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October 2010

Law and Order: season 7

cast: Jerry Orbach, Benjamin Bratt, Sam Waterston, Carey Lowell, and Steven Hill

creator: Dick Wolf

1033 minutes (15) 1996-7
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Matthew S. dent

Law & Order - season seven

I have a confession to make: I watch Law & Order. I wouldn't have described myself as a fan, particularly - not that I dislike it; more that I'm not a particularly devoted watcher. It tends to go on in the late hours of the night, or small hours of the morning, when I turn on the soon-to-be Universal channel, for a little audio-visual background noise. So, as an occasional viewer, I was familiar with the format, but watching a whole season was still a new experience.

As a bit of background, Law & Order is an American crime drama series that has been running since the start of the 1990s, and is currently the second longest running television series in the US (after The Simpsons). Aside from that, it has spawned a whole plethora of spin-offs, exploring different aspects of the justice system, and has even been exported to other countries (Law & Order: UK). It combines police procedural courtroom drama, in an effective two-part narrative, which follows a crime from discovery to successful (or, sometimes, not) prosecution of the person(s) responsible.

The episodes largely stick to a rigid formula. An episode begins with the discovery of a corpse or two, usually by some poor unfortunate soul who has nothing to do with any of it. Then the cameras follow a pair of police detectives investigating the crime, up to the point where they arrest and charge the suspects. Then the viewpoint switches to the district attorneys, who attempt to prosecute the person or persons believed to be responsible.

This results in a more comprehensive narrative of the legal process, going further than the other police procedural dramas it competes with. Quite often legal wrangling will rear its head in the second part of the show, and the lawyers will have to go back to the coppers in search of more evidence. It also seems to pride itself in showing the relationship between the two arms of the justice system, and the friction often arising between the two.

Another key element of the series is the Doctor Who-like switching around of the cast. Detectives and district attorneys seem to walk through the series, sticking around for varying amounts of time, and frequently being swapped out for younger (sometimes), cheaper (probably not) replacements.

Season seven is not even halfway through the series run, and cast-wise features two of the most well-known of the cast members; Jerry Orbach as gruff, recovering-alcoholic Detective Lennie Briscoe, and Sam Waterston as seasoned lawyer Jack McCoy. Working the New York streets with Orbach is Benjamin Bratt as the younger Detective Rey Curtis. Likewise, McCoy is assisted by fiery lawyer Jamie Ross, a former defence lawyer. The other key cast members are the respective leaders of the lawyers and detectives: Steven Hill, as District Attorney Adam Schiff, and S. Epatha Merkeson as Lieutenant Anita van Buren.

Now, I could do an episode by episode summary here, but I'm really not sure what the point would be. As I mentioned above, the episodes are largely very formulaic, and at times it feels like the writers just picked an idea out of a box of controversial crimes and prosecutions. This view isn't much allayed by the legends that accompany some of the episodes: "inspired by real events."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does at times create a feeling of simply mining artificial controversies in order to give a sense of importance and gravitas. All too often, those supposedly big issues feel very rushed, in the 40 to 45-minute episode slot. Just as an overview, this series contains, as big issues: racism, identity theft, holocaust survivors, mental illness, fraud, police corruption, celebrity, the death penalty, and a whole host of others. It seems to me to read like the pages of The Daily Mail.

There's some effort put into the characters here, though. Particularly, the new assistant district attorney, whose morals frequently lead to friction with her more senior colleague, McCoy. Aside from that the other characters seem to have their token issues, with Briscoe as a recovering alcoholic, Curtis dealing with the ramifications of an affair, and Schiff later on to face some rather emotional family issues.

My problem with all of this is that these issues don't seem to matter, even to the person they are supposedly an issue for. For the most part, they go largely unnoticed, except for when they feature as a plot device, and a lot of the time the characters seem quite two dimensional. Part of this stems from the episodic format; by the end of each episode everything is mostly wrapped up and over.

Those of you who are hardcore fans will no doubt be rushing to contradict me on that point, citing the three-episode arc in the middle of the season. And you're right, that particular story doesn't accord to my rather trite assessment above. But the fact is that that story was the exception to the rule, and was probably the best part of the series.

In particular, the appearance of Ross' much-discussed ex-husband, and the effect which his custody claim against her had was a well written, sympathetic subplot. It could have added a little colour to the rest of the season, but no, the obsessive compulsive tendencies of the writers reared its head and the whole thing was over and solved by the end of the story arc.

I know I'm sounding very critical of the series, but it isn't all bad. Its brilliant moments are the exception rather than the rule, but it's clearly doing something right if it's lasted for 20 years on our screens. It is good entertainment - probably better in slightly smaller doses than I subjected myself to - but it seems a little hollow in not properly dealing with the big social and legal issues it raises. The whole thing seems manufactured and artificial, as evidenced by the judge who declares "I don't care about precedence!" in a ridiculous move that seems aimed largely at making an otherwise simple case difficult enough to warrant a full episode.

But there were moments I really liked. The aforementioned three-episode arc was very good, and so was the final episode. The final scene of that episode was probably the best in the whole series, being moving, feeling honest, and coming pretty much out of left field. I can't recommend the series on the strength of it, but if you're sceptical about Law & Order as a series, the finale of season seven would be an interesting counterpoint.

In conclusion, my feelings are mixed about Law & Order - season seven. It wasn't out and out bad, but equally it didn't bring anything new to the scene. Given that it's the seventh season, it really ought to be trying something vaguely different, which when looked at in the context of a series 20 seasons long gives a rather stagnant impression. Still, it's a perfectly respectful police procedural drama, and certainly one of the best US courtroom dramas I've seen, and it's a damn sight easier to take seriously than its main competitor, the CSI franchise.

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