TeeVee Awards 2000: Biggest Disappointment
The fall of 1999 brought with it many disappointments. ER continued its long, painful dive into histrionic stupidity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer lost its way on its new post-Angel path. Frasier and Friends lurched on in a pathetic imitation of past grandeur. Xena: Warrior Princess dumped thousands of alt.tv.xena.subtexters like so many high school girlfriends.
But all of these disappointments came from established shows. These were series we expected to do better based on past performance. Of the new shows of 1999, there was only one disappointment. Anyone could tell that Get Real would bite the big hot hairy one, that Grown Ups would suck like unto an Electrolux, that Snoops would lick the bag and Work With Me would eat it and Ladies Man would do something else bad in the oral/genital neighborhood.
Who, though, could have forseen that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit would be so awful?
Not us. We are longtime fans of Law & Order. We were thrilled at the prospect of another night of L&O with additional stories, additional characters, additional crimes and misdemeanors. We don't get enough L&O even with the A&E repeats; and by now we're starting to have some of the episodes memorized. To think that Dick Wolf would be doubling the production of new shows was to think that God really did listen to our prayers.
L&O looked like an excellent franchise for cloning, too. Unlike most -- we're even tempted to say all -- other shows, Law & Order is not strongly character- or actor-based. Its strength has always been in its writing. It's not a show about gimmicks, either. The network may tout that its plots are "ripped from the headlines," but frankly, we don't think the viewers care. L&O is entirely about getting from point A -- the crime -- to point B -- the disposition of the criminal. How did they do it? Why? Do they get away with it? Are they punished? If so, how? Everything else is frippery.
But it's some mighty fine frippery. L&O consistently finds top-notch acting talent. Drawing from the vast pool of the New York City stage, the show almost always has a brilliant cast. In the center we have the stars of the show, solid actors all of them, from Paul Sorvino to Sam Waterston. These are actors with chops to spare. In the recurring roles and in the bit parts, too, L&O puts so much acting power onscreen at any given time you'd think General Electric was running the show. No part is so small that they stand a cardboard cut-out up for it.
And the Xena nuts don't know a thing about subtext. Law & Order is almost entirely subtext to die-hard fans. Who is sleeping with whom? Who is having a baby? Why is there tension in the office? And all of it is communicated in such subtle, quiet, slow ways, revealed over season after season, in the background, like a long, involved magic trick.
All of which seems easily repeatable, in large part because any of the characters, any of the plots, any of the actors, are replaceable. Move one out, move another in. L&O has survived cast changes which would kill a lesser show. Michael Moriarty has a beef with Janet Reno and decides to quit? Well, seems to us we have a number of Tony Award-winners to choose from here... let's go with this Waterston guy. As long as the plots are solid, the frippery can be endlessly varied.
So viewers like us had high hopes for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We all envisioned a strong, healthy, beautiful sibling for our great love; instead we found a dreary younger sister.
The most painful difference between the two shows is that SVU drops the tried-and-true format of the original. And while it may have been a half-assed attempt by Dick Wolf to maximize syndication revenue for the original Law & Order, splitting the hour-long show into two half-hours -- one concentrating on tracking down the perpetrator and one on bringing them to justice -- proved to be a stroke of genius. It brought a strong sense of realistic closure to a genre known for having to wrap up its storylines much more neatly than the real world would ever allow. How many killers commit suicide after being caught, saving us the trouble of a trial? In the world of TV, too many, because following a trial never fit into the format of a cop show.
SVU drops the L&O crime-and-punishment format and thereby leaves its viewers with the worst case of justice interruptus-induced blue balls in the history of TV. There you are, stroking along, they investigate the crime, getting faster, they interrogate a witness, things are moving smoothly, they catch the criminal, yes, yes, that's it, they find evidence against them, oh baby, yeah -- and suddenly the show scoots away from you across the back seat complaining of a headache as the perp is passed into the hands of the lawyers just before the end credits roll.
What happens to them? What about that lousy search warrant? Did a judge find it invalid and toss out the evidence? Did anyone notice how they roughed up the suspect -- was the confession entered into evidence or suppressed as having been coerced? Did that guy they caught really do it, or was it that shifty eyewitness -- we were wondering about that guy!
These questions are never answered by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. You have to provide your own answers, just like you did in high school after those disappointing dates.
SVU is not content to step incorrectly just this once, either. No, the show stumbles on all the other high points of the original as well. With the enormous well of talent in New York, for example, you'd think they could find some better actors. Instead, we have the plywood Mariska Hargitay; Dann Florek in the phone booth dialing in his performance from the original series; Richard Belzer doing Dann one better by beaming his performance in from some other galaxy in which he's the lead in a half-hour comedy dud called Munch 'Em; and the thankfully departed Dean Winters, whose line readings were so badly stuttered that we don't think we understood a single word he said all season. Only Chris Meloni's performance has grown on us -- no longer do we look at him and think of various lumpy roles in his past ("12 Monkeys," "Bound," "Runaway Bride," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," many appearances on TV shows sundry); we see Det. Stabler, and that says something for his acting.
And as for subtext, it's all but missing in this series, except for where it is written as maintext -- exactly where L&O viewers don't want it. We don't want to see that chowderhead Cassidy walk up to Benson in the office and say, "Last night was great -- when can we do it again?" We can get that from any of a hundred other cop shows (anyone up for reruns of Bochco's Greatest Hits and Misses?). We want to see their relationship slowly evolve across many episodes while we gather hints like breadcrumbs from a trail. Although, actually, given the emotive powers of Hargitay and Winters, we'd really rather see them in a bizarre double murder-suicide. In fact the only appreciable subtext we've uncovered in the show is that off in the background there is a Det. Briscoe -- gasp! Could he be related to Lenny Briscoe from the original series? -- who is played by Chris Orbach -- gasp! Could he be the son of Jerry Orbach who plays Lenny Briscoe from the original series? Except that the sum total of this subtext is that one of the main characters tosses a line off like, "Give that to Briscoe." And it's over.
Finally, though, SVU collapses in the writing. Strong writing would, of course, lead to better and more subtle subtext; it might resolve the cases more cleanly; and it could possibly even overcome the less-than-stellar acting of the cast. Alas, the writing on SVU is not strong unless you mean olfactorily. It is, in fact, very bad. By the end of the first season it had even veered off into David E. Kelley/Picket Fences territory with a plotline about a pervert who gropes women on the subway and masturbates on them; one of the women is a lovely, pleasant, one might almost say virginal, pregnant woman who heals Stabler's influenza with a touch and turns out to have been accidentally impregnated by the pervert. If this had been on Law & Order one assumes the judge would have been played by Ray Walston. One also assumes the regular L&O story editors would have had to call in dead the day the script was approved.
In sum, L&O:SVU fails completely and totally, on every level. And while we may expect this sort of complete sleep of talent from people who have never shown any talent to begin with -- we're looking at you, Amy Brenneman -- to find it in professionals we thought had merit, who we thought could be counted on to deliver the goods, that is especially painful, and especially disappointing. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is the biggest disappointment of the 1999-2000 season.
Additional contributions to this article by: Chris Rywalt.
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