When the news was first announced that the original Law & Order, aka the Mothership, was coming back, fans were super excited. But at the back of everyone’s mind was one question: could they pull it off?
The world has changed significantly since Law & Order went off the air in 2010; could a series closer to shows like Dragnet than to its own spin-offs be successful now?
The good news is that Law & Order Season 21 Episode 1 wasted no time bringing up racism, negative attitudes toward cops, and other issues that are often in the news. While it didn’t navigate these stories perfectly, it did a good enough job to be compelling television.
Interestingly, the writers chose to lead off with a story that could have fit comfortably on its sister series, Law & Order: SVU.
Not only did the second half of the hour revolve around the prosecutors’ quest to convict a rape victim of murdering her rapist in cold blood, but the beginning of the case had a direct parallel to Law & Order: SVU Season 1 Episode 1.
Every victim deserves our respect, even the ones that raped 40 women.
Some 23 years ago, Captain Cragen sternly warned Olivia Benson that SVU detectives “don’t pick their vics” and that she had to take every case equally seriously, even when she disapproved of the victim. And now, Bernard reminded his new partner of the same thing.
Having this type of case re-introduce us to the original Law & Order provided a brilliant opportunity to contrast the two series. The same story could have easily played out on SVU, but if it had, it would have focused more on the cops disagreeing about whether or not Nicole’s killing Henry King was justified.
But Law & Order has a different format, and here the focus was on the prosecutors trying to secure a conviction. It didn’t matter what anyone’s personal feelings about Nicole’s behavior were; now that she had been arrested, their job was to make sure she didn’t escape responsibility for shooting King.
Nolan: Frank! What the hell was that? I told you five times the confession was inadmissible and you couldn’t bring it up.
Cosgrove: Go to hell!
Nolan: Excuse me?
Cosgrove: I’m a cop. I catch them, you cook ’em. That’s how this is supposed to work. Like it or not, I get paid to lie to people like Nicole Bell. Stop trying to save the world and do your damn job.
Instead, ADA Nolan Price stood out as a highly moral prosecutor who was willing to risk his professional reputation to make sure defendants were treated fairly, which put him at odds with his office and the cops, especially Cosgrove.
Both Dixon and McCoy stressed that the cops and DAs are supposed to be partners in bringing criminals to justice. That’s the unique perspective that the original series has always provided–it’s not strictly a cop show nor a legal show, but both.
That allows Law & Order to explore the tension between cops and prosecutors that isn’t addressed on most shows (except maybe when Erin gets into it with her cop brothers on Blue Bloods.)
Anyway, Nolan’s interactions with McCoy were the high point of the hour.
McCoy has been in Nolan’s position before and now is the head of the DA’s office, so he understands the conflict between doing what’s right and needing to win cases.
He handled Nolan’s objections admirably, permitting him to do what he thought was best but making it clear he was expected to put the case’s needs before his feelings.
With the exception of McCoy and Bernard, all the characters are new additions to the cast, but Nolan was the only one who has been fully developed so far.
To an extent, this is a feature, not a bug. The original Law & Order focuses mainly on cases, with little time for the characters’ backstories.
As a result, the main cops are often interchangeable; when an actor is unable or unwilling to continue, they are simply replaced.
Similarly, Sam Waterson’s Jack McCoy quietly replaced Michael Moriarty’s Benjamin Stone halfway through the series without a problem. McCoy and Stone both worked with a variety of ADAs over the years.
Still, though, it felt out of balance for Nolan to carry most of the conflict in the second half. The other ADA, Samantha Maroun, barely appeared, and when she did, it was mostly to give Nolan info he needed to move forward with his case.
This imbalance made it feel like Nolan’s request for Maroun to do the closing came out of nowhere. He also referenced the “story you told me about your family,” which the audience wasn’t familiar with, so that was slightly confusing.
And on the cop side, new detective Frank Cosgrove felt too much like a one-note character who was there to prove a point than a fully rounded character.
The hotheaded detective is a cop show trope at this point, but hotheaded doesn’t have to mean one-note.
For example, Elliot Stabler’s hotheadedness both in his SVU days and on Law & Order: Organized Crime is only one aspect of his personality. He’s also a family man, a devoted Catholic, and now a grieving widower who is trying to figure out where things stand with him and his former partner.
On the other hand, Cosgrove doesn’t have much depth to his character yet.
In the course of half an hour, he made disparaging comments about both Henry King and Bernard’s insistence on pointing out racial tensions between cops and Black people; accosted several witnesses; alienated an ADA by accusing her of murder; and told everyone repeatedly that he’s blunt and harsh and that’s the way it is.
He felt like a mouthpiece for an opposing point of view rather than a realistic cop. That’s a dangerous road to go down because it can make viewers feel like the writing is agenda-driven, and then any point the writers are trying to make will be lost.
This is only the first episode of the season, though, so hopefully, some character development will come for Cosgrove as the series progresses.
Speaking of Cosgrove, how stupid was Nicole?
I understood Nolan’s concerns, and Nicole should have been Mirandized before making her confession so that her words COULDN’T be thrown out.
But at the same time, she should have known better than to believe the cops just wanted to help and wouldn’t arrest her if she confessed. Anyone who has ever watched cop shows should know that cops sometimes lie to get a confession. Sheesh.
Your turn, Law & Order fanatics! How did the newest installment in the original series meet your expectations?
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Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. His debut young adult novel, Reinventing Hannah, is available on Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.