The SmarK DVD Rant For Law & Order: Season One

The SmarK DVD Rant for Law & Order: Season One

– I got into Law & Order via a rather roundabout route. A couple of years ago, I got hooked on the prison drama Oz, which was then in the middle of season two, and couldn’t help but notice how cool Christopher Meloni was, playing psycho ex-Nazi Chris Keller. Ditto for Dean Winters as Ryan O’Reilly. So a few months later, I was flipping through the channels and came across, of all things, Winters and Meloni playing THE POLICE in a show called Law & Order: SVU, one of the new shows of that fall season. Well, this was so neat that I watched the whole show and thought it was pretty cool. Now, for those who have never watched it, SVU isn’t quite the same as the original Law & Order it’s more about the police procedural than the courtroom aspect. Having become hooked on the show, I stayed with it for a couple of more weeks, until one week CTV didn’t get the new episode for whatever reason, and simply aired one of that year’s original Law & Order episodes instead. I believe it was the one where Briscoe arrested a suspect for rape and heard him confess, but couldn’t prove it in court. Anyway, being new to the L&O universe, I didn’t really even clue in to the fact that it wasn’t SVU until about halfway into the show, at which point I was hooked even deeper by the half procedural, half-courtroom format. Well, I kind of forgot about the original show for a while, until a few months later I was on vacation at my parent’s house in BC for a week, and with nothing else to do in the mornings, I started watching the reruns of Law & Order on A&E. Soon, one episode in the morning led me to watch the one at night, and then again the next day, and the next, until I was a full-fledged Law & Order junkie by the time I got home again a week later. Over the next year, I had pretty much covered the entire run of the show via the A&E reruns (excepting the Angie Harmon episodes, which A&E didn’t have the rights to), but the thing with A&E was that the episodes were shown haphazardly, making it hard to really get a good feeling for some of the more subtle ongoing storylines. Enter the box set

– For the uninitiated, Law & Order is a show created by Dick Wolf in 1988 and rejected by pretty much everyone on TV until CBS picked up the pilot in 1989. However, the lack of “breakout stars” (according to Wolf) led to CBS dropping the show before it even aired, and NBC took a chance on it in 1990 and has aired it ever since. The show is divided (generally speaking) into two equal half-hour parts: The first half is a police procedural, where the detectives (Logan & Greavey in the first year) investigate a crime (generally murder) which takes place to start the show. They gather the suspects, evidence and motives, and then it moves onto the courtroom aspect of the show. The case is prosecuted by the Executive Assistant DA (Ben Stone in the first season), leading to the verdict at the end of the show. The show has very rarely strayed from that formula for the entire 12 years of its run, and for good reason: It works. This was truly the first “reality show” of the era, with stories that were taken almost directly from headlines and translated into a New York setting (the show is set and filmed entirely in New York), with changes to prevent lawsuits, of course. The show was also unique because the characters had no homelife, at least as far as the show was concerned. The universe only included what went on during work time, so that new viewers don’t have to worry about missing backstory and characters’ personal lives. You have the cops, you have the lawyers, and that’s all you need to watch any one episode from the entire 12-year run of the show and enjoy it on that basis alone.

The first season is quite interesting, because Wolf was so balls-out with a lot of the stories in order to draw attention to the show. Everything from racism to abortion to religion is tackled here, some with better results than others. You can also see how the show was tweaked, visually and stylistically, as it progressed through the season. This box set covers all 22 episodes of the debut season, over 6 discs. The featured players

– Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan, eternally sporting a leather trenchcoat and a smartass remark. Victim of child abuse and raised by nuns, he remains my personal favorite character in the entire run of the show.

– George Dzundza as Sgt. Max Greavey, the elder statesman of the pair and former partner of the Captain. Greavey was much more morally-centered than the more liberal Logan, and is a devout Catholic. I came to appreciate his character more by watching the first season in order, but a contract dispute led to his character’s death at the beginning of the second season.

– Dann Florek as Captain Don Cragen, currently seen on SVU playing the same character. Best known for answering the phone in a tense situation by yelling “WHAT?” at the hapless person on the other end. Can give the smartass remarks as good as he can take them from Logan.

– Michael Moriarty as Executive Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone, back before he went insane and moved to Canada. Known for his completely detached and dispassionate courtroom manner, and his tendency to call people “sir” more strenuously depending on how mad he is, while never quite looking them in the eye. Losing doesn’t bother him so much.

– Richard Brooks as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette, back before the afro got so ridiculously out-of-control. He’s not sure if he’s a black lawyer or a lawyer who’s black, but I wouldn’t f*ck with him either way. Robinette served the same purpose the rotating eye-candy serves today: Doing Stone’s dirty work on the street and showing up at arraignments to argue for unreasonably high bail 9 times out of 10.

– Stephen Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff, a man so wonderfully bitter and cynical about the justice system that he’s known for making deals with killers to avoid press backlash. Catchphrase: “You have no case, make the deal”. Secondary catchphrase: “What’s the press gonna say when they get a hold of this?” Oddly enough, he became one of the most beloved members of the L&O family over the years.

The Episodes:

The box set presents all 22 episodes in original broadcast order, complete with a booklet listing original airdate, rating, share and episode summary. They are

Disc One:

– Prescription for Death. The titles get less corny as the show goes along, don’t worry. Not the “real” first episode, but the first one shown by NBC, this is an introduction to the merry cast of characters, as a noted doctor may be guilty of easing his OWN pain with liquor, in addition to the patients. Pay attention to the needless noise from the jury that is mixed out in later episodes, and note how the layout of the courtroom differs in later eps as well. A good but forgettable start to the series.

– Subterranean Homeboy Blues. A woman shoots two black guys on a subway. Is it self-defense or victim’s rage? The first “issue” show of the series, as they deal with the racism question and Robinette questions his own feelings. First appearance of obnoxious Legal Aid pain-in-the-ass lawyer Shambala Green and her theatrics.

Disc Two:

– The Reaper’s Helper. An AIDS victim is found shot dead, an apparent suicide. Or is it? And if not, should the killer be punished for a mercy killing? A very powerful episode that looks at how ugly AIDS can be and how far people are willing to go to escape. This one drew a lot of fire from advertisers and the moral majority, but it’s got the goods to back it up.

– Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. Dennis Boutsikaris steals the show for the first time, defending a millionaire playboy who looks to have killed his girlfriend. A so-so episode carried by Boutsikaris, one of the best recurring defense lawyers on the show.

– Happily Ever After. An apparent robbery gone bad is revealed to be much more, as the wounded wife might not be as innocent as she claims.

– Everybody’s Favorite Bagman. The original pilot for the show, shot years earlier on grainy 16mm film and looking like a film student’s project, it sets all the trends for the show. The plot about a murder revealing city corruption is secondary to establishing the formula for the show in general, and it contains one of the greatest Logan moments ever, as he uses methods of stopping a perp that are right out of the WWE Hardcore division.

Disc Three:

– By Hooker, By Crook. Logan and Greavey discover that not all prostitution rings are run by low-class pimps and drug dealers. A bit too moralized for my liking at times.

– Poison Ivy. A cop is chasing two black kids down a dark alley. Shots are fired, one of the kids turns up dead, the cop’s a hero, right? Well, by the end of the episode, things are looking VERY different and the entire police department is turning on itself. A powerful episode showing conflict within both Logan and Greavey as to their handling of the case. By the inevitable end, you can guess where it’s going, but it’s still sad to see.

– Indifference. Hands down one of the best episodes of the first season and one that will haunt anyone for long after they see it. A little girl is obviously being abused at home by her scumbag father and empty-headed mother, but which one actually killed her, and how can they prove it? Scary not just because of the subject matter, but because stuff like this goes on all the time in real life. Another great Logan ep.

– Prisoner Of Love. A new-age “artist” turns up dead in an S&M rig after hanging himself, and Greavey’s conscience tells him to just write off as a suicide and let God sort it out, but his instinct says that something far worse (and far weirder) is going on. Another disturbing episode.

Disc Four:

– Out of the Half-Light. Probably the worst of the first season, as an apparent rape of a girl by unnamed “white cops” turns into a media circus, led by a cartoonish Congressman, crusading for black rights and railing against an invisible white conspiracy. Basically one giant swerve that ends with no justice and no real satisfying conclusion.

– Life Choice. The abortion episode, and the one that generated huge amounts of controversy for the show. An abortion clinic is bombed, and the only casualty is a mysterious girl who no one seems to know, but who apparently carried in the bomb herself. More about the moral questions raised by either side than the actual legal issues involved (the trial is pretty much a rout by Stone), this one didn’t click with me because I’m a single white atheist male, and thus I have absolutely no opinion on the abortion issue. If you’re a woman or a Catholic, though, this one will probably make you take a side.

– A Death in the Family. A routine call to an apartment building ends with a cop shot dead on the roof, and the more they try to find the accused killer, the more it’s looking like he didn’t do it and the far scarier truth is revealed. I really like the police aspect of this one, as they do everything in their power to nail the guy within legal means.

– The Violence of Summer. A so-so rape episode, with a reporter who can’t quite remember who exactly raped her, and rapists who can’t agree on who was actually there. Notable mainly for Samuel L. Jackson making a brief appearance as a defense lawyer, and Gil Bellows playing a rapist along with a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Disc Five:

– Torrents of Greed (Parts 1 & 2). The first two-parter of the series, as a routine assault investigation turns into a massive, personal vendetta by Stone against a mob boss, who then manipulates the system and nearly gets away with murder as a result. You know it’s a good one when the bodies start piling up in direct proportion to the witnesses put on the stand.

– Mushrooms. A sad-but-true story about 13-year old punks who learn to do hits before they learn to read, with tragic consequences. Notable for the guest appearance of S. Epatha Merkerson as the mother of the deceased, not wearing anything resembling a floral print shirt, years before she came onto the show as Lt. Van Buren.

– The Secret Sharers. A really interesting moral-dilemma episode, as a drug dealer is gunned down in plain sight of 40 bystanders and no one seems to care, outside of the police. Once it becomes apparent exactly why the murder was committed, you’ll start to question whether they should have just let it go, too. I liked this one a lot, actually.

Disc Six:

– The Serpent’s Tooth. A case vaguely resembling Lyle and Eric Menendez sees two spoiled kids killing their parents and not seeming particularly remorseful about it until things suddenly take a trip into left field with possible involvement from the Russian mob. By the numbers stuff.

– The Troubles. An IRA bomber, a Lebanese terrorist and a Cuban punk take a trip to a federal prison on a bus. Only one of them is still alive by the next day, and the FBI seems anxious to make sure the police don’t find out why. This one doesn’t exactly cast the feds OR the IRA in a good light.

– Sonata for Solo Organ. An urban legend comes to life, as a shady doctor is accused of mugging someone for their kidney? Truly an oddball and darkly humorous episode at times, and one that actually helped propagate the urban legend about the kidney thief.

– The Blue Wall. The season finale, and the final case for Max Greavey, as Internal Affairs suspects Cragen of tampering with evidence in order to help white-collar criminals get away with it. Cooperation in finding the REAL criminals isn’t forthcoming from IA, as Greavey & Logan soon find out.

Overall rating for the season: ***** Classic stuff, and it only gets better later in the show’s run.

The Packaging:

The usual gatefold package that is becoming popular and standard issue for box sets these days, and a nice little booklet, that as detailed, lists airdates, ratings and summaries for all the episodes. Very classy and representative of the show. ****

The Video:

Yikes. On one hand, it IS 1990-era TV, shot on 16mm to start and later changed to standard 35mm, so you can’t expect miracles. Still, all the scratches, dust, dirt and broadcast imperfections are front and center in all their digital glory. Well, no one said the law was pretty. Since it’s a TV series, it’s standard 1.33:1 full screen. Colors are bright, contrast is a little dark at times but it’s a gloomy series so that’s to be expected, too. No compression problems seem to be apparent all the ugliness is from the original source material. **

The Audio:

Plain and simple 2.0 stereo for a plain and simple show based on talking. Oddly enough, the opening Universal logo is encoded in full 5.1. Still, the sound is faithful to the originally intended broadcast quality, if nothing that will test your system. **1/2

The Extras: A 12-minute fluff interview with Dick Wolf, filled mainly with clips from the first season, and a trailer for the video game. C’mon, guys, where’s the writer commentaries? Comparisons to the real headlines? Interviews with real cops and lawyers? The first disc only has two eps, and there’s LOTS of room for additional stuff there, and hopefully subsequent releases will provide that as the series progresses on DVD. ½*

Overall rating: ****