If Only Life Imitated Art

Between its West Wing debate episode and a special two-hour Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NBC gave us some wickedly entertaining wrong-righting television. First up was a truly live — as in, performed twice that night for both coasts, and alive — performance with Jimmy Smits as Democratic Congressman Santos and Alan Alda as GOP Senator Vinick hashing out issues the way we’d all love to see politicians do it: forcefully yet respectfully, without my-turn/your-turn time limits, allowing for a wittily rousing back-and-forth, and with statistics (about Tanzanian tax rates and how they’re killing African progress) passionately flowing from one candidate as if he were living and breathing a continent’s pain instead of regurgitating talking points. Fantasy, sure, and wholly scripted, and yet it felt less rehearsed than the ossified presidential debates we’ve been getting for decades. (As Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian might remind us: “Acting!”) Then L&O: CI served up the story of a white teenage girl’s disappearance that earns the devoted media attention of a Nancy Grace–like news-channel bloviator, only to discover that months before, a black teenage girl disappeared at the hands of the same culprit, with no attendant press frenzy. The writers then gave us a juicy moment where the crusading TV personality gets a shaming dose of indignation from the black girl’s mother. It’s nice to see this current crown jewel of the Law and Order universe go beyond ripping from the headlines — to borrow NBC’s overused promo for this venerable franchise — and instead rip into the headlines.

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