‘Or­der’ in the land of ‘Drag­net’

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - ROBERT LLOYD robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Dick Wolf ’s crime-and­pun­ish­ment drama “Law & Or­der” first ripped a story from a head­line back in 1990, the year also of “Twin Peaks” and “Bev­erly Hills 90210”; of “Vogue” and “The Humpty Dance”; of “Good­Fel­las” and “Ghost.” Nel­son Man­dela left prison, Ger­many re­uni­fied and the World Wide Web switched on. It has since be­come an in­sti­tu­tion — some­thing a viewer might pass through, like high school or col­lege, mov­ing on as other gen­er­a­tions move in. I watched it all the time, for a time, some time ago.

Al­though the orig­i­nal “L&O” was can­celed this year — “Law & Or­der: Clas­sic,” as I think of it — var­i­ous spinoffs spin on. The lat­est, “Law & Or­der: Los An­ge­les,” pre­mieres Wed­nes­day on NBC, with last year’s “Law & Or­der: UK” get­ting a do­mes­tic pre­miere Oct. 3 via BBC Amer­ica. Ev­ery cop show ap­plies a sin­gu­lar at­ti­tude to the same small pool of sto­ries — that’s how we tell them apart — but “Law & Or­der” brings some­thing more: a mech­a­nism, a method that kept the mother se­ries in­tact through many changes of cast. It’s a lens, a frame, a tem­plate, a process that or­ders an al­most rit­ual set­tling of ac­counts whose progress is marked by the march of ti­tle cards and the im­pla­ca­ble chime of the sig­na­ture chung-chung.

This is the first Amer­i­can “L&O” to be set out­side of New York, and I think the choice is apt, for this is the city of Jack Webb’s “Drag­net” — “tran­scribed from of­fi­cial po­lice files” — in which se­ries this fran­chise has spir­i­tual and stylis­tic roots. (In­deed, Wolf pro­duced a short-lived re­make, “L.A. Drag­net,” in 2003.) In “Drag­net,” as in the first half of a “Law & Or­der” episode, a pair of stone-faced though highly ironic po­lice de­tec­tives, trail­ing lit­tle or no back story, col­lect ( just the) facts on their way to col­lar­ing a sus­pect — stop­ping now and again to re­mark rue­fully on hu­man folly, cite a statis­tic or make a speech. There is lit­tle in the way of run­ning or shoot­ing, or even shout­ing. At the end, we learn how long the perp is go­ing in for, “Law & Or­der” stretch­ing what in “Drag­net” was a mere tag into its whole sec­ond half-hour, dur­ing which there will be more re­marks, statis­tics and speeches.

The cur­rent se­ries has fresh air to breathe and new names to drop — Chin Chin, Cal­tech, the Edi­son — and ap­par­ently plans to make a meal out of Hollywood. But it hits the tra­di­tional notes square on, mov­ing fast in brief scenes and bursts of ex­po­si­tion, and split­ting the dif­fer­ence be­tween melo­drama and nat­u­ral­ism. The cast in­cludes Al­fred Molina and Ter­rence Howard as as­sis­tant district attorneys (hot and cool, re­spec­tively) and a very solid Skeet Ul­rich, find­ing a per­fect fit for his nat­u­ral in­ward­ness. Less is more here. To re­ject this show is to re­ject the very law and or­der of “Law & Or­der.”

As ever, head­lines will be ripped. First comes a case that mixes the celebrity-tar­get­ing Bling Ring with a mother-and-star­let story some­what re­sem­bling that of Lind­say and Dina Lo­han — though, also as ever, we are re­minded first that what we’re see­ing is fic­tion. Next week’s episode, the stronger of the two I’ve seen, joins mem­o­ries of Charles Man­son — old news, but still the lo­cal per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of bad vibes — to a story of pos­si­ble po­lice mis­con­duct, con­fus­ing viewer sym­pa­thies and stay­ing tense un­til the last chung-chung.

Dean Hendler

ALIGNED: Stars of the L.A. se­ries in­clude, from left, Corey Stoll, Skeet Ul­rich and Al­fred Molina.

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