‘Law’ and the dark side Oct 9, 2009 5:36:31 GMT -5
Post by caitlen on Oct 9, 2009 5:36:31 GMT -5
‘Law’ and the dark side
By Joe Amarante
Published: Friday, October 9, 2009
I ran into Rene Balcer and fellow “Law & Order” producer Michael Chernuchin at a press tour once, early in the 20-year run of the venerable crime show, and I’ve always been impressed with their work.
Balcer went on to start the “Criminal Intent” version of the series, and a couple of years ago — after a year off from pounding the gavel — he returned to the mother ship.
Canadian-born Balcer is a big reason the show has returned with a wallop this season, opening with a riveting episode about the legitimacy of torture as American policy.
In the story “Memo From the Dark Side,” the body of a young war veteran is found in a parking garage, and the murder is connected to a law professor who previously worked for the Department of Justice. The case becomes directly linked to Vice President Dick Cheney’s authorization of torture by Americans to extract information.
It was an amazing episode. Reaction on the Internet was understandably mixed.
“Possibly the best ‘Law & Order’ episode of all time,” said one viewer.
“Bummer, they continue to ruin a once-great show,” said another, who didn’t want to hear continued criticism of the Bush administration.
In the controversial episode, a high-powered lawyer for the former administration’s officials stares down McCoy with, “You actually think you, a county DA, can prosecute a former vice president and Cabinet members for conduct of a war on foreign soil?”
“I prosecuted a Chilean colonel for the murder of a U.S. citizen in Santiago,” says McCoy (referring to a past episode, actually). “So government officials who torture prisoners on American military bases? Sure, why not?”
The episode also gives the conservative view, expressed by the assistant district attorney (played by Linus Roache) to Waterston’s McCoy in a private moment:
“We are at war with people sworn to kill us for who we are. It doesn’t matter if it’s civilians, women, children, as long as they kill Americans. And if we have to use force to extract the information we need to protect ourselves, well maybe that’s the right thing to do.”
Balcer, in a phone chat this week, says the show has spurred “all kinds of reaction. We have the Huffington Post, the ACLU and Salon.com applauding us, and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly against us.”
The key for “L&O,” of course, is to explore an issue in a thought-provoking way, always with an eye to the law. Says Balcer, “At some point we manage to piss off just about everyone.”
I noted that the show is careful not to use real names for its fictional stories that ripped from the headlines, except in the case of Dick Cheney.
“Vice President Cheney has been out there defending that specific policy,” says Balcer. “On the box, it says ‘enhanced interrogation’ and it has Dick Cheney’s face on it. ... But we don’t say anything bad about him, or his hunting ability or anything.”
In tonight’s episode “The Great Satan,” Lupo and Bernard (Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson) attempt to infiltrate a terrorist cell with the help of an informant looking to avoid jail time for an unrelated extortion scheme.
Balcer says the story is partly inspired by a terrorist plot that came to light three months ago in New York, but as it was being filmed authorities arrested a Denver man suspected of plotting a 9/11 anniversary attack. And details of the fictional and real cases are very close.
“Law enforcement and anti-terrorist forces have kind of a model approach” in undercover cases, says Balcer, where they supply would-be terrorists with materials that the suspects believe are bomb materials. That happened recently with undercover agents and suspects in Illinois and Texas.
“That’s part of the plot,” says Balcer. “We’re also looking at the problems in law enforcement when using informants. We posited a problem with an informant and the police relationship with that informant. And then two weeks ago in the Denver case ... they had an informant who supposedly tipped off a suspect.”
Such is the deja vu when you’re working a smart topical show.
Balcer says tonight’s episode will explore “how far do we want to go with suspects, how far do we get in bed with informants in order to break up terrorist plots? ... It’s a very dangerous world these officers operate in.”
Of course, in 20 years it’s likely Balcer has written a similar story about informants and drug dealing, for example, but now, says Balcer, “the stakes are much higher. Not to downplay drug-dealing, but ... individual drug dealers are in it for the money. They’re not going to blow themselves up for a pound of cocaine.”
Next week’s show is another promising hour, digging into reality television.
“That’s kind of a fun one,” he says. “It’s not only about how reality TV distorts our interpersonal relationships, but how it affects police investigations and prosecutions. It’s pretty insidious.”
And down the road “Law & Order” looks at the murder of an abortion doctor, not to shy away from any touchy subject. And it’s not a liberal take on the issue either, apparently.
“If the Sean Hannitys and Bill O’Reillys thought they had us pegged, they’re going to be surprised. We’re sort of ... re-examining Roe v. Wade.”
If the show’s content has been stirring, its ratings have followed the overall NBC network into the toilet. In recent Nielsen ratings, sister show “Law & Order: SVU” was the network’s most-watched scripted show of the week at No. 40, and “L&O” was even lower. But the 8 p.m. Friday time slot (owing to the Jay Leno experiment at 10 p.m.) probably isn’t helping the old show with the modern stories.