NBC announced on Friday that it is canceling Law & Orderafter the series' 20th season draws to a close next week. In November 2002, Michael Kinsley explored the obsession many powerful women have with watching syndicated episodes of the series.
(Note: In the marital relations system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the wives who watch Law & Order obsessively, and the husbands who don't. This is their story. Ka-chunk.)
Recently I got married, fairly late in life for that sort of thing, and have made astonishing discoveries. Most of these revelations turn out to be common knowledge. But one, I believe, has not been widely aired.
People's Exhibit A (my wife), Your Honor, is a formidable, intelligent woman with an important and challenging job and a full private life. (Also undeniable loveliness and charm, which are not strictly relevant to the present case.) She doesn't squander her time. And yet she spends many hours a week watching reruns of Law & Order—often back-to-back (the shows, that is).
It would be misleading to call her a fan. Law & Order, the long-running crime drama, is not just one of her favorite TV shows, or even her very favorite. Other than reruns of Law & Order, she has almost no interest in television at all. Specifically, she has no interest in any of the (to me) barely distinguishable Law & Order spinoffs and rip-offs (such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Double-Entry Bookkeeping, CSI, CSI: Miami, Mayberry R.F.D. and so on.) She's not even interested in new episodes of Law & Order itself. She couldn't tell you what night it's on and has no view about what this country is coming to when a man like Fred Thompson can be plucked from the obscurity of the United States Senate and entrusted with the responsibility of running the prosecutor's office on Law & Order.
Nor does she care—or even, possibly, notice—whether it is Michael Moriarty or Sam Waterston who is being unvarnished in any episode she may be watching. Don't ask her whether the female assistant district attorney is the blonde or one of the brunettes. Don't attempt to amuse her by predicting what demographic category the judge will be from. ("They've had four black women in a row, so I'm thinking white man. No, I know, that's ridiculous, so I'll go with white woman—but in a wheelchair. Whaddya think, Honey? Honey?? Ouch, that hurt. OK, never mind.")
Exhibit A and I assumed that this was our little secret. Perhaps it had to do with our weather here in Seattle, which affects some people oddly. Or too much coffee. But then we had a visitor from the East Coast who announced that his wife was about to become the TV critic of a major newspaper. "And the amazing thing," he added, "is that she never watches TV except for reruns of Law & Order."
Good grief. I began making discreet inquiries. My closest chum in Washington is a political columnist and TV pundit. I thought I knew her pretty well. Turns out that for years, on all those evenings when I assumed she was at parties to which I wasn't invited, she was at home watching reruns of Law & Order. The dean of a major business school poured out a similar confession, as did a senior editor at a newsmagazine. The girlfriend of one of my Slate colleagues. Half the women at the University of Texas (according to another Slate colleague, who may be exaggerating). Another Washingtonian, this one a teacher, though her husband says she is "drifting back to C-SPAN." Always women. Always high-powered. Always Law & Order. Always reruns. What on earth is going on?
It is not a cult, because a cult is communal. Sex and the City has a cult following: Women, especially, watch it together and/or discuss it the next day at work. New episodes are considered, on balance, a good thing. The obsession with Law & Order is something different. Far from discussing it with one another, women seem to watch it alone and may be unaware that anyone else shares the habit.
Exhibit A may be an extreme case. In a rare glimpse into this secret world, Molly Haskell wrote an essay last April for a local section of the New York Times in which she frankly and courageously labeled herself a Law & Order addict. But she claimed to discuss the show freely with other addicts. She also described her addiction as an essentially New York phenomenon, which suggests that even Haskell does not appreciate the full extent of the situation.