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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ripped from the headlines

I have a self-serving way of justifying Law & Order marathons: it's called "watching in aggregate," in which I argue that you only understand Law & Order when you know the rules of the game (the wisecrack, the false lead, the changeover to Law from Order, the twist) and can be sensitive to how slight variations in the formula teach you something about narrative. As a show that was designed to be formulaic so it could be played out of order, Law & Order has never really been about Law or Order, but about television syndication itself.

So it's fitting, perhaps, that it ends before setting the record for longest-running television drama?

That claim for its self-reflexivity isn't a stretch: after the Jerry Orbach years, the show changed course slightly to really take seriously its role as mediating New York tabloid (and national) news stories. If it hadn't been one before, the show became a way to dramatize other stories and show how other forms of media (newspaper stories, tabloid scandals, Internet memes, reality television) can be formulaic and then remixed into the chung-chung formula.

Just tally up the episodes from recent seasons that were about some form of media: it increased dramatically over the past few years (where they were then rebroadcast on TNT because they know drama). The early and middle years have Orbach, but I'm struck by how the show became about how its characters consumed media and made sense of information on the Internet and in the tabloid news cycles. (There was a wry moment the other night when a vain Octomom duel couldn't be settled in court, so McCoy noted that it would instead mediated--in multiple senses--on a reality show, with former DA Arthur Branch "presiding" over the spectacle.)

The peak of that self-reflexivity (and perhaps self-seriousness) was the episode that started as a riff on the NY Times expose of teenage runaways who are exploited by magazine subscription sales scams and turned into ADA Jack McCoy's moment to expose the inhumanity of the Walter Reed veterans hospital tragedy, which was based on a Washington Post series of exposes.

In honor of the fallen show, here's a section of a great Harper's essay by Edward Conlon, "Flatfoot Agonistes: Inside the Police-Entertainment Complex", about his experience writing a crime novel based on his police work:
In non-fiction--for me at least--the more ridiculous the incident the better: outlandish characters, dubious coincidences, freaks of all kinds were welcome. Fact-checking wasn’t a problem: I’d been cross-examined in federal court about my book, on the page or so about a man I’d arrested for an armed robbery after his fingerprints were found on the cash box. I hadn’t called him by his real name, as the case was still open at the time, but cited it as a too-common circumstance in which tearful testimony trumped forensic science. I’d told the U.S. Attorney about the passage, and he felt we had to alert defense counsel. The question posed on the stand centered on motive--mine, not the robber’s--whether my primary concern was the pursuit of a good story or of a real crime. The metaphysical implications were intriguing what detective doesn’t strive for the jackpot payoff, the feel-better if not feel-good finale? Could I close cases, or refuse to take them, if they struck me as derivative or trite? At any rate, we won a conviction, and a sentence of twenty-five years. Better still, a sale: the defense lawyer asked me to sign his copy of the book.

The courtroom experience of defending my non-fiction didn’t ready me for certain editorial questions, though, in the early drafts of the novel.

“Is this a character piece?”

“Yes,” I answered. In truth, I didn’t know what she meant. It had characters, didn’t it? Now, I understand the term better in comparison with “plot-driven”; my editor was asking whether interior attributes or exterior structures—relationships, narrative conventions—control the action. It was a miniature of the progressive-conservative debate on crime, individual choices versus societal forces, and it was no better resolved.

“How come so many characters have asthma?”

Air pollution? In subsequent drafts, certain asthmatics were wholly cured, others were given ulcers.

“You have a one character find a body in the park, and later on he finds something else there—there’s too much coincidence. It’s a little cute, a little neat.”

“I had a robbery where a woman was robbed on her way to pay the bondsman to bail out her boyfriend, who was in jail for robbery….We had a triple stabbing, with one guy killed. The two guys who survived ran away and grabbed a cab to the hospital. The cab driver was the dead man’s brother, who had no idea about the homicide until later on….”

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Blogger Alice on Mon May 17, 11:59:00 PM:
Terrence Rafferty's thought-provoking review of Scott Turow's sequel to Presumed Innocent is a great continuation of this quandary about how to dramatize law and order over and over again:

"It’s no crime to write a sequel, but it’s an activity a serious novelist should feel at least a little guilty about. Turow evidently does. (Calling the new book “Innocent” may constitute a sheepish plea for forgiveness.) Practically everyone involved in this strange case is compelled to comment on the been-there-done-thatness of the thing. “Too much history,” Molto says wearily, as his avid deputy tries to persuade him to indict Sabich for murder just this one time more. The defendant himself characterizes the case as “old wine in new bottles.” Acknowledging the “Presumed Innocent” reader’s sense of déjà vu is crafty, but what makes this new book more than a cleverly executed stunt is Turow’s determination to use the familiarity of the story and the characters for purposes loftier than earning some very hefty royalties.

"He seems, in part, to have written this book out of a fascination with the enduring human puzzle of repetitive behavior. Judge Sabich, who strives to be a scrupulous self-examiner, can’t stop wondering why he nonetheless finds himself, two decades older and presumably wiser, making exactly the same mistakes that, as he puts it, “all but ruined his life.” Turow is returning to the scene of a personal triumph rather than a catastrophe, but he’s wondering too: like his protagonist, he knows he’s pushing his luck. In “Innocent,” he’s exploring the many ways in which, time after time, we fail to under­stand ourselves, in which we miss or misinterpret the evidence that could tell us who we are. “If we are always a mystery to ourselves,” Anna asks at the end of Sabich’s latest ordeal, “then what is the chance of fully understanding anybody else?” That’s a novelist’s question as much as it is a lawyer’s."