18 Seasons!

Wow. So lately the wife and I have been watching random episodes of “Law & Order.” It’s always interesting to study something that is so immensely successful. It’s somewhat painful, given that the shows we typically fall in love with so often get cancelled long before their time. But nonetheless, I think it’s valuable to study the types of storytelling that seem to garner such enormous audiences.

L&O seems to have a number of strengths:

  • Simple  characters – They follow a pretty basic white-hat/black-hat pattern. The cops are righteous and honest. The prosecutors are determined and competent. (I won’t go into some rant about how completely unrealistic that is.) They do have to sometime make tough decisions, but the motives are always pure. It’s fascinating how long actors will stay on that show, some of them for over a decade, but at the same time they people they portray are pretty interchangeable. Also, if you are a female lawyer, you are hot.
  • No story arcs – as far as I can tell, every episode is done-in-one, that is, the mystery is completed in one episode. L&O vets could probably point out exceptions, as I’m sure they’ve probably done two-parters before. You can pick any episode out of any season and watch it without worrying about some crucial plot point or character development. Because there isn’t any. (Come to think of it, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was much the same way, only occasionally referring to previous stories or featuring recurring characters, and often what seems like a dramatic character epiphany or growth was forgotten a week later.)

To me this is almost blasphemous. It’s a waste of the real strength of TV, the serial story. Shows like The Shield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and Deep Space 9 took full advantage of the serial aspect of television. The actors grew into their characters. The characters could be given long-lasting changes to their motives and personality. The producers can introduce plot elements in a subtle fashion, planting seeds for future stories sometimes several seasons in advance. It requires committment, sure, but the payoff can be extraordinarily satisfying. Do you want to start watching mid-season? Of course not, but in this age of easily-accessable TV on DVD, there’s really no excuse not to be caught up.

Clearly, however, it has worked for L&O, so I’m probably just talking out of my ass.

  • By extension of the previous two points, there’s this powerful revelation: you can start watching any given episode at any point and be caught up in five minutes or less. Missed the first half hour of the show? Who cares? You’ll be fine. Just wait a tic, and the DAs will summarize everything up to that point. It’s the ultimate in impulse television. By contrast, if you missed the first five minutes of an episode of Babylon 5, you could write off the rest of the season. And back then there was no DVD to run to.

None of this is meant as a slight – L&O and its various and sundry spin-offs is perfectly entertaining television. In fact, the little I’ve watched of SVU indicates that it actually does use the serial nature of television more to its advantage, with overarcing character development. And I have a great deal of respect for the writing pit crew, who must have a hell of a time coming up with a fresh mystery every week. I just thought it was interesting to note some of the facets of the show that I think contribute to their success.

I’m not sure what the lesson should be for prose writers, but there’s got to be one in there somewhere. And it’s probably depressing.

4 thoughts on “18 Seasons!”

  1. Maybe it also has something to do with what the L&O viewers bring to the table. All creative enterprises are a give and take between writers/portrayers and the audience.

    People who tune into L&O religiously, possibly don’t want to have to think too hard about characters and motivations — maybe they just want something escapist they can watch on their terms. Maybe they aren’t as committed to watching a show week after week, and thus want something that is accessable to them when they have time to turn in. Maybe they are the same kind of people that want to read uncomplicated novels written with an a+b=c formula. Not my style, but something that a lot of people prefer — or so it seems, if the ratings are to be believed.

    My dad is an L&O fan. I don’t know that he watches new eps. religiously or anything, but he loves to watch it in syndication. And my dad is not a reader — he doesn’t like stuff that you have to invest in. He wants to watch sports, the history channel, the discovery channel, and shows like L&O. He likes episodic and self-contained. (Though, strangely, he likes the X Files… it’s is one adventure into what I would call “good” television. 😉 )

    One of the other biggest L&O fans I know is a stroke victim with short term memory loss. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there.

    If there is a lesson to be learned from this phenominon, I guess I would say it’s that writers really have to know their audiences. Though, on a note of personal preference, I say give me the sci-fi/fantasy, Whedon, etc., fans any day. That’s the audience I want to capture! 🙂

  2. I can buy that your dad would like X-Files. Though there are story arcs, most of the episodes are pretty well self contained. Even the conspiracy eps, really. Though I can’t really speak for the last four or so seasons – I think I lost interest sometime after the first movie came out.

    Though X-Files also had something else in common with L&O, come to think of it. X-Files was very much a procedural show, a fact that often gets overlooked because of the supernatural aspects. They examined evidence, interviewed witnesses, pieced together conflicting stories, etc. Many episodes, especially the earlier ones, ended with Scully writing up her report on the case.

    So that may be another big aspect: structure. There’s a reliable system in place, and the characters are following the system to the best of their ability, which is what most of us do in real life. It doesn’t always get the best result, but it gets us by. I could see that being comforting to a large audience, even if it’s just on a subconscious level.

  3. I haven’t actually read your comments yet on L&O because I have to leave the house in 10 minutes and I’m still in my PJS, but I will. I downloaded the list of L&O episodes and with the help of Tivo I’ve been racing through them. I have much to say about the show–probably more positive than what I skimmed. Not arguing though, Alex, just my observations about the show. Stuff to take into consideration and stuff to ignore. But so happy to see someone else is watching. And watching the evolution.

  4. I’ll be happy to read your thoughts, Gay! I wasn’t intending to be negative so much as objective. To be honest, I haven’t really seen enough of them to form a strong opinion either way. There are things about the show I like. I enjoy Vincent D’Onofrio quite a bit, for example. And I do like procedurals in general.

    I just think it’s fascinating to look at things that have clearly enjoyed so much success.

    Edit: Oh, D’Onofrio is apparently on one of the spin-offs, not the core show. This is why I’m not in charge of the DVR.

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