"Law & Order" looks like a very good television series that i almost a great one, ultimately robbed of that lofty status by its own ambition.
The idea, which executive producer Dick Wolf has had kicking around the networks for several years, is to follow one criminal case from the crime, through the investigation to the arrest, into the legal system, through the trial to the verdict.
Essentially, "Law & Order," which was made on location in New York for NBC, is two half-hour shows (indeed it might be syndicated as a half-hour drama). The first stars George Dzundza and Christopher Noth as a pair of detectives. The second stars Michael Moriarity and Richard Brooks as a pair of assistant district attorneys. In both cases, the teams are made up of an older, experienced member and a young, ambitious one.
To its credit, "Law & Order" is not an action-adventure show. It will deal with violent crimes, but it will spend many of its episodes on cases that might appear to be less telegenic. Tonight, in its debut at 10 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR) -- the series will eventually run on Tuesdays at 10 after a brief run in this time slot -- it takes on the case of a young woman who died in an emergency room because the hospital's pre-eminent, internationally-respected head of medicine was drunk and ordered that she be given the wrong drug.
You see the detectives work their way through their initial skepticism about the case, knock down various protective walls in their interviews with the various medical personnel, making the case against the doctor. Dzundza and Noth ring true as a cynical but dedicated detective team.
Then you see the prosecutors go to work nailing down witnesses who will appear in court and say the things needed to get a conviction. Moriarity shows a nice touch with his ability to play the difference between a lawyer at work behind the scenes, and onstage in the courtroom. Brooks is given little to do but deliver exposition.
This plot appears to be loosely based on an actual incident in New York, as is next week's, a Bernard Goetz-type shooting, and another episode that has a Mayflower Madam-like character. But, though there are hints of ambiguity, there is just not enough time in an hour to explore the complexities of these cases, certainly not to hint at how slowly the wheels of justice often turn.
"Law & Order" is filmed in a documentary-like fashion, a lot of hand-held cameras and unusual angles, but much of its style goes back to "Dragnet." The scenes are quick and sharp, and while the dialogue may be oblique, it has a Jack Webb-like economy. There's just not time to do much more if you're going to get the story wrapped up in an hour.
Indeed, while you admire "Law & Order" for tackling some tough subjects, it's almost impossible for a single hour episode to be a detective show, a lawyer show, and still do justice to the issue at hand. So, because its reach exceeded its grasp, it's a very good show, not a great one.
"Law & Order"
*** An hour drama that starts with a crime, follows the detectives who investigate it, then hands the case over to prosecuting attorneys and shows what happens to the accused in the courtroom.
CAST: George Dzundza, Michael Moriarity
TIME: Tonight and next Thursday at 10 p.m. then Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)