Law & Order is a generational staple of American television. Throughout its countless iterations and spinoffs, the show has maintained a certain entry-level status in which viewers can easily jump into an episode and move along with the case that is being presented. No other version of the show has exemplified this like the original incarnation. Even as a very young child, it was possible for me to watch along with my mom and get the gist of the show. In that regard, this newest revival still works.
That’s one of the only few things that does function with this 21st season of Law & Order. The show clearly wanted to come back with a bang, and it frequently knew how to do that in the past: by directly drawing upon some real-life incidents in order to get viewers abuzz with conversation. The show has never been afraid to court controversy, and this opening episode titled “The Right Thing” dives straight into the fire by creating a fictionalized version of a Black entertainer who raped and assaulted nearly 40 women. There is no doubt that this is inspired by the allegations lobbed at Bill Cosby, and the show decides to take things one step further by having a victim murder this fictionalized take on Cosby.
Here’s where things start to get tricky for this new Law & Order. The show comes from a time when viewpoints on policing and the justice system were not as fractured as they are today. And the show knows it. It pays lip service to police accountability but this is a show that can never be too critical of officers or their conduct because the very foundation of the show is built on the audience being on the side of officers. As such, any kind of commentary outside of the pure procedural investigation feels performative and almost cynical. Regardless of your individual political feelings about the police or the justice system, these parts never come off as sincere. It feels like writers Dick Wolf and Rick Eid felt they had to mention something or else they would get called out for ignoring it.
What really hurts this Law & Order return is the story’s clear desire to cast imagined aspersions on the victims of this fictional Bill Cosby’s crimes. It turns out that one of his accusers did murder him, but the prosecution is finding it hard to get past the jury’s sympathy for the killer. There is a distinct lack of genuine female perspective in the writing and it all comes off as more “men afraid of women” fear-mongering that we see from camps that often exhibit clear misogynistic tendencies. Though the show tries not to get to a place where we feel sympathy for the abuser, it does want to say that we should be equally afraid of women enacting revenge when the justice system fails. It’s a straw man argument that sinks the entirety of this first outing.
And that’s a shame because this might be one of the best Law & Order casts on paper. Nabbing people like Jeffrey Donovan and Hugh Dancy as series leads is a boon. It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in their performances, but if you blink for a second, you realize their characters are so stock and stereotypical that it’s a waste of their talents. Not to mention the dynamics they establish in this first episode are weak. Donovan is paired with Anthony Anderson and the two have a contentious relationship due to their disagreements about conduct. That’s not new and the way it’s portrayed here is lazy. There is a lot that could be done with their relationship and maybe the rest of the season will flesh that out, but they are off to a rocky start. And although Hugh Dancy ends up coming away the least unscathed, his do-gooder attorney character seems ripped out of a far less prestigious show.
Maybe that’s the real nail in the Law & Order coffin: it’s a show that wants to be as heralded as prestige television but its basis comes from a simpler time. No matter how good its actors are or how contemporary it wants to seem, it all feels wrongheaded and rusty. In a world where shows like Better Call Saul and The Wire have shown where these kinds of frameworks can go, Law & Order needs to be left behind.