Monday, January 23, 2006

# Posted 8:31 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ART IMITATES LIFE. LIFE CHANGES. ART TRIES AGAIN. Chris Noth became a bona fide star after portraying heartthrob "Mr. Big" opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City. Not until I started dating a lovely litigator did I know that Noth had already become a minor celebrity in the early 1990s by playing Detective Mike Logan in the very first seasons of Law & Order.

After watching just a single episode of L&O, I was hooked. I love cop shows, and it's a great one. I also love shows about New York City, because there's nothing like growing up in Greenwich Village.

What struck me almost immediately when watching L&O was the sharp contrast between the bleak city it portrayed, c. 1990, and the charming, oh-so-fashionable New York, c.2000, of Sex and the City. It's almost impossible to believe that the shows take place in the same city.

Then again, if you grew up in New York in the 80's and 90's and then visit it again today, you may not be able to believe it's the same city either. The fear is gone. The pessimism is gone. We loved our city back then, but we were still afraid of it. We loved our city back then, but we were afraid that it would only get worse and worse.

All of this comes rushing back when I watch the first season of L&O, of which I've now seen about 10 episodes. Episode Two is especially striking. Long story short, it is a retelling of the story of "Subway Vigilante" Bernhard Goetz, except that the Goetz character is played by a woman -- none other than Cynthia Nixon, aka Miranda from Sex and the City.

Instead of a red-headed partner at a corporate law firm, she plays a frail blond dancer who buys herself a gun and starts reading books about self-defense because she is so afraid of the city she lives in. In the end, we never really know if she shot in order to defend herself or because she was taking vengeance on all young black men.

The Goetz incident left a strong impression on me, even though I was a young child. Finally, someone had struck a blow on behalf of all of us who were afraid to live in our own city. We all knew that the smart thing was to give your wallet to the mugger and run. But we wanted someone to stand up to those (predominantly dark-skinned) thugs who had taken our city away from us, espeically if the police couldn't.

On the other hand, I grew up in a progressive home and had a deep desire for racial harmony. How could we ever end the crime if we didn't end the hatred? Didn't putting so many young black men in jail -- instead of in decent schools -- just make the problem worse? And in the age of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, were the muggers really the worst of the criminals?

This impulse also comes through very clearly in Law & Order. Episode Five opens with a white couple being shot in an underground garage. We a see a young black man running from the scene of the crime. We learn he was smoking crack at the time. We learn that he mugged seven victims at knife point.

But the young black man turns out to be innocent and the rich white woman turns out to be the worst of the criminals, coldly conspiring with her lover to murder her husband and run away with $9 million in life insurance.

Three years before the debut of L&O, Tom Wolfe descibed in his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, the desire of guilty white New York to find a "great white defendant" it could condemn in order to demonstrate (if only to itself) that its courts and its police weren't just an official conspiracy to put young black men in jail.

In a lot of ways, New York was an ugly place to live. Thank God, so much of that has changed. Back then, neither sympathy and schools nor harsh justice was the answer. We needed Giuliani, but we also needed the Reagan-Clinton boom to grow our city out of despair. So instead of crime, we now have Sex.

What I'm curious about is how Law & Order has changed over the years, since it is still on the air after a decade and a half. And Chris Noth has returned again to play Detective Mike Logan.
(8) opinions -- Add your opinion

No idea how they've changed - I never watched L&O and came to Sex late, introduced by a friend. But I'm always impressed with your ability to make pop-culture fluff much deeper than I thought. Or as you said of Instapundit, making dum sh** interesting!
See my email regarding the 50's "Naked City".
L&O used to be great, S&tC, who'd bother?
That's what you get, David, for being out of the country for so long. If you get basic cable these days, you have an 80% chance of finding an episode of Law & Order (or one of its ubiquitous spinoffs) on the air during any given hour.

Anyway, I thought you'd be glad to know that Oxblog favorite Fred Thompson is now the DA on the show.
Law and Order has for years pushed a vision of New York City where every murder is committed by a rich white man and every businessman is complicit in crime of some type. There have been a (very) few exceptions, but in general it's become a parody of itself. I don't think there have been more than a dozen black murder suspects convicted on the show in a dozen years, in a city where most violent crime is by "people of color".
It's unfortunate how downhill L&O has gone as a show. It used to be great: lowlife character who got out of jail comes back to kill again. The cops get their man, but then some lefty judge excludes the best evidence on a technicality, and the DAs and cops scramble to make sure they get their man, and they almost always did.

Now, yes, its always some investment banker who kills to prevent bad news about a stock, or something very odd like that, as robert said. It's still passable entertainment, but it's gone native.
"But the young black man turns out to be innocent and the rich white woman turns out to be the worst of the criminals, coldly conspiring with her lover to murder her husband and run away with $9 million in life insurance."

Yeah, but it's fiction. You seem to have lost that perspective somewhere in the telling.
It may be true that L&O tends to reflect 'left' themes more often than 'right' - but it has gone both ways plenty of times. There were two episodes with black murder defendants (both convicted IIRC) last season, though none this year. Off the top of my head, I can remember two others (one with three black - and one white - defendants convicted), two others where the black defendant got off in an obvious miscarriage of justice, and another where the black defendant was innocent - his black girlfriend shot the black victim - who was asking for it.

Oh, and the last one I watched had a low-life defendant get off because a judge excluded evidence.

In some ways the quality may not be what it was - I often want to ask why the investigators ignore some obvious avenue. But the show is still quite good.
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