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The Boston Phoenix If It Bleeds, It Leads

'Law and Order' and 'The Practice' bring us killings with class

By Robert David Sullivan

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  Law & Order may be the most literate form of escapism on television -- an electronic version of the New York Times Sunday crossword, as opposed to the TV Guide puzzlers found on Matlock. Reruns of the series, now in its ninth season, thrive on the A&E cable network opposite the 11 o'clock news. (New episodes air on Wednesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.) That's not surprising; despite its habit of taking stories from the headlines, Law & Order is a reassuring alternative to the jagged visuals and pounding music of local newscasts.

Law & Order features the occasional random victim, like the guy whose life support is pulled by a doctor who needs to make his organ-transplant quota; but most of the corpses are the products of really twisted relationships. In last week's episode, a young boy dies from a rare virus while at school, and it's determined that someone infected him intentionally, perhaps with a squirt gun. For the first third of an hour, there's talk about terrorism and how easy it would be for some nutjob to infect thousands of New Yorkers with this virus. But long-time Law fans couldn't have been surprised when this topical plotline is abandoned and the villain is revealed to be someone with completely nonpolitical motives.

Similarly, in an episode from a few years back, a girl is snatched off the street and killed by a convicted rapist. The police comment on the "kinkos" in our midst, but then they discover a link between the killer and the girl's divorced (and deranged) mother. "Grand juries don't like coincidences," snarls Assistant DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) to the mother, but Law & Order thrives on them. In the tradition of Perry Mason, some of these coincidences aren't revealed until the courtroom scene in the fourth act, completing the circle that begins when a vaguely familiar actor turns up to feign shock at that week's murder.

The networks once filled the 10 p.m. time slot with sophisticated game shows like To Tell the Truth, in which celebrities were asked to pick, say, the real beekeeper from among a trio of men all claiming to have hives. Law & Order isn't far from that tradition; it features six articulate characters taking turns at each week's brainteaser, and it frequently reshuffles its panel. The best line-up was in 1995-'96: Jerry Orbach as the cynical older cop; Benjamin Bratt as his younger partner; S. Epatha Merkerson as their plain-talking superior officer; Waterston as the tenacious moralist; Jill Hennessy as the voice of reason in the DA's office; and Steven Hill as the seen-it-all DA.

Since then, the only turnover has been in Hennessy's slot, which has always been the toughest to fill. Waterston gets first dibs at staking out a position -- whom to prosecute, whether to cut a deal -- and the other character often has to argue for a different approach just to make things interesting. Hennessy's challenges to Waterston never appeared to be gratuitous acts of independence, and she had the confidence to argue with him as an equal. Her replacement during the past two seasons, Carey Lowell, was more smug but effective enough. This season, Lowell has been replaced by another leggy brunette, Angie Harmon, but her flat, husky delivery has been rather distracting so far.

The new season also got off to a shaky start with a convoluted story about baby brokers that included just about every Law cliché you can think of, including insufferable yuppies, trendy psychological theories, and bleeding-heart judges. That was followed by the show's obligatory take on the real-life case of a black man who was tied to a truck by white racists in Texas and dragged to death. Moving the story to Manhattan didn't work very well -- oddly, several characters comment on the parallels to the Texas case, but no one expresses the fear that there might be a rash of copy-cat crimes. However, the episode is partly redeemed by the court testimony of a rookie cop who watched more-senior officers savagely beat the black man but failed to intervene. Had he turned on his fellow officers at the time, he might have destroyed his career, but for doing nothing, he faces life in prison (having escaped the death penalty by testifying for the prosecution). At its best, Law & Order can powerfully bring home the point that a life can be lost or ruined as the result of a split-second decision.

Given its history, it's likely that Law & Order will recover from the less-than-stellar episodes so far this season, but one wonders whether it will finally run out of cases to dramatize. Indeed, in one recent episode, Waterston's character mentions the plummeting murder rate in New York City, and he sounds almost rueful about the safer streets.

Waterston and company also have to worry about their first worthy rival in years for the title of TV's best legal drama. The Practice (Sunday at 10 p.m. on ABC) took away Law's Emmy for Best Drama Series last month, and with its move to Sunday nights, the third-season show is also rising in the ratings. Its appealing cast (including deserving Emmy winner Camryn Manheim) is also grabbing a lot of magazine covers.

The Practice was created and is almost single-handedly written by David E. Kelley, who made anorectic attorneys the hottest thing on TV last season with Ally McBeal (Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox). Both shows are refreshingly unpredictable (if sometimes too cute), as opposed to the almost obsessively even-toned Law & Order. But they share Law's aversion to topical storylines. The comedic Ally McBeal makes the general and unarguable point that there's a lot of silly litigation in this country, and both Law & Order and The Practice make the equally unarguable point that the criminal-justice system is often more about gamesmanship than about the pursuit of justice. The latter two series handle murder cases in a far more complex manner than did Perry Mason, but they haven't shown many signs of emulating the landmark '60s drama The Defenders, which explored controversial issues like blacklisting and abortion. The Practice is set in a law firm that could theoretically handle all kinds of cases, but the series has increasingly focused on bizarre murders. Thorny topics like sexual harassment and medical ethics -- which producer Kelley explored on L.A. Law, Picket Fences, and the early seasons of Chicago Hope -- are mostly left to the more lighthearted Ally.

That said, The Practice has come up with some clever twists on the murder genre this season. The most prominent plots, continuing over several episodes, have involved a brahmin law professor who shot an intruder (the lawyers argue that he "involuntarily" pulled the trigger several times) and a doctor who claims to have no idea how a severed head ended up in his medical bag. But I prefer the case of a man on trial for planning the murder of his wife. She discovered drawings and notes on how he could kill her and make it look like an accident; he claims that his murder aspirations are nothing more than a "hobby" (he probably watches Law & Order religiously).

One of the show's best moments comes at the conclusion of a murder trial in which two co-defendants blame each other for the strangling of a teenage girl. In his closing argument, defense attorney Eugene Young (Steve Harris) argues that even the prosecution doesn't know who did it, but that the DA wants at least one conviction for political reasons. "Somebody's gotta pay," he says to the jurors with irony. The jury promptly acquits the other defendant and convicts Young's client. Afterward, Young encounters a juror who points out that the lawyer never actually said that his client was innocent in the closing statement. "And you were right," the juror adds with no irony whatsoever: "Somebody's gotta pay." The scene is a great illustration of the dangers in miscalculating your audience -- it made me think of those television commercials that win scads of awards for creativity but completely fail to sell the product -- and it resonates far beyond its legal context. When one of Kelley's storylines pays off this way, you can forgive the extravagantly clever route he took to get there.

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