200 nights of the `Law'

TV: With a superb cast and writing that's consistently top-notch, NBC's `Law & Order' has hit a milestone its 200th episode.

May 05, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Homicide: Life On the Street" may be more cutting-edge, and "NYPD Blue" may have Dennis Franz, but no drama on television is more consistently engrossing than NBC's "Law & Order."

The best drama on TV? Tough to say, and in Baltimore, suggesting a New York-based cop show is better than our beloved "Homicide" constitutes fighting words (hey, I watch 'em both).

But there's no denying it's hung around longer than the competition. Tonight at 10 on WBAL, Channel 11, "L&O" celebrates its 200th episode with a guest turn from Julia Roberts, playing a woman with information on a homicide she'll entrust only to Det. Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt, Roberts' real-life boyfriend).

Such a piece of stunt casting is atypical for "Law & Order," though not unknown: Maverick defense attorney William Kunstler once signed on to play a maverick defense attorney. But while it's impossible to say for sure, since NBC didn't provide advance tapes for critics, here's betting tonight's show is top-notch television.

"Law & Order" almost always is.

And that's a remarkable achievement, considering the show flies in the face of what has become de rigueur for TV drama in the '90s.

Story arcs that extend beyond a single episode are rare, the characters' personal lives are hardly ever discussed, and the closest "Law & Order" ever comes to mimicking a music video is the two-note "DUM-DUM" that accompanies every scene change.

Executive Producer Dick Wolf and his creative team concentrate on a notion that's been a staple of television since the days of "Perry Mason": People are fascinated by the law, especially when (more often than not) it seems to work.

Of course, it helps that the show has been blessed with a top-notch, if ever-changing, cast. When it made its debut in 1990, the leads were George Dzundza, Christopher Noth, Dann Florek, Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks and Steven Hill; in 1999, they're Bratt, Jerry Orbach, S. Epatha Merkerson, Sam Waterston, Angie Harmon and Hill.

In between, the variations have been many, and everyone has his or her own favorite; personally, I'd go with the Bratt-Orbach-Merkerson-Waterston-Jill Hennessy-Hill team.

"Law & Order" follows a set formula: each show opens with some sort of crime, usually a murder. Detectives spend the next half-hour tracking down the guilty party. Then it's up to the prosecutors to do their thing and put the guilty behind bars. They don't always succeed.

Wolf and company have always put the accent on story, part of the reason "Law & Order" has weathered more significant cast changes than any other show on television (just this week, it was announced that Bratt would be leaving the show at the end of this season, to be replaced by Jesse L. Martin). Some stories are products of the writer's imaginations, but others are based on real-life crimes -- "torn from the headlines," as they say on TV. So strong is the talent behind the show that it's often hard to tell fact-based from fiction.

That one with the American woman accused of killing a Japanese businessman she claimed tried to turn her into a prostitute, that really happened, right? Or how about the neo-Nazis who killed a girl for allegedly talking about them to one of her Jewish friends?

Perhaps the show's strongest point is also the one that most separates it from the pack: Almost every episode can stand alone. You can pick the series up in mid-season and never feel lost; in fact, the one season where "L&O" tried delving into its characters' personal lives, specifically Curtis' marriage woes, Briscoe's rocky relationship with his daughter and McCoy's ethics, may have been its weakest.

Which, when it comes to "Law & Order," is a relative term; even at its worst, the show is among television's best.

`Law & Order' 200th episode

When: 10 p.m.-11 p.m.

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel) Pub Date: 5/05/99

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