Television is a vast wasteland, according to Newton Minow.

What will the theatre community do for television credits?

Posted: 02 May 2007 | posted by David J. Loehr |

Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" novels are a thing of beauty. They alternate lead characters--"the precinct is the main character," he said many times--and even the smallest cameo appearance of a bit player has the impression of being a fully-dimensional human being. This is something Law and Order has lost over the years, trying to show us trees instead of the forest.

With news of the possible cancellation of Law and Order: Criminal Intent and even Law and Order: Original Recipe, it's easy to point out where things went wrong.

1. Timeslot. People got used to the original being on Wednesday nights, period. Was it really getting worse ratings against CSI: NY? Sliding it to the Homicide death slot was doomed from the start.

2. Cast changes, ie one or two too many. They always talk about how they stick to the stories, they don't do character work, and that's true. We know next to nothing about any of the characters on the original. But one look at Jerry Orbach, and you know his character. Or Sam Waterston. They bring a simple, elegant shorthand to the creation of a character. Nothing against the more recent actors, but can you really pick any of them out of a lineup? Quick, name an A.D.A. after Jill Hennessy. (And saying "the sudden lesbian" doesn't count.)

3. Saturation. They never could sustain a fourth series, it's true. And there are plenty of reruns all over the dial. But which ones are people watching? Which era is the real competition for the current era? Could it be the episodes with Jerry Orbach? Hmm. No cartoons, no mannequins.

4. Depth of character. True, we don't know much, if anything, about most of the regular characters. But. Which series is already renewed for next year, with its cast and crew intact (and growing)? SVU, which has never changed leads, has brought in older characters let go from the original, has gone into great detail on its characters' lives and relationships. It's a different beast in the same universe.

Word is, one or both of the other series are going down this year. There's talk of cutting costs to keep one of them going, probably "the mothership." But what if they combined the two, sort of.

Bring Chris Noth back to the original series, but now he'd be in the Orbach position of breaking in a newer detective, whether his current partner on Criminal Intent or not. Alternate with Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe for several episodes, or bring in some of the SVU detectives as a lead team once in a while. Why not take further advantage of this universe of characters they've created over the years?

Best of all, by using Noth there, they instantly have an anchor with a long backstory who's grown and developed and changed, but is still recognizably the same man as when he began seventeen years ago. And surely some of the people he's put in jail will be on the streets again after all this time, which leads to an interesting story or two, or even an ongoing storyline to thread in and out from time to time without distracting from the story of the week. Heck, bring back Richard Brooks as well--which they've done very well several times already--and have someone intently focused on the two of them for revenge. Again, simple brushstrokes with miles of backstory, and you don't have to get melodramatic like SVU.

Why not even bring in a little bit of Homicide as well? They've already got Richard Belzer, and after several crossovers between the shows, they could perhaps get Tom Fontana's blessing and/or services for such a thing. Again, continuity without excessive exposition. What would really be fun--and freak out fans of these shows--is to do an episode or two as if it were a crossover with Homicide in the present day. Crazy, but hey. If I'm not mistaken, NBC Productions has the rights on Homicide, so we're not talking insane licensing hassles or anything.

When Law and Order was at its peak, it sketched its main characters as simply and elegantly as a kabuki play, all ritual and archetype. We didn't have to have Briscoe tell us he was a recovering alcoholic, we just knew. We don't need to see Logan punching a politician to know he's got a temper. That they were able to sneak these strokes of character work in the midst of Dick Wolf's procedural formula is amazing. That the current and recent group has been truly interchangable is probably the main reason the older shows are still going strong.