the law and order of Law and Order

Law_and_order Shows like Law and Order are ubiquitous, our constant companions on air. This makes them hard to see, and therefore hard to reckon with.

It helps to take a look at the numbers.  Law and Order has been on the air since 1990 with over 400 episodes now β€œin the can.”  It has done well, averaging better than 10 million viewers an episode.  A rough calculation tells us that the original series has been seen 4,000,000,000 times, and many people will watch an episode more than once (wittingly or not). 

But saturation does not appear to have exhausted our appetite for the show.  New episodes continue to pour from NBC.  There are variations on the theme: Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. New shows and reruns play on TNT, USA Network, Bravo!, and Turner Broadcasting.  On an ordinary day, there are  6 hours of Law and Order running on TV. 

If we take all three series together, there are 740 extant episodes of Law and Order.  This means that, if we wanted to, we could play a unique episode of Law and Order every hour of every day for a month.  All Law and Order all the time for a month.  Now that’s a marathon.

The answer to the popularity and staying power of this franchise must be known to its founder Dick Wolf.  The rest of us will have to resort to speculation.  My guess is that this show is a genre within a genre within a genre.  It is constrained by formula, right down to the wisecrack that ends the first segment, and the "chung CHUNG" signature sound that opens each scene.  There is something deeply comforting about a world as predictable as this.  To borrow a line from an old milk campaign in Canada, the fast the world gets, the more sense Law and Order makes. 

But this explanation surely is not robust enough to explain 740 episodes and 4 billion viewings.  It’s not enough to explain the deep familiarity with the show possessed even by those who claim "I never watch it."  Like the Antiques Road show I talked about last week, EVERYONE watches Law and Order.  A lot. 

Law_and_order_casting_choicesIt never fails to amaze me how often academics over sherry, after protesting the fact that they don’t have a TV, that they do have a TV but they don’t get cable, that they do get cable but they "never watch anything," eventually to demonstrate a Talmudic mastery of Law and Order trivia and compete with one another to demonstrate a superior grasp of the casting intricacies that characterized the early years of the show.   (Everyone, apparently, likes to be the first to note how much more interesting Ben Stone was as a character than Jack McCoy.)  It’s not long before the sherry has inspired a full account of every character and every actor.  Cast your eyes right and you will see a wonderful chart from Wikipedia.  Somehow it’s just not the same without the sherry, but here it is.  Every character in every role. 

Thoughts on the mysteries of Law and Order are most welcome. 

References

Law and Order on wikipedia here

Law and Order, the franchise on wikipedia here

Dick Wolf according to wikipedia here

Lee Goldberg on the improved state of the present season here

3 thoughts on “the law and order of Law and Order”

  1. Dick Wolf has stated publicly that he constructed the series to eliminate long-term arcs as much as possible. He wanted each show to be a standalone specifically to promote its use in reruns, where it will typically be viewed out of order and out of context.

    One side-effect is the minimal development of the characters, which also results in the comfort-food aspect of the show–the people don’t change a heck of a lot, unless there’s a casting switch. Criminal Intent and SVU do engage in a bit more cross-episode plotting and charcter development than the original L&O. CI’s repeating archvillian Nicole actually worked pretty well as a Moriarity to Goren’s Holmes. (Oddly, V. Donofrio once played Moriarity in a Young Sherlock Holmes movie.)

  2. it is also that the show serves as an anchor for viewers, making sense of things for them. in affect it has become more then a show, it has shed the need to be ahead of the audience and suprise or excite (like say the sporano’s). it has become a reaction or explanation. in this light it has endless things to cover and to explain. it is more a investigative journalist then anything else. it has taken over a part of the role newpapers used to play, providing a backstory to actual, fastpaced life

  3. it is also that the show serves as an anchor for viewers, making sense of things for them. in affect it has become more then a show, it has shed the need to be ahead of the audience and suprise or excite (like say the sporano’s). it has become a reaction or explanation. in this light it has endless things to cover and to explain. it is more a investigative journalist then anything else. it has taken over a part of the role newpapers used to play, providing a backstory to actual, fastpaced life

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