Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lazy Law & Order Writers Mash Their Keyboards

Lazy Law & Order Writers Mash Their Keyboards

There was a time when Law & Order was an impeccably acted and written show. Every forty-six-minute episode could easily have been a ninety-minute feature film; but, despite time constraints, almost every episode developed at a reasonable and sane pace. Then the franchise grew. And, like all cash-printing TV franchises, it got lazy. Lazy writing. Lazy acting. Lazy directing. This was all post-Noth—starting somewhere in the Orbach/Bratt years. It ballooned in the Farina-Green era and became obscene in the days of the Cassady-Green pairing. It’s getting better now, but you can still see remnants of cash-per-word scripting by scribes hired directly off the set of Baby Geniuses 4: Babies’ Revenge. And, of course, this has trickled down into SVU, Criminal Intent, and Food Inspection.
Here are the things that really bother me:

1: The ghost in the machine: This was obvious in the early '90s when computers were slightly more complex than Atari systems. I assume scripts called for actors to produce information from PCs with script directions like, “He goes to the computer and accesses the file.” Records were called up from hard drives with a virtuoso mashing of the keyboard by role-playing bit actors. But as operating systems became more sophisticated, incredibly diverse information was summoned with a fingers-out palm mashing of keys. Then there would be a beep, and the information would be there for the detectives to see.

There was an episode a while ago where Jesse Martin needed to know how many green trucks with one bald tire and a St. Louis Frogs bumper sticker were carrying corn meal to Bistock, Maryland. The trucking dispatcher landed his palm on the keyboard…beep…there was the answer.

2: Cell-phones. I’ve never seen a show use cell-phones like Law and Order. The case is cold. Dead ends everywhere. Absolutely no leads. Suddenly the phone rings and someone’s saying it’s Oswald in the book tower with the rifle.

3: Fortuitous parking tickets. This has been used ad infinitum by hackish L&O writers. If a crime is committed on a city street, and there are no witnesses, and the guy looks like a lock to get away with whatever, you can be sure his car was ticketed. It doesn’t matter where he parks; it doesn’t matter when he parked. He was ticketed. Or if the guy lies about his alibi, guess what? His car was ticketed across town when he said he was in Scranton. Then it’s just a matter of a phone call and some keyboard mashing, and the offending party can be transferred to the district attorney.

4: The casually mentioned tidbit: This usually happens via the medical examiner. The dead guy was perfectly healthy; absolutely hale and hearty. Except for this small ink stain on his right forearm. Could it have been caused by a leaking pen? The man was a fountain pen salesman. He worked a shift as a printer. In his spare time he inked cartoons. But no, of course not. None of those things has anything to do with it. The man was killed in an office where an uncapped Bic was found on the floor. He must have rolled over and been marked by the ballpoint. See, it’s all falling into place. We can match the ink on our gas chromatograph!

5: The on-the-stand breakdown: This is the height of lazy writing. It’s absolutely pitiful and makes me think more than a few L&O writers moonlight working on young-adult titles like Trouble at Sugar Town High and Dogs Bark; Cats Meow. Here’s the defendant, on the stand, getting away with the perfect crime. Suddenly you get him angry and it’s all over. “You ain’t smart enough to done have gone and committed that crime.” “Yes I am! I did it! I don’t care anymore! He’s mocking me!” These scenes usually build to a crescendo of poorly acted emotional breakdowns. “You had every reason to kill her.” “I had no reason to kill her.” “She loved another man.” “I love another man.” “She made a fool out of you.” “No one makes a fool out of me!” “So you taught her a lesson.” “She needed a lesson.” “And you taught it to her.” “I gave her what she deserved.” “And you went to her house that night.” “And I told her what she’d done.” “And she didn’t care.” “She laughed at me.” “So you lost control.” “I hit her with the vase.” “And she fell.” “Down the stairs.” “So you’re guilty.” “Yes! Yes! I did it!”

6: The stupid melodramatic music. What’s the point? Are we supposed to hear guilt?

7: Extra-terrestrial image enhancement technology: Can we zoom in on his face from this surveillance cam video? Sure. Who cares if the guy’s eighty feet away. What’s that on his chin? He must’ve cut himself shaving. Look, there’s a pebble caught in the tread of his tire. I’ve seen pebbles like that before! They’re found in one place in the world: the vacant lot where the crime was committed.

8: Fortuitous clothing: This always happens. A crime’s committed, and a witness saw a guy with a red jacket. Hey, don’t the kids at St. Paul High wear red jackets? Yeah! Or “I didn’t see anything, officer. He was running away. But I did notice he was wearing a hat with a crest on it.” “What did the crest look like?” “A pizza.” “Tim’s Pizza has hats with crests on them.” Now that’s police work.

Cliches work, but let's take some pride in our craft. I know screenwriting is one step above type-setting Chinese take-out menus, but c'mon. You're getting paid a lot of money to steal plots from Quincy and Columbo. At least change the verbs.

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