Thursday, January 03, 2008

Shark Alert

I watched the premier and second episode of Law and Order's 18th (yes 18th!!!) season last night.

Because this came on the heels of TNT running a LaO New Year's Eve Marathon, I was quite geeked.

Adding to my excitement was the chance to see how the producers would handle two challenges facing the show this season.

First, LaO took on a slightly altered look to distinguish it from, of all things, itself. Ironically, one of the show's fiercest competitors is it's own syndicated reruns that are shown endlessly on cable networks.

Second, they've had to fill he void left by Fred Thompson (D.A. Arthur Branch) who left the show to, again of all things, run for president.

"Called Home" and "Darkness," the first and second episodes for Season 18, introduce new cast members Jeremy Sisto as Detective Cyrus Lupo, and Linus Roache as Executive Assist. D. A. Michael Cutter.

I hate to say this, but afterwards, I was reminded of a corny joke:

Q: Why won't sharks attack lawyers?
A: Professional courtesy.
While LaO hasn't quite "jumped the shark" yet, it's getting close.

To be clear, the most obvious tweaks to the LaO episode "template" didn't really bother me.

For instance, the opening scenes for both episodes actually involved the characters who would be directly involved with the subsequent story (as opposed to the usual fighting couples, hard boiled blue collar workers, or chatty beat cops who abruptly have to end their conversations when they happen upon the current week's victim).

They've also blended the traditional "Law" and "Order" segments a bit. The point of demarcation between the two has been blurred as the actions of the cops and lawyers dovetailed during each of the two episodes.

The A.D.A.s are conspicuously shown using more 21st century props such as websurfing PDAs and whiteboards. And instead of getting yelled at by their boss, a full fledged D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Wasterston), in his plush, wood paneled office, they now take their lickings in more austere settings such as a pale yellow storage room that's filled with endless boxes of records . There's even a McCoy quip at predecessor's expense about Branch's snazzy digs being a "showplace," not the "working office" McCoy now inhabits.

It didn't take long for the new cast members to grow on me. The writers do a great job of fleshing out Lupo and Roache as distinct and real characters in two hours.

However, it was the actual story lines of the two episodes that left me underwhelmed. Both broke cardinal rules of what makes a good LaO outing.

In "Darkness," as a device to introduce Detective Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto), he's given a personal connection to the case. This sort of plot element has never worked for LaO. One of the things that has separated LaO from the other more melodramatic cop shows has been the textbook/arm's length manner in which the cops work the case.

Furthermore, the episode takes on the less than bleeding edge issue of assisted suicide with a convoluted plot involving a "Doctor Death" character and a ratings hungry TV news personality. The moral arguments shoehorned into the dialog between McCoy and a driven A.D.A. Cutter (Roache) was a bit forced.

The ridiculous climax, where "Doctor Death" literally kills himself on the witness stand to make his point seemed more at home on the inferior Boston Legal than the gold standard of TV law shows.

The second episode, "Darkness," was especially frustrating because the kidnap for ransom plot revolving around a city-wide power outage was, at first, an emotional nail bitter. It was interesting to see the police trying to run the investigation with limited computer access and communication devices that couldn't be recharged.

BTW, I did have one nit to pick -- would cellphones work at all during such a massive power outage as portrayed? My guess is no, but I'll move on.

The episode that started with such promise lost me when it shifted blame for the crime from one or two individuals to general corporate corruption. The power outage that led to the kidnappings, it turns out, was the work of a greedy Enron-like power company using planned blackouts as part of a scheme to charge customers exorbitantly high rates. The kidnappers merely took advantage of a darkness they knew was coming.

Putting greedy corporations on trial may work well on 60 Minutes or 20/20, but it's never really works on LaO. The socially irresponsible activities have to somehow be linked to a murder investigation or else there's no plausible reason for the prosecutor's office to be involved. These connections have always been tenuous at best and, at their worst, completely unbelievable.

In "Darkness," the connection falls somewhere in between.

The new characters and look give me reason for hope. However, the first two LaO stories give me pause to wonder if Fonzie hasn't started up his chopper.

No comments: