Law & Order's World-Class Problem
I originally wrote this piece for “Culture Lust” because I was not at all happy to read that Skeet Ulrich was being kicked off “Law & Order: Los Angeles.” He’s still out, but now the series, which was supposed to return in February, has abruptly been pulled from NBC’s schedule altogether. This new wrinkle doesn’t improve my mood at all.
The reason for Ulrich’s departure, apparently, was because Dick Wolf, the creator of L&O, departed from the show’s successful formula and hired two “world-class actors,” Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina, to play what is usually one role, the deputy district attorney. And these actors, being so world-class and all, were not on screen enough. This seems to have come as a surprise to Wolf.
I have been an L&O fan since the beginning -- with the exception of the scowling “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and the last couple of crazy years of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Actors have always come and gone over the series’ two decades. Their characters get exiled to Staten Island or killed in traffic accidents. They quit when their wives get sick, or decide they can’t do it anymore, or join the dark side and become defense attorneys. It’s generally no big deal. As an L&O actor, Skeet Ulrich was magnetic and interesting, no mean feat in a part that requires frequent searches for shell casings. Ulrich made his character stand out in a quiet, intense way, and I always paid more attention when he was on. Now that I think of it, that may have been the problem. I worry that the same is true for another actor in this spin-off, Rachel Ticotin. Watching her one is tempted to ask when she decided to quit acting and join the LAPD. As far as I know, she’s still in the cast, but now, who knows?
Multi-award-winning actors are not what has made “Law and Order” watchable for 21 years. In fact, it has survived even with actresses obviously getting on-the-job-training (Jill Hennessey and Elisabeth Rohm, I’m talking to you.) If you have the hubris to hire Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina to fill what is really one role just because you can, well, you’re going to have a problem. Skeet Ulrich was the one selected to take a bullet for the original mistake, but now the whole cast, all the viewers and NBC -- which needs every single viewer it can scrounge up -- have to pay as well. L&O remains watchable because of the ripped-from-the-headlines stories, the relationships among the characters, the occasional thorny legal issue to gum things up and a bit of humor tossed off casually. You don’t have to be “world-class” to pull this off. You just have to be damn good.