Law & Order (NBC)—not to be confused with the grislier, kinkier Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or the flashier, friskier Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but the durable old L&O—lugged itself back to the airwaves this month for a 19th season. Series creator Dick Wolf long ago made plain his ambition to see the show through a 20th, at which point scholars of pop and keepers of trivia will be obliged to place it next to Gunsmoke as TV's longest-running prime-time drama. It may get there yet: Though its recent ratings are, by any normal standard, mediocre, mediocrity goes a long way these days at subnormal NBC. And despite the show's excesses, its signs of deterioration and ossification, its laughable mannerisms, Law & Order still displays a singular feeling for pace. It's snappier than a procedural of its advanced age has any right to be.
Your friends on the force these days are Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson). Lupo's beard splits the difference between bohemian nonchalance and working-stiff burliness; Bernard is cuddly, roly-poly, an overweight Eagle Scout; and they make for a team somewhat more sensitive than the wry and grizzled detectives of yore. Compared with the dogged and hound-doggish Lenny Briscoe, they're positively emo. Not yet jaded, they go easy on the wisecracks.
Last week, moving spryly on their flat feet, they met a male corpse at a park in upper Manhattan. Had he been cruising for sex? Jonesing for crack? Neither; don't be silly. While pursuing false leads is integral to every cop show, L&O has transformed the convention into a kind of institution. As the detectives fish for red herrings throughout New York City, the show brightens with local color, imagining Gotham as the land of prep-school boys in blue blazers, floozies with yellow hair, pink-cheeked yuppies, gray-faced burghers, purple-tongued aesthetes. The tensions of caste and hierarchy in the imperial city—the frequent throwaway bits about downtrodden assistants and dissipated heirs—are diverting, and the humble details of place are essential to the texture. Last week's best bit of stage business saw Bernard shove a park-based dope dealer onto a metal hobbyhorse mounted near a jungle gym. "Siddown," he said, and the horsy creaked.
Perhaps the series was showing its age as that episode's plot drifted in inertial circles instead of spiraling and twisting on its choice elements. The clues kept pointing to and from a group home for mentally challenged adults. The story relied on an actor giving us—as Robert Downey Jr.'s character so delicately puts it in Tropic Thunder—the "full retard." Subtlety in supporting performances is not a prized commodity in these precincts, nor should it be. What you want is the squawk of pulp fiction, and sometimes that means steeling yourself for moderate embarrassment—enduring, in this instance, an offensively brassy depiction of autism.
Law & Order is its truest self when its murder investigation creeps into the grotty and Gothic corners of family life, where a hot-button topic gets a tabloid-biblical treatment. Such was this case. The mystery untangled as a morality tale featuring a quartet of brothers—an abandoned special-need child; the warm-hearted sibling who had tracked him down decades later; the greedy goofus who recognized that the reconciliation would put a strain on his own finances; and, merely to give the plot extra filigree, a blameless fourth. Justice was done, with the "order" end of business pursued by Michael Cutter (the latest in a line of flinty-eyed ADAs with vague chips on their overworked shoulders) and Connie Rubirosa (the latest in a string of lady lawyers memorable only for their elegant necks and breathtaking zygomatic bones).
But at this point in the show's history, perhaps the moments that matter most involve familiar characters dropping in just to bless the show with a reassuring presence. Thus does Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy, now the DA, pop up to dispense 10 seconds of hard-won wisdom. (Sample sound bite: "You're screwed." Where he once burned with righteousness, he now dryly smolders, emitting decorative wisps of cynicism.) Thus does S. Epatha Merkerson's Lt. Anita Van Buren stop in a hallway, coffee mug in hand, just to hear a little exposition from her detectives. She's been sipping from that mug since the fourth season, always with a small sigh that's a minor triumph over weariness, and the gesture feels as vital as whatever sensation of the week Law & Order can manage to rip from the headlines—a toast to our need for sagas of crime and punishment.