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‘Law & Order’


The decomposed corpse of a young woman, a student intern from the U.S. Congress, missing for four months, bobs to the surface of the East River. Hands outstretched. Clink! the cuffs are on. "You have a right to remain silent." "New York congressman arrested in intern case," scream the headlines. A Harlem Pentecostal minister not realated to the corpse, who had first charged that the congressman had had an affair with his daughter, retracts his story Then he retracts his retraction.

The congressman’s wife, reported to be in ill health, is in seclusion in Chappaqua, N.Y. The city’s two tabloids, battling for circulation and survival, have been lambasting the New York police for taking so long to nab somebody. Now they yell, “Resign!” and “Give him the chair!” on Page One.

The scene shifts to New York Criminal Court. The prosecution meticulously builds its case on circumstantial evidence. Then, third day of the trial, the Fox News Network reports that the congressman’s wife, wearing dark glasses and a wig, was seen walking in Central Park with the intern the evening she disappeared. The judge calls a recess. The wife has confessed to the defense attorney and wants to make a deal. The DA huddles with his assistants. The prosecutor wants to stick to his guns: The congressman is a sleaze, and the prosecutor wants to punish him.

Perhaps this is not how the Congressman Condit-Chandra Levy case will resolve itself in real life, but surely it would make a good script for “Law and Order” at 10 p.m. EST on Wednesday nights.

If “Law and Order” is not the “best” program on TV -- the best is the reruns of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes -- it is the most consistently satisfying. With its taut script, split structure of half detection, half trial, its only slightly predictable plot twists, and its dedicated, passionate ensemble of law enforcement characters, it’s a reassuring balance to the other picture we sometimes get of the New York Police Department -- as a sullen hoard of malcontents who lie, cheat and shoot black people at the least excuse.

“Law and Order,” is now, as everyone knows, after 11 years, TV’s longest-running current drama series, at the peak of its popularity, with 16 million viewers, and has inspired a successful spinoff, “Special Victims Unit,” and another spinoff scheduled for the fall. Last fall, the creator, Dick Wolf, floated a companion series, “Deadline,” about a salty, rumpled newspaper columnist who used journalism students to help solve crimes.

It flopped, in my judgment, because its central character was a bum: He’d get drunk at a party and sleep with a pick-up he was supposed to be writing about, and wake up in the morning on the floor. To hold an audience -- at least a mature audience -- viewers need a character whom, to some degree, they can admire. A flawed eccentric, yes -- like the neurotic Sherlock Holmes, the fastidious Hercule Poirot and the bibulous Inspector Morse -- but basically honorable and idealistic.

Wolf, in “Law and Order,” has decided to hold his viewers without violence, car crashes or explosions, without nudity or so-called “adult” language. Over the years, and in following the nightly reruns on A&E, viewers have watched the cast evolve from mostly Irish and Jewish males to an ethnic mix of Italians, women, blacks, and Hispanics as diverse as the streets of New York where it is filmed. Yet it is diversity unsullied by political correctness: Black characters can be just as crooked and arrogant as whites.

As Michael Moriarty gave way to Sam Waterston as the executive assistant district attorney and the long-time male district attorney was replaced by a woman (welcomed into the office in a cameo appearance by New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani himself), viewers stayed confident that the law was enforced by men and women who may get a little rough and cut a few corners from time to time but who don’t deserve to get indicted themselves.

But what holds us is the stories, inspired by the headlines and played out in a way that allows the imagination to grant us the closure that events themselves deny us so often in life. In them the “guilty” characters are clearly developed individuals, some driven to their first crime by desperation and to some degree worthy of compassion; others are representative of social and political forces responsible for the rot in our civilization.

An antiabortion fanatic, in her devotion to “life,” induces a young woman to deliver a bomb to an abortion clinic where she herself is killed in the explosion. It turns out that the girl was pregnant, so the bombing has killed an unborn child as well.

An insurance agent, a subsidiary of a giant U.S. company, sold a thousand life insurance policies during World War II to European Jews and recorded the transactions in a ledger. The agent is murdered and the ledger stolen. Many of the clients have died in the Holocaust leaving no record of their policies. Actually, the insurance company has obtained and hidden the ledger. In court, stonewalling an investigation, the white-haired, pompous CEO prattles on about his “company’s obligation to our stockholders.”

“An insurance company,” he reminds us, “is not a charitable organization.” Besides, he concludes, “During the war we were all doing business with Germany.” Right.

A college student is found unconscious and raped in the bushes at the edge
of campus. This episode was filmed on the Columbia and City College of New York campuses, but it seemed clearly inspired by a recent Columbia case where civil libertarians criticized the punishment of a male student according to internal procedures that denied him basic civil rights. In this version of the story, the actual sex act, as it turned out, was not condemned as decisively as the fraternity-sorority system with its drunken, puking, drug-laced, promiscuous, back-stabbing, party culture, and the dean of students office, which, rather than treat the rape like the crime it was, refused to cooperate with the police, and chose to deal with the incident “internally.” Besides, the accused male’s father was a major benefactor.

Finally, one of the finest moments in recent TV drama came at the climax of a show called “Via con Dios.” An old man’s body is found on the stairs of an apartment house. He is the father of an idealistic American young radio journalist murdered by the Chilean army, with the cooperation of U.S. Naval Intelligence, during the overthrow of President Salvador Allende. The father has spent his whole life tracking his son’s killers and has been beaten to death by the killer’s son.

It happens that Gen. Pantoya (a Pinochet look-alike) who arrested, tortured, and killed the young man, is in a New York hospital and that, the day of the murder, the naval officer sent a telex from New York to Chile informing Pantoya of the young journalist’s whereabouts. Under New York law, argues Waterston’s Jack McCoy, this is conspiracy to murder, and the Chilean general can be arrested and tried in New York. And so he is.

Pantoya’s conviction is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Justice Department backs the general. The administration’s advocate paints the murdered youth as a communist, a dangerous radical, and argues that if Pantoya can be tried in New York then Kissinger can be tried in Cambodia for his illegal Vietnam War bombing raids. That would be “chaos,” and we can’t have that.

McCoy, Lincolnesque, his righteous rage steaming beneath a disciplined exterior, tells the court that the right to life is so basic, so absolute, that it transcends national boundaries. Presidents can be and are tried as war criminals. Every act of murder, in Rwanda or Chile or New York, demands a punishment. If we refuse to protect this right, we will lose it: “Man has only those rights he can defend.” The end. I think I could watch and cheer that speech as often as I could listen to Beethoven’s Third.

We do not learn the Supreme Court’s response -- though the administration’s attorney has told us that “this right-wing court would never go against the Chilean government, which has given the killer general immunity.”

This fall, cop-show fans are going to have to make a choice. ABC is moving “NYPD Blue,” a tougher, grittier, more sensational show, into Wednesday night to run against “Law and Order.”

I know where I’ll be. I’m looking for the story about the New York Jesuit priest who comes forward after 13 years of silence about the teenager who confessed to him, outside the seal of the sacrament, that he, not the two boys convicted of the crime, had murdered another boy. The killer agreed to confess to the authorities and started to, but was ignored. Now the guilty boy is dead and the innocent men are still in jail. What will McCoy do with this one?

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, the Jesuit Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., is author of Dante to Dead Man Walking: One Reader’s Journey through the Christian Classics (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001