Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Law & Order: Nathaniel Lashes Out

Totally appropos of nothing, other than a viewing last night of Special Victims Unit , I just wanted to share with readers my complete and utter hatred of Law & Order: The Universe. I don't understand how this show is now on its 4th concurrent edition (Trial by Jury) and has been running in some form or other for well over a dozen years.

For many of those years I successfully avoided L&Obecause I just wasn't interested, as I've always felt that TV was very unimaginative in its series topics. It seems like there's a choice of three: hospitals, courtrooms, or police/detectives. I would often notice this show being on as I was flipping channels and each time my reaction was always... 'why does Jerry Orbach (RIP) waste his time with this when he could be doing a Broadway show?' or 'why does Dianne Wiest waste her time with this when she could be doing a movie?' followed by 'How many stations carry this freaking thing?'

I finally saw some episodes last year when I had a houseguest who was a regular watcher of L&O and I was alarmed to find that this show, which I had assumed to be a fairly good one given that it had nearly broken a consecutive Best Series Emmy nomination, was nothing more than H&E "Headlines & Exposition" and then I began to get furious that the show is popular, prolific, award winning, and is now stealing one my favorite actors from Broadway (that'd be Bebe Neuwirth on the new T&J) after having stolen one of my favorite actors from the silver screen (Wiest)

And all this even though it's possibly the stupidest and most predictable drama on television. And here's the really weird part: Smart people regularly watch it. So if you watch it don't feel like this is an attack on you ---some of my friends are regular viewers. But it's maddening to me in my more idealistic moments. You see, all episodes follow the exact same arc. All plots are easy to follow. And even though they're easy, each scene will perform the exposition for you over again in case you are really dense. No thought process will go on internally. All characters say everything there is to be said. They think out loud for you to follow along. In the show all criminals are easy to spot. And all criminals confess. And all crimes are solved by a certain time. And nothing ambiguous or personal ever happens. All bad guys go to jail. In comparison, scifi films and superhero flicks, often criticized for their lack of deep thinking are downright ambiguous when it comes to good vs. evil.

If you begin watching any episode at 8:02 and leave the television at 8:20 on any night, you could return to your TV 24 hours later the following night and be only SLIGHTLY confused (by the change in peripheral actors and storyline) and still be at the EXACT same point in the plot. And what's even worse? The creator is PROUD that it's a total formula from which the show will never veer (see his interview in Entertainment Weekly)

Another thorn in my paw? For frequent obsessive theatergoers like myself, you can often spot abundantly talented singer/dancer/actors ranging from minimal to great Broadway fame typing away at a secretary's desk, answering phone calls, or spouting inane exposition for one minute as that scene's criminal/suspect/neighbor/family member of victim/family member of criminal/witness/victim/etc...

So in addition to being completely uninspired paint-by-numbers drama it's wasting precious talent in the most boring way you can ever use an actor: to deliver exposition. Nobody on the show delivers anything BUT exposition.

Now, my boyfriend reminds me that stage actors don't make any money (comparatively) and Law & Order probably keeps theater careers alive with it's frequent paydays for Broadway babies. But that doesn't stop me from being haunted by the fact that Jerry Orbach did this show for more than a decade and now Bebe Neuwirth, one of Broadway's largest talents, won't have any time for Broadway any more since she's taking a lead role in this series. TV series aren't short hours for leads. And getting the summers off isn't enough time to headline a new Broadway show.

I like money too. I understand it from a financial perspective but the series creator is also proud of the fact that you never learn anything about the regular characters' lives on the show. Now, I ask all actors out there: Why would any actor WANT to sign on for years of spouting exposition with no character arcs? Again people will scream "Money!" But surely someone else on the planet has offered Emmy (Frasier) and Tony (Chicago) winning BEBE f***ing NEUWIRTH a job where she actually has a character to play?

It's not just that I hate bad television and have a particular pet peeve with exposition-filled screenplays. It's also because I really and truly love Bebe Neuwirth. Everyone knows how hilarious she was on Frasier of course. But on the stage she's true star wattage magic. I most recently saw her at the Zipper theater doing "Here's Lies Jenny" and the entirety of her work on Trial by Jury ,I can safely predict, will never measure up to one single song in that show.

Why, Bebe, why?


Anonymous said...

I understand where you're coming from, somewhat, Nathaniel. I think part of the reason for L&O's success is, for one, our expectations for television are different. TV still values the ability to sit on the couch and veg more than, say, film or theatre. And, yes, you can mention the brainless blockbusters, but I think "sit and veg TV" tends to get more respect from places like critics and awards bodies than their filmic equivalents do.

When I'm not watching, say, Amazing Race and Survivor, I tend to gravitate to long-arc character dramas like Alias and Buffy and Carnivale. But, as the ratings have proven, I'm not in the majority. Sad, but true. People would rather chill with CSI than engage themselves in a seasonlong spy drama.

When I watch L&O, it's when I'm not really in the mood to engage myself too much, and I can appreciate that in a TV series even when I abhor that in most films.

As for plucking Broadway's best and brightest, I think the fact that the L&O universe films in New York means that the theatre performers are basically their pool of talent. I feel you with regard to folks like Bebe and Diane Weist, but for the most part, I can't begrudge a day player getting an easy paycheck.

One thing that you might take comfort in is that L&O features such turnover in its cast. Ms. Weist was only indentured for, what, 3-4 years? Vincent D'Onofrio will probably be cut loose within a year or two. So even if Trial By Jury is a huge hit, there's no guaranteeing that Bebe Neuwirth won't be replaced by Sela Ward in three years.

So buck up, kid. Pop in your Tadpole DVD and enjoy.

-- Joe

Anonymous said...

hmmm, colour be confused. Wouldn't it be best for the however many millions who watch these shows to see Bebe in a few episodes of this and then maybe try and find out more about her? Instead of being simple dumfounded when you say her name...?

I, infact, LOVE these shows (or, SVU mostly, L&O is great but Criminal Intent isn't a regular for me - TBJ isn't in Australia yet). The fact that there's no character arc is part of that! I don't particularly FEEL like watching some hard-hitting family crisis happen to one of the main characters. I'd much rather just sit down and watch a quickly paced legal show that doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary fodder. You call it essential, i don't. L&O isn't a feature film. It doesn't have to follow the same rules as every other show out there. Infact, i find it extremely odd that you want this show to conform to other shows.

But the whole thing gets down to the fact of whether its entertaining, and for myself and A LOT of others (although I've noticed people are either L&O fans or CSI fans) do get entertained.

1. It's not always predictable
2. The villian doesn't always confess (that's an odd thing to say)
3. I don't get the "stupid" remark... that doesn't make any sense at all

It IS meant to be easy to follow. Story arcs ARE the same, but so are a lot of other shows, but that's the point. It's not a human interest drama or whatever, it's a crime show and that's what it sticks to.

And I must say I have actually cried Thelma & Louise type tears during an episode of SVU feating a mentally handicapped woman and her mother.

lastly, "They think out loud for you to follow along"... er, that happens in every television show! It's no fun watching a detective sit there for an entire scene thinking to himself...

Anyway, love you, hate this entry. I give it an F. ...okay, that was a joke, man, i hate it how voice inflections and sarcasm don't come out in typing!


Anonymous said...


First off, Nathaniel, have you seen some of the older episodes? At it's peak, Law and Order produced episodes that not only "ripped from the headlines" but managed to speak quite fluently about our society. I'm referring specifically to "Sanctuary" - no television show or movie as commented as eloquently on the racial divide that existed than this one. I'd easily mention it in the same breath as "The Body" or "Long Term Parking" in terms of quality.

That said, I wonder if you dislike of the crime genre (a more general version of the mafia-genre) is playing a larger role in your anti-L&O rant then you admit in your blog.

par3182 said...

as usual, you say pretty much what i was thinking. i've only ever watched a couple of eps of L&O and realised i never need to see another (due to the whole exact same thing-ness you pointed out).

i wonder if actors are attracted to these shows in an effort to avoid being confused with the character (which can't happen if the character doesn't exist outside of spouting exposition)? no chance of anyone telling bebe she should have never married frasier on this new show.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I'd never watched the series until season b/c of all the hype. I watched the first episode and was entirely disappointed. So I watched the second, hoping for more, but I got bored. Bebe Neuwirth is amazingly boring in the role, too. This series is way too predictable.

Anonymous said...

I don't exactly think the L&O franchise has "hype" nowadays. CSI does, and THAT is a franchise that needs to stop.

At least the different L&O's are, ya know, different, not just set in a different city.


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