“Law” and the City

As New York and the headlines changed, so did “Law & Order”

When “Law & Order,” the show that would become known for plots “ripped from the headlines,” premiered on Sept. 13, 1990, New York was reeling from a spate of headlines it could have done without.

About a week earlier, the New York Post’s front-page boomed, “Dave, Do Something!”  – exhorting then-Mayor Dinkins to contain a murder rate that was three-quarters of the way to what, with one huge exception, would end as the bloodiest year in city history.

Around the same time, Time magazine hit the stands with a cover proclaiming, “The Rotting of the Big Apple.”

The headlines followed the Sept. 2, 1990 murder of Brian Watkins, a 22-year-old Utah tourist fatally stabbed in a Manhattan subway station while defending his mother from thugs. The slaying, one of 2,245 that terrible year, got the most attention, soiling New York’s reputation around the world.

It was not a great time to be in the city – unless, of course, you were the producers of a TV show that found its inspiration in real life-and-death crime drama.

News that “Law & Order” is airing its final episode this month serves as reminder of how much New York has changed in the last two decades, how the show changed along with the city – and perhaps played a modest role in its renaissance.

Some early episodes were culled from crimes of the then-recent years: the tragic Happy Land social club fire, the murder of Jennifer Levin and the Bernie Goetz subway shooting. If you’re old enough to recall those cases, you can remember a time when New York was a very different place to live, with a far darker image in the popular imagination.

Even as the city became ostensibly safer and even trendy, the show continued to thrive on what headline writers call a “good murder” – gallows-humor shorthand for a sordid case, usually involving prominent folks, that helps sell newspapers and draw TV news viewers.

In the middle of the show’s run, of course, we come to that huge exception in the murder record, the most important headline of our time: 9/11.

As New York’s primary safety fears turned from street crime to terror, “Law & Order” responded with a handful of episodes that played off our scary new world, including an 2006 show about an Arab terror cell, and plots touching on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   

But “Law & Order,” in drawing from the headlines, also reflected our often-schizophrenic popular culture, which has become increasingly obsessed with celebrity silliness during nearly a decade of war and terror fears.

Some recent episodes have been based, loosely, on the David Letterman blackmail mess and the Eliot Spitzer scandal, and one poked fun at the drama-killing Reality TV genre with a plot focusing on a couple resembling Kate and Jon Gosselin.

It’s significant, though, that with the Times Square bombing attempt still on our minds, the final “Law & Order” episode, set to air May 24, will be about a terror threat against students.

It’s also worth noting that last year New York recorded its lowest number of homicides since 1963, when “The Naked City” – the TV show based on the movie that basically invented the police procedural formula for crime fare like “Law & Order”  – ended its run.

Just as “The Naked City” captured the New York of its era, “Law & Order” provides a video time capsule of how much the city has changed – including physically – over the last 20 years.

Even in the bad old days, “Law & Order” was point of pride for many of us who live in New York. A favorite game was picking out locations and faces – stage actors, some pals or just folks from the neighborhood who found much-needed acting work between plays and day jobs on the “Law & Order” set.

Those bit parts accounted for some of the 4,000 jobs the show reportedly provided annually, generating an estimated $1 billion of economic activity over 20 years. “Law & Order” also helped spur a wave of programs set and/or filmed in New York. That the shows have gone from “Law & Order” to “Sex and the City” to “Gossip Girl” are just more signs of the times.

The demise of “Law & Order,” not surprisingly, is making headlines. The sad news is the show will no longer be around to offer an ongoing chronicle of a dynamic city – and put a smart, streetwise spin on headlines yet to be written.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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