I have to say I’ve come late to watching the “Law & Order” franchises on TV, but I wanted to take time today to give a bit of an uninformed opinion about the three series that comprise the franchise. It’s not a movie review, but close … so I’ll categorize it as such. I know “The Big Bang Theory” inside out (click here to read my review), but I never watched any of the “Law & Order” episodes until 2010 – and that was 20 years into the original series’ run (and the year the original series ended). Now, I believe I’ve gained some insight and thought I’d share a few thoughts. “Law & Order” and its spin-offs are especially notable because of the astounding number of “name” actors who have been guest stars.
‘Law & Order’ (1990-2010)
‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ (1999 – present)
‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ (2001 – 2011)
‘LAW & ORDER’ FRANCHISE ACTUALLY SOLID STORYTELLING
I don’t remember why I didn’t watch “Law & Order” from its launch in 1990. I like cop shows and it is an example of a good cop show. Still, I didn’t watch it until 2010 when I began watching a few episodes in syndication and that was the original’s final year. Soon, I discovered that there are five series in the franchise with “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” joined the original as the first team. Two more, one “Law & Order: UK” and the other “Law & Order: LA,” also arrived. The original “Law & Order” and CI have since ended their runs and there is a lot of top-shelf Hollywood names in many credits for all three.
In deference to those who are intimately familiar with each series, I just wanted to touch on a few topics that are threads through all the episodes – such as the best detectives, the best partners and the best commanders. My final observation will be a guest star in one series who became a regular in another. I’m not an expert, but I do have my opinion.
So, here goes …
THE BEST DETECTIVES
(acting or otherwise)
All of the detectives portrayed in the franchise are good cops (there’s an exception of one who has a gambling problem), so the only way to distinguish them is by the job done by the actors. Here is my ranking:
- Vincent D’Onofrio – coming out near the same time as cable’s “Monk,” the character of “Det. Robert ‘Bobby’ Goren” in “Criminal Intent”is great and D’Onofrio has the acting chops to put meat on the bones of his character. Insiders say Primetime Emmy nominee (for another cop drama) D’Onofrio is difficult to work with, but I like his work (remember, he was “Pvt. Pyle” in “Full Metal Jacket” – click here for my review).
- Chris Noth, who’s also known as “Mr. Big” on “Sex and City,” is “Det. Mike Logan” and was in the original in its first season and then for a total of 111 episodes. Noth, like D’Onofrio, becomes his character and is truly good. He came back as the same detective in “Criminal Intent” as a cross-over, but in with the same character. Noth is smooth, suave and conveys his character well. It doesn’t matter with whom he partners as it’s easy to evaluate him independently.
- As for supporting actor/detectives, I believe the best are Richard Belzer as “John Munch” and Ice-T as “Odafin ‘Fin’ Tutuola” on “SVU.” I like watching both, but it is too bad that their characters expanded only toward the end of the series when I didn’t enjoy the episodes as much. Still, both are really watchable and Ice-T’s character has its background fleshed out really nicely and Belzer’s cynical, conspiracy-theory philosophy is the cleverest of all the backstories of any of the characters (and he plays that part of it well, too). Ice-T was also great in the underrated “New Jack City” (click here for my review).
THE WORST DETECTIVES
Well, this is a difficult one. I don’t know all the characters, but I’ll give it a go. Forgive me if I missed anyone who stinks. So I’ll write among the worst are:
- Michael Imperioli – this coming co-star of HBO’s “The Sopranos” wasn’t effective at all. He did one episode before “The Sopranos” and the rest during his vacation from it. Maybe it’s because I liked him so much for his work in “The Sopranos” that I couldn’t give him a fair shot as cop “Nick Falco.” In his first episode in 1999 in the original series, he was murder suspect “Johnny Stivers” and spelled his name “Imperiola” in the credits.
- Saffron Burrows – she is very, very ordinary in both acting and how her character “Det. Serena Stevens” is written on “Criminal Intent.” Burrows doesn’t appear to have much talent in the way of emotion and pretty much has one expression – like she’s taken too many muscle relaxants and needs to lie down for a nap. At least she doesn’t look like Daniel Craig as 007 as his single emotion appears as if he’s having a bowel movement. Burrows didn’t show much more emotion in my favorite of her films, “Deep Blue Sea,” but overall she was better in that one than on “Criminal Intent.”
THE BEST TEAM
Aside from individual performances, detective teams are important components of each episode. Without team chemistry, “Law & Order” episodes can fall apart quickly. Here are my favorites:
- Jerry Orbach as “Det. Lennie Briscoe” and Jesse L. Martin as “Det. Ed Green” in the original “Law & Order” are far-and-away tops considering all the series. They play well off each other and their age difference allows each actor to show his ability in the best light. What makes them the best team is that individually they don’t win as “best detective,” but together they manage to forge small-screen chemistry that others cannot achieve. Their banter doesn’t appear forced and they are comfortable with each other while maintaining their own individuality.
- Mariska Hargitay as “Det. Olivia Benson” and Christopher Meloni as “Det. Elliot Stabler come in a not-too-close second here for “SVU.” Together they elevate each other and their show. Hargitay has the opportunity to show emotion in most episodes, but she’s a pretty average batter as an actor. She doesn’t do expressions well, but her countenance and ability to play off others in scenes elevates her final grade in my book. Meloni is the better of the two actors and gets the better writing. Still, I’d say individually he runs third behind Orbach and Martin. Together, Hargitay and Meloni define “Criminal Intent.”
- D’Onfrio and Kathryn Erbe come in a further distant third in this race. Erbe isn’t anything special in any of her work in the series “Criminal Intent.” However, you can appreciate her talent (yes, it is there) by watching closely the balance she brings to D’Ornfrio’s character. Again, together this team is better as the sum of its parts than individual efforts – at least in Erbe’s case.
THE WORST TEAM
I can’t give any names here since the actors are so unmemorable and unremarkable that I won’t even be bothered to check, but whichever actors might infest the ending of either “Law & Order” or “Criminal Intent.” I’ve already named Burrows as one of the worst but Jeff Goldblum does a decent job of saving that team’s bacon in the watchability department.
Well, even the stars have to have a boss and each of the franchises have their leaders. It’s a clear-cut case for the jury on the best and worst leaders …
- THE BEST: S. Epatha Merkerson is the best as “Lt. Anita Van Buren” in “Law & Order.” She’s the most commanding and does a good job with her acting by being able to convey both toughness and compassion. There simply is her as and then every other leader on any of the series. Merkerson’s talent has been rewarded with a Golden Globe, a Primetime Emmy, a slew of wins and nominations from the Image Awards and the Screen Actors Guild. Coming in second is Dann Florek as “Capt. Donald Cragen.” He looks like a dweeb, but has steel in his spine in this role. He, too, is a crossover for going from the original to “Criminal Intent.” You don’t expect much from him and then get a big surprise with his effort.
- THE WORST: A title shared by Jamey Sheridan as “Capt. James Deakins” and Mary Elizabeth Mastronantonio as “Capt. Zoe Callas” (both for “Criminal Intent”). Sheridan isn’t bad, he just gives a vanilla effort to a vanilla character and manages to fall into the background of every one of his scenes. Mastroantonio just gives a bad effort to a “we must have a captain” character and couldn’t have done much even if her character had any depth to it. I doubt she has the acting chops to do an effective police commander to the level of Merkeson’s character. In her case, the series would have been better served without the character at all.
- IN THE MIDDLE: Eric Bogosian as “Capt. Danny Ross” came out of the gate as trying too hard in “Criminal Intent” and came off to me as somewhat annoying, but his acting talent took control of his character and he made it work better than it should – the mark of a good actor elevating a role. Thanks, Eric. You should have been there for more than 61 episodes.
- BOTTOM OF THE BARREL: Jay O. Sanders is a crossover in the same series (“Criminal Intent”), but not just on the bad guys’ side. He’s both a killer and an end-of-series captain (I guess everyone got sick of Mastroantonio). He only had a few episodes, but Sanders is a pure low on TV in this character. He was wonderful as a pedantic killer, but as “Capt. Joseph Hannah” he doesn’t fall flat — he falls through the floor. Whew! Wooden. Expressionless. Showing no acting ability. Makes you long for the days of “Deakins” and “Callas.”
I’d like to know why Merkerson, who is the best, was a lieutenant while the others are captains … hmmmm.
The single best guest spot on “Law & Order” that I’ve seen is by Courtney B. Vance. You’ll remember him as “Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver” on “Criminal Intent.” However, he had a much more impressive effort in the single episode of the original series.
Vance was bad guy “Benjamin ‘Bud’ Greer” in the episode “Rage” (season 5 episode 13). He played a stockbroker who claimed black rage in killing his white mentor. It was a singularly impressive piece of work by Vance and he is totally smooth and in control in both this guest spot and as the ADA in “Criminal Intent.” but I believe his work in the single episode is superior to any single episode of “Criminal Intent.”
Very impressive, Courtney. You even had an uncredited role for an episode in the debut season of “Law & Order.”
BEST MOVIE ACTORS REUINTED ON “LAW & ORDER”
I really liked seeing two stars from a long-ago film reunited whether it’s on TV or on the big screen. On “Criminal Intent” they are Dennis Christopher and Paul Dooley – respectively the son and father from the seminal coming-of-age film “Breaking Away” in 1979 (click here for my review). It was nice to see them together again 24 years later in “Cherry Red” (season 2 episode 19). And, boy, do they look old (sorry about that guys). Both do a great job with Christopher as the bad guy and Dooley as his basically evil father. Excellent drama because of two great guest. For the record, Christopher was 47 and Dooley 75 when the episode aired in 2003.
Of course the “Law & Order” franchise has to be politically correct and push psychological flotsam on the audience and the two head-shrinkers that stand out are J.K. Simmons, who plays “Dr. Emil Skoda,” and BD Wong, who plays “Dr. George Huang.” Simmons is simply a better actor than Wong. It’s obvious in any scene you can name. Simmons comes off better than Wong simply because he’s not always looking like a simpering fool with a soft voice and “tell me how you feel” attitude. Besides he just won an Oscar while Wong’s biggest claim to fame is as a wedding assistant on “Father of the Bride” (click here for my review) or a scientist at “Jurassic Park” (click here for my review of “Jurassic Park III” and click here for my review of “Jurassic World”). Simmons is also a cross-over as he played in a 1994 episode as “Jerry Luppin.”
Well, as I’m running out of time on this review, a look at the prosecutors needs its own review. So, I’m not going to delve into any of those who played the District Attorney or Assistant District Attorneys.
Well, there you have my look at the “Law & Order” franchise. I haven’t mentioned truly gifted actors who had recurring roles (including three of my favorite and simply terrific actors: Marcia Gay Harden, William H. Macy and Tovah Feldshuh) or any individual guest star. Others with recurring roles worthy of note include the late Dennis Farina, with his sarcastic New York accent – he was solid for 46 episodes as one of the lead detectives.
In “Law & Order,” you can even find future Oscar winners such as Julia Roberts – season 9 episode 20 – and she wasn’t making her bones on TV. She was a two-time Oscar nominee when she guest starred in 1999 on “Law & Order” and would win her statue two years later. The “Law & Order” franchise has a list of guest stars that’s a who’s-who of Hollywood in film and TV. Click here for IMDb.com’s list of 200 stars who have guest-starred on the three series …
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2016.
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