Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column


Note to my faithful readers: If this column looks familiar to you, you’re not seeing things. I am re-running a(n) (updated) portion of a column I wrote for the Groove Tube Update earlier this year”¦I’m not sure if there will ever be a time when it’s not relevant”¦

I took an “Issues in Popular Culture” class in the Fall of 2002 at Syracuse University. The professor, the esteemed Robert Thompson, essentially broke down elements of our popular culture that we tend to ignore — like swearing, fast food, and various fashion trends — and explained their significance by looking at their history. One topic we spent more time on than any other was the history, development, and eventual decline in popularity of the radio. Dr. Thompson talked about some radio shows being on the air for 20 or in some cases 30 years. He cited that radio shows enjoyed that type of longevity because the characters on many radio programs don’t have to age because no one is seeing them, it’s all a matter of how the radio consumers see what is happening in their own eyes.

Thompson noted that in the age of television, this is hardly the case. We can look at a show like “Friends” for example and see that when the show debuted during the 1994-95 season, it was about six twenty-something friends living, laughing, and loving their young lives in New York City. But, ten years later the show was more about the lives of six thirty-something characters. Also, instead of focusing on the dopey things that twenty-something people do when they are dating, the stories focused more on the dopey things that thirty-something people do when they are married and/or have a baby to care for (unless you’re Joey Tribbiani, in which case, things never change”¦until you move to Los Angeles and get your own spin-off show).

This happens all throughout television and is the primary reason why shows rarely last any longer than 8-10 seasons before they’ve run out their welcome. After all, the three boys from “Home Improvement” experienced growth spurts and developed Adam’s Apples so quickly, I think the writing staff had to change scripts by the day accounting for the fact that the boys were starting to “develop into young men.”

We can also look at a show like “Family Ties” and ask the question, how long can those three kids live under the same roof as mom and dad? (Yes, it was four, but Andy was too young to be moving anywhere when the show ended). Not only that, but is it me or did Tina Yothers not age very well? She was a cute pre-teen but once she hit that growth spurt”¦well”¦it wasn’t pretty. As much as we loved those characters, the production staff picked a good time to pack up shop and call it a night. This phenomenon is evident in many other successful television shows of the past. However, one particular group of programs sticks out as a show that could go on forever and not age one bit: The “Law and Order” franchise.

For those that aren’t aware, this franchise started with humble beginnings when the original “Law and Order” premiered during the 1990-91 season on NBC. Set in New York City, the plot of every show is essentially following the thought process of a group of detectives attempting to find who committed a crime (usually murder). Once the detectives find them and make the arrests, the second part of the hour-long show is devoted to the two assistant district attorneys attempting to convict the criminals that allegedly committed the crimes. The continued success of this show led to two spin-offs for NBC: “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” (or “Law and Order: SVU”) and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”

One certainly could argue that the detectives and lawyers age just like every other human being on the planet and eventually the people that play them now will eventually retire or move onto other projects. The beauty of that likelihood is it doesn’t matter. While, at times, the writers and producers explore the personalities, thoughts, and feelings of the main characters, they are primarily there for one of two reasons: 1) Find out who committed the crime in question and arrest the perpetrator(s) or 2) Convict the SOBs that did commit the crime once they are in custody — and it’s just as interesting now as it was back in 1990 when it started. I know when I am channel surfing, and I come up to TNT and see an episode of “Law and Order,” I usually get hooked, even if it is from the 1992-93 season.

I’m revisiting this topic (I’ve written about these shows before) for a couple of reasons. First, with a fourth “Law & Order” protruding the airwaves starring in January (“Law & Order: Trial by Jury”), I thought I could review and attempt to differentiate the three that are already on the air. Second, I’ll be able to give you, the reader, an opportunity to decide for yourself if my opinions about dramatic, crime television to be largely formulaic or not. I’d love to hear your opinions, so email me at

For this exercise, I decided to stick with the “law” theme by pretending we’re in law school. As I understand it, only a certain number of people get the A’s and everyone else gets the lower grades, so that will apply here too. One show gets the A and the other two won’t. Let the examination begin:

“Law and Order: Criminal Intent” (NBC – Sunday nights at 9:00)

Debuting during the 2001-02 season, this show departed from the style that its two predecessors employ. Instead of the viewer not knowing who committed the crime in question until the second half of the show and whether or not he would be convicted at the end of the show, the introductory segment generally allows the viewers to see what crime was being committed, and exactly who did it. At that point, it becomes a “cat and mouse” game of sorts where the audience sees the detectives chasing the perpetrators and those people running away or covering their tracks so they aren’t found and arrested.

While this is definitely an interesting and different twist compared to the previously established shows, I have to say that I don’t like this show as much as I like the others. When the viewers see who “did it” in the first segment of the show, even before the credits appear on the screen, it takes away the audience’s efforts to figure it out for themselves “Who did it?” the same way if we were reading a good mystery novel and the last few pages accidentally ended up in the front. When that happens, I’d ask “Why bother reading the rest of the book?” Once it is established who commits the crime, the show becomes less about the mystery and figuring out what happened, but strictly about the process of detaining the offender and getting him/her to admit the wrongdoing. While I enjoy that process, I enjoy it more when the audience and the investigators find the clues at the same time.

Looking at the cast of this show, I definitely have to say that this set of characters is my least favorite of the three. Vincent D’Onofrio (Mystic Pizza and Men In Black) and Kathryn Erbe (The sexy and seductive child murderer, Shirley Bellinger, in HBO’s “OZ”) are the primary characters playing detectives Robert Goren and Alexandra Eames (respectively). My main problem with them (and Courtney B. Vance’s character District Attorney Ron Carver, too, for that matter) is they seem to over-act. This is especially true in regards to D’Onofrio’s performance as Detective Goren. In addition to being some sort of genius who knows it all, he acts like it as well, a trait that’s annoying when we meet someone on the street and equally so in a television character. In addition, Goren shows an unnecessary overwrought intensity in his work. We understand that all of these detectives are supposed to be serious and convey a considerable amount of intense emotion, but in my opinion watching them makes me think of a guy pouring too much Drakkar Noir on himself – it’s just too much. While it’s hard to “take a step back and smile once in a while” during a murder investigation since this isn’t exactly a comedy show, I do think they should take a step back and perhaps watch how their counterparts on “Law and Order.” act serious and intense without over-acting. I don’t see why D’Onofrio and Erbe can’t. Final Grade: C

“Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit” (NBC – Tuesday nights at 10:00)

This show follows the original “Law and Order” format in that the viewers follow the detectives as they attempt to solve a crime. However, this particular show is quite different in that the crimes that the detectives are trying to solve are generally sex crimes such as rape, child molestation, or murder that might have gone along with other related offenses. For example, check out this description of the 100th episode from the NBC website:

When a subway commuter is mutilated during his evening commute, Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) scour the subway platform, believing the attack to have been perpetrated by a territorial transient. However, when the station surveillance tapes reveal the attacker to be a woman, the detectives discover their victim has been abducting women and forcing them to live in his dungeon for several years, pointing their suspicions to one of his victims.

I think “unbelievably intense” is a light of a description for that storyline. I’m pretty sure many people would need to take a shower to clean themselves up after watching a storyline like that. What is remarkable is that almost every episode of this show provides an interesting, albeit f*cked up, story just like the one noted above. I am not sure I could stomach an all-day marathon of this show on the USA network, but watching one or two episodes at a time is A-OK.

This show also has a very interesting cast. In addition to Marsika Hargitay (“ER”) and Christopher Meloni (Chris Keller from “OZ”) playing the key detectives, Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler respectively, Richard Belzer reprises his character Detective John Munch from “Homicide: Life on the Street” in this show and Dann Florek, formerly of the original “Law and Order,” brings back his character Detective Donald Cragen. Last, but certainly not least, the cast member first time viewers are most likely to recognize is rapper/movie star Ice-T, playing Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola. It definitely a good mix since all the characters bring a certain intensity and style to their roles, but not so intense where I smell Drakkar like I do with the “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” cast. In addition, they aren’t so stylish that I feel like I am watching “Miami Vice.”

This show has actually morphed into far and away my favorite of the three “Law & Orde’s” primarily because the eclectic, interesting, and well-picked cast and the intense storylines that sometimes actually leave the victims of violent crimes alive. That can be an intriguing storyline development because the victims of these crimes don’t always tell the truth and it adds another element of surprise to the storylines.

The only knock I have on this show is that while it employs the courtroom drama as part of the program led by supporting character Assistant District Attorney, Casey Novak, currently played by Diane Neal, it does so sporadically at best. There are some episodes where we see a significant amount of the action unfolding in the courtroom, and others with none at all. I enjoy the courtroom conflict just as much as I enjoy watching the detectives “find their man.” For this reason, despite my love for the show, I have to knock the show down a bit on the law grade scale. Final Grade: B

“Law and Order” (NBC – Wednesday nights, 10:00)

As is the case with many movies that spawn sequels, I have to say that the original “Law and Order” is the best. I find that the writers and producers attempt to hold true to the nuts and bolts of the show: the Detectives finding out who committed the crime, and District Attorneys trying to put them away. In the meantime, Mr. Wolf is deviating from that formula with the other spin-offs.

For the most part, I like what the original “Law and Order” brings to each case. It allows the viewers to get a taste of what it’s like to be a New York City cop investigating murder, but it doesn’t spend the entire hour dragging it out like ABC’s short lived reprise of “Dragnet” did. In addition, this show gives the audience a chance to see what being a District Attorney is like but doesn’t focus entirely on the process of law like another ABC show “The Practice” does. It’s definitely a good mix and they work better together than they would separately.

The current cast of “Law and Order” is definitely my favorite as well. Newcomer Dennis Farina (Get Shorty) and Jesse L. Martin (recurring roles on “Ally McBeal” and “The X-Files”) play Detectives Joe Fontana and Ed Green respectively. Of all the “Law & Order” characters, I loved Jerry Orbach’s character, Lennie Briscoe the most primarily because he brought a certain sarcastic humor to his investigations. He knew when to keep his mouth shut when he had to, but when he didn’t, he had something to say about everyone – just like most New Yorkers do. Farina tries to incorporate that somewhat in his new role, but things definitely aren’t the same without Orbach there. In the meantime Martin’s character pretty much plays Orbach’s “straight man”, maintaining a serious tone when needed.

Sam Wasterston (playing A.D.A. Jack McCoy), Elisabeth Rohm (as the younger, less experienced A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn) and former U.S. Senator and Prosecutor Fred Thompson (as the recently elected D.A. Arthur Branch) comprise the legal team that prosecutes the criminals that the police bring in. They don’t have the sense of humor that the detectives do, but they bring a certain charm to their roles that makes you want to root for them every time out even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of their arguments. The viewers definitely get the impression that these characters appreciate what they do for a living, and might even see the satisfaction these actors get out of playing these characters. Coupling this aspect with the storylines of the show is why in this law school class, the original “Law and Order” gets the best grade. Final Grade: A

* * * * *

Now”¦can you tell them all apart?

Hey”¦I figured it was my duty to write about these shows and to prove to you they aren’t all the same. I don’t really agree with the 10 p.m. EST timeslot being devoted to formulaic crime shows, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all bad and should be ignored. These shows can be very well written and engaging at times. So, sometimes, they need their due too.

Though, I have to admit. If I had my way, there would be at least 33% less “Law & Orde’s” on the television schedule”¦

Either way, whatever you’re watching”¦

Enjoy the show!

— Coogan