Law & Order

First things first: No, Law & Order didn’t end tonight with the people of New York City’s criminal justice system finally getting off the island of Manhattan and landing in Los Angeles, although given that Law And Order is being replaced by Law & Order: Los Angeles next season, that would’ve been an apt way to go. Then again, who knows what Dick Wolf and company might’ve cooked up if they’d known they were going to be yanked off the air at the end of this, their 20th season. As it happened, their cancellation came quick—and may not be permanent. The show may pop back up on cable next year. But even if that does happen, tonight’s Law & Order, “Rubber Room,” was the last episode of the original series to air on NBC. One way or another, it’s passing through the white light on the way to the next life.

I haven’t been a regular L&O-watcher since the mid-‘90s—the Emmy-winning era—though I’ve dipped in and out occasionally over the years. I tune in whenever the ripped-from-the-headlines story sounds especially juicy, or when there’s a guest star I like, or when I’m traveling and flipping through channels at a hotel. I remember being sick as a dog at my mom’s house a few years back, crawling into bed around 8 p.m., and watching something like six Law & Orders in a row while passing in and out of consciousness. That was one long, weird case.

My point is that Law & Order has been a television constant for 20 years now: hardly ever appointment TV, but nearly always a reliably diverting hour. But once the repeats started filling up whole nights of cable programming, and once the spin-offs started padding out the NBC primetime schedule, and once CBS reinvented the procedural for the 21st century (and then reproduced their own formula over and over), it became harder and harder to get excited about the original Law & Order

And to be honest, after checking back in for tonight’s possible series finale, it doesn’t look like I’ve been missing much. “Rubber Room” is one of the rare L&O’s that alters the show’s formula of cops-first/courtrooms-second, instead following one manhunt over the course of the hour and limiting the court action to the convening of grand juries and the like. (Or at least I assume that switch-up is still rare; like I said, I haven’t been a devotee since the days of Benjamin Bratt.) In a typical bit of Law & Order misdirection, Lt. Van Buren is asked to investigate a website that may be posting racy video-chat images featuring underage girls, and soon discovers that the would-be porn-king is also hosting video of a terrorist plot in the making. The porn-king swiped the video from another site, so Detectives Lupo and Bernard follow the trail—with the help of ADAs Cutler and Rubirosa, who provide the necessary subpoenas—and learn that the person they’re looking for is an anonymous blogger who’s been boasting of his plan to blow up a school. When they dig a little further, Lupo and Bernard find out that their man is an ex-teacher, angry about the injustices of our educational bureaucracy.

The title “Rubber Room” refers to the place where teachers go when they’ve been suspended, pending their hearing. The union won’t let the government fire the teachers until they’ve had their day in front of the board, and so the teachers show up and sit in a classroom with other suspended teachers, swapping war stories and collecting a paycheck. The episode has a clear axe to grind—as L&O often does—with how “the system” screws us. Cutler and Rubirosa can’t examine the public school computers because the Grand Jury fears giving them “a blank check” to invade privacy. The teachers union discourages its members from cooperating with Lupo and Bernard when they ask questions about potential suspects in their ranks. The teachers themselves tell horror stories about how petty transgressions cost them their careers. It’s maddening, truly.

But the Law & Order I liked so much 15 years ago would’ve found a way to turn those frustrations into a more complicated study of Why Things Are, with multiple perspectives and unexpected twists of fate. “Rubber Room” builds to a climactic school shooting, with the distressed gunman wailing, “I got nothin’!” as he fires at will. It's all way too overheated. Even the scene leading up the big standoff is a dud, with Lupo and Bernard busting into the suspect’s basement and finding evidence of his guilt on an opened laptop, next to a shattered diploma-frame. Real subtle.

So I don’t know now whether I should be glad that a now-mediocre series is being put out its misery, or angry that it’s going out on such a sour note. Even L&O stalwart Sam Waterston only appears in one short scene in this episode. Sure, there are no longstanding mysteries that Law & Order needs to resolve if it gets another run on cable, but I would like to see it have one last real hurrah, with characters from the past returning and a case worthy of a show that once beat out ER, The X-Files and NYPD Blue (in their heydays!) for an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. At the least, it would be great for L&O to get a finale that people would make a point to watch, rather than one that barely relieves boredom.

Grade: C-

Stray observations:

-I love that the theme music hasn’t changed in all these years. It’s a connection to where the show began, in the wake of L.A. Law.

-I think I lost interest in Law & Order for the same reasons I got tired of X-Men comics by the end of the ‘80s. Too many to choose from.

-Olympian Lindsey Vonn has a cameo as a secretary who helps the detectives out. She did fine with her few lines. It reminded me of another reason why I used to love Law & Order: it was a weekly showcase for unfamiliar New York actors, who got to show their stuff for a scene or two and boost their clip-reels.

-This episode does resolve a long-running L&O subplot: Van Buren’s fight with cancer. (I think the last time I watched the show, she was about to start chemo.) I was never all that wild about the attempts to give the core characters their own stories outside the office, so I can’t say I was moved by Van Buren undergoing a CAT Scan and learning that she’s cancer free. But I did like the dissolve from the monitor showing her body-scan to video of a Staten Island dump where the suspect tested his bombs; and then the dissolve from the video of that dump to the bomb squad walking its grounds. “Rubber Room” was directed by longtime Law & Order writer/producer René Balcer, and though the action and acting was stilted, the episode looked quite nice. It reminded me of what I’ll miss when L&O:LA debuts: those evocative New York location shoots. Los Angeles has a lot to live up to.