Out of the Half-Light (Season 1 Episode 11)

Amd_victim One of the big news stories this week was about a 20-year-old McCain campaign worker, Ashley Todd, who claimed that she was attacked by a Barrack Obama supporter after he saw her McCain bumper sticker. The man tackled her, beat her, and then carved a backward "B" into her face (for Barack).  The only person who believed her was another campaign staffer, who briefly pushed the story to the media. There were several inconsistencies, including she wasn't in surveillance video of the area where the alleged attack took place.

Probably the earliest giveaway, however, was the carved letter "B." Writing on the victims body is a common characteristic of false allegations, a fact that she would have known if she had watched Episode 11.

Beside being topically relevant, this episode does a great job of recounting the 1987 Tawana Brawley rape allegation that pushed Al Sharpton into the national spotlight. The facts are nearly identical, only the names have been changed.

It also might be the best L&0 episode I've ever seen, worlds better than the two that put our friends Nate and Amanda to sleep and then drove them out of the house. One trend I'm noticing in Season 1 is that they were working hard to establish a formula that would keep them on the air. They're experimenting with levels of character development, with camera angles, and with plot twists. In this episode, those came together perfectly.

Prisoner of Love (Season 1 Episode 10)

Here's what I liked most about episode 10: during it, the camera pans over a couple of Frank Stella pieces, which happens in episode 9, too! Coincidence or conspiracy?

Either way, Prisoner of Love has a Robert Mapplethorpe-y theme, which you'd think I would like. But the episode lacks any characters who aren't either villains or grossed out by the S&M scene, and I couldn't find anyone to identify with.

The highlight of the episode is Frances Conroy (the mom from Six Feet Under), a supposedly rich and fancy New Yorker who lives at 615 Central Park West, which, if real, would be smack dab in a part of Harlem that featured mostly burned out buildings in 1990.

Stellasinjerliiv The sort of Stella seen in episode 10; episode 9 featured the pinstripe-y kind.

Indifference (Season 1 Episode 9)

On Friday night, after absorbing 90 minutes of turgid presidential debate, Tony and I decided to cleanse our palates with Super Egg and a few episodes of L&O. I'd link to a Super Egg recipe, but shockingly, the  pancake-like affair that my mom has been making since the beginning of time has less Internet presence than our friends Nate & Amanda, who happened to stop by just in time for our third episode of the night, Indifference.

The ep is based on the story of Lisa Steinberg--a child beaten to death by her guardian, Joel Steinberg, who also abused his partner, Hedda Nussbaum--and it provides a moral dilemma that every cast member can have a different opinion about: was Nussbaum culpable for the child's death when she, too, was beaten by Steinberg? I spent a lot of the show wondering whether the case, which was a very big sensation in its day and vilified Nussbaum (who cut an immunity deal), would play the same way today. I think and hope that 20 years later, a lot more people in the criminal justice system better understand the dynamics of domestic abuse. But in case I run out of juice worrying about global warming, McCain/Palin and the financial market meltdown, concern about double jeopardy for victims of domestic violence is a good one to keep in my back pocket.

Speaking of victims, I remember the Steinberg case because my Grandma Gwen felt strongly that, because Joel was Jewish, the whole ugly incident was "Not Good for the Jews." Personally, I take more after my Great Aunt Tootsie, who felt that a Red Sox win was the sort of thing you could classify as not good for the Jews. But I can see my grandmother's point: while we were watching, I couldn't help but mentioning several times to the assembled Christians and dogs that this episode was, really, not good PR for the latke-loving people.

Weirdly, the episode ends with a written disclaimer about how the actual Lisa Steinberg case turned out somewhat differently than the L&O version, in which the Nussbaum character winds up going to jail. Seeing as the show reinterprets headlines all the time, I didn't know what to make of that. Anyone?   

Hnussbaum Marcia_jean_kurtz_4

L&O hires the right actor: Nussbaum on the left; Kurtz--who portrays the Nussbaum character, Carla Lowenstein--on the left. Incidentally, Jacob Lowenstein, the Joel Steinberg charcter, is played by David Groh, Valerie Harper's boyfriend on the late great Rhoda.

Poison Ivy (Season 1 Episode 8)

I'm still shocked by the math I did a few days ago about how many episodes we've committed to watching and when we're going to be done. We started with 797 and that number is a moving target because three L&0 series are still in production. Adding to the challenge, I'm uncovering other shows that I think we need to add to the list.

We'd already accounted for three cross-over episodes with the show Homicide. But Detective John Munch, a critical member of L&0 SVU, was in all seven seasons of Homicide. So I think we probably need to add the entire series. It gets worse. John Munch holds the television record for the most series that the same character has appeared in, nine.

The shows are Homicide, L&0, L&O SVU, L&0 Trial by Jury, The Wire, X-Files, Arrested Development, The Beat, and a French version of L&0. Adding the full Homicide series would add 116 to our total. Munch only appeared in single episodes of The Wire, X-Files, Arrested Development and The Beat, so that's only four episodes for us. And the French L&0 was a mercifully short 13 episodes.

Sarah seems against adding these to the list. I'm of the mind that we've taken up a hobby that's basically defined by being absurdly large and that we should respect the absurdity by adding all the episodes in. Plus, she took French in high school and could use a chance to brush up.

BTW, Episode 8 is about an Ivy League kid from the ghetto who gets shot by a cop. It's based on the real life Edmund Perry case. And, get this, the full length version of Michael Jackson's video for Bad is based this story as well. Do we need to add that to the list?

By Hooker, By Crook (Season 1 Episode 7)

Our viewing of Episode 7 started with Sarah yelling that it never snows in NYC in December. Where do these writers live? Hollywood?

Actually, I wouldn't have known either. Weather and geography trivia are Sarah's expertise. I've been looking for sources of L&0 info so I can dig up my own brand of trivia. For instance Wikipedia keeps track of which true-life crimes inspired L&0 episodes. This one was inspired by the Mayflower Madam, a socialite,  descendent of people who came over on the Mayflower, and owner of a  high-end prostitution ring.

The real-life madam had some nuggets of business advice. How do you ensure high quality service? "Hire good people and pay them what they're worth."

The real-life trivia gets even more trivial. The madam is now married to the real-life lawyer who defended the real-life anti-parent-of-the-year candidate who inspired L&0 episode 9.

Season 1 Episode 6: Everybody's Favorite Bagman

We watched Episode 6 last Friday with our good friends Nate and Amanda (see Episode 5 write-up for more about why they're good people). We fed them well and then subjected them to two episodes, the second of which, this one, put them to sleep and then drove them out of the house.

Too bad for them, because there was actually a lot of interesting trivia about this episode. It was filmed as the pilot episode in 1988 for Fox, but the show was passed off to CBS and then NBC, who then decided to run this episode mid-season.

NBC didn't do anything to cover up the continuity problems. Some stranger had Adam Schiff's DA job and Detective Greevey was a completely different size. You can get away with these things when you create a show that's not character driven.

William_macy William Macy makes a cameo as a US Attorney, although at that stage of his career he was probably happy just to have a gig. He doesn't look as young as Cynthia Nixon in Episode 2, but close. Another difference, he doesn't show up in a later episode as a killer with a split-personality.

The story is based on a 1986 New York Parking Violations Bureau Corruption Scandal (see wikipedia's entry on Don Manes). There's not much of a moral dilemma, the crooks are crooked, although Asst. DA Paul Robinette has to come to terms with the corruption of his former little-league coach.

In the past three weeks we've managed to blog six episodes while all three L&0 series have been off the air. I think that we started with 797 episodes to watch (411 L&0 Prime, 202 L&O SVU, 155 L&0 CI, 13 Trial by Jury, 13 Conviction, and 3 Homicide crossovers), so now we're down to 791. However, tonight is the season premier of SVU. If we can keep up this pace of two episodes per week and the three L&0 series continue to put out 66 new episodes per year, then we'll catch up at the rate of 38 per year. We'll be watching tonight's SVU episode on October 26, 2020 May 5, 2016 and in 2030 2028 (updated with better calculations.) we'll be caught up enough to blog the shows live.

As Sarah's cousin said, "You must be really confident in your relationship to make that kind of commitment."

Season 1 Episode 5: Happily Ever After

On Friday night, we had our friends Nate and Amanda over. Despite their having pretty much no Internet presence, they're good people. They're hilarious. They can be counted on to pick up ice cream on the way over. Their dog, Maggie, is Eggs's girlfriend, and you've never seen two mammals get along so well. They are our best friends in Mill Valley.
Being good people ourselves, we invited them for dinner of tomato tarte Tatin (ours looked surprisingly similar to the NYT version pictured here) and a nice Napa zin. And then we subjected them to several hours of L&O.

All-time episode 5, which focuses on a couple that gets shot in a parking garage near the precinct house, is a little slow going but is not without its highlights. First, Aida Turturro (Tony Soprano's sister) and Vanessa Williams (Rhonda on Melrose Place) show up for about eight seconds at the beginning of the ep, and they say at least three words each.

Second, there is the hair. The public defender works a multi-tiered Olivia Newton John style (Amanda: "Wow, that's poodle-esque"). And ADA Paul Robinette has a flattop Grace Jones would covet (Nate: "It's weird how this was made in 1990 but looks so much like 1982.")

Third, there is the theme: woman wrongs man (in this case, wife wrongs husband). Amanda mentioned that it would be interesting to keep track of the episodes with this set up, and then later see how that compares to real-life stats. Tag created and deployed; criminal justice experts to be contacted at a future date.

Finally, our geography lesson for the day: There is no 1100 block of West End Ave (it tops out in the 900s). And walking out a building clearly labled "304" doesn't make it seem more real.

Season 1 Episode 4: Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die

Everyone knows that one of the great pleasures of L&O is that it's 90 percent predictable. The set up, the characters, the lulling rhythm, the music. They're all old friends, and the occasional plot twist or guest star help keep you engaged when you're watching an all-night marathon through a bout of insomnia on a cross-country JetBlue red eye.

So the first season has been a surprise. Because it turns out that the show dealt very directly with hot political and social issues like racism in the justice system and AIDS activism. Of course, L&O still incorporates headlines news into the story lines--the more sensational, the better (I'm expecting Sarah Palin's forthcoming grandchild to take a star turn any new episode now). But the first season feels more confrontational, more as if it had been trying to challenge viewers.

Naturally, now that we're 18 years into the L&O franchise, its repeated qualities loom large in a way they couldn't have at week four. Still, I get the feeling they were trying to do something different back in the day, and I wonder if what made it successful at first was different from what's helped it endure.

Ok, enough of that bullshit. Here's what's important about episode four, which has shades of a preppy murder theme and deals vaguely with class issues (at one point, an earnest character calls her Pennsylvania hometown "the Greenwich of Scranton;" for you Northern Californians, that's like calling Sebastopol the Palo Alto of Santa Rosa).

First, early in the show, the detectives visit an apartment that the interstitial tells us is located at 533 East 66th Street. Nevermind that there's no 500 block of East 66th Street, it's the very same address--with a different interior--visited by the cops in episode 3! Even more egregious, when they walk out of the building, it's clearly marked as number 49. Ba dum!

After leaving that sector of the Matrix, they visit a bar at 708 West 86th Street. Which, if it existed, would be in a neighborhood of Weehawken.

But best of all was this gem. When the detectives visit a suspect at his apartment, he's showing it to prospective buyers. The couple gets ruffled by the intrusion, causing the suspect/seller to hiss at the cops, "Look what you've done! Do you know how soft the coop market is?"

I got nostalgic for New York in a whole new way.

Union_square_1990_3 (New York, 1990. Home of the soft coop market. Photo by Cisc1970.)

Season 1 Episode 3: The Reaper's Helper

Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive on November 7, 1991. It was a death sentence but people thought that because of his access to the best doctors he might live as many as six years. Now, seventeen years later, watching him as a studio guest on the NBA on TNT studio crew you could compare him to fellow host (and four years his junior) Charles Barkley and claim, straight-faced, that Magic will outlive Charles. Seventeen years later, hard living (boozing and overeating in Charles' case) is more dangerous than HIV.

But in 1990, HIV was so scary that a person might plausibly commit suicide before showing even the first signs of AIDS. This episode uses that premise to explore right-to-die issues. They also used this episode to explore some camera angles, nuanced acting and new plot devices. This is going to sound cold, but I was much more interested in the latter.

They had one shot coming over the stairway balcony onto two lawyers walking through the lobby below, as if you, the audience, were just stumbling on to the conversation. They don't do that anymore. They've turned L&0 into a science that lets them work with any actor (and there have been thousands) and deal with any crew. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they have a list of approved camera shots that doesn't have more than seven or eight items: the crime scene, three in the courtroom, the judges office, Adam Schiff having a drink, and the grieving parents.

The grieving mother in this episode was the most nuanced rendition of this role that they've ever allowed. You could see the realization coming over her while she alternated between being helpful and being distraught. Now they limit the parents to one emotion and a few words to move the plot along. That's a more sustainable strategy once you realize you're going to have to find 600+ pairs of actors to play this role. In this episode, before they'd turned the show into a science, Barbara Andres was given the chance to shine.

The experiments with acting and camera angle came off great. However, their first try of the "DA bends the law" twist didn't quite work. DA Ben Stone did something very peculiar and probably unethical. But they never resolved it. The twist was practically a throwaway. Now, they'd always use the twist as an opportunity to bring in the ethics committee and show the other attorneys in shock.

Season 1 Episode 2: Subterranean Homeboy Blues

To kick off our possibly lifelong attempt to watch and blog every episode of L&O and its spinoffs, Tony and I cued up a double-header. Really, the whole pleasure of L&O lies in watching a mildly nauseating number of episodes in a row. But since the first DVD gave us only two, we sacrificed ourselves for our art.

Personally, I'm a late addict to L&O. When the series began (circa 1990), I was living without a TV (a years-long mistake). By the time I'd gotten my entertainment priorities back in order, I was living in New York and regularly hassled by L&O crews filming in my neighborhood. I resented the show and refused to watch.

Fast forward 12 years to Northern California. I'd moved here by accident, and I missed New York intensely. But joining Tony on the sofa one night, I realized that--lo!--nearly every episode of Law & Order features recognizable scenes of New York. Homesick, I ignored the plotlines and focused instead on the scenery. I used to live on that block! That's Abingdon Square! Wait--there's no 400 block of West 84th Street! Hudson College? What the hell is that? I became a detective myself, and I didn't care how obnoxious I was to watch with.Cynthianixonsatcmoviepremiere2_2

I also became hooked. And the part of me that likes complete sets, neatly arranged wanted to watch all of the episodes ever--Law & Order in order. And so here we are.

All-time episode 2 is notable for the starring guest role played by a baby-faced Cynthia Nixon (bringing her together onscreen with Chris Noth  years before Sex and the City!), who performs Bernard Goetz-like justice on a C train. The show dealt very directly with the cops' and prosecutors' racism and sexism, leaving a trail of grey slime behind every major character. Bold move for a show that, two episodes in, was--according to Dick Wolf's description on the DVD bonus track--massively unpopular with advertisers and TV execs, save NBC's Brandon Tartikoff.

I had expected the first season to be painfully clunky and slow-moving--like to so many other shows' inaugural years. But L&O got off to a swift start. Although it lacked female regulars at the beginning, it looked from day 1 surprisingly like day 6,843 (or wherever we are now). I'm looking forward to the next several hundred episodes.

(Btw, this isn't remotely what Cynthia Nixon looked like in the L&O episode. It's an image I ripped from a celeb photo blog, and I just like it.)


Sarah and Tony watch L&O on a 46-inch, rear-projection, flat-screen tv.

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