How I Would Script is a weekly column at The Open Man by Joseph Nardone. In it, our favorite, most handsome Internet Scribbler maps out how he would recreate whatever TV show or movie that is on his mind. Have a suggestion? Hit him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
Law & Order is a monster of a franchise. From the original, to SVU, to Criminal Intent, to a few other less successful iterations, Dick Wolf built himself a blockbuster that NBC has been benefiting from since the early 1990s.
This specific handsome Internet Scribbler is most fond of the original Law & Order. With the cast changing often (enough), it allowed writers to pencil in consequences for the characters’ actions.
The “there’s a reaction to every decision” thing rooted firmly in the first few seasons of the original is something lacking almost completely in both SVU and Criminal Intent (the latter now off the air).
It also helped that the original L&O felt gritty. Far grittier than the times called for a TV show to be. Grit is all the rage in today’s movie industry, as amplified to the nth degree with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but back then it was rather uncommon.
Law & Order is in a weird place today. Only SVU runs news episodes, with a “limited series special” (with no actual ties to L&O other than namesake) coming later in the fall. With SVU morphing into a show more about the characters, who somehow never face any consequences for their actions, while proper storytelling has gone the way of the dinosaurs, it can be argued that the L&O franchise is dead in the water.
It is a shame, too. Over the course of decades, a rich universe has been built. One that the original Law & Order did well in somewhat paying homage to during its last season (the Lieutenant Anita Van Buren story-arc was amazing, as was some of the callbacks). Still, from an overall sense, the franchise often failed in using previous characters as a way to make the L&O world feel alive — from former detectives, criminals, ADAs (who were not killed), and so on, just vanishing from the world.
Some of the issue in Law & Order as it currently is, which is just the SVU version, is that it has become far too regular old episodic television and less near real-life type of storytelling as it was when it started.
We don’t have to abandon the entire system, but if we’re going to reboot Law & Order, a soft reset is going to need to take place in order to safe the show from itself.
This is a long one, friends. Hope you have an adult-beverage — or coffee, I guess — at the ready.
One SHow (Under The Original Law & Order Name)
Law & Order is great. The big two of its spin-offs — Criminal Intent and SVU — were both more than solid during their peaks, though CI ran afoul by season four, with SVU barely being a true-to-form L&O franchise anymore (there’s nearly no Order to go along with the Law).
It is incredibly important to note that the universe expanded upon in both don’t need to die. Characters from each, and all, L&O shows should continue.
This brings us to something important that should be considered when retooling this franchise.
It’s An Ensemble cast and not a show about Mariska Hargitay
My biggest tripe with SVU is how the showed morphed into the Detective Olivia Benson Show, with random side characters. Sure. Sure. It was about mostly her and Elliott Stabler at the start, but there were also ADAs, Dan Florek (who was still putting on great performances) and so many others to help tell stories.
It was also not about, at least for the first few seasons, all the hardships the detectives faced in their personal lives.
One of the better, more entertaining things I always enjoyed about Law & Order is how the writers would only give you very little — spread out over seasons — about each major character in the show.
It was a slow-burn that didn’t make us get too sick of our major characters too fast. The good, the bad, the in-between, it slowly crept into our craniums. We had time to deal with all of it, think about what meant, and were never forced to react too quickly about what one character development meant.
We had time to process and not knee-jerk. The show, without really ever making the decision for us, let us know if we were going to like Lenny Briscoe, Mike Logan, or Rey Curtis (I use Rey, because he was not the best at the start, but became lovable after awhile because the show slow-played his character development).
Now we get entire episodes detailing detectives gambling addiction, another’s unhappy marriage, and COUNTLESS ones in which Detective Benson’s awful life keeps getting more awful.
Mind you, despite many of these characters going through enough to force them to go insane or get fired or even arrested, they just keep trucking on to the next episode as if nothing happened. There’s no recourse. There’s really no reason to be invested, especially if there’s no recourse.
Anyway, the idea here is simple: There’s to be an actual larger-than-two cast that can all be considered major characters. They can be working the same case in the same episode. Just have one group of detectives working one angle at one part of the city, with another pair at another, while more than one or two ADAs are waiting for the second-act.
Bring Back The “order” In Law & order
Nearly all of us have short attention spans. What made the Law & Order dynamic pretty neat was that it almost felt like two separate shows airing within the same hour. 30 minutes with the coppers trying to solve the crime, and another 30 with the lawyers attempting to wield justice with one blue piece of paper at a time.
SVU has basically killed off the “Order” part of the show. The entire hour is dedicated to Benson and friends, with no regular ADA starring in the second-half of the show.
Not everyone will agree, as there is a difference between a show about cops and another about lawyers, making it potentially more difficult to keep viewers glued to the TV for an hour, but by making the show only about the cops (for an hour each week, 20-plus episodes a season), the neat idea-well runs dry pretty quickly.
Not to mention there’s more dynamics to be had in storytelling via two separate arms of justice attempting to work at the same time. Some of my favorite L&O memories are Ben Stone yelling at Mike Logan for not doing it “by the book” and the latter whining about Stone’s not doing more with the prosecution (Ben Stone is such an underrated TV character, by the way).
About this soft reset
OK. Here is the biggest issue this new formulated show will face. The rest is mostly about show design, and we aren’t reinventing the wheel with any of it, as the formula for the show — half Law, half Order — was literally the foundation of the franchise when it started.
We don’t want a hard reboot of Law & Order. This isn’t Dick Wolf moving this bad boy to Los Angeles with our friend Cheap Man’s Johnny Depp so he can ignore franchise cannon. We want the incredibly rich history he has built with the show to remain.
But how do we do that while inserting some freshness in the series? Pretty easily, actually. It is time for a plethora of characters to get their long overdue come-up-ins.
Deep breaths, friends.
A large portion of this week’s How I Would Script was basically just this handsome Internet Scribbler complaining about SVU. In fairness to the character of Benson and the show, no series can be “that” interesting over 20 seasons. It isn’t any one particular person’s fault, but the Benson character — who is rooted with fundamentally strong arcs — is a debacle at this point.
Her mother was a drunk. She was created via rape. She killed her adopted son’s father because he was evil. Benson has killed bad guys numerous times (and sometimes illegally). She’s had an arc in which a serial murderer fancied her and another where she was an alcoholic. Etc.
Detective Olivia Benson has been through IT ALL — literally. She’s lived the life of 30k different people.
Benson has done it all, but yet she goes about life mostly unscathed. Any real person would have left their post as a detective long ago had they went through 1-100th of what the Benson character did.
Basically, this character — the last remaining “original” from the idea of the original franchise — needs some closure.
This can come in many ways, but the most genius way to do it is at the start of our new Law & Order franchise, and without Benson being pigeonholed as the good cop leaving under good circumstances.
Benson does deserve a proper, long-ish sendoff, though. It is why my idea would be to create a four-show arc to start the retooled series in which Benson finally succumbed to all the craziness in her life, and she’s finally going to be held accountable for her numerous illegal actions.
Or we think (more on this shortly).
It is simple, really. Formulaic and a great way to intro new detectives and ADAs while slowly reintroducing older characters from all variations back into the show to play off of some nostalgia (the Ed Greens, Paul Robinettes, Cyrus Lupos of the show should all have a place, even if only side-characters used sparsely).
Here we go!
Listen, you know the endgame here after what I already wrote, but the first episode is going to be a mystery. A “who done it” in a really roundabout way.
Opening shot is of the crime committed, per Law & Order formula bylines, and it is of Benson’s adopted son being found murdered at her apartment.
Sad face emoji. Poor Benson. SVU die-hards love her and will be so upset over this. Plus, dead kid, that’s extra sad face emojis.
As the show progresses, Benson isn’t on the case. The new detectives are. She’s being kept in the loop, as the brothers in blue tend to do for one another, and she is upset over the death of her kid.
Time goes by in episode one, and it appears some of Benson’s past is catching up to her. They’re not too sure yet, but there’s a sneaky suspicion that Benson, even if indirectly, might be somewhat responsible for adopted-baby’s downfall.
The pilot ends with our new detectives going into our new ADAs saying something like, “You’re going to have to call Jack McCoy. This is going to be messy.”
(McCoy was the ADA turned state state District Attorney. In this show, as it should be, he’s retired, but this makes for a good callback to a longtime character of the franchise.)
Old, tired, nearly beaten McCoy airs in the first segment. He’s in his home, alone, drinking scotch because my god did he drink a ton in the original Law & Order. A knock comes at the door, it is our new group of detectives and lawyers.
“Jack,” they say. “We don’t have anywhere else to go. If this goes public, the people will never trust in the police or District Attorney’s office again.”
Inspired by what appears to be a challenge, McCoy essentially rises from the ashes with a smile, only to become cumbersome when he finds out one of the city’s longest tenured policewomen not only lost her child, but that the agency she works for believes she played a hand in it.
Man, I love McCoy.
OK. Back to the show. McCoy and Benson do not have a long and storied career on TV with one another. McCoy was in the original, Benson on SVU, with only a few crossover shows having them deal with each other. Still, McCoy is a savvy and smart dude. He knows Benson, even if it is only a little bit.
This episode is mostly about the new detectives and ADAs trying to get a better understanding of who Benson was and is. This will result in McCoy and his new friends meeting a TON of Benson’s former colleagues, those she arrested, and so on.
ALL. OF. THE. CALL. BACKS.
No Elliott Stable yet, though. He’s obviously the big one.
This episode is largely dedicated to the Benson character, as we may soon be saying goodbye to her. If we are, it is only proper to give her a show completely structured to explaining her entire character’s arc. The people McCoy and crew interview, including all our old favorite L&O side-characters, can do that for us.
This episode closes with what would be one of the franchise’s biggest hard outs ever, as Donald Cragen tells our new cast, “You really should talk to Elliott Stabler. He knows Olivia best.”
Episode three (Welcome back, Stabler)
Last we knew of Stabler, he left the force after being forced to kill a young girl who murdered people who put her in a rough spot.
The Stabler character is dynamic as he might have been the last of the “the supposed good guys in this show are extremely flawed.” He’s similar to Mike Logan with a short-temper, but also has dashes of being a true family man (Logan was certainly not this).
Our cold open is of Stabler, now divorced and living alone, cutting grass or something in some suburb. As he sees what is clearly an unmarked government vehicle approaching, he releases his grip on the lawnmower, takes a sip of beer, and looks them squarely in the face while they get out of the vehicle — “I wondered when you guys would show up.”
Cue commercial break!
The first 30 minutes of this episode is basically Stabler half recounting what he’s been up to (oddly happy to be alone) and the other half talking Benson. Easy and everyone should be happy to catch up with a good friend.
At the close of the end of the first half hour, Stabler asks McCoy for a favor. He wants to be kept in the loop and is willing to do anything he can to help find baby Benson’s murderer.
The next 30 minutes is where things start to heat up. So far, we have our intro to all the new characters, our homage show to the Benson character, and the tie-in to her most notable partner. Now we need to move the story forward.
A major piece of evidence comes to light in the second-half of episode three. Not only did everyone learn about all of Benson’s flaws, but they recently learned — and we will need some sort of convoluted twist as to why they’re only finding this out now — she’s being forced out of the NYPD.
Did losing her one sole true passion (save for the kid, of course) make Benson break?
We find out that Benson has been drinking on the job, roughhousing criminals when it isn’t called for, and has been lacking in the leadership department. Even Ice T says some mean stuff about her.
The show closes with our new medical examiner saying that what s/he found implicates Benson in the murder.
Episode four (Trial of the Law & Order century)
This episode is easy in how we will design it.
Cold open is Benson being picked up on murder charges.
First 15 minutes is the prosecution and defense calling witnesses (more callbacks!) to talk about Benson as a cop, person and mother.
Next 15 minutes is our new District Attorney wanting the new lead ADA to offer a really light plea deal to Benson, but the new ADA saying this is something that should be left out of the judicial system’s direct hands. That it should be “the people” who decide what happens here.
The 30-45 minute span is — wait for it –Benson taking the mother bleeping stand! She is weeping, because what else should she be doing, but she’s also vehement in denying she played a role in her child’s death.
Heading into our last commercial break, as Benson is breaking down on the stand, Stabler walks into the courtroom. Benson and Stabler catches each other’s eye, and a smile happens.
Here comes the climax!
No. Not that kind you sicko.
Breaking from commercial, Stabler walks to the ADA’s desk and whispers something into our new ADA’s ear. Whatever he says, it prompts the ADA to stand up and say, “Due to new information just brought to the state’s attention, the state would like to dismiss the charges at this time.”
Our friendly new defense attorney smiles, stands up him/herself, and says “If that is the case, we’d like it to be without prejudice.”
The judge agrees.
A mix of moans, cheers and general confusion happens in the courtroom.
We fade out, then fade back in to all the new detectives and lawyers, as well as McCoy and some former callback characters talking about what happened. The ADA tells them that Stabler told him/her that Benson couldn’t have committed the crime because she was with him during the time of it.
“Who was with the baby?”
“All the evidence says Benson did it!”
“How can you dismiss this case without prejudice just on her former partner’s word?”
All questions these characters yell at the new ADA. The ADA’s response?
“The city has been through enough. Benson, decades in this career, has been through enough. Sometimes the best justice is to let ‘time served’ be the life someone created for themselves.”
The show ends showing all those characters watching Stabler escort Benson out of the courthouse. We are left to draw our own conclusions.
Why such a vague ending to benson’s character
The the option is kick-starting this retooled franchise with Benson’s death, but that isn’t fair to those who have followed her for 20 seasons. For what it is worth, this is my preferred option if I were put in charge of the show, though it would probably put off far too many die-hards.
Jailing — or subsequently proving — Benson murdered her own kid, even if it makes sense that her character finally snapped, would be an awful way to say goodbye to her as well. Leaving it in the viewer’s hands, allowing people who hate the character to claim guilt while those who love her to declare innocence, isn’t the greatest closure in the world — yet it also leaves the door open for Benson to return to the show for cameos (or maybe more firm closure) at a later date.
Remember, kids. This is only the first-four shows of our retooled Law & Order. While everyone would like a hard grasp at everything that happened with Benson, using her as the storytelling arc to do the callbacks and introduce new characters, while removing her from any every-episode regular is what is most important.
Benson, essentially, bridges and connects the gap between the original Law & Order universe and the new one.