Thursday, July 06, 2006

105. Just the Facts

This has taken me long enough. It should've happened when Jerry Orbach passed away. Or back in January, right after writing peripherally about Crimes and Misdemeanors, a movie in which Jerry's character considers slaughter with a matter-of-fact shrug. Small wonder, considering Lenny Briscoe's jaundiced eye on Law and Order, and his patented off-handedness as he cracks wise on the extent of deadness the dead can achieve, which is pretty dead. OK, so L&O isn't a movie. But I have Humbly Viewed each episode any number of times. I even enjoy Law and Order: Trial by Jury, apparently the only dog in the bunch. And L&O is still compelling to watch.

The most obvious asset the series has is its casts. Such good actors, so much fun to watch, from Sam Waterston's spluttering Jack McCoy--and on a personal note, I cannot resist a character who was educated by Jesuits and seems pissed off that they did such a good job--to Vincent D'Onofrio's tilting, peering psycho-Columbo impression, to Chris Noth and Christopher Meloni's beefy bullies--and I feel bad leaving out any of them, not the least the female characters, including Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson, eternally flinching from the heat of ugly fires she's always putting out, or even Katherine Erbe's tight-lipped nasal almost-squeal, piping up behind D'Onofrio's hulk with her own acid-reflux observations--which brings me back to The King, Jerry Orbach, forever in our hearts, as sad and true as the next great thing about this series:

The NYC locations. I'm from New Jersey, and grew up near Philadelphia; but I'm living now in a small town in the Midwest, and it is a pleasure to see those East Coast streets, grayer than Chicago's, with their endless opportunities for waterfront encounters with floating forms, giant-soft-pretzel-munching, and a bit of traffic-dodging in the approach to imposing public buildings, deluxe apartments, or dingy storefronts. It is the most "cinematic" aspect of the show, its dedication to New York as an active locale, rather than an opening-titles montage.

But what happens in this town so nice they named it twice? Conversations. I remember a number of years ago reading an article in America's Favorite Weekly, TV Guide, by some screenwriter or other, extolling the virtues of television writing. His--Her?--point was that, given TV's traditional stinginess, a series is hard-pressed to provide much in the way of action--aside from car chases or Michael Mann's million-dollar Miami Vice and Crime Story episodes. But the norm since the days of CBS Playhouse 90 has been the art of dialogue. I will leave aside #1 above to focus on the fortunate fact of a low budget (but still, let's keep in mind the impressive actors, from Gleason to Patrick Stewart, who have done TV drama). As the writer of the TV Guide article pointed out, watch how great television often involves people simply talking to each other. (For the sake of this argument I will ignore Christopher Meloni's coiled-spring scary cop on SVU; he generates, I think--aside from Dennis Farina's moustache--the most physical presence on L&O, D'Onofrio's body language notwithstanding.) It's almost a distraction on L&O when a suspect bolts and Jesse Martin or Michael Imperioli or Ice-T has to run him down. And notice how short such chases are--and that often their best feature is the older cop--Jerry Orbach, naturally, more than most--bringing up the rear, gun drawn, ready to plug the guy for making him trot a little. The real pursuit is verbal; it is of course the Dragnet lesson, the ultimate straight-faced inquiry that makes your television a proscenium stage; and the best TV shows capitalize on that simple realization, whether the goal is angst or laughs. For any L&O fan, those one-act interrogations and courtroom cross-exams are enough, are everything.

One last time, I want to mention Jerry Orbach's Lenny Briscoe, another side of American cool, and the exemplar of the three things that matter about L&O. He is a true takes-all-kinds New Yorker, a great talker, and an actor I will miss, even though he'll continue on cable syndication for a long time--I was almost ready to make a disparaging remark about how TV drains the life from all its best series with endless repetition, but I think L&O may be sturdy enough to withstand such constant interrogation without cracking.

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