Naturally, I spent a recent sick day on the couch watching a Law & Order marathon on cable. I mean, it’s what you do, right? Amongst the many spin-offs, there are a seemingly infinite number of episodes, all structured in a rigid and predictable way that has heavily influenced your standard-issue criminal procedural drama. Thanks to that huge backlog of episodes and syndicated re-runs, you can find an episode of at least one of the series on television at virtually all hours.
Most people I know have their secret favorite of the series and its spinoffs: mine is Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Vincent D’Onofrio’s brain-breakingly strange performance, followed by Jeff Goldblum’s, and the high-quality roster of guest stars I love from other genre shows made that spinoff my guilty-pleasure-joy for years.
As I laid on the couch this week, staring without focus at episodes of the original series, a familiar wallpaper following an orderly pattern at hourly intervals, it suddenly hit me just how unusual the narrative structure of the original series truly is, even though it’s become so ubiquitous in its own episodes and derivative works that we don’t tend to think about it, even if we’re generally inclined, as I am, to examine narrative modes.
After a brief contextualizing dramatization, showing the victim in events on the day leading up to their death, and then dead at the crime scene, each episode presents a series of interviews, detectives speaking to witnesses and suspects, as they give competing incomplete versions of a narrative that is supposed to explain the murder. Each new interview overlays a new version of the narrative onto the previous ones, adding details, contradicting some, adding or subtracting confusion as to the truthfulness of the speaker and the events. Almost the entirety of the narrative is ultimately presented this way, though there are scenes where the detectives consult with each other or their captain, or the prosecutors discuss strategies for the courtroom and meet with judges (and of course, a few courtroom scenes). But what’s fascinating about these scenes away from the witnesses and suspect interviews, is how completely expository all dialogue remains, as the detectives and prosecutors and judges read evidence aloud to each another, or into the court record, giving the show a strangely Documentary structure for something that is arguably Melodrama.
Thus arises the series’s unintuitive paradox: While it presents its subject in the trappings of Documentary (Who doesn’t recognize the intro with the solemn voice intoning, “These are their stories”?) and implying that the inner workings of the American criminal justice system are being laid open and displayed in intimate detail, this is also a series known for its over-the-top performances, feverish storylines, and general lack of realism. But there’s something more interesting at work here than failure to produce drama that could pass as documentary: the heart of good documentary, and its structures that are being borrowed here, with the interviews, etc, is its capability to surprise viewers (and even filmmakers) and lead completely unexpected places. With its rigid and predictable structures, Law & Order is the precise opposite of such an ethos. We watch ultimately not for the mystery, but because we already know the broad strokes of what will happen and how it will be presented. While I disagree with some of the more determined historical efforts to place genre texts in anthropological terms as quasi-religious ritual, there is an element of ritual to genre. Our brains like patterns and repetition. We like making predictions. Law & Order gives us a low-effort way to flex these muscles.
Like on a sick day. Pass the aspirin and wait for the bomp bomp.