So Farewell Then, Law & Order

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May 25 2010 7:59 AM

So Farewell Then, Law & Order

On Sunday, Lost owned the news. The papers were full of photos of the sweaty, unkempt castaways along with earnest discussions of what it all meant; the two-and-a-half-hour finale was a media event; and Lost talk took over Twitter. The next night, Law & Order, television's longest-running crime drama, aired what is almost certainly its last episode, and no one seemed to notice.

There were practical reasons for the low-key leave-taking: Lost's creators announced their end date years ago, while Law & Order's cancellation came with just two weeks' notice. The final episode was one of the least compelling of a strong 20th season, but because "Rubber Room" concluded Lt. Anita Van Buren's cancer storyline, it had to run last of the three episodes that were unaired at the time of the announcement. There's a certain irony to that. One of the franchise's cast-iron rules is that episodes are self-contained. Other shows are welcome to their multiseason arcs and complicated characters; Law & Order has a murder, an investigation, and a trial. It's as simple and as satisfying as that. The cops and lawyers—and the actors who play them—are just cogs in a machine; their back stories can be told in a tweet with 100 characters to spare. This season, the powers that be made an exception to that rule, giving S. Epatha Merkerson's Van Buren a medical challenge and a love life, and it bit them in the butt.

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Or perhaps it's appropriate that Law & Order should end with a whisper. A few months ago on the "Culture Gabfest," Dana Stevens likened L&O to a "public utility"—turn on the TV, and somewhere on the dial you'll find an episode. We don't tweet in amazement when flipping a switch turns on a light, and we didn't last night when the lights went down for good on Dick Wolf's detectives and prosecutors. Maybe it's because we know that after 20 seasons and a staggering 456 episodes, the power isn't going out anytime soon.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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