This is the way "Law & Order" ends: not with a bang but a whimper.
Hidden among the more glamorous and celebrated (or reviled) finales of other long-running series like "24" and "Lost" this week, "Law & Order" ran a routine episode last night that most sources now confirm was its last. After 20 years on the air, NBC canceled the drama, which had been pulling in low ratings for years, yet prompting slogans from fans like "I don't want to live in a world where Law & Order can be canceled but Two and a Half Men can't." I'll co-sign that.
But, never say never Dick Wolf, the show's creator and executive producer, is looking to keep "L&O" alive and running on a weekly basis somewhere on cable. Given the fact that old episodes of the show already run every day somewhere on cable (as do those of its spin-offs "SVU," and "Criminal Intent"), I would presume that intention might be easily attainable. Still, Wolf was recently quoted as saying that if he can't find a new home for his old show, he'll look to conclude the series with a two-hour movie to air on NBC.
When I was in college, TNT had reruns of "Law & Order" airing every afternoon from 2-4 p.m.: my prime napping/TV lounging time. I truly believe over my four undergraduate years I caught, at some point, most of the episodes that had ever aired. All the casts had their highs and lows, as did the seasonal plot lines, and of course, I often preferred some of the more classic members of the detective force like those played by Chris Noth and the incomparable Jerry Orbach to newer incarnations. But no matter when you land in "L&O's" history you're often comforted by a few constants*, like (for the past 13 years), S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt Van Buren, as well as "never say die!" prosecutor Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), keeping you feeling connected to the show whenever you tuned in (* - this is not the last allusion to "Lost" I'll make today, still reeling from Sunday's finale. Another "Lost" moment form "L&O" last night: There was a mention of John Locke High School!)
The genius of the show has always been its simple format that allows for complex storytelling. It's never afraid of politics or showcasing its take on how events should have played out in those "ripped from the headlines" plots. Its slice-of-life cold opens, unexpected quips and jabs ("Bomb threats are serious business. But union lawyers are more serious"), and ability to make us care about characters we know almost nothing about "L&O" quietly revolutionized the police procedural, and never lost its cool (or its dated title sequence).
The two segments, the Law and the Order, separated yet connected by that definitive ampersand, didn't always split the show evenly (though they often did) in last night's episode "Rubber Room," for example, Detectives Lupo and Bernard spent almost the entire time searching for a potential bomber, with his trial never shown. I've always favored the Law over the Order (which is probably why, for awhile, I was more interested in the two detective-centric spin-offs), but I can honestly admit that my advanced understanding of trial law has been shaped and taught almost entirely as a result of this show. "Law & Order" has also, like any long-running series, been a vehicle for an exceptional number of rising (and sometimes falling) stars. (I defy you to find any of your favorite television actors who don't have at least one "L&O" credit to their name.) Essentially, its impact on modern television cannot be over-expressed.
It's a shame that this may be the end of such a great series I like the current cast and will never tire of the show's formula, but I think we can all admit that this is not exactly "Must See TV." Last night's episode included a coda to Lt. Van Buren's fight against cancer a far more personal storyline than the show almost ever handles. Spoiler alert: She's cancer-free. But the writers, perhaps feeling the heat of NBC plotting to the pull the plug on the show, ended with the Lieutenant looking out on all of the cast laughing and sharing drinks together with a wistful but contented smile, an echo perhaps of the feelings we fans have as "L&O" potentially slips away into one of TV's most hallowed graveyards.
For now, goodbye ominous chung-CHUNG sound. The Original, to me, will always be the best.
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