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Throwback Thursday - Law & Order - Aftershock

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In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups…

How many viewers can finish this phrase off the top of their heads? I don’t think it’s just me…

There’s nothing more comforting than an episode of Law & Order. It hits all the same beats, like your favorite song. A quarter of a way through the hour, there’ll be a frantic chase down the streets of New York City. About halfway through, Briscoe and Curtis or Briscoe and Green or another classic Law & Order pair will arrest someone. There’s a 50% chance they’ll actually be guilty of the charge (you don’t have to believe my statistics – but there’s someone out there that I am sure has actually done their math). McCoy will be righteous in his fury. Most of the time, he’ll get his man. You can fill in the rest.

Whoops - wrong one!

So, why do we keep coming back to it? Why did this one little show launch the Dick Wolf media empire and six separate spinoffs (not counting foreign adaptions or that one amazing Community episode)? Why does it air on at least three channels a day? Why do we keep coming back to the same old song?

There’s the familiarity, of course. Law & Order was always my go-to show when I was sick in bed. It asks for viewers interest, but doesn’t demand their attention.

There’s also the topical aspect of it. While some of the earlier episodes seem half a world away (the show started in 1990), they can still be scarily prescient. Watching ADAs Stone or McCoy deal with race or sexism makes the fourth wall feel very thin indeed. Law & Order SVU has been on for eighteen seasons so far (with the nineteenth about to air) and they sadly have a fresh new set of stories to rip from the headlines with each passing year.

Lastly, there’s the sense of absolute righteous justice particularly embodied in the McCoy era. There’s a satisfaction in hearing that anonymous jury foreman declare “guilty,” no matter how many times you’ve seen an episode.

Not this one either...

But is this enough to explain it? Is there something deeper?

I polled some friends about why they like Law & Order, and what one said particularly stuck with me: “because the good guys win.”

They don’t, and it’s that darkness that gets to the actual heart of the Law & Order franchise. It wasn’t afraid to show the reality of the situation. The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes a client hires a wonder lawyer, or Briscoe screws up the search warrant, or someone exploits an obscure loophole in the law, and the lawyers are all stuck staring into glasses of scotch while the vindicated culprit gives a press conference on the courthouse steps. Law & Order told us that this happens, and that it is not ok. The only thing the show did better than presenting that smug sense of satisfaction was when it hit with the sharp pang of outrage. It wore its crusader heart on its sleeve. Reality isn’t as simple as we want it to be, and the song never stays exactly the same.

Definitely not this one...

Which brings us to “Aftershock”.

The lesson “Aftershock” gives to Law & Order fans is that the good guys don’t always win – even when they do.

“Aftershock” is heralded as an episode that strayed from the half-mystery, half-legal-trial formula to present a rumination on a very fraught topic – capital punishment.

Capital punishment has always been one of the specters looming over the Law & Order franchise. In season two, ADA Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) goes up against a victim’s grieving family who wants the trial moved so the suspect could be in a capital punishment state. When New York itself adopted capital punishment in 1995, the show reflected the changing justice system. In season seven, DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) fights a losing battle against the governor on a capital punishment case. While “Terminal” is a powerful episode in its own right, it’s also the thematic successor to “Aftershock,” the sixth season finale.

The episode follows Detectives Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach in an iconic role), Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and ADAs Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) as they attend the execution of a convicted rapist. The dialogue reveals that he assaulted and killed a woman while a crowd watched. The spectacle is shifted as the four watch him take his last breath. It’s weirdly mundane and wholly grimy. It affects them all in different ways. McCoy goes back to work. Curtis strays from his marriage. Kincaid takes her visceral reaction to the execution and tries to reframe it as an intellectual argument, but ends up standing by her morals. Briscoe - and this will be the important one - drinks.

For the first fifty minutes, “Aftershock” is the quietest episode of Law & Order ever. There’s no chases and no grandstanding in the court room. That’s what makes “Aftershock” so compelling. It’s absolutely committed to following this specific crime to its sad conclusion. There’s no triumphant sail down the steps of the courthouse, or a debrief with Adam in his office. For a show that was so tied up in the connection between law and order, it added a third aspect to the equation. Law and order and punishment. It gives us a grimy execution and asks, “Is this justice?”

The characters don’t have the answers. Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) perhaps gets the closest when she reads, “It’s not enough and it’s too much.” Maybe society isn’t judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, but how we treat our most wicked.

That’s what makes Law & Order so compelling. It’s thoughtful, cynical, optimistic, and depressing all at the same time. In “Aftershock,” the characters reveal hidden depths and new revelations about their backstories, but one also makes a mistake that costs a colleague her life.

That’s what “Aftershock” is truly known for in the Law & Order franchise. It’s the episode where Kincaid dies. While driving a soused Briscoe home, she’s hit by a drunk driver. The shock that began at the quiet execution ends in an explosion of glass and metal. Before the viewers can even begin to process the event, the screen cuts to the credits.

Forgot this show even existed...

In some television circles, “procedural” is seen as a dirty word. It can relay a sense of incompetence on behalf of the writers, and Law & Order is often one of the examples used. To be fair, Law & Order at this point had delivered 133 episodes that followed the basic formula (and would go on to deliver 456 in total before it ended its run in the spring of 2010). “Procedural,” however, doesn’t mean bad. The writers gave people what they wanted, but they also had a firm enough grasp on the characters that they could stray from the format and still make killer, compelling television. “Aftershock” is a tour de force that stays with you, and it shows the true spirit of a television show that has become a part of the American cultural landscape. I’m not sure whether I’ll love Law & Order: True Crime as much as the original, but I’m certainly going to tune in to find out.

Close enough.

What are some of your favorite episodes of Law & Order? What was your favorite cast combo? Let me know in the comments!

"Aftershock" originally aired on NBC on May 22, 1996

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