"Law & Order" debuted 30 years ago this week on Sept. 13, 1990. At the time, no one on the planet could have foreseen the show's lasting impact — running for 456 episodes over 20 seasons and generating several spinoffs. Here's a lightly edited version of Newsday's original review:
Viewers with long memories may recall a 90-minute drama called "Arrest and Trial," which aired during the 1963-64 season. For the first 45 minutes, the drama focused on the solving of a crime by a Los Angeles cop (Ben Gazzara), while the second half centered on the efforts of a defense attorney (Chuck Connors) to get the perpetrator off the hook.
The show lasted only one season. We're sure its creators never anticipated that 27 years later the concept would resurface. But it has.
"Arrest and Trial" has been reborn as "Law & Order" with three key differences: "Law & Order" is one hour long (30 minutes for solving the
crime, 30 minutes for the trial), it's filmed on the streets of New York and, this time, the principals are all on the same side.
But the show is fast-moving, gritty and absorbing, so we'll forgive its producers for not being original. "Law & Order" is previewed tonight at 10 on WNBC / 4 (in the "L.A. Law" time slot), but its regular time will be Tuesday at 10 (opposite "thirtysomething").
The series drips earnestness: As the program opens, a Joe Friday-like intones: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups, the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders … these are their stories."
As it turns out, these stories, at least for some of "Law & Order's" early episodes, seem to have been taken right from the pages of New York's tabloids. Tonight's episode is reminiscent of the hospital cover-up death of Libby Zion, daughter of writer Sidney Zion: A young woman enters a well-regarded hospital's emergency room to get a prescription for a sore throat and ends up dead.
Tonight, the cops (George Dzundza and Chris Noth) methodically piece together the clues before arresting the chief suspect: the hospital's head of medicine, described as a cross between Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer" who may or may not be an alcoholic. The scene shifts to the courtroom, where the prosecutors (Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks) convincingly make their case.
This isn't a cop buddy show, so we really don't learn much about the personal lives of the players. But the squat, chunky Dzundza — a character actor who has starred in several made-for-cable and B-feature films — is a joy to watch as the cynical, world-weary detective Max Greevey. Moriarty is nobly square as the prosecutor.
Both the New York City locations, especially the actual Supreme Court trial rooms, and the frequent use of handheld cameras help to give an edge to "Law & Order." That edge is blunted somewhat by the fact that, at least in this first episode, the wheels of justice turn uncharacteristically smoothly. While that may be balm for retribution-obsessed viewers, here's hoping that — for the sake of realism — future arrests and trials are a bit more frustrating.