Law & Order: Slave to formula, or crackling entertainment?

Law & Order: Slave to formula, or crackling entertainment?

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the current round of installments is “competition.”

“Divorce” (Law & Order, season 8, episode 16; originally aired 3/4/1998)

In which the feuding pair in a divorce proceeding isn’t the formerly married couple

Phil Dyess-Nugent: When Community did its episode-length parody of Law & Order last spring, Bill Wyman, who reviews the show for Slate, reacted like a 70-year-old Cuban refugee who’d picked up the morning paper and seen a photo of crowds in Havana dancing on Fidel Castro’s corpse. Pointing out that the episode title, “Basic Lupine Urology,” translates as “Wolf piss,” Wyman wrote:

“This is a full-frontal assault on the most gigantic, most formulaic, and lamest franchise in the history of television. Law & Order’s creator, Dick Wolf, found a usable format—the one-hour cops ’n’ DA’s procedural, with the plot often drawn from recent news events, and with little in the way of ongoing narrative, making it all the easier to syndicate—and ran with it for decades, creating two, three, four offshoots, and garnering untold riches along the way.

We waited for the collapse of the franchise for years. Sooner or later, people were just going to get sick of it, right? We wanted to see it go down and take NBC with it, sorta the way ABC nearly destroyed itself by running Who Wants To Be A Millionaire four nights a week.

But it never happened, and some variation of the show will apparently continue into eternity, along with the various CSI’s, NCIS’s and so forth.

But I digress.”

Well, maybe a little. Wyman is a genius, and my first instinct on discovering that we disagree about something is usually to retrace my steps and try to figure out where I went wrong, but I think he both underrates and unfairly pigeonholes Law & Order. That may be easy to do when you’re focused on anticipating whether Community—a choice example of the kind of program that can seem to be penalized by viewers and network executives for being too inventive and unpredictable—is going to get renewed for another season. It’s easy to forget now that when Law & Order first appeared, it was regarded as swimming upstream itself. It was assumed that viewers liked their cop shows with plenty of soapy personal drama, but Law & Order updated the pseudo-documentary procedural style of Dragnet, bringing to it a new degree of moral complexity. It didn’t rival Albert Camus for intellectual sophistication, but it would have been enough to make Jack Webb’s head explode. The series was indeed formulaic, but if snapping a bunch of clichés together and hitting your marks is all there is to keeping a show on the air for 20 years, a lot more shows would manage it.

The cops and lawyers were presumed to be interesting not for who they were sleeping with, but because of the jobs they were doing. Their jobs, in turn, were interesting because of the insight that high-profile crimes, and the way they were investigated and prosecuted, could provide into the way the city was being run, and how the people there were living their lives. Bits of the regular characters’ personal stories leaked through the cracks—such as a moment in this episode when Briscoe and Curtis interrupt their lieutenant when she’s dealing with her son’s juvenile mischief—but just enough to help the audience understand the ways in which their life experiences affected their attitudes toward justice. And many of the most memorable episodes were about how the workings of the justice system, and other huge, monolithic institutions, are subject to the foibles of the fallible, corruptible human beings working the gears.

“Divorce” starts with the discovery that a psychologist, Dr. Burke, has been stabbed to death in her office. Over the course of an opening section that establishes just how indifferently a hospital security operation can be run, the cops consider possible motives—Dr. Burke dealt with a lot of wackos, and was also in a position of power as a consultant to the Archdiocese on annulments. They shake hands with such likely suspects as the victim’s husband, who grieves in high decibels; Mr. Kilpatrick, a bland dweeb who wants his marriage annulled so he can remarry; his ex-wife Molly, a pill-popping stress case; and a homeless man who’s been camping out in an untended stairwell of the hospital. It would be convenient if the homeless man did it, but he has an alibi, and seeing how he’s convinced he’s Pope Adrian VI, he doesn’t seem a likely source for usable information. One thing he says clicks, though: He saw Dr. Burke being yelled at by “a blasphemous whore with a crown of fire.” Molly Kilpatrick has an untidy storm cloud of flaming-red hair.

The detectives haul Molly in for questioning. They don’t have enough to charge her, but as they see it, she looks good enough for it that they might as well mess with her head a little and see what falls out. “Hey,” says the seasoned pro Briscoe, “if you want to leave, go ahead. But I have to warn you, the district attorney can use that as a reason to arrest you.” He also tells her that she can leave if she’ll just admit that the stabbing was an accident, and even though Briscoe is a good guy, there’s a sense of how easy it can be for cops to manipulate an innocent person into making a false confession. After Molly’s divorce lawyer, Sheila Atkins (Jill Clayburgh), arrives and rescues her, the detectives have a scene with ADA Jack McCoy in which the ingrained biases and resentments underlying everybody’s professional attitudes get a little airing out. McCoy asks Briscoe if he really lied to Molly Kilpatrick about whether she could be arrested for trying to leave. Not wanting to lie and say he didn’t, Briscoe barks, “Who told you that?” “This is not some dumb gangbanger with a legal-aid lawyer,” cautions McCoy, which pisses off the Latino Curtis: “Nice to see where you draw the line.” Briscoe tells Curtis not to take anything this aging yuppie sleazeball says personally: “If she had given it up, he’d have thrown his arm out trying to pat himself on the back.”

The assumption now is that Molly killed Dr. Burke because Burke was about to recommend that her marriage be annulled. Apparently she had prepared a report spelling out that conclusion, but somebody destroyed it. Paul Redfield (Tony Roberts), Mr. Kilpatrick’s lawyer, tells the detectives that Molly and her lawyer “lost the divorce” and that Molly couldn’t stand to “lose the annulment, too.” But this comes on the heels of Atkins’ having boasted about how effectively she’d made a fool of Redfield and cleaned Kilpatrick out. Finally, Atkins tells the cops that Molly has confessed to her that she did murder Dr. Burke. But as she sees it, she isn’t betraying her client, but rather using this development as leverage: In exchange for assisting with Molly’s prosecution, Atkins demands that the DA’s office subpoena Redfield’s accounts in the Virgin Islands and open a tax-fraud investigation. She claims that she’s doing this because it’s her responsibility to track down “every dime” her client “is entitled to,” and urges the court to recognize that Molly was driven to do what she did by Redfield’s “unconscionable tactics.” 

Redfield complains that he’s being subjected to “attrition, not litigation.” And surveying the mountain of paper that Atkins has continued to generate over a divorce that’s been finalized for four months, McCoy’s assistant Jamie Ross describes the Atkins-Redfield wars as “the adversarial system on steroids.” McCoy, meanwhile, is putting something together in his head. The only time Atkins has ever retreated in her battle against Redfield was her decision to withdraw a petition to enjoin the Archdiocese. She withdrew it immediately after Dr. Burke was killed and her report erased from her hard drive. Atkins knew she no longer had to put up a fight against Burke’s report because she was the one who’d wiped it, and its author, from the face of the earth.

The cops stick a tape recorder into Redfield’s pocket, and over lunch, he cajoles Atkins into making a full confession, leaving him the happiest, smuggest-looking lawyer who’s ever had his license pulled for two years over ethical violations. In court, Atkins allocates, being careful to say that, while she’s sorry about having plunged a pair of scissors into Dr. Burke, she was just trying to do what she thought best for her client. It’s left to a figure from outside the legal system, the widowed Mr. Burke, to provide proper perspective on all this, standing up and shouting, “You killed my wife to win a divorce case, and you’re sorry?”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this all just formula—which is to say, bland pap—or does Law & Order hold up as crackling entertainment with something to tell us about our times?

Ryan McGee: There’s a sense of comfort inherent to Law & Order at this point. There once was a saying that the sun always shone on the British Empire; now it feels as if the cable dial is always shining on a rerun of this show. It’s always a fun game to try to determine the season of the episode in question based on the combination of cops, lawyers, and district attorneys. But buried amid such games is the fact that, for 20 years, this was a show that could craft a compelling episode-long mystery like nothing else on TV. That might not make it fodder for weekly discussion on the Internet, but makes it a blueprint for how shows of this ilk should be executed.

And “execution” is really the name of the game here, especially when character development (the nominal reason to watch even a quarter-length of this program) is the main draw for audiences to return week after week. The format of Law & Order turned into a slight parody of itself later on, before producing some of its finest seasons just before cancellation. But here, in its eighth season, everything’s running like a well-oiled machine. What might take another show 12 to 15 episodes to parse out here gets dealt with in a scant 45 minutes. Should Law & Order get a bad rap for not being Murder One? That seems like an unfair question, since both shows were aiming at different goals. Within the context of this roundtable’s theme, “Divorce” succeeds for selling the episode as one type of competition before slowly revealing the two true combatants at play.

One of the hallmarks of this program is revealing just how many innocent people get caught in the crossfire of larger machinations within the New York area. Murders that seem completely random are often the byproduct of a much larger feud that only tangentially relates to the deceased. A psychologist becoming collateral damage of a two-and-a-half-year battle between lawyers is an absurd scenario, yet well within the show’s moral boundaries. The relentless pursuit of both law and order yields surprising connections, creating a tapestry of conflicting agendas. The show didn’t always spin the best web, but when it did, nothing else could match it. That isn’t bland pap; that’s a show operating at its own frequency with peak efficiency. “Divorce” isn’t a signature episode of the show, but many procedurals would kill to have it in their own series’ run.

Genevieve Koski: Before watching “Divorce,” I’m pretty sure I was the sole remaining television-owning person who’d never seen a single episode of Law & Order, nor one of its spin-offs. I don’t have a good reason for avoiding the ubiquitous franchise for so long, other than a mulish desire to be exceptional in this one, pointless respect. But if I had to put a finger on it, it would be my general apathy toward series that fall under the headings “procedurals,” “cop shows,” or “lawyer shows.” This is not an avoidance, mind you, and I’ve liked shows that fit all three of these designations; it’s just that those types of shows tend to be a harder sell initially, and with Law & Order being a triumvirate—nay, an apotheosis—of those genres, it never became a tempting diversion, or even a curiosity.

Phil, you ask whether Law & Order is formula or crackling entertainment, and while I’d argue that there’s no reason it can’t be both—I’m entertained by plenty of pap—I think if you’re not predisposed to like any of the formula’s ingredients, the final product is bound to leave you somewhat cold. I can only speak to this episode, but watching “Divorce” felt like a procedural experience in the most uninspiring sense of the word: technical, bureaucratic, and nearly devoid of color and character. Some of this can be attributed to the overall dourness of the worlds in which L&O is set, but a lot of it stems from the way the plotting is laser-focused on the case at hand, right down to the evidence-like title cards. There’s no room for the little diversions and sidebars that can often inject life and color into this sort of story. Yes, it’s efficient, as Ryan says, but efficient storytelling isn’t inspiring in and of itself, and while it may be entertaining to watch the web come undone lead by lead and hunch by hunch, once it’s untangled, it’s just a pile of information divorced from motivation or ramification.

Yes, Clayburgh’s character is given “motivation” in the lawful sense of the word, but the problem with a lot of procedural episodes is that the audience has to accept that motivation at face value, no matter how absurd—and a successful divorce attorney who’s so competitive with a colleague that she’ll kill an innocent in cold blood and sell another innocent down the river is pretty damn absurd. Every story needs a villain—well, not every story, but these kinds of stories, to be sure—but the best villains are the ones capable of inspiring some degree of empathy or respect.  Admittedly, this is hard to do with a character we’ve never seen before and never will again. It’s a problem that’s built into the procedural format, and while it’s certainly not insurmountable, I’d argue that “Divorce” doesn’t successfully overcome it, in spite of a very good performance from Clayburgh.

But I’m coming at this episode without any context or comparison points, so I’ll throw it out to the rest of you: Is Law & Order capable of being emotionally affecting, or is it just a plot machine, systematically knotting and unknotting stories week after week?

Donna Bowman: There was a time when Law & Order was synonymous with well-made procedural television, rather than cookie-cutter ubiquity. I remember settling down for early-season episodes as appointment television, enjoying the performances by Michael Moriarty (who turned his every scene into a mini-masterpiece), Paul Sorvino, and later Jerry Orbach, Benjamin Bratt, and Sam Waterson. It was terrific fun to revisit those times thanks to Phil’s choice of episode, and I found myself appreciating anew the hallmarks of the formula before they became so depressingly easy to export: eliding travel time so significant events happen in bang-bang succession, treating staff brainstorming as high drama, interviewing persons of interest while they bustle about their workplaces, and throwing theories into the hopper one after the other to see what sticks.

It’s the last bit that really sticks with me after “Divorce.” I was probably the last person to guess that the lawyer did it (gasp!), but what’s fun about Law & Order is the way suspects multiply, crowding each other off the assembly line. Naturally, it’s always the person who manages to keep popping up—especially when occupying some role other than “possible perp”—who turns out to be the puppetmaster. But while we’re taking our sweet time realizing that, a dozen other people have gotten the full Orbach treatment, complete with deceptive interrogations and insincere offers of leniency. (I always loved it when Bratt told a suspect he understood what drove her to this uncharacteristic crime. Somehow he could plausibly embody every class or ethnic slight that might motivate a murder.)

I’ve seen a lot of lawyer shows (and other shows) about divorce, but I’ve never experienced a divorce in my immediate family. My folks have been married for more than 50 years, and my own nuptials are still the ’til-death-do-us variety (16 years next month). So I am inordinately fascinated with the transformation of happy couples into squabbling, scrabbling competitors, accusing each other of any duplicity, large or small, that might give them an advantage in court. How does it come to this? And is it possible to be a principled divorce lawyer in this all’s-fair arena? 

Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve seen my fair share of Law & Order episodes, but I lean more toward the Wyman side of this debate than yours, Phil. This isn’t to say I think the show is “bad,” per se. It’s a solid example of the form, and as procedurals go, some are a lot worse. But if we’re picking long-running procedural franchises, I’ll always go with CSI over this one, if only because that show seemed to realize it was ever so slightly absurd to have this many big crimes occurring in one city. 

“Divorce” embodies one of the things that drove me away from Law & Order. This particular era of the show—roughly the time when both Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach were in the cast—is held up as one of the series’ golden ages, and the season before this one won the Emmy, the last straightforward procedural to have done so (and perhaps the last to ever do so). And while I like the characters, for the most part, and find the plotting soothingly straight-ahead, I eventually tired of the show’s need to have every other story be ripped from the headlines (to be fair, not on display here) and its over-reliance on twists to close the episodes.

Because let’s be honest: Clayburgh’s character doesn’t make a lick of sense. As Genevieve points out, she’s all plot function, with little real thought given to her as an actual human being. The series could get away with this because of its New York theater troupe of guest stars and its on-location filming. Clayburgh makes it feel like this woman is going through all of this and has truly done all of these insane things. But the actual moment plays as a bizarre plot twist that’s mostly there to keep the end of the episode suspenseful. The older this show got, the more it leaned on these sorts of storytelling cheats, and while that’s fun to see in rapid succession on a rainy Saturday afternoon, it’s also always kept me from legitimately loving the show.

Stray observations: 

PDN: Law & Order fans always end up arguing about which of the show’s ever-changing regular-cast lineups was the best, and my vote goes to the one with Orbach, Steven Hill, and anybody else. As much as I admire many of the other actors who put in a stint on the show, so long as those two guys are part of the rotation, I don’t really care who they’re standing next to. 

PDN: It’s an open secret that part of what kept the show peppery and alive was its easy access to the talent pool of New York character actors who could do a lot with very little; my favorites here are Larry Block (minimally recognizable to moviegoers as the cab driver stiffed by Griffin Dunne in After Hours) as Stan, of Stan’s Dry Cleaning, and Sharon Scruggs, who, in her one scene as a judge’s clerk, manages to suggest a whole worldview with every line of a role that’s basically all exposition. I was living in New York during that period when Law & Order reruns seemed to be running 24 hours a day on basic cable. For years, I had a job working a phone in the CBS News/New York Times survey department, which is the kind of job you take when you’ve come to New York to do something you’ve discovered you’ll never make a living at. It was not that uncommon for me to work a 15-hour double shift, come home at 2 in the morning, collapse in the front of a Law & Order rerun on TV, and see that the jury box was full of the idiots who’d just been sitting at the cubicles surrounding my own.

RM: In terms of all-time greatest sound effects in television history, where does that “doink doink” sound heard behind the title cards rank? It has to be top five, right?

Next week: Noel Murray emerges from the screening rooms of the Toronto International Film Festival to ask us “just one more thing” about Columbo’s “The Most Dangerous Match” (available on Netflix). Then it’s reader’s-choice week! Make the final push for your favorites here, and we’ll post the poll Monday.

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