Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Demise of Law & Order and the Reading of Helter Skelter

I really think more notice should have been taken of the latest Great American Institution to be consigned to dust and ashes. By that, I mean of course, what I’ve been referring in recent years as Law & Order: Classic. For twenty years it mined the Post’s headlines for stories, filmed in NYC, and gave untold numbers of actors lots of work between theater gigs. But – alas – it is no more.

Truly, though, in its final seasons it was but a shell of its former gritty, glorious self. It was a little sillier, a little less realistic; both the court buildings and the police station looked a little too shiny, too spacious, a little too clean, almost like – gasp!– sets. If that’s what you want, you may as well film in Los Angeles.

Recently, they aired a block of episodes from back in the 90s, when Clair Kinkaid (Jill Hennessey) was Jack McCoy’s ADA. Sigh. They were truly wonderful. So smartly written, so believably filmed. I think it’s pretty unanimously agreed upon that out of all the lovely young women who have played second fiddle to Assistant District Attorney McCoy (and before that, Stone. I have no truck with that Englishman who filled in the last season or two), Claire Kinkaid was the best, by far. Jill Hennessey is an attractive woman, but she looked like an attractive woman who works in the Manhattan DA’s office. Angie Harmon and Elizabeth Rohm did not. They were too made up and their clothes were both over-styled and expensive looking. Junior ADAs earn a pittance and usually have crippling Law School debt. Claire Kinkaid wore an office uniform and looked like she worked crazy long hours. She looked like the young women on the subway you see riding to work every day.

It’s a funny thing. If there was some distant planet where people received all their knowledge of American life from watching television and movies, their view would be a warped one indeed. So many criminals, so many actors, so many policemen, so many spies. Most people in this country work in service oriented jobs or in offices. By and large, the entertainment industry has done an abysmal job at showing what most people do every day and what their lives are like. In the recent Jason Reitman film, Up in the Air, I was so impressed with how Anna Kendrick's character was played. The thing is, in most movies that show someone’s work place, they have to usually care about what they’re doing. Most people in real life kind of don’t. Which I guess is undramatic, but it also can be very funny. In the first decade of Law & Order, the right balance was struck between the workaday and the dramatic. The last decade or so, the scales tipped wildly in the direction of the dramatic, which I find a little tiresome.

The early seasons of L&O did a brilliant job of dramatizing notorious real life cases such as the Joel Steinberg and Tawana Brawley ones. But one of the most famous crimes of all belongs to California, and feels so deeply embedded in the culture of that state, that the thought of transposing in to NYC seems unthinkable. That’s of course the Tate/LaBianca killings by the Manson Family. I’ve read stacks of true crime books over the years, but I am embarrassed to admit I had never read one of the most important: Helter Skelter by Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Honestly, without it, I don’t know if Law and Order would be able to exist. It’s particularly awful that I’ve never read it as my Darling Inamorato wrote a Manson inspired musical called Willy Nilly a few years back.

Of course, the most important (and likely the best) true crime book of the modern age is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But the modern non-fiction procedural was born with Helter Skelter. It’s a fascinating case in so many ways, and touches on so many aspects of society and how it was changing in the late sixties. I was surprised how much I didn’t know. Mostly about how the police and District Attorney’s office finally cracked it and tried the perpetrators. It was a mess. Most of what I know about the LAPD and LA County Sherriff’s office is from reading all of James Ellroy’s novels, and from reading Bugliosi’s account, he was pretty accurate. Basically, there was gross negligence on the part of the LAPD and the case should have been broken far earlier.

Reading about Manson’s Family, living out there in the desert forging their own crazy Heaven and Earth, reminds me mostly of things I’d read about towns in pre-modern times that were stricken by madness. Too much drinking or drugs, too much fear, one lunatic with a strong personality, a frightening world filled with threat and dread, powelessness: all these ingredients were in play with the Manson Family, and likely with some witchcraft trials and some of the weirdness surrounding some of the stranger dissenters. And maybe some real evil. Who knows.

The human race is forever fascinated with chaos and order, which is the real payoff of crime (both true and fictional) drama. The chaos of death and murder and wickedness, then made sense of by the cops or the detectives or DA’s office. Solved is such a comforting word. And the word that I think best describes Law & Order is satisfying. The same way that crime books –most of them anyway – end with an arrest, or a trial or a hanging. They are finished. Manson outlived the final episode of Law & Order, still in jail, still mad.

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