Monday, August 2, 2010

LAW & ORDER: Seasons 1-7 (Wolfe Films 1990-1997) Universal Home Video

"In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups; the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders...these are their stories."

Thus begins Dick Wolfe's Law & Order (1990-2010) the iconic 'ripped from the headlines' television series that officially took its final bow two months ago on NBC. During its prolific run, Law & Order garnered an Emmy nomination for virtually every season. Viewed retrospectively, there is no denying that Law & Order remains one of the best television crime dramas ever.

The show's now legendary 'cold opening' in which characters unrelated to the central story accidentally stumble upon a crime scene, (most often a body) leads directly into the first half of what is essentially two separate narratives loosely strung together to illustrate both sides of investigation of a single crime. The police of Manhattan's fictional 27th Precinct are represented by two reoccurring detectives and their superior officer. At approximately the 30min. mark of each show, an arrest is made and the culprit is handed over to the District Attorney for prosecution.

Wolfe developed the rough outline for his procedural drama back in 1988, working diligently to refine the format into two half hour critiques of the American justice system that effectively work a single crime from both sides of the arena. Exploring the larger issues of present day criminal activities, many of the show's narratives were, in fact, fictionalized adaptations of true life crimes shielded by a thin veneer of creative license.

Today, with its multiple spin offs and franchising in everything from books to video games, it seems incredible that anyone would question the saleability for a pilot. Yet, initially, Universal TV's president Kerry McCluggage pointed out that a similar series from 1963, Arrest & Trial failed to find its audience and was cancelled after one season.

Wolfe next approached the Fox network who commissioned 13 episodes, then quickly killed the deal, citing that Law & Order did not 'feel' like a Fox show. From here, CBS took an interest in creating a pilot, 'Everybody's Favourite Bagman'. Although CBS thought the resulting episode had merit, they were concerned that the show had no breakout stars and also felt that the gritty intensity of the pilot would be hard to maintain on a weekly basis.

Thankfully, NBC stepped up to the plate, commissioning Wolfe to proceed with the first season of his brain child. Setting the series in New York City proved an inspiration, with Mike Post's minimalist score and opening theme perfectly realizing the hardcore flavour of each episode.

The show's original cast included Chris Noth as Det. Mike Logan, George Dzundza (Sergeant Max Greevey), Dan Florek (Capt. Donald Cragen), Michael Moriarty (Chief Assistant D.A. Ben Stone), Richard Brooks (ADA Paul Robinette) and Steven Hill (D.A. Adam Schiff - a role based on Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau). Noth almost didn't make it to this party, the role planned for Michael Madsen but changed at the last minute. In retrospect, creative friction seems responsible for Dzundza's brief run on the series. After only a year he left, citing that his initial expectations for a starring role had been dampened by the ensemble format of the series.

Law & Order Season One contains some of the most incendiary and gripping episodes in the entire series; dealing with everything from a bizarre S&M murder for hire, a harrowing vigilante subway shooting co-starring Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame), another episode dealing with racism and rape, and a truly haunted look at spousal abuse considered so provocative that for five years afterward it was never rebroadcast in syndication. These and other topics were considered taboo for TV. Look for future alumni S. Epatha Merkerson in the Episode 'Mushrooms', cast as a grieving mother whose baby is accidentally shot when a hired hit man stakes out the wrong apartment.

Tensions on the set between Brooks and Moriarity - a recovering alcoholic - made for some taut animosities during shooting. Nevertheless, Season One's solid writing and quick edit style made Law & Order an instant celebrated main staple. Season Two's opener begins with a bang - literally - as Max Greevey is executed in his driveway while wife Marie looks on in horror from the front window of their family home. From here, the series enters what this reviewer would consider its golden period, framed by an endless, compelling proliferation of the shadowy underbelly of criminal activity.

Highlights from Season Two include In Memory Of...the episode where skeletal remains of a young boy murdered and buried in a brownstone back in 1960 are unearthed, traumatizing the memories of the killer's daughter. Sisters of Mercy investigates an allegation of lesbian molestation by a nun on her teenage wards, while Star Struck delves into the rabid obsession of one soap opera fan that leads to a star's brutal beating.

In Season Two, the series also debuted two new characters, Greevey's replacement Phil Cerreta (Paul Sorvino) and Dr. Elizabeth Olivet (Carolyn McCormick); a psychiatrist brought in to provide evaluations and profiles of various suspects. Sorvino, who began his tenure in earnest, quickly found the pace of shooting a TV series exhaustive, bowing out after only a season and a half, thus paving the way for Jerry Orbach to join the cast as Det. Lenny Briscoe during the middle of Season Three. In reality, Orbach had auditioned for Law & Order twice before and had appeared in Season Two as a defence attorney. As for McCormick, her character lost steam within the series after being raped under heavy sedation by a gynaecologist.

Season Three of Law & Order produced some bone-chilling episodes that continue to resonate, perhaps none more gripping than Wedded Bliss in which the bodies of two Mexican teenagers found floating in the Hudson lead to the discovery of a sweatshop and the heinous revelation that a mass grave is kept in New Jersey where migrants attempting escape are taken, murdered and buried.

Season Three also examines the depth of greed in business with The Corporate Veil after a teenage boy dies from a pacemaker knowingly sold by the manufacturer and installed into the patient's chest with faulty wiring. Finally, in Prince Of Darkness, an explosive mob assassination of a young Colombian couple in a fashionable restaurant while their young daughter looks on is capped off by the brutal slaying of virtually all the surviving family members subpoenaed to testify at trial.

To say that revolving cast rosters are a part of television history is to state the obvious. However, Law & Order has had more than its share of replacements over the course of its long run beginning with the end of Season Three. Encouraged by the network to incorporate more women into the cast, producer Dick Wolf made the decision to replace Dan Florek with S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieut. Anita Van Buren and Richard Brooks with Jill Hennessy as Assistant D.A. Claire Kincaid. In retrospect, these changes were met with considerable animosity by returning cast members, particularly Chris Noth who found Dick Wolf's actions irreprehensible.

By direct comparison, the episodes in Season Four seem slightly more tame. Nevertheless, Season Four yielded some shockers, including Breeder - the episode where an expectant mother is actually exploiting several wealthy couples for financial support, all the while never intending sell her unborn child to any of them.

In Big Bang, rivalry between two physicists culminates with one sending a bomb in the mail to the other. Regrettably, the package is detonated by someone else. And finally, there is Old Friends, where the trial of a Russian mob boss accused of murdering the CFO of a baby food company convinces D.A. Stone that American justice is no justice at all. He resigns, leaving the future of Law & Order's franchise in jeopardy.

Chris Noth's resentment over Brooks and Florek's firing eventually resulted in his own dismissal from the series after Season Five - by far the most controversial dismissal that many critics and fans believe forever altered the intuitive chemistry of the series to its own detriment. A year before Noth's departure however, Michael Moriarty made his less than flattering public opinions of Janet Reno known. Asked to tone down his behaviour by Wolf, Moriarty instead responded by quitting the show, forcing Wolf to replace him with Sam Waterston as Assistant D.A. Jack McCoy in Season Five.

Perhaps conscious of the fact that fans would be leery over more alterations to the cast, the episodes in Season Five return Law & Order to its more compelling roots with a startling array of gripping storylines. In Coma, the police investigate the possessive owner of a comedy club who had his wife murdered. In White Rabbit an unassuming housewife living a lie for nearly thirty years is exposed as actually having been an accomplice to the murder back in 1960. In Performance, the police are duped by a fake 'snuff film' that reveals an even more bizarre 'points for sex' game inside a local high school. And in Privileged, an alcoholic teen accidentally murders the couple living in his old family home after mistaking them for his abusive parents.

In retrospect, many of the episodes in Season Five reveal a growing interest on the part of the producers to showcase Sam Waterson's considerable acting chops. While Waterston's arrival to the series proved almost seamless, Benjamin Bratt's foray as Noth's replacement, Det. Rey Curtis was initially awkward at best. Although Bratt's comfort zone steadily grew and evolved - thanks in large part to Jerry Orbach's considerable patience and guiding hand over the course of the next two years - Bratt's character would never attain the sustainable popularity that Noth's Det. Logan had.

Hence, Season Six is truly is the beginning of the end for Law & Order's golden period. What saves Law & Order from degenerating into rank melodrama from this point on is its solid writing. Season Six's caseload is gripping entertainment to say the least, with Angel one of its obvious highlights. In this episode a young mother's initial claim that her baby has been kidnapped is revealed as a hoax with more sinister atonement to come after it is discovered that she actually incinerated her child in a furnace. In Trophy, an old case comes back to haunt McCoy when it is revealed that the man he sent to prison as a serial killer of young boys was actually falsely accused.

In Deceit, a married lawyer is tried for the murder of his closet gay lover. But the most shocking episode of all closes Season Six with pulsating frenzy after Curtis, Briscoe, Kincaid and McCoy all witness the execution of a man they investigated and prosecuted. The knowledge that their actions have directly led to this man's death cause Curtis to fall from grace and cheat on his wife, Briscoe to hit the bottle, McCoy to question his ethics and Kincaid to be accidentally killed in a hit and run.

At the end of Season Six, Jill Hennessy announced that she would not be renewing her three year contract to pursue a starring role on Crossing Jordan. As her replacement, Carey Lowell's Assistant D.A. Jamie Ross is brief at best and followed by the largely forgettable Angie Harmon as Assistant Abbie Carmichael. In retrospect, in Season Seven, Law & Order begins to take its final bows in terms of consistency.

In an attempt to bring cohesion back to the series, producers began to write more episodes that worked on establishing back stories for their central cast. But perhaps even more disconcerting for fans of the series is its retreading on familiar storylines throughout Season Seven. As example; in I.D. a woman is accused of murdering her sister, but the real focus is not on the trial: rather the backroom antics between Jamie Ross and a judge with a proclivity toward sexual harassment.

In Menace, a suicide becomes murder after eyewitnesses claim the victim was chased to her doom by a man with whom she was involved in a car accident. The season closes with Terminal, the episode in which Adam Schiff's wife suffers a stroke, planting the first narrative seeds to suggest that the character will have less to do with the coming seasons.

To date, Universal Home Video has released only the first seven seasons of the original series, ending before Harmon's arrival and Lowell's departure. In retrospect, these seven years represent the very best, particularly Seasons 1-5. Universal has done a relatively flattering job on the transfers. On the whole, the image is smooth and consistent with good color fidelity and a remarkable amount of fine detail evident in background details. Given the compression shortcomings of squeezing multiple episodes per disc, there are very few instances of aliasing and/or shimmering of fine detail.

Season 1's grain structure is far more dominant than elsewhere in the series and this is as it should be, given that producers opted to shoot on 16mm film stock to achieve a grittier look and then blow the image up to 35mm. Season 2's color scheme is somewhat less vivid than Season 1's. Season 3 represents perhaps the weakest transfer quality of the lot, though hardly unwatchable with colors appearing slightly anaemic. Both Seasons 4 and 5 have consistently rendered images full of bold, rich colors. Outdoor scenes are particularly vibrant. In Season 5 the series switches from full frame to 1:78:1 widescreen - an aspect ratio relevant to the rest of the DVD transfers. 

Season 6 and 7 are perhaps the least appealing transfers of the lot - acceptable enough to watch, but exhibiting a quality that is 'less than' what the first 5 Seasons worth of DVD transfers have yielded. Here, the image is much darker with less fine detail evident - especially during darker scenes. Also, part of the series 'charm' is its frequent use of the hand held camera. In the earlier years, this device was used sparingly. However, in Seasons 6 and 7 the camera tends to bob about more than necessary and the image, already unstable in its cinematography, occasionally breaks up in its digital transferring. Fine details suffer the most and aliasing seems more prevalent and pronounced.

The audio on Seasons 1-4 is two channel stereo while Seasons 5-7 have a full Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. There are no extras on Seasons 1 and 7 contain no extra features. On Season 2 we get a fairly intriguing 'Early Years' retrospective in which all of the original cast plus Paul Sorvino and Jerry Orbach reminisce about their involvement with the series. Season 3 contains a featurette tribute to Jerry Orbach that is glowing and fitting to his contributions to the series. Season 4 sports 43 deleted/extended scenes that regrettably are in very rough shape. Season 5 houses America's Top Sleuth's - a countdown retrospective of detective shows that Universal has also included as an extra on Season 3 of their Murder She Wrote box sets. Season 6 contains a cross over episode from Homicide: Life On The Streets.

NOTE: One pet peeve from this reviewer that consumers of these Seasons ought to be made aware of: Seasons 1 and 5-7 contain six separate, single sided discs while Seasons 2-4 are represented on three ill-conceived double-sided flipper discs that Universal continues to use sporadically to this day - most recently with their DVD/Blu-Ray combo discs. Flippers are a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which is that it makes the objective of keeping one's finger prints off the readable disc surface virtually impossible!

Also particularly from this vintage, Universal had compression issues with many of their flipper discs that made them incompatible with some DVD players. For example: this reviewer had issues with content on Disc One from Season Three. Only Side B of this disc would initially play. A repurchase/exchange solved this problem but then Disc 3, Side A had similar issues. The result, three trips to my local video retailer to exchange and straighten out the snafu.

Bottom line: Law & Order is a seminal television series that belongs on everyone's top shelf. It's edgy writing, coupled with superior cast chemistry make it a durable and iconic detective drama worthy for the ages. Seasons 1-5 come highly recommended. Seasons 6-7 come recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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