I seldom watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit because the themes tend to be so yucky I have a hard time with them. In the episode for May 17th, though, thoughtfulness outdid yuck (thought there was plenty of the latter). The story was about body parts for medical research and transplants: how they are obtained and the ethical dilemmas that swirl around them. Should a kidney that was obtained illegally not be allowed to go into the body of a little boy who will likely die without it? Should his father who purchased it be sent to jail? These are questions which split the law enforcement team apart and, in effect, revealed their basic values in a way scarcely anything else could. It's good for people to be reminded that the law, which is supposed to protect the right, often does horrible things. And this show made the point powerfully.

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A key assumption of all the Law and Order series is that who goes to jail has little to do with what a reasonable person would call justice and a great deal to do with the strategies pursued by the contending legal teams. The entire judicial system is a jousting field for lawyers, with the defendants in most cases functioning simply as pawns. The newest entry to the Law and Order lineup -- Trial By Jury -- adheres closely to that interpretation. Bebe Neuwirth plays an assistant district attorney who is out to exceed Jack McCoy in prosecutorial zeal. As soon as she sets her sights on someone the question of what the evidence truly indicates seems to slip into abeyance. In the program for April 29, 2005, she decided to get a young policeman for a murder actually committed by his partner -- a crime he had not approved and actually tried to prevent. There was plenty of evidence that he was an essentially decent young man who certainly didn't deserve to be convicted of murder. But none of it mattered a whit to Ms. Assistant D.A.. She went after him like one of the ancient Greek furies. And she brought him down. Then she accepted congratulations with grim satisfaction. I suspect that the view of law and order conveyed by these series has pervaded American society to a degree scarcely imagined by the official doyens of the legal system. Who knows? I may also have pervaded their own minds. There's little reason to believe they practice self-inspection even as much as the TV characters do.

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There's evidence that McCoy on Law and Order is losing his mind. In the most recent episode (February 23, 2005) he wanted to throw a guy in jail for three to five years because he had witnessed a murder and then chased after the killer who attempted to escape so recklessly he drove through the front window of a restaurant. McCoy appeared to be insane with rage towards a man who thought he was trying to perform a civic duty. Both the new assistant district attorney and McCoy's boss told him it was a bad case, but he didn't care. And, then, when the jury had sense enough to acquit the guy, he went off and sulked. What's going on with this show? McCoy has been goofy before, but I don't think I've ever seen him quite this bad. Are we being shown the mental debilitation that's inevitable when a man serves too long as prosecuting attorney? We begin to get the sense that McCoy could find something in the everyday habits of each of us that would, for him, justify at least a year's imprisonment. Maybe a meltdown of monumental proportions is being prepared.

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Serena Southerlyn got fired on Law and Order last night (January 12, 2005). You know why? District Attorney Arthur Branch said that she was right for the wrong reasons (the logic of that may escape some of us). She had become an advocate for the truth, and that is not what a prosecutor should be, said the D.A. A prosecutor is supposed to ask, "Can I make a case?" And if the answer is yes, then he should go ahead with it -- presumably whether he believes in it or not. This would all be nothing but drama, and a way to replace an actress, were it not that it may be hideously realistic. Law and Order has maintained itself for fifteen years mainly because it raises provocative questions of that sort. We may need a new form of entertainment criticism to ask how realistic dramatic productions are, and, perhaps more importantly, how much people believe in their realism. Somebody should start a web site where prosecutors -- or at least former prosecutors -- comment on the ethics of the characters on Law and Order. It might be a revelation.

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When you've watched someone on a TV show for twelve years you feel like you know him. It's illogical, I know, but the feeling is there all the same. I had that sentiment about Lennie Briscoe, the wry detective on Law and Order, as he slogged through New York trying to get to the bottom of murky cases. Lennie left the show this year, but we were promised we would continue to see him in another Law and Order spin-off. Now, that promise is undermined because Jerry Orbach, who played Lennie so convincingly, died Tuesday night, December 28, 2004. Orbach was never a huge star. He didn't rival Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford. For one thing, his looks were against him. I saw him described most often as hang-dog. But, he had a distinguished career, not only in television but on Broadway as well. I think for a lot of us he was the face of New York -- or at least the better side of New York. Non-sentimental, rough-surfaced, but essential fair and honest. I suspect he will remain in our memories long after more glamorous stars have quietly marched to inconsequence. And that, I think, is the ultimate compliment to a show business figure.

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Law and Order last night (December 1, 2004) continued its tradition of showing how morally murky the actions of government are. A mass murder in a New York apartment led back to an Afghani war lord and drug dealer who was firmly supported by the State Department and the U.S. Army. Both federal agencies were more than ready to discount the murders in order to secure the continued services of their ally against the Taliban. Our heroes, of course, would have none of it. To McCoy, a murder in New York is a murder in New York, so he managed to haul the supporter of American freedom into a courtroom and convict him of murder. The program might serve as a lesson in federalism -- that system so puzzling to most foreigners -- for our allied drug dealers and tyrants. Stay out of the United States, and you'll keep on raking in U.S. tax dollars. Come here and even the president might not be able to protect you. I wish it were so, but I'm not sure it is.

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Even good series have flat episodes, and the segment titled “Everybody Loves Raimondo’s” on Law and Order last night (April 14, 2004) seemed about as flat as one can get. The problem is that shows which base themselves on an exploration of mafia culture run a serious danger of over-exposure. Surely, there has to be a limit to the public’s appetite for mayhem committed by dim-witted guys whose enunciation is enough, by itself, to get them thrown in jail. In this program, we were told that Hollywood types like to hang out with mobsters for the thrill involved, and when one of them produced a movie about a popular mob restaurant, which wasn’t sufficiently respectful of the place, the owner was so enraged he had him whacked. Wow! I don’t know how true to life any of this is. If Hollywood people really are so jaded they need the company of criminals to add spice to their lives, maybe they ought to lock themselves up for a week in a Travel Lodge in south-central Indiana and watch nothing but HBO.

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