Sometime in the last decade (I think specifically when I was still in high school) I bought my mother the entire first season of the original Law & Order for Christmas. I mainly did so because she was and still is a huge fan of the spin-offs, and I figured “well, hey, Law & Order is Law & Order”, so I bought the first season of the original show. It turns out she didn’t really appreciate that as much as I thought she would, so I basically took to watching it myself instead after a while. After watching the season the entire way through, I actually found myself becoming a bigger fan of Law & Order than I already was, giving the original show more of a chance than I (like my mother) previously had.
Since then I have decided the original show is definitely worth watching, and honestly is somewhat underrated compared to its spin-offs Special Victims Unit & Criminal Intent. With that said, here are five reasons why I think you should give, at the very least, the first season of Law & Order a watch. Just a note though, this is mainly directed at fans of these kinds of shows, but even if you aren’t, this still applies to you.
Reason 1: The Acting
The acting in this show is brilliant. From the leads, to recurring and/or supporting cast, to people in small parts you only ever see once or twice. I do not think I have ever thought someone who showed up in this season was a terrible actor. The reason being is every single character comes off as a legitimate person that could actually exist, instead of an actor playing a role. Sure, some of the dialogue occasionally seems like flat out Hollywood-ish dialogue, but it at least makes sense within the conversation, and that’s only very rarely. Majority of the time the dialogue feels genuine, which the actors run with and read in a way that makes it seem even more genuine.
What’s also interesting is that Law & Order, even in this first season, seemed to like reusing actors who’d previously played significant or minor roles in episodes as completely different characters. I would recognise them by appearance, but they were definitely playing a different character. The best example of this is Marcia Jean Kurtz, an actress who appears twice in the first season. In her first appearance (a role in the episode Everybody’s Favorite Bagman) she has a minor role as the grieving, oblivious widow to the titular “bagman” in question. Her second appearance comes in the form of Carla Lowenstein; a psychotic, drug addicted and battered wife of a psychotherapist. Quite the transition right?
Reusing actors aside the entire show comes off more like a documentary because of how the acting is handled, which leads me to my next point.
Reason 2: The Style/Presentation
As I just said, this show feels more like a documentary sometimes than an actual scripted TV show. From what I’ve seen that was Dick Wolf’s intent from the get go, with him even going so far as to film the show’s pilot episode, Everybody’s Favorite Bagman, in 16mm film instead of the standard 35mm it used from then on. Basically you could say the show has a very “docu-drama” feel, which makes sense considering most (if not all) episodes are “ripped form the headlines. The fact that even after the pilot the footage still seems very non-pristine helps this, and I honestly wouldn’t change it. Even the lack of establishing shots actually seems to help the show rather than hinder it.
I mean, you could make the joke that the “location cards” are a bit of a 60s Batman transition way of doing things, but I honestly don’t mind it. In fact, the location cards also help address the fact that there are sometimes significant time skips in the episodes. Sometimes only a few hours are lost, but other times entire days, weeks or months go by between scenes, and the location cards help to point that out in a way they’d otherwise possibly have to ignore, or force into the dialogue.
Aside from that the last thing I would like to bring up in this is simply way the show is presented. In case you weren’t aware, half of the show is dedicated to the police side of things, the other half to the court side of things. The concept isn’t entirely original from what I’ve read (a similar show with only one season existed before this), but Law & Order seems to be the first to follow the DA side of the court proceedings instead of the defence attorneys. Generally I grew to find this an interesting premise; one that would be a lot more glanced over in the spin-offs, which seem to always focus more on the police side than the trials. In any case I think it’s a concept that works, with a style that greatly complements it.
Reason 3: Michael Moriarty as Ben Stone
Ok, ok, I know, I already covered the acting side of things, but mentioning Michael Moriarty on his own can be justified. Hell, if I had to pick a favourite actor from Law & Order season one, Michael Moriarty would have to be it (With George Dzundza as a very close second). The man gives arguably the best performances in majority of the episodes, and his ability to seemingly bring legitimate anger into his character Ben Stone’s prosecutions when necessary is amazing. Apparently I’m not the only one to like him this much, as Dick Wolf has even flat out called Michael Moriarty the heart and soul of the early years of Law & Order, which I’d say is pretty high praise, and something I may actually agree with solely going by this season alone.
The irony of all this praise is that, aside from the 80s horror movie The Stuff (thanks to Cine-Masochist’s review of it), Law & Order is the only thing I’ve ever seen Michael Moriarty in. And I saw him in Law & Order before The Stuff. So basically all this praise is coming from his work on the show alone, and not me being a fan of his acting generally (which I can’t really be due to what I stated). For examples of my favourite Michael Moriarty performances in the first season, check out the episodes “Indifference”, “Life Choice” and “By Hooker, By Crook”.
Reason 4: The Ensemble Cast
Now, technically every incarnation of Law & Order has an ensemble cast. The fact of the matter is however that the original Law & Order actually sticks to that aspect. Special Victims Unit seems to usually focus more on Mariska Hargitay’s character Olivia Benson (with her character also getting the most character-driven storylines), and Criminal Intent mainly seeming to focus on Vincent D’Onofrio’s character Robert Goren before he left the show. The original Law & Order, even from the very beginning, was truly an ensemble cast, with everyone pretty much getting equal screen time unless the episode called for it to be otherwise.
The other benefit of an ensemble cast is that, when the issue arises of one character not appealing to you, there’s plenty more where that came from. Personally I enjoy every main/recurring character from this season, but I can see why people wouldn’t like certain characters.
Reason 5: The Stories
Here’s a list of topics covered in the first season of Law & Order.
- Rape/Gang Rape
- Corruption (Political & Police)
- Italian Mafia
- Russian gangsters
- Cop killings
- General child abuse/murder
- Domestic abuse
- BDSM culture
- Mercy killings
- Revenge killings
You get the idea right? Basically for the first season of a show, this covers a hell of a lot of ground. The only conclusion I can come to is that, with how difficult it seemed to be to get the show off the ground in the first place, Dick Wolf probably realised the show may only last one season, and decided to throw as much into it as physically possible just in case. Honestly that may even be why this first season is so great. They HAD to put this much effort in to it, or NBC probably wouldn’t have even considered picking the show up for a second season, let alone actually doing so. I must admit I was actually taken aback by how pretty intense the majority of the episodes are.
What do I think is the most intense episode? Indifference. Definitely Indifference. If you manage to watch the whole thing I applaud you. I mean, I have, several times, but it is hard to watch considering some of the stuff that happens in it, and generally the entire subject matter. Hell, if you aren’t used to this show and make it past the opening credits of the episode Mushrooms? Again, I’ll applaud you, because that episode has the darkest ending to a cold opening I’ve ever seen on any Law & Order episode.
Despite being a bit overwhelmed by this revelation though, I must admit it may be what turned me into such a huge Law & Order fan. Law & Order was a show that wouldn’t shy away from things, even when NBC probably wished they would (the episode Life Choice has apparently never been shown in repeats). They pushed the boundaries on purpose and it made for some great stuff, especially when characters would have very realistically angry reactions to things that were brought up. For that I have all the respect in the world for Dick Wolf and the other people behind the show.
So, that’s about it. As I said before the first season of Law & Order pretty much holds a special place in my heart at this point, and I really hope that fans of the later Law & Order run, fans of the spin-offs, and generally people who’ve never even watched Law & Order before give this a read and decide to at least give it a try. Honestly all I hope to achieve with this is to at least get people to consider it, but I’ll obviously be happy to hear if I’ve convinced anyone to actually outright give it a chance somehow. Not expecting anyone to watch it and like it mind you, but if you at least give it a shot, then you’re good in my book.
That’s all for now, I’ll see you guys next time with whatever article I decide to write next.