Monday, October 25, 2010
Law & Order LA: Time for Tough Love
I’m a big fan of all the shows of the Law & Order brand. But, even a serious Law and Order junkie knows when it’s time for tough love. With four episodes under its belt, it’s time for me to offer my opinions regarding Law & Order Los Angeles – “LOLA” for short.
The original Law & Order had a twenty year run in New York City and earned a place as a national pastime. Before it was canceled, it received a respectable number of viewers for new episodes, despite NBC burying it on Friday night. Many viewers still tune in to TNT when past episodes air. It’s TV’s version of comfort food. After NBC canceled the show, there were no other takers (pause for weeping). I won’t spend time speculating about all the reasons why NBC put Law & Order out to pasture, but I will say that I think NBC made a mistake. Likely sensing that fans would buy a reincarnated show and there were still dollars to be made from the Law & Order brand, NBC green-lighted a change in venue for the drama, and Law & Order Los Angeles came to be.
Media reviews for LOLA have been inconsistent, although most that I've read are skewed negative. When the premiere episode aired, there was some outcry over the absence of the voice over introduction by Steve Zirnkilton, a staple for every show in the brand. This intro was added back at the start of the third episode, to the relief of many. That fixed the first 15 seconds or so, but there is much more that needs work.
Location, Location, Location
Law & Order was centered in New York, and the series made the city just as much of a cast member as the actors. The first problem with Law & Order Los Angeles is – to state the obvious - Los Angeles is not New York. New York was always in the forefront of Law & Order, by using the colorful and sometimes distinctive personalities of New Yorkers, highlighting the way New Yorkers live and work in the city, and the concentrated feel of Manhattan. In New York, many scenes shot on location often included lots of people, lots of noisy traffic, and lots of activity. New York always appeared alive. Law & Order Los Angeles doesn’t seem to have the scenic personality, and it may only seem that way because it doesn’t have New York City’s glut of iconic buildings, bridges, waterways, etc. With the exception of one episode, “Harbor City”, which provided some expansive LA vistas, LOLA looks like it could have been shot in Cleveland. My suggestion – the show needs to get out more, with location shots that show people living and working and moving around, showing that the city is alive. Find logical excuses to fit in an icon or two every now and then so viewers can identify with the city. Sure, one can’t have dead bodies popping up near every major Los Angeles landmark because that would be silly. But, Law & Order in New York always seemed to work something in that reinforced its location. Right now, LOLA’s Los Angeles seems like such a generic, sterile place, devoid of people, traffic, and interesting places. Shows like "The Closer", "Southland", and even the cheesy "NCIS LA" do it better.
A related issue is the differing soundtracks. Watch the mothership – especially on episodes before season 18 - and many scenes seem to be devoid of musical backgrounds. In fact, a lot of the sounds you’ll hear on the original L&O are sounds of traffic, people, sirens – the noise of a big city. With LOLA, the sounds of the city are absent; instead we often get some heavy, sometimes syrupy music over simple scenes like detectives questioning people or in interrogation scenes. If the writing and acting is strong enough, background music isn’t needed to help convey the emotional timbre of most scenes, and should be used sparingly.
These Are Their Stories – And They’d Better Be Good
The tried and true “first half to the detectives, second half to the prosecutors" formula seemed to work well for the first 20 years of Law & Order and can still continue to work. To do so, the show must engage the audience with stories that are relatable and believable. LOLA is heading in the wrong direction, serving up stories that are too twisty and unnecessarily complicated. For example, in the episode “Sylmar,” a meth lab is purposely blown up, accidentally killing two kids sitting in a parked car, the killers being a group of people who converted to Islam who are planning acts of terror because of “godless” Americans, and the blowing up of the meth lab had nothing to do with these planned acts; the DDAs have a battle with the Feds over jurisdiction in prosecuting the terrorists. It’s too much even to write down much less watch. After viewing each episode, I came away with nothing, as if someone is using one of those random story generators in creating the plot. There doesn’t seem to be any meat to the stories, it’s just a series of events that are superficially spliced together.
The set up to a good story can be as simple as the title of an episode. Law & Order LA is using names of cities, places, or neighborhoods, which is not only dull, but it doesn’t convey anything interesting about the episodes. “Sylmar,” for example, was the location where two kids were killed while sitting in a car when a garage meth lab explodes. The location is meaningless when you think about the real issue the episode attempted to cover - who has jurisdiction when it comes to the murder of civilians when the killers are planning more acts of terror? I would have called the episode “Jurisdiction” or something descriptive of the central issue of the episode. With more people using their DVR on screen TV listings to plan their program viewing, seeing an episode titled “Sylmar” may not grab a viewer’s attention, but “Jurisdiction” might pique interest. It’s the old sales method of selling the sizzle and not the steak, and LOLA needs to work on selling the sizzle.
The Actors: Time For a Change …Already?
Some see Law & Order as a generic, cookie cutter show; it follows a formula and will look and feel virtually the same from episode to episode, season to season. This makes it easy for actors to come and go, new ones just falling into pre-set roles. Over the years, the mothership saw quite a few detectives and prosecutors come and go. Some cast members became icons; Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston are the best examples. For many years, these two served as anchors for their respective half of the show, and when their work partners changed, they helped make the change less jarring to viewers. Both Jerry and Sam didn’t join the cast until after the series had been running a few years. Many times a series doesn’t get casting right the first time, and/or sometimes actors just want out, allowing someone better (as with Jerry and Sam) to come in. Sadly, I see no icons in the future for LOLA with the current cast.
Cast changes with LOLA are inevitable. They already had one cast change shortly after the series went into production. For LOLA, they should make more changes sooner (before season 2, if there is one) rather than later. Neither the TV executives nor viewers have any tolerance for actors that they don’t enjoy watching or that may be prompting viewers to tune to other programs. LOLA may think they hedged their bets by having two Deputy District Attorney teams for the prosecution: Alfred Molina/Regina Hall and Terrence Howard/Megan Boone. But, this may also work against them, as comparisons are already been made between teams. I feel very comfortable with Alfred Molina in his role; he comes across as being appropriately authoritative and commanding. (I also believe he would have made a better District Attorney than over Peter Coyote’s “Jerry Hardin”.) Terrence Howard does not exude that same presence as Molina and I am not sure that he ever will. In my mind, I’ve already made my mental choice of my preferred DDA. Here lies the problem: viewers will have their favorite actors, and some viewers like the alternating roles while others like consistency. This all adds up to viewers making a choice whether to watch an episode or not to watch depending on who is starring. If the choice is not to watch, the network may never get those viewers back.
The two female DDAs have no presence whatsoever. They’re just…there, almost like they’re part of the furniture. They need to either give their roles some substance and their characters some personality, or find replacements. Fast.
Corey Stoll and Skeet Ulrich, who play the detective team, should settle in with viewers over time. Ulrich has a decent (young) fan base (lots of “Jericho” fans out there) and this should draw in the coveted demographic. Stoll is believable in his role and while the younger female demographic may not be swooning over him like they do over Ulrich, Stoll still is very likeable and actually seems the better actor of the pair. Rachel Ticotin, who plays the Lieutenant, hasn’t been on long enough or had enough screen time to make any judgments either way. Bottom line: this segment of the cast should work well.
Engage Viewers And The Buzz Will Come
Law & Order was frequently the topic of discussion because it covered controversial issues. So far, Law & Order Los Angeles hasn’t covered anything which seems to be sparking any buzz. There is an absence of debate about how the detectives handled an investigation, or how the prosecutor worked a trial. Where are the big legal, moral, and ethical issues that used to stir up viewers? Not every episode can be controversial, but there needs to be something in every episode that engages viewers and gets people talking. People love to give their opinion, and LOLA so far isn’t giving viewers much to talk about.
These days, TV shows can be made or broken on buzz or the lack of it. LOLA is like a ham sandwich without the ham. To survive long term, there needs to be some substance for people to sink their teeth into and to feed viewers’ needs to dissect it and discuss it further.
The Same, But Different; New But Not Improved
There is something comforting in tuning into a TV show and knowing what to expect. Law & Order still has a very solid fan base, and it seems many fans have moved over to LOLA. The question is: how long will they stay? The show feels the same as the beloved mothership, and it’s just different enough to make some feel that it’s newer and shinier than the old standby. Newer and shinier is not always better, however. Law & Order set the bar fairly high, and LOLA still has a ways to go before it can even see that bar. Changing the scenery is not enough. LOLA has to make its own mark; it has to find its own style. It also must proceed with caution – messing too much with the standard formula may find LOLA going the way of “new Coke” (a major failure for the Coke brand in the mid 1980s). Many Law & Order fans are still stinging over the cancellation of the beloved mothership, and LOLA so far pales in comparison. Law & Order Los Angeles is in desperate need of establishing its own identity while keeping the best of what made the original a 20 year success. The brand may be over 20 years old, but that is still too young to die.
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