. The only time I can recall them celebrating, the District Attorney flops his tweed fishing hat on, says “take the rest of the week off” and turns to leave, before Jack realises it’s Friday.

The endings felt important in that they weren’t played as an end, but a segue into another scene. The show was strong enough to acknowledge that, unlike a more sentimental TV programme, the world is messy and the good guys don’t always win. The brevity and phlegmatic tone of the episodes’ end lent the impression that -like the openings - this was just another day, another case, get this one done and there’ll be another one tomorrow.

When I tried to induct tQs’ own Luke Turner into the show, his first comment was: “Its very wordy isn’t it?” And that is undeniable; this show is mostly telling, not showing.

Each episode is filled with language; cop language and legal language, which covers the drama in a rich coating of Instant Real. The police action usually takes three forms, narrowing the suspect down, locating them, and then breaking their alibis. Rogers, the medical examiner (Leslie Hendrix), usually with sandwich in hand, gives the police a detailed, densely described run-down of what killed the victim, usually while flirting with veteran detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach). Nowadays we’re all familiar with the pathologist as detective, but this level of TV intrusion into the procedure was new in the 1990s. Nevertheless Rogers deadpan is fresh, even today.

Of all the police shows I know, with the exception of Line Of Duty perhaps, Law & Order is the one most heavy on the details of how the footleather is used. Back at the squad house, the police talk about people’s “Luds”, or Local Usage Details, the phone records of a suspect or victim. They trawl through voluminous files of bank and credit card records, or stand over witnesses with books of mugshots checking out suspect’s ‘yellow jackets’ before they hit the street to chase down leads and interview suspects, after which they’ll have to find time to ‘do their fives’.

Early plot revelations can come from a desk officer, knocking on Lieutenant Van Buren’s (S. Epatha Merkerson) door. For years it was a tubby guy called Profaci (John Fiore) who appeared in every episode - but only ever in one scene. (The reason he was desk-bound was never explained, fans speculated he had beaten up a suspect.)

Of course, all this is meticulously constructed realism; devices to move the action rather than an actual depiction of the bureaucratic and institutional realities of being a cop. The police in Law & Order never have to wait very long for the Luds, or the bank records. Sometimes, usually for plot reasons, they have to wait for Rogers to get to their body, but for a big lumbering public institution, “The Two-Seven” is usually pretty well-greased and efficient when plot needs to be shipped. You can usually set your watch by Profaci’s injection of vital facts, coming around the mark where American networks would probably go for their second commercial break.

The main business of the cop segment of the show is watching the two detectives cunningly break down a suspect. If they don’t have enough evidence, they’ll bluff like they have. Tricking the perp into giving out information is protected by the Supreme Court and detectives have wide leeway to mislead suspects, we learn. Or they can work two or more mopes against each other, parsing them by who they think is most responsible, and then weighing in on the suspect who didn’t hold the gun, pressing them into flipping on co-conspirators. The interrogation is a rhetorical battle, and watching the police refine and deploy their strategy to suit this week’s crime and suspect is a core pleasure of the show.

This reliance on the wordiness has a function: there’s an awful lot of information in a 45-minute-long episode. And really, because of the split structure, the police and the lawyers get roughly 20-22 minutes story time each to set out their stalls. And yet, they manage to cover a bewildering amount of plot in that time, which sometimes zigs and zags through leads that take the detectives in wildly unexpected directions.

The season 10 episode 'Harm' is an extreme example. The episode starts out with a woman and her son discovering her elderly father murdered in their Upper West Side town house. He’s a divorce lawyer, and initially there’s a lot of suspects to sift through. But half way into the episode the investigation takes a turn away from this crime and toward another death, only tangentially connected to the first, with a different set of characters and motivations entirely. Newcomer to the DA’s office, Texas longhorn ice queen ADA Abie Charmichael (Angie Harmon) follows her nose to dig out what she believes could be more than just medical malpractice. She proves to her colleagues her instincts are good, along the way piercing the sacred attorney-client privilege to prove two doctors killed a woman in the course of a medical corruption conspiracy worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In 'Burned', an episode from season eight, the police spend the first eight minutes investigating a man on whose answerphone a murder confession was discovered. His phone number used to belong to someone else, and he is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the story. It’s a full 13 minutes before the detectives start to close in on the real suspect. In that time, the investigation has taken them from the squad house to the first suspect’s flat, to the forensics lab, back to their municipal green squad house, to a regretful alcoholic’s dingy apartment, back to the squad house, to the office of the regretful alcoholic’s boss, to the Fire Department investigator’s office, back to the squad house, and then to an upper west side apartment, where they begin to pick up the trail of the guy the police “like” for the murder.

All but the lab and the squad house are filmed on location. The show has a Cinema Vérité style, all the walk-and-talks are in long, hand-held “one-er shots”, with real people going about their business around them. Unlike its Vaseline-lensed progeny L&O: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order looks like it could have been shot on film stock from the 70s. It has a grainy and slightly under saturated look. It feels like an unofficial TV spin off from The French Connection.

The producers use New York to its full, the range of locations the show gets to is awe inspiring. Sometimes during lockdown, I’ve put on an episode, zoned out of the plot and just watched what’s happening in the New York backdrop. On top of the core locations on the steps of the state supreme court, and outside the police precinct, the action takes in; rubbish transfer stations, the ferries and ferry terminals, the heating ducts below a housing project, restaurants, takeaways, bodegas, street corners, delis, sweatshops, crack alleys and meat processing plants, innumerable apartments and the stairwells outside those apartments, from every segment of the city. And of course, Central Park.

Very occasionally a keen (maybe obsessed) viewer might spot that the apartment where Lennie and chisel-chinned choirboy-turned-moralistic-cop Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) interviewed the sister of the accused in one episode, is the same as a witnesses’ apartment in an episode from earlier in the series (the giveaway was the same Mexican Amate bark painting set dressing), but one of the strongest pillars of the show’s realism is their commitment to using the city widely.

The soundscape of the show is also vital to this illusion of inhabiting the city. Although it is almost unnoticeable, and plenty of people won’t have noticed, the sound of traffic underlies almost every shot. Even in the lofty air of the court room, the New York street can be heard below. It’s a very subtle use of wild-track.

Inexplicably toward the end of the show’s run they dispensed with it. I can’t really reason out why, the only thing I can think of is that they wanted to bring the stylesheet more in line with that of the successor show, Special Victims Unit, which favoured heart-beat like drum cues to indicate the tension. SVU is much less reliant on location shooting, preferring the controllability of a set in Los Angeles, giving it a totally different feel. They changed the balance of the show by increasing the melodrama with music instead of keeping the verisimilitude with city wild track. Dropping the traffic soundtrack was a small change, but to me it was the beginning of ruin.

The stories themselves take elements that are ripped-from-the-headlines, which adds to the truthy feel. Some of these elements are often the most elaborate or baroque, which means in some cases where the writers might be accused of being ridiculous, they can brandish their realist credentials; “That bit's true actually…”

Before each episode a title card assures the litigious that no real people are depicted in the story, but sometimes what is owed to real and identifiable people is too obvious to cover up. Occasionally the title card tantalisingly reads: “although inspired by real events…”

This doesn’t stop real cases from intruding. They are are often name-checked, and when they are, the show is not dishonest, they mean elements of those narratives have been broken off and chunks grated into the episodes. After the close, another title introduced in season seven, reads: “The preceding story was fictional”.

In the episode 'Sideshow' from season nine, a brief mention is made of ongoing hearings being conducted by the Independent Counsel, a lawyer given unfettered leeway to subpoena witnesses and bring charges at his discretion. Before long their investigation - the murder of a gay former White House official by a prostitute - gets folded into the all-encompassing Independent Council’s probe. At the time, the fall-out from the Ken Starr investigations in to the Clinton Administration was all around, and this episode served as a comment from the makers on the prurience of the real-life Independent Prosecutor.

In a similar fashion, this being 1990s America, the OJ Simpson case looms large, informing elements of several episodes across 20 years. I sometimes try and work out which case the episode is drawing from, but when there’s a character who tearfully threatens to kill himself after a police chase, or the lawyer says to the jury “you must acquit”, it’s pretty obvious. “Oh this one is OJ again”.

The performances of the lead characters were always key to bringing off this verisimilitude, delivering that amount, the sheer volume, of story and jargon, while not one of acting’s more feted skills, is an impressive feat, nonetheless. Even though I know they’re actors, I fully believe S. Epatha Merkerson’s mother-hen with a Glock Lieutenant Van Buren is a police officer, who comes to the set in her own knitwear and whose matriarchal duties include breaking bureaucratic deadlocks over warrants while her cop-sons take down a door.

When I discovered Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) was also the voice of Lumiere the candle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast I was dumbfounded, so completely does Orbach inhabit hang-dog detective. Briscoe; Raymond Chandler’s racing tipster, recovering alcoholic and three-time failed husband, whose addict daughter was killed acting as bait as part of a plea bargain in another cop’s drug sting, Briscoe could have been over-done. But Orbach’s performance is so fluent and layered, my heart breaks every time he has to swallow his pain, blink his hooded eyes and get on with the job; as when interrogating a father who killed his own daughter and he spits at Lennie: “How dare you, my daughter’s dead!”

This belief in their characters could go both ways, it seemed. When the series’ original Assistant District Attorney, the monastically uptight Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), left the show in 1994, making way for Waterston, there was talk that he had started to let the character of the stubborn, worthy, prosecutor bleed in to his own, somewhat difficult, personality. After a sour meeting between the show’s cast, producers and then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who had concerns about TV violence and was calling for more censorship, Moriarty exclaimed he intended to take her to court to protect the show. Pointing out the Attorney General was immune from such things, Wolf cracked back: “You’re not a lawyer Mike, you just play one on TV!” Moriarty resigned the next week.

Depicting such an expansive universe is demanding on the actors. Along with the regulars, the walk-ons have to be accomplished in order to do the trick of delivering information-heavy lines without sounding leaden and boring, or like an actor.

The show has a curious policy toward the walk-on and guest-star parts, in that this is a universe where some characters; lawyers, police officers, judges and politicians, recur with the same cast, but other actors turn up in a different role every series. From panhandler one week to serial killer the next, every series is a procession of great actors. Other background artists are plucked for one attribute; there’s a man with a magnificent beard, who’s been a guest at the funeral of a caviar magnate, a juror and in a police line-up. Most of the cast of The Wire appear in Law & Order at least once. When the machine was in full operation, production must have sucked in talent like a warehouse fire sucks in oxygen.

Law & Order is a storytelling machine. To crank out 22 or 24 episodes of television a year, and if each episode can have multiple strands, some of them profligately wasted on dead ends, the sheer number of stories and characters required is jaw dropping. Wolf’s method for overcoming writing problems, by spinning the element wheels of a story to create a new one, was used heavily. Watching all the episodes, you start to spot recurring themes and stock characters, among them but not limited to; the cold mother, the useless son, the rapist-animal, the eerie child. Who did they kill in that episode? Well this time lets have them kill their friend rather than their enemy… How did they get caught last time? Well let’s do it the other way this time… There are at least two episodes I can think of where feuding parents were initially suspected of murders that it turned out have been committed by their child. Motive: a desperation to stop their family falling apart.

The writers found the story possibilities of the priest-penitent privilege so irresistible, they re-ran it as a plot device at least four times.

A pattern, discernible to the close reader perhaps, might reveal something about the writer’s room. A place where the shadow of prime-time LA TV-bro attitudes pervade; among the most frequently occurring tropes, appearing in several guises over the years, is the inscrutable young female manipulator, a ruthless psychopath adept at bending the world to her will.

This story churn has a curious effect. With the engine consuming so many plots for a fictional world, charged with a melodramatic treatment of society’s issues, efforts to generate new content throws up surprising things.

In season six, episode 22 ‘Homesick’, the detectives investigate the death of a five-month-old baby. Suspicion falls on a British nanny, who is unhappy in her job and has a history of ‘accidents’. Given Law & Order’s “ripped from the headlines” credo, at first I had assumed this was a fictionalised version of the Louise Woodward case. The British nanny was convicted of murdering the baby she was looking after, in a case that at times gripped the news to a degree only equalled by OJ Simpson. But looking into it, I was amazed to discover the episode aired in May 1996, ten months before the baby in Woodward’s care died. Until February 1997, no one in TV land could possibly have heard of Louise Woodward.

In an episode from season 13, broadcast in 2003, a man scheduled to testify at a murder trial fails to turn up to court. Investigations reveal his real name is Levi March (Mandy Patinkin), described as “Gadfly, media maven, ladies’ man extraordinaire”. March is a male-chauvinist pig with atrocious relationship manners, who thinks only of himself. As “The Griffin” - his alt-media pseudonym - March boasts he took on the Deep State, “speaking truths no one wanted to hear”. When the neighbours complained about the smell from his apartment, the police discovered the body of his girlfriend. After his arrest, March skipped bail. Years later, during his retrial, March claims he was framed by the “forces of corporate America and the government that controls every being on this planet”. March, an unvarnished smarmy narcissist, said he was set up because he “spoke the truth, and people were starting to listen”. He tells the court an ex-covert black ops assassin had confirmed to him that it was all true, and “they” wanted to get rid of him without making him a martyr.

Now, at a certain point, I began thinking - aside from the murder - this guy reminded me of another bail jumping, conspiracist media maven and smelly flat dweller. It’s Julian Assange without an internet connection.

During the episode, Levi March’s lawyer argues all the years his client has been on the run should be considered “time served” on his sentence - the exact argument Assange’s lawyer made in a London Magistrate’s court while he was hiding in, by all accounts, a badly stinking Embassy annex...

The Griffin, by the way, is an animal with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle. It is said in mythology to guard a great treasure, just the persona Assange believes of himself and his trove of secrets.

There’s another episode I keep thinking about. In Season 8, three episodes feature the double-breasted and overly suntanned oligarch Carl Anderton (Robert Vaughn), a man who sees plots to destroy him everywhere. A longtime friend of the District Attorney, he expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing by simply pulling strings to make the charges disappear, as he always has. Questions arise over his mental health, and as the net closes around him, the mask slips. He loses his ability to finish a coherent sentence. Vaughn plays him wound tight, and his mouth makes a strange shape when he’s tense, like a pout.

McCoy only bruises the heavily combed-over Anderton, revealing Anderton’s grandson also suffers from the congenital mental illness. The boy murdered his sister and confessed to the answerphone on his father’s old number. The snarling and venal Anderton swears he will have his revenge on McCoy’s boss, the District Attorney named Adam Schiff. Which is, of course, the name of the lawyer and Congressman from California, who in 2017 investigated the collusion between Russia and the Trump administration, and in 2020 conducted the investigations into Trump’s dealings in Ukraine that led to Trump’s impeachment.

Of course, as a manifestation of New York, Trump haunts Law & Order. His name is invoked as pagans name the gods. As often as OJ. Congressman Schiff was a notable Federal Prosecutor in California before getting elected, and his name appearing in the series could be a nod from a tort-nerd writer. But only the story machine could have thrown their names together like this, in a fountain of melodrama with Jack looking on, making The Face. In June this year, as police fired tear gas to clear protestors from the streets of Washington DC, Trump went to the Rose Garden at the White House and declared to the camera: “I am your president of Law and Order”. I nearly fell off my chair.

I first encountered Law & Order in 2006 while I was working in Nigeria training young journalists for a Nigerian national newspaper. The South African Satellite broadcaster DSTV carried The Hallmark Channel, and they showed two or three series from the mid-to-late 1990s on rotation, in an afternoon slot. I think I must have been home with a bout of fever or upset stomach which, due to my constitution being made not of iron but of butter, happened disappointingly frequently.

I was fascinated by the discussions that went on in the backroom of the District Attorney’s office. The character of DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) made a deep impression on me, because Hill’s portrayal of the irascible old lawyer reminds me so completely of the editor at the first newspaper I worked at. Wincing, growling, suffering his old joints, Schiff is unobtrusive in his grey twill suit. Of a chronically dyspeptic manner, like my old boss, he would stoutly ignore us most of the day, glaring us away if we dared approach. But when it came time, he would quietly sit down next to you, perhaps eating some old-man food like burned-black toast, and fire a laser beam of questions at you about what we were working on. He would discover where you messed up. Because you had, and maybe you don’t even know it.

The back room of the DA’s office is a world too in which whole scenes are given over to impassioned discussion, not just concerning the crime at the centre of the plot, but wider ideas of justice. The homespun troupe of lawyers spend profuse amounts of time agonising about the importance of a legal decision, quoting detailed precedent cases (I’ve checked some of them, to my knowledge the references are on point). The potentially catastrophic ramifications of making a mistake are always in mind. In every episode the stakes are always high, not only on the case at hand, but for the very legal system, of which it is only a tiny part.

As I was first discovering the show, I was also quickly learning that although Nigeria has a police force and a court system, these institutions are so weak they are perpetually imperilled. The very idea of justice exists on a knife edge. When it comes down, it always seems to fall on the bad side.

It always seemed that the really unfair things that were happening around me were allowed to happen because the individuals involved in enacting the law were loyal to individual motives and obligations, their own gain, rather than the multitude of compromises and shared expectations and negotiations required for a robust legal system.

In Law & Order, here was a whole universe of people who cared about the system, whose jobs were bound to, not simply their own advancement, but to carrying out their duties to the best of their ability. At the time, it appealed to me.

But in the high 1990s, when Law and Order was in its heyday, the view from America was good. People watched the drama unfold every week almost as a form of rubbernecking. They wanted to see the issues of the day stretched to their logical conclusion, or flower atavistically into their worst incarnation. Wolf and his writers scoured for stories in contentious issues and pumped them brim full of melodrama

As an episode of Law & Order progresses, and the law closes in on the guilty, there is a moment when realism starts to fade and melodrama takes over. This is usually the moment where the perp has run out of options, and comes under pressure to make a deal, save the state a trial, and maybe in order to save something of their lives.

The lawyers in the show often bring together all the people involved in the conspiracy, or the family members covering up for one another in the central conference room of the District Attorney’s office. I call this the “You-might-want-to-be-quiet scene” as, invariably, the lawyer for any party previously on the hook, but about to be cleared, starts to object, only to be silenced by Jack McCoy.

Coerced into making a confession, the guilty party might embark on a villainous railing against the forces that made them do it, in a way that the guilty-in-reality never do; “You have no idea... I deserve a life too!” snarls the woman who murdered her own hyperactive child by inflaming her allergies with corn starch from a pair of latex gloves.

While in earlier seasons the episodes that dealt with societal issues were sprinkled in among the dynastic affairs and the street life. But from season 10 onwards the big issues are front and centre pretty much every week.

From the beginning of season 10, they go in big; Jack McCoy takes on the gun lobby. A violent misogynist guns down scores of women in Central park, using a modified “bump stock” on his weapon. Locking up the shooter isn’t enough for Jack and he turns on the weapon’s manufacturer. Against advice, he stretches the law to interpret the company’s refusal to make it harder to turn their semi-automatic pistol into a fully automatic because it would affect sales, as conspiracy to murder. Jack, fired up and in full flow, demonstrates how many more bullets the gunman was able to fire by pouring them in a torrent onto the court table.

He wins the case but the verdict is overturned by Judge Joseph Flint, to the delight of the expensive gun lobby suits. In Judge Flint (Doug Stender), Jack now has an enemy for life. As Jack’s career continues so does the fall-out from his overreaching. He becomes District Attorney when Schiff retires, and the lawyers Jack mentored try his methods of using their judicial discretion -somehow not as robust as McCoy’s? - to follow their own moral crusades. But this unchecked judicial activism only increases the melodramatic intensity. When Jack tries to rein him in, Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) turns to Jack and says, “Well you did it first."

In the next episode on this particular run, on the stand Jack shames a stuffy private school headmaster (Roger Rees) who murdered a member of staff to cover up how the rich parents are gaming the admissions system. For the two episodes following that, the team joined forces with a federal specialist investigator to unravel a Russian mob family that spread its tentacles right into the heart of the banking system, a situation that threatens to turn the federal reserve into a stage of a Russian dirty money laundromat.

During the 1990s when these episodes were first aired, these issues would have been of speculative interest. Catchy ideas bounced around a writers’ room for enlargement. The audience saw them one a week, they would have been understood to be a dose of appointment-to-view sensationalism. Last year when I watched those episodes back-to-back on 5USA, I suddenly realised all of those subjects, a bump stock shooting massacre, an elite school place-fixing scandal, and Russian mob penetration deep into the legitimate financial system, had been in the news that very day. As I write this, the New York District Attorney has announced that they will prosecute the National Rifle Association, and their army of lawyers, in what looks to be a much-welcomed piece of judicial activism.

It's hard not to think sometimes that in our melodramatic time, our face has become Jack’s face, with double take and mouth agape.