The oldest stories are about broken rules. In the Judeo-Christian version of history, as soon as there are two people in the world, one of them is up to mischief and the other one, much like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, becomes a sex-struck chump digging his own grave. (And then God comes on all I, the Jury.) Oedipus, Faustus, Don Juan, Macbeth — transgression and correction, crime and punishment. We don‘t tire of these tales, perhaps because they reassure us that somewhere Someone or Something is doing its job, and that if we keep our nose clean and pay our taxes and tithes, we will be protected from random harm, or that at least our scores will be settled for us if we are not. Not surprisingly, such narratives constitute much if not most of the dramatic matter of television, the Church of Our Sorry Times.
Possibly the most comforting of current small-screen offerings, and so among the most successful, is Dick Wolf’s ultrareliable Law & Order, a catch-‘em-and-(mostly)-convict-’em series as no-nonsense as its title, rerun four times a day by A&E and used by NBC like a Dutch boy‘s thumb wherever the schedule springs a leak. Now a second series has been constructed upon that rock-solid foundation, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which deals exclusively with sex crimes and recapitulates most of the virtues of its predecessor, along with its music, blackout format, ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines and almost Dickensian interest in class, from pavement to penthouse. (Both shows take especial delight in bringing down the high and the mighty.) What primarily distinguishes the franchise, however, is the ruthless efficiency with which it does business — it’s Dragnet, essentially, without the weirdness — and, apart from Jerry Orbach‘s smutty asides in the old show and Richard Belzer’s paranoid one-liners in the new, the avenging angels of both teams are as serious and single-minded as can be. It‘s a no-fat, no-frills approach. Cops and criminals alike, while everyone has his tics and backstory, count less here as individuals than as abstractions — as embodiments of ideas and attitudes, the clash of which will lead to heated argument, facts and figures, and righteous pronouncements on the demerits of the system and the terrible way of the world. (That Law & Order is so abstract may explain the ease with which it’s weathered numerous cast changes; the players are fundamentally interchangeable.)
Though Special Victims Unit seems to take more of an interest in the private lives of its principals — principally top-lined detective Chris Meloni (Oz), whom we regularly follow home to his wife and four kids — it‘s really only to reflect from another angle what’s going on at work: We see Meloni give his oldest daughter hell for sneaking out at night, attempt to discuss virginity with his middle daughter by way of soccer metaphors, and fret over the safety of his little boy in a world where child molesters are not incinerated upon conviction. Partner Mariska Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield‘s daughter, I never tire of marveling) has also been given some relevant extracurricular history — she was conceived by rape — but with or without that character point she’s a classic L&O woman, good-looking and sharp-edged and nobody you‘d want to mess with, and when equally classic Law & Order assistant D.A. Angie Harmon comes around, as she has a couple of times, you can hardly tell them apart. Dann Florek, who gave the orders around L&O in its first seasons, has been drafted back into service, though the more remarkable cross-series casting is the importation of Belzer’s Detective John Munch from Homicide: Life on the Street, with which Law & Order was wont to cross stories during sweeps; it‘s an easy fit and an interesting idea — old characters never die, they just find a new job. Junior investigators Dean Winters (also from Oz, where he is scary) and Michelle Hurd, who seems to be getting the least screen time, round out the cast.
It’s well-made and well-played, as engrossing as the original model; once the wheels begin to grind, it‘s hard to look away. And yet I am not convinced that America really needs a television series devoted to sex crimes. (And this one runs twice a week; in the new spirit of what’s called “repurposing,” the USA Network, whose Studios USA co-produces the show, runs each episode Sunday nights at 11 p.m., 13 days after its NBC premiere.) In spite of the best intentions and most thoughtful execution, and notwithstanding whatever “educational value” the material may have, there is something unavoidably, oddly exploitive about the concept. Murder is one thing — it‘s so central a part of our storytelling history that it has become, in an emotional sense, transparent; it can as easily be the pretext for comedy as for tragedy. Sexual violence is another matter — not a worse one, obviously, but more complicated and certainly more private — and it makes for strange entertainment, even if justice is done.
In Angel, which has been spun off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the eponymous undead guy, played by David Boreanaz, comes to L.A. in order to make a fresh start away from his impossible love, and becomes, of all things, a detective. Buffy, of course, is the show that taught a whole generation of screenwriters what a metaphor is, and Angel follows in its practice of finding a demonic analogue for everything. Along with the familiar lawyer-as-devil trope and the literalization of Hollywood as a place of bloodsuckers and bartered souls (a no-brainer, that), we have here the vampire as alcoholic — recovering alcoholic in our hero’s case — with half-demon Glenn Quinn (Becky‘s husband on Roseanne), dispatched by “the Powers that Be” as a kind of supernatural “sponsor,” though he functions more as a sidekick. (Quinn is rumored to be leaving the show; but he is also rumored not to be.) With Buffy’s former semi-nemesis Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) in town for convenient reasons, they form a classic P.I. triumvirate of shamus, legman and secretary, arrayed against the underworld. And I do mean Underworld.
Like Buffy, it‘s an essentially cheerful show, for all its mucking about with the Dark Side. Carpenter, who has become more interesting with more room to maneuver, is chirpily dismissive of all that does not immediately concern her; Quinn, who is burlesque Irish on his non-demon side, is full of blarney; and Boreanaz, whose hunky sullenness I thought a distraction on Buffy (but then again, I’m not who the character was created for), has been considerably brightened and somewhat de-hunked: It turns out that beneath that underwear-model facade, Angel‘s just another bumbling geek (“I don’t do well with people,” he allows). In a sense, his character here is a kind of satirical fleshing out of the eternally broody dude he was drawn as heretofore: Sport is made of his hair mousse and his upscale taste in furnishings; he is fussy, in an Ungerish way, about his stuff (“And the reason there‘s a wet towel on my leather chair?”). Not surprisingly, he’s also been given a new, blond not-quite-love-interest in the recurring character of police detective Elisabeth Rohm, who was very funny in an episode where a devilish sensitivity trainer put the cops too much in touch with their feelings. To be sure, there‘s a lot of demon-whomping and kicking Evil’s ass for the 12-year-old boys (and the 12-year-old men), but the main appeals to us grown-ups remain the cracked reflection and dark fun-house inflation of mortal matters and manners, and the Bond-like cracking wise in the face of all the forces of hell.
Also set on and around the mean streets Philip Marlowe once walked is Snoops, the latest spawn of David E. Kelly, who has trouble delegating authority. The series, which gives Kelly four shows in network first-run, stars Showgirls girl Gina Gershon and, for the time being, Paula Marshall (Cupid) in a premillennial update of Charlie‘s Angels, minus Charlie — making it a sister show to Pam Anderson’s trash-and-proud-of-it V.I.P. But Snoops has a more ambivalent relation to its own trashiness; it wants to wear the high high heels and work the decolletage at the same time it wants to seem smart and caring and better than that — which, if nothing else, suits D.E.K.‘s brand of do-me-no-don’t-do-me-no-do-me post-feminist power feminism. I‘m not complaining exactly; I was happy enough to see talented Paula Marshall in her skivvies, yet I was also . . . somehow . . . sad. The news anyway is that she’s asked to leave the show, surrendering sole stewardship to the much less interesting, though first-billed Gershon, who‘s not bad exactly — she’s just like a long, complicated equation that works out finally to zero. It‘s not quite the fall of the house of David; the show displays flashes of what makes The Practice and Ally McBeal interesting — the offbeat character, the ethical conundrum. But it’s limp in between. It‘ll have to get a lot stupider, or sillier, or stranger to get my regular crimefighting-watching business.
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